Review: soft animals at Soho Theatre

Don’t be fooled by the title of Holly Robinson’s debut play soft animals; despite the plethora of teddy bears scattered around the room, there’s nothing particularly cuddly about this hard-hitting two-hander. Directed by Lakesha Arie-Angelo, the play tackles grief and guilt through the surprising friendship of two very different women connected by a devastating tragedy: Sarah (Ellie Piercy), a well-off soon-to-be divorcee living in Fulham, and Frankie (Bianca Stephens), a black teenager from Birmingham struggling to cope with the demands of both uni and life.

Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

The tragedy is Sarah’s – the loss of a child in horrifying circumstances and subsequent nationwide condemnation of her as a mother and a woman – while Frankie’s direct involvement in the events of that day bring her to Sarah’s doorstep several months later. Over time the two become friends, though the dynamic of that friendship shifts constantly, and ultimately allows each to begin to see a way forward out of their own personal darkness.

The performances from Ellie Piercy and Bianca Stephens are perfectly pitched, the two of them bouncing off each other well as they deliver Robinson’s fast-paced, witty script. But there’s genuine tenderness between them too; if you can make it to the end of the play without at least a bit of a lump in your throat, you’re made of sterner stuff than I am. While Stephens is instantly likeable as the anxious and painfully vulnerable Frankie, Piercy’s Sarah doesn’t try too hard to win our sympathy, if anything going out of her way to make us – and the rest of the world – hate her because that’s what she thinks she deserves. It’s only by seeing her through Frankie’s eyes, behind closed doors, that we come to understand and feel for everything she’s gone through, and to question our own readiness to judge a total stranger based only on what we think we know of their crimes.

Just as the script reveals little by little the details of what happened, so too does Anna Reid’s deceptively simple set. Beginning as a single cube in the centre of the stage, it comes apart piece by piece to populate Sarah’s living room with furniture, with one final reveal towards the end reminding us forcefully of the gaping absence at the heart of the story. This is reinforced throughout by the appearance of soft toys from London’s various tourist attractions, which sit sadly around the room as a reminder that there’s nobody here to love and play with them.

Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

soft animals is an incredibly accomplished debut from Holly Robinson, tackling difficult themes with great sensitivity while also drawing us in with a compelling story. The friendship between Sarah and Frankie is unlikely but entirely believable, and each character feels authentic despite her unusual and tragic circumstances. This is a powerful piece of new writing that will break your heart – but then might just quietly put it back together again. Highly recommended.

soft animals is at Soho Theatre until 2nd March.

Review: No Show at Soho Theatre

Ellie Dubois’ No Show is a circus performance with a difference. It features five talented female circus professionals – Francesca Hyde, Kate McWilliam, Michelle Ross, Alice Gilmartin and Camille Toyer – each of whom makes us gasp in awe and disbelief as she demonstrates her “best trick”.

Photo credit: Chris Reynolds

So far, so standard. But this is not your usual seamless programme of death-defying stunts from a band of superhumans. These women are amazing acrobats – but they also get out of breath, fall over, argue and compete amongst themselves. They do tricks traditionally performed by men, in defiance of the expectation that because they’re girls they have to do only the dainty stuff. And they talk to the audience, explaining the huge physical risks they run each time they perform, and the difficulties they must contend with as women in a male-dominated world.

Most importantly, they look like they’re enjoying themselves; the first group routine might resemble the opening to a traditional circus show if not for the performers’ whoops of excitement as they throw themselves around the stage. They also chat amongst themselves as well as to the audience, giving the show a nicely improvised feel – at times it’s impossible to tell what’s planned and what’s made up on the spot.

But it’s not all good times and giggles. This show has a point to make, and for all our enjoyment, there are also parts of the performance that are deeply uncomfortable. One running joke involves Alice Gilmartin being interrupted each time she tries to address the audience, and bullied into performing increasingly dangerous handstands for our entertainment. Later in the show, Michelle Ross demonstrates her high trapeze routine on the floor because the venue’s too small for her to do it for real, and no larger theatres would have them. At one point all five pose in a series of graceful positions, their bored expressions revealing exactly how they feel about it. And unlike in most traditional circus performances where the action is non-stop and the audience barely acknowledged, there are periods where the acrobats simply sit and watch us just as intently as we’re watching them.

Photo credit: Chris Reynolds

The message is clear: life as a professional circus performer is far from as glamorous as we’re often led to believe. It’s hard and painful; there’s relentless pressure to always do better and give the audience more; and for women, there’s the additional obstacle of the gender stereotypes that would restrict them to a limited range of specialisms. No Show strips away the distance that traditionally exists between acrobats and audience – these may be highly trained professionals, but they’re also very down-to-earth, likeable women who are doing what they love on their own terms. The result is a thrilling, surprising and challenging hour’s entertainment.

No Show is at Soho Theatre until 9th February.

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Review: Cuckoo at Soho Theatre

Exploring what it is to be young in Ireland today, Lisa Carroll’s debut play Cuckoo comes roaring to life at Soho Theatre, leading us without preamble into the world of best friends – and social outcasts – Iona (Caitriona Ennis) and Pingu (Elise Heaven). After being publicly humiliated one too many times by their peers, the two have decided to get out of their home town of Crumlin and move to the magical city of London… although quite what they’re going to do when they get there they’re not exactly sure.

Photo credit: David Gill

There’s a big difference between making a decision and actually seeing it through, though, and it’s not long before Iona’s excitement about their trip begins to wane – particularly when she suddenly finds herself being chatted up by local guys Pockets (Colin Campbell) and Trix (Peter Newington). It’s obvious to both Pingu and Iona’s childhood friend turned tormenter Toller (Sade Malone) – not to mention the audience – that their intentions are less than honourable, but despite multiple warnings Iona allows herself to be flattered into submission, with disastrous results for all concerned.

The heart of the story is the relationship between Iona and Pingu; the events that take place in the run-up to their departure from Dublin are, you can’t help but feel, only a catalyst to something that was always going to happen at some point anyway. In an excellent cast, Caitriona Ennis and Elise Heaven give standout performances as the two friends. Iona is an eccentric chatterbox whose over the top approach to just about everything is at first enjoyable but soon becomes wearing and ultimately alienating. Pingu, meanwhile, has opted to give up speaking altogether, having grown tired of constantly needing to justify their non-binary status, and communicates instead through a range of emphatic facial expressions.

On paper this makes for a rather uneven friendship, but it’s one that seems to work. The two stand up for each other against the bullies, and seem to communicate perfectly without any need for words. All the while they only have each other, everything’s great – but when Iona gets the first hint of a better offer, we start to realise that her friendship with Pingu might not have been quite as selfless as it appeared. One of the play’s strongest points is its conclusion, which avoids the predictable route we might expect in favour of an outcome that’s less “nice”, but perhaps rather more realistic.

Photo credit: David Gill

Despite being two hours without an interval, the production never drags or fails to hold our attention; director Debbie Hannan keeps up a fast pace and building intensity throughout, and the energy of the cast never flags. The play isn’t afraid to take on some difficult themes, including toxic masculinity, the damaging influence of social media, and prejudice – driven by fear – against those who dare to be different. But it does so with plenty of laugh out loud humour, which means that the play is actually a lot of fun to watch despite some of its content.

An impressive debut from Lisa Carroll, Cuckoo shows a very clear understanding of what motivates young people to do the things they do – good and bad. While we may not have lived the exact scenario we see unfolding on stage, there are aspects of the story that will resonate with all of us; we were all young once, after all, and chances are we made a bit of a mess of it too. A witty and compelling play, Cuckoo is definitely worth a visit.

Cuckoo is at Soho Theatre until 8th December.

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Review: Pickle Jar at Soho Theatre

When you’re at school, you tend to assume your teachers are fully functioning adults who have life all figured out. Then a few years pass, you reach the age they were when they taught you, and you’re startled to realise that perhaps they weren’t quite as together as you thought.

In Maddie Rice’s one-woman play Pickle Jar, Miss is a young English teacher struggling to find her footing both in and out of the classroom. Away from work, she’s just been dumped and can’t stop obsessing over how bad her life is compared to everyone else’s. At work, her approach to teaching is to try and be friends with her teenage pupils, who fascinate her with their apparent confidence and worldliness – it often seems her attempts to connect with them are as much for her own comfort and support as they are for her students’ benefit.

Photo credit: Ali Wright

Maddie Rice, who previously starred in the touring production of Fleabag, was encouraged by that show’s creator, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, to write something that made her laugh or cry. Pickle Jar ticks both boxes. Directed by Katie Pesskin, the first half of the show is straight-up, laugh-out-loud comedy, as Miss reflects on everything from her meagre Instagram follower count, to the night her ex broke up with her (shortly after advising her to get tested for chlamydia), to her fumbling attempts – egged on by best friend Mairead – at flirtation with Mr Ellis, the much-fancied food tech teacher.

And then, about halfway through, the story takes a dark turn, and just keeps getting darker as one twist follows another, ultimately catching us off guard with some very uncomfortable, and topical, questions around consent and victim blaming. The humour is still present, but the laughs become far less frequent, and the overwhelming emotion we feel as the show comes to an end is much closer to anger than amusement. Even in the #metoo era, the fact that a female character feels she has to shoulder any of the responsibility for a man’s actions shows how very far we still have to go.

One thing that’s immediately clear is that Maddie Rice is an exceptional performer, bringing an extensive cast of characters, a complex back-and-forth timeline, and a number of different locations to life without ever missing a beat. Colleagues, friends, students, strangers: they’re all here, and all perfectly distinct from each other. Miss in particular is a well-drawn, realistically flawed character who most of the show’s target audience – women in their 20s and 30s – can identify with to some extent (whether we’re willing to admit it or not). The half hour that we spend getting to know her, laughing with – and at – her, never feels like wasted time, even though it delays the show getting to its actual point.

Photo credit: Ali Wright

There’s so much to enjoy about Pickle Jar, a very funny and brilliantly acted hour of theatre that will no doubt resonate with teachers, women and indeed anyone still trying to figure out how this whole adulting thing works (which, let’s be honest, is most of us). But behind the laughter, the play does have a point to make – and it’s a point that needs to be heard and acted on, however uncomfortable that might be.

Pickle Jar is at Soho Theatre until 10th November.

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Review: Sacrifice at Soho Theatre

What would you be prepared to give up in order to live your dreams? In Andrew Muir’s Sacrifice, seven drama school graduates have followed their dream to London, only to find that the streets are paved in anything but gold. And when they wake one morning to find a strange man followed them home last night, they’re forced to face up to some harsh truths, both about their chosen profession and about themselves.

Sacrifice at Soho Theatre
Photo credit: Mark Douet

This is not a random choice of topic for the Ardent8, a year-long scheme established by Andrew Muir and Mark Sands to provide emerging actors from outside the M25 with opportunities they might otherwise never be able to afford. And you get the sense that the cast of recent graduates understand all too well what their characters – who are all, with one exception, named after them – are going through, both as actors and as young people. (“I’m 24,” says Nathan incredulously, when Sam, the stranger, asks him if he owns his own home. That, it seems, is answer enough.)

A funny, fast-moving script sees multiple conversations – about poverty, racism, turning vegan, family dramas and much more – criss-crossing over each other as each of the seven roommates fixates on his or her own issues. Witty one-liners aside, the unwelcome presence of Sam as the “outsider” who’s not afraid to ask awkward questions, brings to the fore the fact that perhaps these friends don’t actually have a lot in common besides their choice of career. It’s possible, in fact, that they don’t even know or like each other that much – but they continue to stick together, out of financial necessity and a shared conviction that the phone is always about to ring with someone’s big break.

The cast (Sophie Coulter, Angela Crispim, Clare Hawkins, Henry Holmes, Nathan Linsdell, Jamie Parker, Garry Skimins and Sam Weston) work well as an ensemble to deliver an hour of theatre that’s both entertaining and relatable for a millennial audience – whether or not we’re trying to break into the acting profession. Their struggles are not only financial; along the way, like most of us, they also suffer crises of confidence, and of identity, and ultimately end up wondering if the career they’ve studied so hard for is ever going to be worth all the effort. There’s also an extra twist of intrigue to the play in Sam’s story, and our need to understand what motivates him to act as he does: he might not face the daily struggle for survival that the others do, but does that really mean he’s happy?

Sacrifice at Soho Theatre
Photo credit: Mark Douet

The Ardent8 began as an idea to open doors that might otherwise have remained forever closed. In Sacrifice, eight talented young actors prove they more than deserve to take their place on the London stage. Funny and challenging, the play makes us consider what’s really important, and the price we’re willing to pay – both financial and otherwise – to get our hands on it.

Sacrifice is at Soho Theatre until 4th August.

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