Review: Sam. The Good Person at The Bunker Theatre

Everyone wants to be liked; it’s a natural human instinct. Some of us worry about it more than others, true, but we all want to belong somewhere – and if we’re really honest, we’ve probably all told a little white lie or exaggerated a bit at some point to impress someone we admire. But what happens when that need for other people’s approval gets out of hand, and how far can you bend the truth before it snaps completely?

Photo credit: William Alder

Sam. The Good Person is set at a support group meeting, where regular attendee Sam has finally been persuaded to open up about his big problem: he’s so obsessed with what other people think of him that he’ll say and do literally anything, however detached from reality, to fit in. At first it’s funny, but a few panicked fibs in the heat of the moment soon begin to turn into active manipulation, and we’re ultimately left looking back and wondering if we too have fallen victim to his lies.

Writer and performer Declan Perring is a master storyteller with excellent comic timing. He switches moods, accents and characters in the blink of an eye, and engages very comfortably with the members of his support group, who are “played” by members of the audience seated in a circle around him. His story might sound extreme – is it really possible to have a five-year relationship based entirely on a fiction? – and yet the fact is despite Sam’s early and frank admission that he’s a compulsive liar, we nonetheless do immediately like and trust him. He’s funny, and endearingly self-conscious, and he seems to genuinely worry – albeit to an unhealthy degree – about how his actions affect other people, even if it’s something as innocuous as waiting for a kettle to boil in a quiet room. At first, he seems like someone we can all relate to.

Even later (once we’ve established he definitely isn’t someone we relate to) when we hear about – and see with devastating clarity, despite there being nothing to look at; a testament to the power of Perring’s physical performance – the horrific event that’s ultimately brought him to this group, we can’t help but feel bad for him and everything he’s gone through. And that only makes the play’s final twist all the more unsettling.

Photo credit: William Alder

Ironically in light of the subject matter, Stephanie Withers’ production has a feeling of great authenticity throughout, enhanced by the seating of members of the audience on stage. Though none of them is called on to say a word, their presence means that we don’t go in feeling that we’re watching an actor give a performance – a point that becomes increasingly key as the play goes on. There’s stellar work too from lighting and sound designers Will Alder and Nick Clinch, who perfectly keep pace with Sam’s mood in all its ups and downs. Just like his story, their work often makes for a deeply uncomfortable audience experience, which is reflected too in Perring’s spellbinding performance.

What’s most striking about Sam. The Good Person is the way it takes a perfectly normal, even admirable, sentiment – the desire to be a good person, someone others admire and want to be around – and twists it into something genuinely disturbing. Because we recognise ourselves in Sam early on, the play suddenly makes you feel you’re only one step away from following him down that dark path… This is a cleverly written, darkly humorous and exquisitely performed piece of theatre that will make you question everything you thought you knew about yourself and the people you love. It’s also a lot more fun than I just made it sound, so let’s hope this short run – which ends on Saturday – isn’t the last we’ve seen of Sam.

Sam. The Good Person is at The Bunker Theatre until 19th January.

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Review: No One is Coming To Save You at The Bunker Theatre

2018 is both a fascinating and a terrifying time to be alive – and particularly to be young. Climate change, Brexit, Trump, knife crime, terrorism, the threat of nuclear war: all these and more have brought us to a place where it’s far easier, and feels a lot more feasible, to fear the worst for our future than to hope for the best.

Photo credit: This Noise

None of the above are mentioned by name in This Noise’s No One is Coming To Save You, but the atmosphere of dread that accompanies them is very much present. The play, written by Nathan Ellis and directed by Charlotte Fraser, is about a young man and woman, each of whom finds themselves alone with their thoughts over the course of one long sleepless night. She’s transfixed by a half empty (or half full?) glass of water on the table, and stubbornly ignoring her ringing phone. He’s watching late night TV with the sound off, while his girlfriend and baby daughter sleep in the next room. Their stories are separate but gradually intertwine, as each reaches out desperately for someone – anyone – to reassure them it will all be okay.

The play is billed as an experimental duologue, and it certainly lives up to that description. The non-linear narrative jumps about in time as the two characters lose themselves in memories, with the audience never totally sure which ones are real and which imagined. While this means it’s at times difficult to pin down where in the timeline we are or what exactly is happening, the writing is so beautifully evocative, and the performances from Agatha Elwes and Rudolphe Mdlongwa so engaging, that we have no trouble at all picturing the scene or sensing the building atmosphere of doom that surrounds the two characters. We don’t know why they’re both awake on this particular night, but from the start there’s the feeling that something terrible might happen – whether it does or not I can’t say, but the threat is credible enough to keep us constantly on edge. (It’s worth noting also that the script conjures some rather disturbing images, particularly of physical injuries, which some audience members may find distressing.)

Photo credit: This Noise

And yet for all that, No One is Coming To Save You is often surprisingly funny, and there are several laugh out loud moments, which help to restore our faith that all may not yet be quite lost. The play’s conclusion, also, feels cautiously optimistic, and there’s the suggestion that though life may not necessarily be all we’d hoped for, we’re all on the same uncertain road and we don’t necessarily have to travel it alone.

No One is Coming To Save You is quite an abstract piece, which leaves much open to interpretation. As such, it may not be everyone’s cup of tea – but what it lacks in terms of plot, it more than makes up for in its portrayal of the general mood in a world where it often feels things will never get better. An interesting and thought-provoking show for the millennial generation.

No One is Coming To Save You is at The Bunker Theatre as part of the Breaking Out season, on Tuesdays and Fridays until 7th July.

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Review: Section 2 at The Bunker Theatre

Despite great strides in awareness over recent years, there’s still a huge amount we’ve yet to learn about mental illness. But if there’s one thing we do know, it’s that it can strike anyone, at any time – even those who seem to have it all together.

Cam, the central character in Paper Creatures’ new play Section 2, is one of those people. At school he was the golden boy, the star of the rugby team; now he’s in the army, and has been in a steady relationship with his girlfriend for five years. Nothing particular seems to have happened, although there are unproven suspicions, but despite all this somehow he’s ended up being sectioned. That was 28 days ago, and today is the day that Cam – along with his girlfriend Kay, key worker Rachel, and friend Pete – will find out if he can go home. The play takes place on the ward in real time, and as the minutes tick away on Cam’s 28th day, we get an informative and moving glimpse into the workings of a system that’s rarely discussed, on stage or indeed anywhere.

Photo credit: Tim Hall Photography

Section 2 was written by Peter Imms in response to a personal experience he had when a school friend was sectioned, and then developed collaboratively with Paper Creatures in association with Mind, the mental health charity. As such, Nathan Coenen’s portrayal of Cam’s fragile mental state feels both sensitive and authentic: one moment he seems fine, the next he’s forgotten how to breathe; his meds make him forgetful, he seems frequently on the verge of tears, and when he hugs someone, he clings on to them like he’s drowning. The frustrating fact that we don’t know what caused his breakdown only enhances this realism, reminding us that where mental health is concerned, sometimes there simply aren’t neat, easy answers.

The play also examines Kay, Rachel and Pete’s different responses to what’s happened; in fact the balance of the script is such that this is just as much their story as it is Cam’s. Imms moves the characters around very naturally between two rooms, which allows us to witness one-on-one interactions between each pair, and get to know all the characters a little better. Alexandra Da Silva adopts an air of weary resignation as Kay arrives for yet another visit, but we soon realise that behind her tough exterior she’s struggling to keep a lid on her own fear and distress in order to protect the man she loves. She clashes frequently with Esmé Patey-Ford’s Rachel, mistaking her calm professionalism for a lack of empathy, and irritated that Rachel seems more able than she is to establish a meaningful connection with Cam.

This atmosphere of simmering tension is brought to a head by the intervention of Pete, a first time visitor who hasn’t seen Cam for five years. Played by Jon Tozzi, Pete is perhaps the most relatable of the characters: way out of his depth but with an obvious desire to understand, he still maintains a fragile hope that he can somehow find the magic button that will make everything better.

Photo credit: Tim Hall Photography

Section 2 is an important and timely piece of theatre, raising awareness of the far-reaching impact of mental illness, and sectioning in particular. More than that though, it’s a play about friendship and human relationships; though it’s undoubtedly difficult to watch at times, there’s something very uplifting about seeing so many loved ones lining up to support Cam on his road to recovery, each in their own individual way. Sensitively written and performed, this powerful play is well worth a visit.

Section 2 is at The Bunker Theatre as part of the Breaking Out season, on Tuesdays and Fridays until 7th July.

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Interview: Jon Tozzi, Section 2

Paper Creatures Theatre was founded by actors Nathan Coenen and Jon Tozzi on a mutual love of new writing, truthful storytelling and innovative theatre. Their mission is to tell simple, compelling and bold stories that hold up a mirror to the millennial generation.

“The media often portrays millennials as social media-fixated, self-involved and careless of the society in which we find ourselves,” explains Jon. “Paper Creatures is committed to making theatre that breaks away from that stereotype and digs deeper. Good theatre for us is about storytelling. We lead with the idea that the story should be the primary focus from which everything else springs. Our shows aim to provoke, engage and encourage discussion after having left the auditorium.”

And they’re hoping to do just that with their second show, Section 2, which explores the often sensitive subject of mental health, and in particular aims to shine a light on the topic of sectioning. “Mental health is thankfully an issue that is gaining a brighter spotlight and focus in recent years, especially with depression and anxiety,” says Jon. “However, not much is said about sectioning, a treatment that is increasingly required, particularly among those aged 18 – 35, not to mention those who work in the arts.

Section 2 is a part verbatim story about a young man named Cam, the golden-boy in high school, who is sectioned under the mental health act, but no one can figure out why. Taking place in real time on potentially the final day of his sectioning, we follow a glaringly insightful truth into the process, challenges and effects of sectioning, on the patient but also his key worker, girlfriend and best friend.

“Sectioning is a subject that is rarely talked about in theatre, and definitely not in such an honest and revealing way. When Peter Imms, the writer, approached us with the initial story, we felt it important to take the opportunity to shed some light on the subject and tackle its effects head on. The fact that this piece was inspired by a personal encounter of our playwright means the approach to the text is much more truthful and raw in comparison to many other mental health plays. Section 2 is told in real-time, allowing audience members to experience every joy, hope, silence and heartbreak right there along with the characters – as if they were in the room with them. The play oozes subtext and Pete’s writing style allows for lots of exploration for the director and actors to explore this in various ways through each performance.”

Photo credit: Monika Jastrzebska

The production began life in September 2017 as ten pages of script and a short verbatim piece from a personal experience Peter had with sectioning. “Since then, we’ve done what we do best: given Pete the time and creative support necessary to write the play Section 2 has become,” says Jon. “This included several read throughs with different actors and creatives listening in, an R&D week away in Wittering, and taking part in A Pleasance Scratch at the Pleasance Theatre to gain some useful feedback. We work extremely collaboratively and have given the piece the time and dedication it needs to be performance ready. The key for us was to approach this play and the subject matter with sensitivity and a clear understanding, so lots of research was undertaken and it has been invaluable; we hope that comes across after having watched the play.

“In today’s day and age, it’s important, particularly as millennials, that we continue to open our minds and expand our knowledge of a lot of key issues that affect many people in our society, such as mental health. What Section 2 will give you is a brave and truthful insight into the world of sectioning, at the same time as letting you come away with a hopeful outlook on how we as humans can help break the stigma attached to mental health and how we as a theatre community can help support this. What makes this piece so special is that we have had support from MIND, the mental health charity during the script development stages, so what we are bringing to The Bunker is a play that accurately depicts the inner workings of a mental health hospital and the emotional journey of those that are a part of it.

“We want our audiences to leave with a greater awareness and knowledge of sectioning and, with that, the ability and willingness to reach out to those in their lives who suffer from mental health conditions and become a part of their support network. Something as simple as an informed conversation can help sufferers immensely.

“Good theatre is about connection and we hope that there will be at least one moment in the piece which the audience is able to connect and empathise with. We also strongly encourage audiences to stick around after to discuss the play with us so we can begin the conversation regarding mental health.”

Following the success last year of their debut production, Flood, Paper Creatures are excited to be bringing their new project to The Bunker as part of the Breaking out season. “The Bunker has been attracting a young, vibrant and, most importantly, diverse crowd since their debut show which we saw back in 2016,” says Jon. “Just sitting in the space, there is a distinct buzz and community feel. Having the opportunity to share our stories with this kind of audience is an incredibly exciting opportunity for us. The performance space itself will lend itself perfectly to the production as the audience will be looking in on the action of the play, giving a fly on the wall type feel.

“To be in repertory theatre for a month with five other emerging new-writing theatre companies is also an absolute privilege for us here at Paper Creatures Theatre. The chance to meet and work alongside these different creatives, each with their unique approach to their craft, has taught us a lot and given us the opportunity to expand our audience. We hugely appreciate and champion The Bunker Theatre’s efforts to make this happen – more needs to be done to support new companies and this is one hell of a start.”

Get your tickets now for Section 2 at The Bunker Theatre, on Tuesdays and Fridays at 8.30pm from 11th June to 7th July.

Interview: Leoe Mercer, GUY

Update (28/8/18): Londoners have a second chance to catch GUY this week at the King’s Head Theatre – see link at the bottom for ticket info.

Leoe & Hyde are a musical theatre duo from Manchester, whose previous collaborations include immersive pop-musical Queueue: A Coffee Shop Musical and genre-bending mashup The Marriage of Kim K, which toured the UK last summer to widespread critical acclaim. Now they’re preparing for the world premiere of their latest show GUY, a new gay rom-com about the hook-ups and downs of 21st-century dating, at The Bunker Theatre as part of the Breaking Out season.

Writer and producer Leoe Mercer explains, “GUY is about modern dating. Our whole generation has a shared experience of using apps like Tinder and, in the gay community, Grindr. The show is a diverse, body-positive rom-com about love in the gay community, but at the same time Guy, the protagonist, swings back and forth between the highs and lows of these apps in such a way that resonates, regardless of sexuality.”

Leoe & Hyde was set up in late 2016, but the creative partnership between Leoe and composer Stephen Hyde actually began a couple of years earlier. “We met in 2014, and decided to start writing musicals, with Stephen writing and producing the music and me writing the story and lyrics. Soon after, we decided to produce our own shows too – mainly because we were impatient to see them performed! With an eye for real life characters, an ear for fresh pop sounds, and a taste for the sexier side of the zeitgeist, we want to create a sophisticated language for 21st century musical theatre.

“We grow up hearing stories from previous generations about how musicals like Hair in the 60s and Rent in the 90s captured the music and attitude of a generation. We have a hunch that millennials want something similar for ourselves, a musical which honestly captures the unique post-internet variant of life and love using the electronic/pop soundworld we listen to normally.”

Following the success of The Marriage of Kim K, a 72-minute musical/opera about Kim Kardashian’s infamous 72-day marriage to Kris Humphries, Leoe & Hyde were keen to try something different – and GUY was the result. “GUY came out of nowhere for us,” says Leoe. “In October 2017 we sat down to write some pop songs for the fun of it. A few weeks later, we realised that they actually formed the skeleton of a story, which over the next six months we developed into GUY. We’ve actually grown a lot from this process: the music style is very fresh because we were trying to write pop music instead of musicals, and the show is more unique because of it.”

Leoe believes there are three key things that make GUY unique: “First, the music. Musicals tend to sound quite like musicals, but the soundworld for GUY is more like you may hear if you switch on the radio in 2018. Second, the story. It’s a feel-good gay rom-com, but at the same time it challenges stereotypes and undermines clichés from start to end. I recently saw Love, Simon, which has the perfect tagline: ‘Everyone deserves a great love story.’ I’d hope that comes across strongly too: telling a gay love story isn’t enough, it’s important that the gay world you’re representing is full of variety and honesty.”

“And last but not least, the cast. We have a cast of four, with remarkable voices, including X Factor finalist Seann Miley Moore, who was a favourite to win the show in 2015 and has since notched up millions of views on YouTube.”

The show opens next week as part of the Bunker Theatre’s Breaking Out season, a festival of world premiere shows from six emerging theatre companies over four weeks. “Having people who get behind your work is a huge confidence boost, so being selected for a festival is great,” says Leoe. “It’s also exciting because this musical draws from so much of our actual experience – beginning writing only six months ago, it’s great to see that it can be on so soon.

“When you normally watch a musical, the stage and the singers are miles away. Doing a musical at The Bunker with four incredibly powerful singers and a huge electronic score will create a level of intimacy and immersion that will be quite overwhelming. Come along so you can say ‘I saw it first!’”

Don’t miss GUY at The King’s Head Theatre, 28th August to 1st September.