Review: The House of Yes at The Hope Theatre

Bringing to a close Matthew Parker’s critically acclaimed tenure at The Hope, The House of Yes is a jet-black comedy drama that very much sees the theatre’s outgoing artistic director leave with a bang. Deeply twisted in a variety of ways, Wendy MacLeod’s story of the dysfunctional Pascal family is both horrifying and hilarious, and in this production it’s performed exquisitely by the cast of five.

It’s Thanksgiving, and Marty (Fergus Leathem) is bringing his fiancée Lesly (Kaya Bucholc) home to meet the family. The problem? His family… By their own admission, the Pascals have never had a guest before, and it’s unlikely they’ll ever have one again once the dust settles on this particularly eventful 24 hours. Marty’s twin sister Jackie-O (Colette Eaton) has two obsessions: her namesake, the former First Lady; and – unfortunately for him – Marty. Younger brother Anthony (Bart Lambert) is a college dropout whose eye falls rather too enthusiastically on his brother’s future wife. And through it all, their mother (Gill King), a self-professed “free spirit”, wafts around the house, seemingly taking little interest in her children’s lives… but in reality paying just a bit too much attention to what they’re getting up to.

What’s particularly enjoyable about this production is the care each actor puts into their performance. It’s impossible to choose a standout performance when each of them is so captivating. Every detail – the way a line is delivered, the movements and gestures, the facial expressions and eye rolls – feels perfectly timed and judged. The characters are, to put it kindly, not normal people – and yet somehow they come across as three-dimensional and 100% believable, particularly in the setting of their gloomy, claustrophobic house, with the power out and a hurricane raging outside. Rachael Ryan’s set design perfectly captures the essence of a home whose former splendour has now well and truly faded, even if that message hasn’t quite reached the Pascals themselves. It’s all a bit Addams Family meets Hotel California; both house and residents seem to have a way of ensnaring those who step inside, and the thought of anyone ever leaving becomes increasingly remote as the evening goes on.

Photo credit: lhphotoshots

As hard as it may be to believe, this dark and twisted tale is also very funny, despite that constant creeping sense that all will not end well. Much of our laughter is the result of surprise; these are characters who just say whatever’s on their mind, whether or not it’s considered appropriate – and as dysfunctional as they undeniably all are, there’s something quite refreshing and enjoyable about that openness.

The House of Yes may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for those who are willing to let themselves be drawn into the Pascals’ crazy little world, there’s so much to enjoy about this expertly put together production. It’s a fitting and suitably offbeat farewell from Matthew Parker, a play that will make you laugh, recoil, and possibly have a nightmare or two. But don’t panic – they do let you out at the end. Honest.

The House of Yes is at The Hope Theatre until 26th October.

Review: It’s a Playception at The Hope Theatre

Two women have written a play. It’s about two women writing a play. Which is about two women… You get the idea. The women in question are Evangeline Duncan and Olivia Baker, who play friends Elise and Sirenna as they prepare to bring their “playception” to a paying audience for the first time. Assuming they can figure out a marketing strategy, that is, and get the theatre technician, Gup – a Generally Unhelpful Person (Josh Redding) – to cooperate. Oh, and hopefully sell some tickets to people who aren’t their friends and family.

Long story short: they have no idea what they’re doing, and they’re about to learn that putting on a play is far from easy, even if you do have a great idea, boundless enthusiasm and a generous godfather who’s willing to foot the bill. But at least they have each other… right?

As an audience member, and especially as a reviewer, it can sometimes be easy to forget that every piece of theatre – no matter how big or small in scale – is the product of blood, sweat, tears, and almost certainly copious amounts of coffee. It’s a Playception offers us an insight into just how soul-destroying the process of getting an idea from page to stage can be, but more importantly, it also documents the satisfaction that comes from battling through and actually making it, however clumsily, to opening night.

The hour-long show is performed with heart and humour by two women who aren’t afraid to laugh either at themselves specifically or the theatre industry in general. Elise and Sirenna are naïve, immature and easily distracted by everything from cute dungarees to cute technicians. They’re also very different people, with pretty much only their daily coffee choices in common, but somehow that’s enough to ensure their partnership – both on stage and off – succeeds.

As the different levels of fiction begin to blur, it becomes harder to separate the actors from their characters, or their characters’ characters, particularly since all the action takes place in the small theatre where they’ll rehearse and perform their play. More than once a scene we thought was happening in “real life” stops abruptly and gets rewritten on the spot, while other moments of high drama just keep going, even when things get awkward. When Elise and Sirenna start getting confused about how much of what’s going on is actually true, we know the audience doesn’t stand a chance.

So, are we watching a rehearsal, the play itself or the run-up to the play? I honestly have no idea, but it doesn’t really matter because the heart of every version is the same: two friends who believe in themselves, and each other, enough to throw themselves in the deep end and take a chance. And if that doesn’t sum up the spirit of theatre, then I don’t know what does.

It’s a Playception was performed at The Hope Theatre on 8th and 9th September. For details of future performances, follow @ZestofaLemon and @evieelizabethd.

Review: River in the Sky at The Hope Theatre

Peter Taylor’s River in the Sky was never going to be an easy watch. The story deals with a couple coming to terms with the death of their newborn baby, so it’s no surprise that the play ventures into some dark territory, or that it leaves its audience feeling somewhat fragile. Just as much as the emotional impact, though, it’s the unique and original approach to the subject matter that makes this debut production from Turn Point Theatre particularly memorable.

Ellie (Lindsey Cross) and Jack (Howard Horner) are planning their future, and grappling with an important question: should they have one baby, or two, or three (definitely not four)? In their excitement and optimism, it never occurs to them that the decision could be taken out of their hands. Some time later, Ellie’s fled to a caravan by the sea, Jack’s trying to get on with his life, and it’s obvious that neither of them is coping with the grief of losing their son. Instead, they take refuge in tea, biscuits and storytelling – but while the vivid tales they share start out as an escape from real life, increasingly they come to offer a kind of healing.

And it’s for this reason that while there are parts of the play that are heartbreakingly painful to watch, ultimately River in the Sky is a story of hope. By allowing us to meet Jack and Ellie – albeit briefly – before tragedy strikes, Taylor establishes how much both the individuals and their relationship have been changed by what’s happened in the intervening years. Where once there was playfulness and humour, now there’s awkward small talk and repressed anger. And yet even in the midst of their grief, there are glimpses of the couple we remember from that brief opening scene and the reassuring knowledge that those people, while they may be irrevocably changed, do somehow still exist.

If the storytelling aspect of the play is what makes it unique, it’s also where the production really comes alive. The set is simple – just some simple wooden blocks in the centre of the stage – but between Taylor’s evocative writing and direction, and vibrant performances from Lindsey Cross and Howard Horner, we find ourselves transported to a dangerous but beautiful world of monsters and magical creatures, where the key to survival is to be brave and fight, even if the struggle seems hopeless. By contrast, the couple’s reclusive real-world existence seems even more empty and colourless.

In the end, then, River in the Sky is not so much a story about grief as it is of a couple finding their own way out of it, and – perhaps – back to each other. Taylor doesn’t try to offer easy answers or neat conclusions; there’s no suggestion that Jack and Ellie’s journey is over by the end of the play, but we do feel that they’ve taken a step in the right direction. A thoughtful and quietly moving production, the play appears to set out on a well-worn path, but then strikes out on its own – and in doing so makes the powerful point that there is no one, or correct, way of dealing with tragedy.

River in the Sky is at The Hope Theatre until 24th August.

Starved: Q&A with Michael Black

Following a short run at the Bread and Roses in May, Michael Black’s award-nominated play, Starved, transfers to the Hope Theatre next month. A grimly realistic portrayal of life below the poverty line, the third production from new writing company Faded Ink is directed by Matt Strachan, with Michael reprising his role as Lad alongside Alana Connaughton’s Lass.

The Starved team will be hoping to repeat the success of the show’s previous run, which earned several five-star reviews and a nomination for London Pub Theatre’s Standing Ovation Award. Michael chatted to Theatre Things about introducing Lass and Lad to new audiences, and why it’s so important for people to hear their story.

Can you sum up briefly what Starved is all about?

Starved is a two-hander set in a scruffy bedsit on a council estate in Hull. It’s a character driven story about a couple on the run, with hard hitting themes such as mental health, poverty, addiction, toxic relationships. Starved also has a lot of comedy, fast paced and witty Yorkshire humour.

Where did the inspiration for the story come from?

The play is semi-autobiographical and based on my life growing up in Hull. I wanted to really turn the heat up on these characters and look at what people can be driven to when they feel isolated. When they feel like they have no meaningful purpose or place in society. Starved is based on things I’ve heard, seen, been through, but taken to that extreme.

Why do you feel is this story an important one for you to tell, and for a London audience to hear? And why is now the right time to tell it?

I wanted to put a Northern working class story on a London stage. The North of England feels under represented in Theatre, which is a shame because the people I’ve met and stories I’ve heard would make for really gripping and exciting new work. People I’ve spoken to are feeling scared, alone, pissed off, not listened to, ignored etc, especially in areas like where I grew up. I feel a story such as Starved can help break that London bubble slightly and show that there is a whole other way that people are forced to live, which might go some way in explaining the current divide.

What do you hope that audiences will take away from seeing the play?

I hope a sense of understanding that there are people out there that are having a really shit time of it. If we can be more compassionate towards those that have fallen under then hopefully we can start a conversation about how we can work together to see eye to eye. Also, I hope it’s refreshing to see a play set in Hull.

What are you most looking forward to about reviving the play at the Hope?

Really excited to work with a new group of people, we’ve got new designers and stage manager etc so looking forward to collaborating with them. Also, for new audiences to see the show and to just get back out there and see where it takes us.

Did you always want to be a playwright, and if not what was it that first sparked your interest in theatre?

I always had an interest in writing as a kid, I’d write episodes of The Simpsons and short stories. But it wasn’t until I moved to London to train as an actor that I really started to combine the two and realised that I had some stories in me that were worth telling.

On a related note, how did Faded Ink get started as a company, and how would you describe your mission?

Faded Ink was founded with the aim of producing high quality work that reflects working class backgrounds. We want to perform stories which represent communities that are not regularly touched upon in the theatre. Bringing something raw, passionate and based on personal experience to our work.

Book now for Starved at The Hope Theatre, 16th July to 3rd August.

Director: Matt Strachan

Cast: Michael Black and Alana Connaughton

Review: Cuttings at The Hope Theatre

The publicist’s office in which Ollie George Clark’s Cuttings is set has a sign prominently displayed that reads, “It’s PR, not ER.” Which is true, obviously – but you could still be forgiven for thinking the crisis Gracelyn (Joan Potter), Ruchi (Natasha Patel) and Danica (Maisie Preston) are facing this Monday morning is one of life and death. Their client, YouTuber turned actor Arthur Moses, caused outrage at last night’s Olivier Awards with an expletive-strewn acceptance speech, and now his PR team are left to pick up the pieces in any way they can.

Photo credit: Cam Harle 

And so they do, with ruthless, cold-blooded efficiency, not caring what angle they have to use or who they have to throw under the bus to protect their client’s – and by extension, their own – reputation. Cuttings goes behind the scenes of a scenario we’ve seen play out in the media countless times, exposing some very questionable morals and reminding us all over again how superficial a world showbiz can be. Arthur himself, meanwhile, plays zero part in his own salvation, only rocking up right at the end to record the “heartfelt” apology video his publicists have spent the last hour meticulously scripting for him – and to be fair to him, he’s very convincing.

The play is a pretty brutal takedown of the world of 21st century PR, and there are a lot of laughs to be had at the expense of the three central characters as they scrabble desperately for the best strategy in a world where social media now rules all. At the same time, though, you do have to admire the skill with which they build their case, like a team of defence lawyers looking for that one piece of evidence that will mean their client goes free. And then of course, there’s the inconvenient truth that these characters wouldn’t be able to use such morally dubious means if we the public weren’t quite so gullible…

Not surprisingly given the state of crisis, Rob Ellis’ production starts at a run – the phones are already ringing off the hook before the play even begins – and rarely pauses for breath during the 75 minutes that follow. The same goes for the actors, and Joan Potter, Natasha Patel and Maisie Preston never miss a beat as the three women hilariously brainstorm and bicker their way in real time through a hectic Monday morning. Each character has their specific role within the story – Danica the naïve new girl, Ruchi the ambitious protegée, and Gracelyn the hardened veteran – but they’re all well-rounded, interesting and, dare I say it, likeable enough that we can’t simply write them off as terrible people. They all know their chosen strategy is a moral minefield, but they also have a job to do – and as Danica quickly learns, in this business there’s no time or space for consciences.

Photo credit: Cam Harle

Not all the jokes completely stick the landing – there’s a running gag about Gracelyn’s interrupted smoking habit, for instance, that starts promisingly but then doesn’t really go anywhere – and others get a bit lost in the unstoppable whirlwind of one-liners and put-downs. But Cuttings is still a sharp, witty and hugely enjoyable play about an industry we all know exists, but somehow seem to forget every time we watch an emotional YouTube apology or read a remorseful statement from a disgraced celebrity. Let’s hear it for the unsung heroes of PR: if nothing else, they’re great entertainment.