Review: Fat Jewels at The Hope Theatre

Temperatures soar in more ways than one in Joseph Skelton’s Fat Jewels, a dark and deeply unsettling tale of abuse, manipulation and mental fragility. An already warm theatre becomes increasingly stifling as tensions between the two characters rise, and all the audience can do is sit and wait for the inevitable explosion.

Fat Jewels at The Hope Theatre
Photo credit: Laura Harling

21-year-old Pat (Hugh Train) is a loner who lives with his mum, has no friends and is troubled by violent fantasies. Convinced there’s something wrong with him, he seizes on family friend Danny’s (Robert Walters) vague offer of “therapy”, which seems to mostly involve encouraging him to let out his pent-up aggression by killing animals. But Danny has his own agenda, and takes advantage of Pat’s vulnerability to embark on a programme of emotional and sexual manipulation, all the while convincing him it’s for his own good – and in doing so, like most bullies, reveals his own deep insecurities.

We’re thrown straight into the midst of their bizarre encounter in Danny’s living room on a South Yorkshire council estate, where the heater is turned up to the max and several discarded beer cans hint at a long evening already behind us. Any hopes that this might be a normal friendship go quickly out the window as the older man suggests a trip to the zoo with a cricket bat; while Pat seems clueless as to his true meaning, Danny is visibly excited by the idea of beating a sea lion to death. And it only gets more disturbing from there, as we get into sleeping bag “worm fights”, chicken phobias and a nail-biting final confrontation during which the balance of power shifts dizzyingly back and forth.

As surreal as the plot occasionally gets, it’s sold with absolute conviction by the performances of actors Hugh Train and Robert Walters. As the naive, affable Pat, Train appears every inch the victim; it’s hard to imagine him having violent dreams, let alone acting on them – unless someone insults his mum, that is. Walters’ Danny seems by far the more volatile and dangerous of the two as he uses every unsavoury (and at times downright creepy) method at his disposal to get under Pat’s skin. But as director Luke Davies slowly ramps up the tension, cracks begin to show for both men, and while we can’t feel sympathy for Danny in the same way we do for Pat, by the time he finally crumbles we have some understanding of the insecurity and past trauma that drives him to abuse what little power he has.

Fat Jewels at The Hope Theatre
Photo credit: Laura Harling

Despite some darkly humorous moments, Fat Jewels is not always an easy play to watch; in fact there are points where it’s tempting (and on one occasion necessary, for those sitting front and centre) to physically recoil. The Hope’s tight quarters and rising temperatures work with Skelton’s narrative to create a sense of claustrophobia, so that instead of being a distracting inconvenience, the discomfort becomes a vital part of the audience experience – and when combined with an intriguing plot and two utterly absorbing performances on stage, there’s more than enough in this disturbing production to keep us gripped throughout.

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Review: Cockamamy at The Hope Theatre

A little over a year ago, I sat at The Hope Theatre and sobbed my way through Off The Middle’s In Other Words, a devastatingly sad story about a husband and wife coming to terms with his diagnosis of dementia. This week, I was back at The Hope to see Think and Hit’s debut production Cockamamy, another play about dementia – and surprise surprise, I ended up in floods again.

I don’t know why theatre on this topic tends to hit me so hard, but I suspect it’s because so often it’s inspired by real experiences and people, and you can tell it comes from a place of deep love and affection mingled with pain and often loss. If that’s the case then Cockamamy is a double whammy, as both writer and actor Louise Coulthard and director Rebecca Loudon know what it’s like to care for a grandparent with dementia, and have put that experience to powerful use to create a funny and deeply poignant play.

Photo credit: Alex Brenner

Let’s back up a bit, though, because Cockamamy isn’t just a play about dementia. It’s really the story of Alice and Rosie, who are far more than just grandmother and granddaughter; they’re best friends. Alice raised Rosie following the death of her mother when she was a little girl, and the strong bond between them is clear from the outset. But there are clouds on the horizon: Alice is getting increasingly confused and forgetful, and she’s convinced she’s being visited by her late husband Arthur. When Rosie meets a new boyfriend, both she and Alice are forced to make some tough decisions about their futures.

It was always going to be a tough story to watch, but what makes Cockamamy so heartbreaking is how instantly likeable the characters are. Alice is a particular delight: a feisty, quirky old lady with a mischievous sense of humour and a surprising habit of quoting Beyonce. We love her from the start, so it’s painful to watch her become more and more fragile and bewildered as the play goes on – particularly as there are moments when the old Alice reappears.

Mary Rutherford’s superb performance is matched by that of Louise Coulthard as Rosie, as she struggles with the conflict between wanting to protect her gran and wanting to get on with her own life. She’s just met the perfect man – Cavan, an Irish junior doctor played by Rowan Polonski – but although he’s patient and supportive of Alice’s situation, their relationship is put under ever greater strain as Rosie repeatedly finds herself forced to choose between them. Unsurprisingly, this building tension ultimately comes to a head in a final scene that’s ugly and brutal in both its honesty and its emotional impact.

Photo credit: Alex Brenner

If I have one quibble, it’s that the long scene changes interrupt the pace of the production and leave us looking at Alice’s empty living room for rather longer than feels necessary. But this minor irritation doesn’t detract from a play that perfectly balances entertainment with an honest, powerful portrayal of the impact dementia can have on families and relationships. Highly recommended, but prepare to be put through the emotional wringer.

Cockamamy is at The Hope Theatre until 30th June.

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Review: Adam and Eve at The Hope Theatre

Traditionally, we’ve been led by books, movies and the like to believe that “happily ever after” starts when you get married and settle down. This is particularly interesting when you consider that one of the oldest stories ever told is all about a couple who proved that theory wrong in spectacular fashion.

In Tim Cook’s reimagined Genesis story, newlyweds Adam (Lee Knight) and Eve (Jeannie Dickinson) are moving to the country and buying their first house. It’s not quite Paradise, but they need to get on the ladder and it’s all they can afford, especially now they’ve got a baby on the way. Their “masterplan” is all going swimmingly – until English teacher Adam is suspended from work after being accused of improper behaviour by Nikki (Melissa Parker), one of his students. At first, Eve is more than willing to stand by her man, convinced the accusations are a fabrication and will soon blow over. When they don’t, the first doubts creep in and she begins to wonder just how well she really knows her husband.

She’s not the only one. Over the course of 65 minutes, the story takes multiple twists and turns, and the balance of power shifts back and forth several times, keeping the audience in a permanent state of uncertainty with no idea who we can trust to tell the truth. It’s difficult to talk too much about the performances from Jeannie Dickinson, Melissa Parker and Lee Knight without risking spoilers but I can say that all three are excellent, taking on board the subtleties in the script and giving us just enough to keep us guessing throughout.

All the characters have significant flaws, and both Adam and Nikki give us plenty of reasons to simultaneously doubt and believe their version of events; even when the truth is revealed, there’s still a lingering suspicion that the other party may not be entirely guilt-free. The play’s conclusion is cleverly seeded by Cook – looking back to the start of the play, we can see the clues we missed earlier – but left me wanting more: to understand more fully the guilty party’s motivation, which is clearly complex but only briefly explained, and to witness the fallout from the big reveal.

That should be taken as a compliment, however, because what’s already there is an hour of tense, gripping drama during which it feels like anything could happen. With just a couple of chairs making up the set, director Jennifer Davis makes effective use of the empty space, maintaining a physical distance between the characters so that every scene – even early on – has the potential to escalate quickly into a conflict. Add to this the way the characters continue to eyeball each other suspiciously during scene changes, and the result is an atmosphere of simmering tension that keeps us on our guard from start to finish.

In Adam and Eve, Tim Cook takes the themes of temptation, trust and accusation and proves that while we may now be living in a very different world – a world dominated by money worries, fake news and the relentless pressure to be perfect in the eyes of others – in reality, humanity has changed very little since the original Adam and Eve got kicked out of the Garden of Eden. If there’s a small consolation to this depressing fact, it’s probably that at least we have an excuse; if they couldn’t make it work in Paradise, what chance is there for the rest of us?

Adam and Eve is at The Hope Theatre until 9th June.

Interview: Jennifer Davis, Adam and Eve

Following its critically acclaimed debut last year at the Brockley Jack, Broken Silence Theatre’s Adam and Eve returns next week for a longer run at Islington’s Hope Theatre, now with new director Jennifer Davis at the helm.

Adam and Eve is about a young couple who have moved to the country in search of a better life,” explains Jennifer, who takes over from the show’s previous director Paul Macauley. “Everything’s going pretty perfectly until one day Adam is sent home from school following accusations made by a student… It’s a story about truth, lies, temptation and sin.”

Tim Cook’s play was a five-star hit last year, with reviewers describing it as “utterly phenomenal” and “absolutely chilling”. Unsurprisingly, Jennifer is pretty excited to be involved in its revival. “The writing is exceptional. In just 60 minutes Tim has managed to create a gripping, relatable experience that will leave an audience really questioning which version of the truth they believe. I’ve wanted to work with Broken Silence since seeing their production of Crushed at the King’s Head Theatre in 2015; I really admire their commitment to supporting regional writers and new work.”

Some might be daunted by the prospect of taking over such a critically acclaimed play, but Jennifer is looking forward to putting her own stamp on the show and exploring the opportunities that come with a new cast and venue: “I was honoured to be asked, and fingers crossed I create something that will do the previous production justice. We have two new wonderful cast members in Lee Knight and Melissa Parker – not forgetting the brilliant Jeannie Dickinson who was in the original run. There’ll also be a new set design and perhaps a few surprises…

“I’m excited about exploring the Hope’s space, too. It’s such an intimate venue and I can’t wait to see how the play develops when the audience are quite literally eyeball to eyeball with the actors.”

Jennifer studied Drama and Theatre Arts at the University of Birmingham, graduating in 2013. “Originally I wanted to be an actor but at university quite quickly realised that wasn’t for me,” she explains. “I’ve been freelancing as a director for five years now and have really found my happy place – working with new writing!”

Those five years have kept her busy; she’s now a Junior Associate at the King’s Head Theatre and an Associate Artist with Theatre Absolute, and she also founded Shoot Festival, which supports emerging artists in Coventry and Warwickshire. “I’ve been very lucky to work on some incredible projects, so highlights are hard to choose! But if I had to… I’d probably say directing (sorry) by Susie Sillett at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. It’s a one woman show that explores what it’s like to grow up as a millennial and the pressures we face in today’s current economic, social and cultural climate.”

Book now to see Jennifer work her magic on Adam and Eve, which runs at The Hope Theatre from 22nd May to 9th June.

Review: Worth a Flutter at The Hope Theatre

Inspired by his memories of growing up in South East London, Michael Head’s Worth a Flutter is an enjoyable comedy with hidden depths – a love story whose protagonists are simultaneously too flawed to be heroes and too likeable to be villains.

The plot follows two men, Matt (Michael Head) and Sam (Jack Harding), as they compete for the affections of a waitress at their local greasy spoon cafe. The twist: both are already in committed but unhappy relationships, and are basically just using the unfortunate Helen (Clare McNamara) as an escape from their current misery. But then things get complicated when they both fall for her, and she’s forced to choose between them. Or is she?

As the story unfolds, Head challenges both the questionable attitudes of his male characters and the traditional damsel in distress paradigm, with Helen emerging as more than capable of looking after herself. What makes the play interesting is that both Matt and Sam seem like decent enough blokes, who both recognise and challenge the outrageous sexism displayed by their cartoonishly obnoxious friends – but both fail to see the same, less explicit, attitudes in themselves.

Michael Head, Jack Harding and Clare McNamara are all strong in the central roles, delivering some enjoyable comedy performances but also revealing their characters’ vulnerabilities as each relives a past trauma which has played a part in bringing them to this point. They’re joined by Paul Danan and Lucy Pinder in a variety of supporting roles. Pinder makes her stage debut playing both Matt’s fiancée Paige and Sam’s wife Emma, but is perhaps most memorable for her exuberant portrayal of a penis with a Scottish accent (yes, really). Danan, meanwhile, is clearly enjoying himself immensely as ageing Lothario Paul and pervy pensioner Mr Edwards.

Directed by Jonathon Carr, the play has a choppy structure that sees the action interrupted frequently by scenes of direct narration from Matt or Sam, with both Head and Harding quickly establishing a connection with the audience. There are also some surreal sketch scenes – including the aforementioned Scottish penis – which are largely superfluous to the story, but are good fun and give the actors a chance to demonstrate their comedy talents (Clare McNamara’s outspoken grandpa and Michael Head’s parade of exes – each of them conveniently from a different bit of the UK – particularly stand out).

Like most romantic comedies, the story relies heavily on coincidence and characters impulsively falling in love and making life-changing decisions. But if the plot is at times simplistic and the comedy a bit silly, the play does shine a light on the prevalence of everyday sexism, even from “nice guys”, and the three central characters have interesting backstories which add new layers of meaning to the plot. Recommended for light-hearted entertainment; if not quite a dead cert, then certainly a strong contender.

Worth a Flutter is at The Hope Theatre until 19th May.

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