Review: Gilded Butterflies at The Hope Theatre

Debates about the death penalty tend to focus, unsurprisingly, on the moral rights and wrongs of taking a life for a life. Less, perhaps, is known about the dehumanising conditions in which condemned prisoners must await their fate – often for years, or even decades. Tormented Casserole’s two-hander Gilded Butterflies, devised by the company and directed by Kathryn Papworth-Smith, sets out to remedy that. Based on the true account of death row survivor Sunny Jacobs, the play paints a brutal picture of what everyday life is like in solitary confinement, and in doing so it also offers us a poignant glimpse at the lengths to which the human spirit will go to survive, even in unimaginably bleak circumstances.

Photo credit: Rebecca Rayne

Maggie (Francesca McCrohon) is a young woman who spends her days alone in her prison cell in Florida. It’s been a year since she saw or spoke to anyone besides her guards and her lawyer, but she keeps herself upbeat by painting, writing daily letters to her husband, and dreaming of what she’ll do when her lawyer gets her out. Then one day she gets a new neighbour (Samantha Pain) – but having company may not be quite the blessing she expected, and Maggie soon finds herself forced to face up to some devastating truths about what she’s done, and where she might be headed.

Samantha Pain plays three roles: the nameless prisoner next door, Maggie’s lawyer and her sister Lauren. Each of these is not so much a character in their own right as a vehicle to shed a little new light on Maggie’s situation, and it’s Francesca McCrohon who steals the show throughout. Smiley, chatty, kind: in any other circumstances Maggie’s the kind of person you can imagine yourself getting along with. Both the script and McCrohon’s performance draw us in, and for at least the first half of the play we even find ourselves sharing a little of her bright-eyed optimism about the state of her appeals.

And then we find out what brought Maggie to death row, and the tone of the play shifts in a much darker direction. Her dreams for the future are exposed as just that – dreams – and we realise what we’re seeing is a woman desperately battling to hold on to who she is against a system that’s determined to steal every last scrap of humanity from her, before finally ending her life. The lack of human contact; the refusal to allow her the most basic of items; the fact that she’s not even allowed to attend her own court hearings to plead her case; each new detail is one more reminder of how the American justice system views prisoners as less than human, a problem to be eradicated rather than addressed in any constructive way. Maggie is not innocent of the terrible crime for which she’s been convicted, but based on what we later learn of her circumstances, she’s not wholly guilty either – a subtle difference that a black and white system like the death penalty completely fails to take into account.

Photo credit: Rebecca Rayne

The play is simply staged; given the nature of the story, visually there’s not a lot to look at except a static set – consisting of two cells outlined on the ground, each with a metal bed and not much else – which helps to emphasise the monotony of Maggie’s daily existence. At each scene transition, white noise sound effects and abrupt lighting changes from Naomi Baldwin create an oppressive atmosphere that no amount of chatter can quite dissipate.

Gilded Butterflies is a thought-provoking and moving piece that highlights the urgent need for a change in policy and attitudes. The story may be set on death row, but the talking points it raises – specifically around mental health and the importance of rehabilitation rather than punishment – can be just as easily applied to justice systems around the world, including that of the UK. And if the play happens to also make you angry about the insanity of the death penalty – well, that’s an added bonus.

Gilded Butterflies is at The Hope Theatre until 24th November.


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Review: Testament at The Hope Theatre

Following a warm reception in Edinburgh, Chalk Line Theatre bring their show Testament to The Hope Theatre for a limited run, and one thing is instantly clear: this is not a company who believe in doing things by halves. Written and directed (with William Harrison) by Sam Edmunds, Testament comes at us like the head-on collision that begins the story, sweeping us up in a strobe-lit whirl of panic and confusion, punctuated by just the right amount of darkly comic relief.

Photo credit: Tongchai O. Hansen

At the centre of it all is Max (Nick Young), who’s just woken up in hospital after jumping off a building – a suicide attempt prompted by the recent death of his girlfriend Tess (Hannah Benson) in a car accident. There’s just one problem; Max doesn’t remember that Tess is gone, and he can’t understand why his brother Chris (William Shackleton) and his doctor (Jensen Gray) are keeping her from him. As his medical condition worsens, Max has a decision to make – with a little bit of “help” from a visiting Jesus (David Angland) and Lucifer (Daniel Leadbitter) – to accept treatment for his injuries and risk losing Tess all over again, or refuse it and keep hold of her for a little longer.

As Max struggles to choose a path, remembering funny moments with Tess one minute and wrestling with sinister masked surgeons the next, we get a glimpse of the chaos inside his traumatised mind. The pre-show warning about strobe effects is not to be taken lightly; there are several scenes in which these feature prominently and for prolonged periods, intensifying the nightmarish quality of Max’s visions. These include reliving more than once the car crash that started it all, which leads to a surprising twist revelation about what really happened that night.

Set in counterpoint to these dramatic scenes are moments of stark reality, where Chris and the doctor discuss Max’s treatment. These scenes are played convincingly by Jensen Gray and William Shackleton, bringing us back to the real world and the growing urgency to take action. The obvious concern they both feel contrasts sharply with Max’s view that the medical staff are out to harm him, and once the truth about the accident is revealed, their conversations and the decision they need to make take on an interesting new direction.

Though the play deals with some difficult themes – bereavement, suicide, survivor’s guilt – there’s also plenty of humour, buckets of energy, and the faintest glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, all of which keep Testament from becoming too traumatic even in its darkest moments. Nick Young leads a strong cast, skilfully juggling the pre-accident Max – exuberant, charismatic, a bit immature – with the fragile, tormented figure we find curled up in a hospital bed, discussing the meaning of life with biblical figures, each of whom has their own agenda.

Photo credit: Tongchai O. Hansen

If the play’s conclusion feels a little flat compared with the unstoppable energy and unsettling oddness of what’s gone before, it’s a minor complaint. The themes of Testament have been written about many times before, in many different ways, so to find an approach that still feels fresh and unique is quite an achievement. This high quality production will stress you out, make you laugh and send you home with plenty to think about. With only two dates left at The Hope, grab a ticket while you have the chance.

Testament returns to The Hope Theatre on 28th and 29th October.


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Review: Jericho’s Rose at The Hope Theatre

“Where do you live?” It seems like such a simple question – but the enquiry takes on new significance with each repetition in Jericho’s Rose from Althea Theatre. Written by Lilac Yosiphon, who also directs along with Mike Cole and Annie-Lunnette Deakin-Foster, it’s a moving and intriguing exploration of the true meaning of “home”, seen through the eyes of two characters. Jasmine is a writer fighting for the right to stay in London, and her grandfather, back in Tel Aviv, has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. For each of them, and for different reasons, answering the straightforward question “Where do you live?” becomes an increasingly difficult – and sometimes impossible – task.

Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli

The structure of the show is based around repetition: the frustrations of having the same conversations over and over with someone who doesn’t remember; the endless meetings with doctors who can never say anything new; the constant disappointment of being rejected – again – for a visa. All that really changes in Jasmine’s life over the course of the 75-minute show is her location, as she moves from one city to the next in search of… something. Even then, in each city her experience is much the same – drinking too much, having disappointing romantic encounters in nightclubs, and ultimately ending up back in Tel Aviv with Grandpa.

In other hands, this cyclical structure could easily teeter on the brink of tedium, and it’s credit to Lilac Yosiphon’s engaging, almost mesmerising performance as both Jasmine and Grandpa that this doesn’t happen. Slipping seamlessly from one character to the other – at times conversing with her other persona on stage, at others with her own recorded voice – she holds our attention throughout with ease.

This is fortunate, because the fragmented narrative of the piece, which hops around in time, location and style, does demand the audience’s constant focus in order to piece it all together. We’re aided in this, to some extent, by the use of music and loop pedalled sound, composed and performed live from the corner of the stage by Sam Elwin, and by Will Monks’ projections, both of which provide us with certain audiovisual signposts as we make our way through the show’s deliberately disorienting landscape.

Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli

For those of us privileged enough to have never questioned where we belong, this unique multi-sensory production paints a powerful picture of the trauma of displacement – whether physical or emotional – through the sharing of a very personal and poignant story. The eclectic nature of the show may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but Jericho’s Rose is bold, original and invites us to consider themes we may think we understand in a whole new light.

Jericho’s Rose is at The Hope Theatre until 3rd November.


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Review: And Then They Came For Me at The Hope Theatre

The title of James Still’s harrowing play about the Holocaust has a double significance. On the one hand, it’s a factual statement made by 15-year-old Eva to describe her arrest by the Nazis – an arrest that led to several months in Auschwitz, and the loss of her father and brother. But it also recalls the haunting final line of Martin Niemöller’s well-known poem: “Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”

The Holocaust is one of those moments in history that feels almost mythical; we all grow up hearing about it, but it’s so impossible to imagine such brutality that unless you have a personal connection to those events, it doesn’t feel quite real. And Then They Came for Me: Remembering the World of Anne Frank doesn’t allow us to shrug it off so easily, though – in no small part because the production was personally requested by Holocaust survivor Eva Schloss, who approached the director, June Trask, and asked her to take the show on tour around the UK.

Photo credit: Moondog Productions

Eva herself also appears in the play, which uses a unique combination of video footage and live action to tell her story, along with that of Ed Silverberg (formerly Helmuth ‘Hello’ Silberberg) and their mutual friend, Anne Frank. All three were young teenagers when the persecution of the Jews began, and so we see the nightmare through two sets of eyes: those of the adult Eva and Ed looking back on what happened, and those of the confused children trying to comprehend the terrifying ordeal they’re living through.

The play deals first with the rapid spread of anti-Jewish prejudice and persecution in the early 1940s, and the attempts of Eva, Ed, Anne and their families to find safety in Amsterdam. It then kicks into another gear altogether with a portrayal of the unspeakable horror experienced by Eva and her mother, Anne and so many others in Auschwitz, where human lives were treated as utterly worthless and a split second decision could mean the difference between life and death. The scenes within the camp are sensitively and minimally portrayed, but the outstanding cast – Gemma Reynolds, Leo Graham, Bethan Kate-Tonkin and James Coupland – ensure that we feel every moment of their fear, pain and grief, and are themselves visibly shaken by the performance’s poignantly staged conclusion.

Photo credit: Moondog Productions

Eva Schloss felt this play needed to be seen by audiences around the UK, not only so that her family’s ordeal can be remembered, but so that we can take steps to ensure it’s never repeated. That’s an easy idea to dismiss – surely we’d never allow such a thing to happen now – but this play reminds us that it happened once before, and the world let it happen. We only have to read the news to see that we’re headed back in that direction: millions of people around the world have been forced to flee their homes; anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are rife across Europe and the USA; far-right groups are on the rise, emboldened by the anti-immigration rhetoric of politicians. It’s a frightening picture, and one that will only get worse if left unchecked. The best way we can honour the memory of Anne Frank, Heinz and Erich Geiringer, and the millions of others who lost their lives in the Holocaust, is to speak up now – while we still can.

For information about future productions, or to book a performance of And Then They Came for Me: Remembering the World of Anne Frank for a school, organisation or public group, visit the website.

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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