Review: Flycatcher at The Hope Theatre

Gregg Masuak’s Flycatcher is unsettling from the start, kicking off with an eery, monotonous chorus of “nobody likes me, everybody hates me…” led by Emily Arden’s unblinking Madelaine, while the rest of the cast emerge from the corners, where they’ve been frozen like waxworks since we entered.

From there, things get increasingly disturbing and bewildering as awkward waitress Madelaine becomes obsessed with Bing, an idealistic young life insurance salesman. Unfortunately, he in turn is obsessed – though in a (slightly) less creepy way – with Olive, a gallery owner who reminds him of his idol Grace Kelly and is herself trapped in an unfulfilling relationship with a married man. When Madelaine befriends Olive, you just know it isn’t going to end well… Meanwhile a seemingly unrelated subplot involving Madelaine’s grandmother Mae, growing old disgracefully in a desperate bid for attention, circles back in the play’s shocking final moments to complete the intricate web connecting all the characters to each other.

It’s a bizarre play, part thriller, part comedy and made up of a lot of very short scenes – some literally a few seconds – that keep the cast of eight moving constantly on and off stage. Though the action predominantly revolves around the four main characters, the other actors (Nathan Plant, Susanna Wolff, Bruce Kitchener and Melissa Dalton) work just as hard, in a variety of eccentric and distinct supporting roles that intersect with the central characters at different points. This structure could have resulted in a very stop-start production, but under the direction of writer Gregg Masuak everything flows smoothly, and the actors – who frequently retire to the corners of the space to prepare for their next scene – never miss a beat. There’s still a lot to take in from one minute to the next, but it’s difficult to fault the way the snapshot scenes are presented.

Emily Arden is genuinely quite scary as Madelaine as she weaves her web of deceit around Bing and Olive, glowering all the while at a world that’s never accepted her (though her rare attempts at a smile are even more frightening), and visibly growing in stature and confidence as she puts her plan into action. She makes an unlikely pairing with Alex Shenton’s Bing, a charming salesman who wins over his customers by selling them a dream of a better world; one of the biggest tragedies of the play is seeing him lose the puppy dog eagerness with which he pursues Olive, played by Amy Newton. Their relationship progresses very naturally through the awkward flirting stage into something resembling stability, but is equally convincing as both it and they begin to fall apart. Completing the core cast as Mae, Fiz Marcus offers some light relief, although her vulnerability and desperate need for someone – anyone – to listen to her is heartbreaking; she spends most of the play talking into a void as all the other characters avoid or scorn her.

There are elements of the story that are strange and confusing, and I’d be surprised if anybody left feeling they understood everything they’d just seen. However, the performances, design (I really loved the simple effectiveness of Anna Kezia Williams’ spiderweb set) and direction combine to create an atmosphere of foreboding and drama that keeps us engaged even when we don’t really know what’s happening. A distinctly odd evening, and the style may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but this is undeniably an excellent production.

Flycatcher is at The Hope Theatre until 2nd December.

Review: Turkey at The Hope Theatre

I’m a bit late to the party on this one, but it’s been difficult to avoid the five-star hype surrounding Frankie Meredith’s debut play Turkey – so to say I went in with high expectations is a bit of an understatement. Fortunately, those expectations were more than met by this heartbreaking story of a young woman so desperate for a child she’s willing to risk everything – and everyone – to get it. Instantly gripping, a brilliant script, talented cast and skilful direction by Niall Phillips draw us into the lives of all three characters, and the play feels much shorter than its one-hour running time.

Madeline wants to have a baby with her girlfriend Toni – but first, they need to locate the necessary, ahem, ingredients. After an attempt to ask Toni’s brothers ends in disaster, Maddie has another candidate in mind: her dead ex-boyfriend’s dad, Michael. Shrugging off Toni’s concerns about her motives, she pays him a visit – and in doing so sets in motion a chain of events that might give her the one thing she always wanted… but at what cost?

Although the play, which was inspired by real events, is about a gay couple and sheds light on the challenges they face in their mission to become parents – challenges most heterosexual couples will never have to even think about – ultimately Turkey is so successful because there’s a lot more to all the characters than just their sexuality. Everyday dilemmas like which veg to buy, what to wear for a job interview and the struggle to get over the loss of a loved one mean all three are easy to relate to, and while we may not be able to like or support the things they do, we can at least understand where they’re coming from.

This is particularly true in the case of Madeline, largely thanks to Pevyand Sadeghian’s devastating performance. By rights, we should hate her, and while she undoubtedly causes much of her own – and others’ – suffering, she’s also totally convincing in both her love for Toni and her confusion over who she really is; it’s obvious that none of the damage she causes is intentional, but merely a byproduct of her personal turmoil.

At the other end of the scale, Harriet Green is instantly likeable as Toni. Bright, funny and devoted to both her job as a teacher and her domestic life with Madeline, she’s not particularly fussed about having a baby, but is willing to go along with it because she knows how much it means to her partner – a compromise that ultimately leaves her wide open to getting hurt. And finally, there’s Michael, played by Cameron Robertson, a “not quite yet ‘old’ older man”, who’s still broken by the loss of his son twelve years earlier. His obvious joy at having Madeline back in his life, however unexpectedly, is heartbreakingly poignant, even though we can see the warning signs of what’s about to happen a mile away.

Director Niall Phillips keeps the action moving along at a rapid pace, with short, sharp bursts of rock music separating each scene from the next. The cast all remain on stage throughout, their constant presence mere inches from the audience helping to compound the sense of impending doom, as events spiral out of Madeline’s control and her two lives come ever closer to collision.

Turkey may be Frankie Meredith’s first full length play, but let’s hope it’s not the last. A beautifully drawn study of human desperation, it’s a triumph on just about every level; I only wish it hadn’t ended so soon.

Turkey is at The Hope Theatre until 14th October.

Interview: Frankie Meredith, Turkey

Frankie Meredith makes her writing debut this month with Turkey, which opens at The Hope Theatre on 26th September. Directed by Lonesome Schoolboy Productions’ Niall Phillips, it’s a story about one woman’s overwhelming desire to have a baby with her girlfriend – and the lengths to which she’s willing to go to get what she wants.

Turkey explores whether this innate need stems from her own biological clock, a grief she experienced as a teen or the expectation to be seen as ‘normal’,” explains Frankie. “It looks at her ability to risk and ruin everything in her life to get the child she so strongly yearns for.”

Though the characters are fictional, Frankie’s inspiration for Turkey was a true story: “It was written when I was on the Soho Theatre Young Writers Lab and started out as a six page exercise in scene structure. They told us to write a story based on an old family tale or something that happened within our family. It then became the play that I developed while I was on the course.

“I told the person the story is based on very recently, and they’re thrilled – luckily.”

Frankie feels this is a particularly important story to tell because it confronts issues people otherwise may not think about: “Gay couples having babies is talked about, but what about the morals or dilemmas they face on where they get the sperm from? If you don’t have the money to go to a posh west London clinic who on earth are you going to ask to give you their sperm? Grief is also a big part of this play. It is an issue all the characters are facing and has a huge impact on many of their decisions and actions.”

The play’s central character, Madeline, is far from perfect, and Frankie’s hoping audiences will be able to see past that and understand why she behaves the way she does. “I’ve placed a really strong, manipulative, flawed female at the helm of this play and I want people to empathise with her,” she says. “So often we are quick to label women ‘mental’ or ‘crazy’ when they are just doing what needs to be done to get what they want. Madeline doesn’t commit any crimes, she isn’t evil, she’s just human. I would like audiences to not judge her for what she does.

“The play’s also funny – I hope – and relatable. There’s a lot of food and Netflix references to keep it all relevant. And though we don’t all identify with turkey basting, love, grief and desire are all emotions we experience and connect with – so there will be some part of this play that is relatable and relevant to you.”

Having been very involved in the casting process, Frankie is looking forward to seeing the three actors – Pevyand Sadeghian, Cameron Robertson and Harriet Green – bring her words to life on stage. “The cast are phenomenal! I’m so excited to see what they do with the text. Pevyand (Madeline) we found through an open casting; she was actually the first one through the door and we fell in love with her. Cameron Robertson has worked with Niall before, and Niall kept telling me what a wonderful Michael he would make – he was not wrong. He came in to read and was just perfect.

“Finally Harriet Green and I trained at drama school together, she has read numerous drafts of Turkey and was someone I’d go to for help when developing. We asked her to do a self tape and she met Niall for a coffee and a read through. I can’t wait to see what she does with Toni, she has a real magnetism and truth to her performances.”

Frankie herself became involved with Lonesome Schoolboy earlier this year. “I sent this script to Niall and he asked to meet me for a coffee,” she explains. “We met a couple of days later and almost immediately got the ball rolling on staging Turkey. He has a great relationship with Matthew Parker at The Hope and soon we were chatting to him about when Turkey could be on.

“We did a few R&Ds together to develop the script as well as use it as a way to meet new actors. Niall’s energy in a rehearsal or workshop space is pretty special. I’m sure this is the start of a long and happy working relationship.”

Besides Turkey, Frankie has several other projects on the go: “I’ve just finished the first drafts of a couple of scripts. The next step is to get some actors in a room to play around with them and develop the texts further. I’m also currently editing a web series I wrote and directed with my production company MapleRoad Productions. It’s called Becoming Danish and should hit screens early 2018!

“And my first children’s show Saving Peter, about Wendy going back to Neverland to rescue Peter, is on at Theatre N16 in Balham in the last week of October, so we’re gearing up to get started on that.”

Book now for Turkey at The Hope Theatre from 26th September-14th October.

Review: Odd Man Out at The Hope Theatre

The two shows that make up Odd Man Out – Dominic Grace’s Rabbitskin and Lesley Ross’ Diary of a Welshcake – weren’t written to be performed together. Nor are they similar in plot, character or even performance style. But what unites these powerful monologues is the themes of love, loss and isolation explored by their two protagonists: Joe, a sensitive book lover struggling to live up to the expectations of his father and four older brothers; and Ralph, a gay Welshman on a journey of self-discovery and unexpected romance in Hong Kong.

The first character to take the stage is Rabbitskin‘s Joe, who quickly wins our hearts with his shy smile, childlike innocence and obvious affection for both his family and his favourite books. His is a story that can only be told by dipping into others, and Grace’s script skilfully weaves episodes from Joe’s life together with the yarns spun by his father. Like both Joe and his dad, Luke Adamson proves himself a masterful and thoroughly engaging storyteller, who slips effortlessly between characters – one moment a wide-eyed seven-year-old Joe, the next his Irish father telling the legendary tale of Cu Chulainn, the next his bullying brother Cal. He even manages to make something as mundane as the washing up sound utterly magical.

Photo credit: Luke Adamson

But stories will only protect you from real life for so long – and as sympathetic as Joe undoubtedly is, there’s a darker side to this character that refuses to stay hidden behind his defensive wall of fantasy. As the story begins to come together, and Joe’s placid demeanour cracks with increasing frequency, we know something is coming… yet the end of the story, when we arrive there, still shocks with its sudden brutality.

Gregory Ashton’s Ralph – also known as Tom – in Diary of a Welshcake is a somewhat different character; while still very likeable (and not just because he begins by handing out food) he doesn’t have Joe’s innocence, or feel quite so much a victim of his circumstances – perhaps because he ultimately acknowledges his own guilt over how the story of his Hong Kong adventure ends. Despite this, his is a much more openly comic tale, with a lot of the humour stemming from cultural differences, and particularly the absolute inability of characters from outside the UK to understand the difference between England and Wales.

Photo credit: Gregory Ashton

These other characters – male and female – allow Ashton to demonstrate his versatility as a performer; Ralph’s “predominantly heterosexual” American flatmate Matthew is a particular highlight, and there’s even a bit of (unfortunately inaccurate) Chinese in there at one point. Ashton’s been performing the show for over ten years, and it shows; his delivery falls somewhere between stand-up and theatre, so much so that the show begins to feel like it could actually be a true autobiographical account. The easy rapport that quickly develops between actor and audience is taken full advantage of later in the show as we’re invited to help recreate a dream of Ralph’s, a bizarre but very funny moment that deliberately steers us off course in the build-up to a shocking revelation.

Each of these stories could – and does – stand alone as a skilful portrayal of a man who doesn’t quite know who he is or where he belongs. Put together, they make for an evening that’s simultaneously laugh-out-loud funny and quietly heartbreaking, featuring two engrossing solo performances. If nothing else, come for the free food; you won’t regret it.

Odd Man Out is at The Hope Theatre until 12th August.

Interview: Luke Adamson and Gregory Ashton, Odd Man Out

Odd Man Out is a double bill of stories about people who don’t quite fit in, coming to The Hope Theatre later this month. Performed by The Hope’s Associate Director Luke Adamson and Off West End award nominated Gregory Ashton, these two one-man shows examine male mental health, sexuality, bullying… and elephants.

Rabbitskin is Joe’s story,” says Luke. “He’s a master storyteller like his dad and delights in the smallest of details. Inspired by his heroes, Holden Caulfield, Charles Dickens and the rest, he sets out to tell his story – but growing up as the youngest and smallest of five brothers in Leeds with only his dad to raise them wasn’t easy, and Joe struggles to keep on track.”

“And Welshcake is the story of a Welshman who travels half way across the world and falls in love in the most unlikely of ways,” continues Gregory. “He also happens to be an elephant – make of that what you will. So I guess it’s a love story but with a twist.”

Luke originally appeared in Rabbitskin in 2013, while Gregory’s been performing Diary of a Welshcake for over ten years. So why put the two together? “I guess they are both really lovely examples of adult storytelling, but more than that they connect with that basic need to understand where we fit in,” says Gregory. “When I was reading Rabbitskin certain lines and moments from Welshcake just popped out at me and I thought, ‘Ooh, yes, these will work together.’

“I think identity and fitting in are definitely strong there, but also why we define ourselves in whatever group we choose to. The main protagonists in Welshcake are from different cultures and yet neither really feels 100% part of that culture, and so they seek something in the other that is either an escape or simply a way to connect with who they are. I’m getting on a bit now, and so I have seen many people struggle with identity and the notion of ‘where do I belong’ and it is one of the things that really drives us. But what makes us human is the ability to connect with those outside of our comfort zone and in these very divisive times, that message is always one that is worth exploring.”

“Yeah, as Gregory mentioned there are certain thematic crossovers and even some lines that are shared,” adds Luke. “Together they will present an audience with a moving but hopefully uplifting evening at the theatre.

“There are definitely thematic links in that it is two people telling the story of their lives and finding out where they fit and I guess it touches as well on the broader idea of identity; what makes us who we are? Who we become? And this is universal and will touch different people in different ways.”

Luke came across Dominic Grace’s Rabbitskin quite by accident: “I was called in to audition for it at the West Yorkshire Playhouse a few years ago. As soon as I read the script I was hooked. I knew I had to do this play! It is so well written, poetic and touching and laugh out loud funny. And Joe is a dream of a character. I’m so delighted to have an opportunity to share this piece again.”

Gregory, meanwhile, has a personal connection to Diary of a Welshcake. “Well, I grew up in Hong Kong, and I definitely sound more Michael McIntyre than Michael Sheen, so the idea of telling the story of a Welshman who sounds English and ends up teaching in Hong Kong was always a no brainer for me.

“I’ve been performing versions of the show for a long time now, but having someone like Steve Marmion – who’d directed me in another one-man show, Madam Butterfly’s Child – come in and reshape the piece was a godsend, and really changed how I felt about the connection I could make with an audience, by simply just letting them into the story. I also think I have a much better understanding of where I fit in this world myself and that has changed how I play certain moments, definitely. I’ve played the piece all over the world now, so watching different cultural responses to different parts has been fascinating; it’s a constant learning curve…”

He also enjoys the audience participation element of the show: “My favourite part! I’m a great believer in what I call “Safe” participation. Nothing mortifying, nothing cruel, but just the odd moment where the audience help the action along. It is lonely up there on your own – I am sure Luke can vouch for that – so feeling the audience is actually helping you create your world is a wonderful sensation. But again, in a safe way. For example, in Madam Butterfly’s Child the audience had to be 4,000 people at the Albert Hall… as a group, no one singled out. Although “safe” for the audience doesn’t always translate to “Safe” for me: in Welshcake there is a pivotal plot moment that involves the creation of… but can’t give anything more away other than to say… I’ve only been hurt once.”

As Associate Director at The Hope, Luke has plenty of good things to say about the show’s venue. “The Hope is a family. It’s a place for people to take chances and break new ground on the Off West End scene. I’m so proud of the Equity agreement, the exciting and varied programming and the work we’ve done here over the past few years, and I was delighted that Matthew quite deservedly won Artistic Director of the year at the most recent Offies.”

Gregory’s equally complimentary: “Everyone who works at the Hope is paid. It may not be a huge amount, but everyone is paid and I think that is a huge thing, because everyone feels valued for the work that they do. There is a real team spirit, and under the leadership of Matthew Parker, that sense of commitment to a great and thriving fringe filters down beautifully: I have never been let down when I have been as an audience member, and I cannot wait to return there as a performer.”

So why should we come to see Odd Man Out? “Well, I am going to get humble here and say ‘to see Luke Adamson'”, says Gregory. “He is an exquisite young actor and I can’t wait to see him bring Rabbitskin to life. And then you can have a drink in the interval, and come and share the story of an elephant abroad.

“I hope that people go away with a sense of how huge a world can be created with just one person and a few props. Fringe is so important and proves that you can have an amazing night out for a lot less money! But more importantly, if one person leaves that theatre and plans to be kinder to the next odd man out that they meet, well I will be satisfied.”

“Haha! Bit of extra pressure there. Thanks for that!” says Luke. “I’m going to say people should come to see two gorgeously moving stories beautifully told. Hopefully people will leave feeling moved but with a smile on their faces. Like they feel richer for the experience. For me that’s when theatre is at its best.”

Book now for Odd Man Out at The Hope Theatre from 26th July-12th August.