Review: Bluebird at The Space

It might be 20 years old, but Simon Stephens’ early play Bluebird could have been written yesterday – and not only because of the many very apt references to the stiflingly hot weather.

A play of two halves, the first act consists of a series of short encounters between taxi driver Jimmy and the various fares he picks up in his cab one summer night in London. As he drives them to their destination, each shares a bit of themselves with him – whether it’s bad jokes, philosophical musings or reliving a personal tragedy – and he in return reveals a little of his own story.

These short sketches are performed by a talented ensemble cast and are by turns funny, moving and intriguing; they feed, ultimately, into Jimmy’s tale, but they also stand alone as a snapshot of London in all its glorious randomness. And with more than one passenger expressing concerns about where we’re all headed, you could easily be forgiven for thinking this is a play for 2018, not 1998.

With the majority of the action taking place in one location – Jimmy’s car – director Adam Hemming keeps things visually interesting with a stage consisting of two intersecting runways, and the audience arranged at the four corners. With each new fare, the actors move to a new location on the stage, giving us a different perspective in more ways than one, and between scenes the characters we’ve met – or are about to meet – continue on with their night.

The only other set consists of a couple of chairs and various car parts which are arranged on stage one by one; during one scene Jimmy holds a steering wheel, for another he and his passenger sit behind the car headlights or between two wing mirrors. This, it turns out, is a neat visual metaphor for the play itself; just as each new encounter provides a little more of the puzzle that is Jimmy, so all the car parts are eventually reunited for the final emotionally charged scene with Claire, his estranged wife.

As the other actors rotate around him, Jonathan Keane maintains a steady, quiet presence throughout as Jimmy. He spends most of Act 1 listening to other people’s problems, taking care of them, and establishing himself firmly in our minds as a good guy – a guy who gets people home safe and lends an ear to those who need it. But there’s just enough of an edge to the character, and Jimmy’s conversations reveal sufficient snippets of information, to allow us to hazard a guess at what’s coming – even before he meets Claire, played by Anna Doolan with a poignant mix of anger, hurt and lingering affection. Their encounter sizzles with a gripping emotional intensity, before coming to a rather abrupt end that leaves us with many unanswered questions about the story we’ve just heard.

Despite this minor frustration, however, Bluebird successfully hits the emotional mark with its portrayal of a couple taking their first tentative steps towards some kind of reconciliation, and a man navigating his own unique and bumpy road to redemption. A moving study of grief and guilt, imaginatively staged and set in a London we can all recognise, this revival is well worth a visit.

Bluebird is at The Space until 4th August.


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Review: Citizen at The Space

Just a few days after another British-Iranian citizen – Abbas Edalat, a professor of computer science and mathematics at Imperial College in London – was arrested on spying charges in Tehran, Suitcase Civilians’ show Citizen strikes very close to home. Simultaneously a celebration of the country’s proud culture and a condemnation of its political repression, the show brings together a collection of news and personal stories that explore what citizenship really means, and invites us to ponder why the simple question “Where are you from?” is increasingly fraught with complications and potential dangers.

Alongside well-known news stories like that of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian project manager detained in 2016 while on a family visit with her 22-month-old daughter, writer and director Sepy Baghaei also includes deeply personal anecdotes like that of a family forced to flee their country at a moment’s notice, and a young man who avoided death by seconds when his office building was hit by a bomb – but whose friends weren’t so lucky.

Nor is the focus only on Iran’s controversial treatment of its citizens; one of the first stories we hear is that of Behrouz Boochani, an Iranian refugee detained on Manus Island since 2013, because he attempted to reach Australia by sea. And let’s not forget Donald Trump’s travel ban, preventing citizens of seven nations – including Iran – to enter the USA, the byproduct of which has been countless people living in the States who are too afraid to travel home to see their families, in case they can’t get back.

There are lighter moments too, however. In one scene a filmmaker narrates a social interaction between two women, describing in hushed tones the unique customs on display, and in another two of the actors talk us cheerfully through “how to make an Iranian”, before handing out tea and dates to the audience.

Such a varied show – which also features music and poetry – presents a demanding task for its cast, but the actors rise to the occasion admirably, moving seamlessly from one persona and accent to another. David Djemal is particularly moving in an emotional portrayal of Behrouz Boochani as he describes the trauma of his detention on Manus Island, and Nalân Burgess stands out as a young woman who reminisces about growing up in Britain whilst trying to remain connected to her Iranian heritage.

Ending on a quietly reflective note that looks ahead to an uncertain future, Citizen is a thought-provoking piece of theatre that doesn’t hold back with regard to the ongoing political issues in Iran. That said, the picture it paints is far from simplistic; unlike those politicians quoted in the show, Beghaei and Suitcase Civilians recognise that the country you come from – while it may have a profound impact on how you live your life – doesn’t necessarily define who you are. The show focuses on Iran as an example, and is a fascinating insight into a culture that many Londoners will know little about, but its message is far broader, and feels uncomfortably relevant in a society that continues to make sweeping judgments about other human beings based on race and nationality.

Citizen is at The Space until 5th May.


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Review: The Sleeper at The Space

Over the last few years, images of refugees fleeing their homes in search of safety in Europe have become such a common sight in our newspapers and on our TV screens that they’ve begun to lose a little of the powerful impact they once had. The Sleeper – or What Happens When You Ask Them to Leave?, inspired by the personal experience of writer and director Henry C. Krempels, restores that immediacy by bringing the refugee crisis out of the papers (despite, ironically, having begun as a journalistic piece) and into the here and now – or more specifically, into British writer Karina’s bed on an overnight train through Europe.

Returning from the bathroom, she finds a young woman hiding in her bunk and unthinkingly goes in search of the train manager to complain. When the woman is revealed to be a Syrian refugee, Karina insists she wants to help; but despite returning to the beginning and replaying the situation in a variety of slightly different ways, there seems to be no obvious solution to the chain of events set in motion by her instinctive reaction.

It’s at this point that things get both interesting and a little uncomfortable, as Amena – who up to now has remained largely silent – steps up to have her say. Amused and bemused by the well-meaning but misguided notion that “a play can solve the refugee crisis”, she’s no longer content to sit by while the two white people try and solve her problem; nor does she need someone else to tell her story for her, however well researched and factually accurate that account might be. This is the play’s pivotal moment, and it jolts both actors and audience out of our complacency, dramatically altering our perception of Amena and our response to her situation.

The experimental piece is performed by a cast of three, with Sarah Agha’s Amena – perhaps not surprisingly – emerging as the strongest personality. Proud, independent and not afraid to stand up for herself, she doesn’t fit the mould of the timid, grateful refugee stereotype, and the play is all the richer for it. That said, the characters of Karina and train manager Georges – played by Michelle Fahrenheim and Joshua Jacob – are equally interesting; both are bound by their own sense of duty to an unwritten code, which means that despite the best intentions, their ability to help is limited to their own narrow frame of reference. It’s only when those restrictive codes are discarded, resulting in a lengthy sequence that builds little by little towards the play’s striking final image, that another possible way forward emerges.

At first glance, this conclusion seems to imply the play is doing exactly what it said it wouldn’t: trying to solve the refugee crisis. But on reflection, it’s not so much suggesting what we should do in this one incredibly specific situation as inviting us to take a step back to view the big picture in a different way, and challenging the sense of privilege that colours our assumptions every time those familiar images appear on our TV screens. And by addressing this lesson as much – perhaps even more – to its own cast as to the audience, the play successfully makes its point without feeling like it’s preaching. Unusual and thought-provoking, The Sleeper is an interesting hour of theatre that may not give us answers, but does leave us with plenty to think about.

The Sleeper is at The Space until 14th April.


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Interview: Henry C Krempels, The Sleeper

“I think the crux of the immigration crisis can be reduced to a simple question. Do we claim what’s rightfully ours – that word throws up another entire question, I admit – or do we share it? When I had this experience, I was struck by two things: the first was that this crisis wasn’t happening elsewhere, it was here, right in front of me, and the second was how this whole thing boiled down to my reaction at the time. What was I going to do in the heat of the moment?”

Anima Theatre Company’s The Sleeper brings together true accounts from Syrian refugees and the very personal experience of artistic director Henry C Krempels, was longlisted for the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award, and described in The Scotsman as “an exceptional piece of theatre-making”. The company are now preparing to bring the play to London, opening at The Space on 3rd April.

“The Sleeper is set on an overnight train somewhere through Europe,” explains Henry. “Karina, a British writer, naively reports a refugee hiding in her bunk. I think first and foremost, the play tells a story familiar to thousands of refugees over the past few years who have become stuck between leaving home and finding a new one.

“It’s all based on an experience I had on an overnight train from Milan to Paris. I came back to my cabin at about 2 in the morning and found a woman hiding in my bed. I then wrote this play, based entirely on that moment, and weaved together the real testimony of Syrian refugees, which I collected over a number of months, and my own personal experience which was commissioned by Vice Magazine at the height of the immigration crisis.”

Because the play began life as a piece of journalism, Henry had plenty of research to work from. “I had interviews and transcriptions, photographs, my own notes and conversations with people and charities including Refugee Action, who were based at Milan Central Station at the time – they were operating out of the mezzanine, which has now become a plush restaurant,” he recalls. “After collating all my research and getting a first draft we workshopped the central ideas, did a couple of scratch nights, then I went away and wrote something more complete.

“We have also done workshops as part of Arcola LAB, with refugees and migrants. We’ve allowed them to critique our play, insert their voices and opinions and talk, if they wanted, about their own experience of travelling through Europe. This was a particularly rewarding part of the process. These people are so much more than the traumas they’ve endured. ‘Inspiring’ doesn’t cover the half of it.”

Alongside the play, the company are producing a number of events. “Two main things: we are running workshops as part of the production, based around authenticity on stage. The central question is once a story is told, who does that story belong to and how can you get to the truth of a story? I guess, also, what even is truth on stage?

“We’ve also set up a ‘Refugee Fund’. The idea here is for theatre-goers and others to donate to the fund in order to help pay for the tickets, travel and workshop expenses of 100 refugees over the run. We all feel that this play is, in many ways, by, for and about refugees and asylum seekers and we have to do everything we can to make it as easy as possible for them to see it. Money is the major obstacle in this case.”

Anima’s primary goal is “to get new people, new audiences into theatre. Theatre has lost its place in society, I think. And that kind of collective experience should be integral. As integral as TV and Twitter. We want to make things that push it back into that direction. Inexpensive, entertaining, intellectually stimulating and, I guess, most of all, totally relevant.

“The company grew out of this idea of making theatre that was inclusive and collaborative. My background in journalism has influenced not only the way I write – research, research, research – but also the stories I want to tell. I am endlessly fascinated by the faltering line between fact and fiction, particularly in the context of theatre. The idea of showing something truthful extends beyond fact and fiction in theatre, even beyond the emotion of a scene. We’re always looking for truth and I want to push whatever that means as far as it can go.”

Book now for The Sleeper at The Space from 3rd-14th April.

Review: The Castle at The Space

In Howard Barker’s rarely performed 1985 play The Castle, Stucley and his men return home from the Crusades to find the women have taken over and established their own tribal regime. Far from the hero’s welcome he was expecting, Stucley is horrified to discover his own wife in a relationship with a witch, and with no interest to returning to his bed – or giving him a child, despite having become famous in his absence for her abundant fertility.

Rather than try and work things out, Stucley decides to build a castle designed by Arab “genius” architect Krak, who’s returned home with him from the Holy Land. As construction gets underway, Stucley grows increasingly obsessed with making his castle bigger and more impressive than anybody else’s – but his plan to win back control ultimately only creates more chaos.

Photo credit: Ellamae Cieslik

It’s quite a strange play in many ways: a lot happens, not all of it very easy to understand and much of it entirely unexpected; it delves into everything from religion to gender politics; and though overwhelmingly dark in tone, there are several moments of surreal humour (at one point Stucley attempts to found a new church, anointing his chosen priest by putting a toolbag on his head in lieu of a hat; at another the witch Skinner, having confessed to murdering the castle’s chief builder, is sentenced to carry his corpse around wherever she goes, only to end up getting rather too attached). The language is also an odd blend of semi-classical and modern, which takes a good few minutes to get used to, particularly as the dialogue is very fast-moving from the start.

Having said all that, Adam Hemming’s new production at The Space is excellent and incredibly atmospheric, with a set from Jo Jones that makes great use of the converted church building to create a show that feels epic in scale. Andy Straw’s lighting design recreates the gloom of rainy middle England, giving us at times only just enough light to see what’s going on, while sound effects from Keri Chesser fill in – on one occasion in rather distressing detail – events unfolding off stage.

The cast of ten give passionate performances, particularly Anthony Cozens as Stucley and Kate Tulloch as Skinner, each driven to the brink of madness by their desire to win. Chris Kyriacou’s Krak looks quietly – and comically – dismayed at first by the chaos he’s stumbled into, but ultimately reveals his own hidden demons, and the same goes for Shelley Davenport’s Ann, whose firm resolve as the play opens soon begins to fall away.

Photo credit: Ellamae Cieslik

With all these strong personalities fighting for supremacy, the play does get a bit shouty (not to mention sweary) at times – but there’s welcome light relief from the likes of Holiday (Matthew Lyon), who’s spent so much time constructing tall buildings he can’t stop looking up and who, ironically, is petrified of heights, and Hush (John Sears), an old man who’s been making himself useful over the last seven years by obligingly getting all the women pregnant.

Despite the quality of the production, I’m not sure enjoyable is the right word for The Castle – which would probably quite please its writer, who in 2012 was quoted as saying, “A good play puts the audience through a certain ordeal. I’m not interested in entertainment.” All in all, this is the kind of play that leaves you feeling a bit bewildered and more than a little uncomfortable. Those who like to come away from the theatre understanding everything that just happened might want to steer clear; Barker doesn’t give us any easy answers, instead leaving it to the individual to interpret what we’ve seen in our own way. On the other hand, if you enjoy watching committed, compelling performances in a play that’s dramatic and darkly humorous, and which provides more than enough food for thought to keep you going for a good long while, this might just be the show for you.


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