Review: Little Women at The Space

The story of me trying to see Little Women at the Space over the last few weeks has become almost as epic as Louisa May Alcott’s novel, which is why this review comes so late in the run (the final performance is tonight). After a first cancellation by me and a second by the theatre after a cast member was taken ill an hour into the show, I was determined to make it back and see the play all the way through – and I’m really glad I did.

Updated and moved to London, Rachael Claye’s adaptation of the classic novel makes the story accessible to a whole new audience, while still remaining true – with one significant exception, which is explained in the programme – to Alcott’s central plot. This follows the March sisters, Meg (Isabel Crowe), Jo (Amy Gough), Beth (Miranda Horn) and Amy (Stephanie Dickson), four very different personalities who each have a clear role within the family home, but have yet to figure out where they belong in the world. Over the course of the evening, we see them take their first steps over the threshold between childhood and adulthood, experiencing all the opportunities and pitfalls that life has to offer, but never leaving behind the strong family ties that hold them all together.

Photo credit: Matthew Thomas

This family feel extends to the audience, who are so drawn in by the drama and relationships that when something very, very bad happens in Act 2 (anyone who’s read the book will know what I mean) we feel it almost as keenly as the characters. The production achieves this connection with admirable efficiency; the opening scene, which sees the sisters preparing for Christmas, very quickly establishes their different personalities, and director Sepy Baghaei begins both acts with cast members already on stage, chatting and interacting – a simple but very clever way of making us feel we’ve stepped into a world that already exists, even when there’s nobody there to see it.

The production is made even more compelling by the strength of the performances. Each of the four sisters embraces her unique character – Isabel Crowe as Meg, who’s so busy being everything to everyone she’s forgotten who she is; Amy Gough as Jo: witty, creative but with a fiery temper that often gets her into trouble; Stephanie Dickson as spoilt Amy, who as the youngest always expects to get what she wants; and Miranda Horn, who easily captures our hearts as sweet, shy Beth, with a fragility that just makes you want to take care of her. At this particular performance, the girls’ devoted and hard-working mother Ma was played by Rachael Claye (understudying original cast member Victoria Jeffrey) – and in a way, this felt appropriate; the play is, after all, her baby and her emotional connection to both story and characters was clear to see.

This is a story about women, and so it’s only right that the depth of emotion in the production should come from the female characters. There are some men in the play though, and they’re brilliant, providing some much-needed humour to lighten the mood. Sean Stevenson is charmingly mischievous (and a great musician) as next door neighbour Laurie, Joshua Stretton brings an endearing awkwardness to the role of Laurie’s tutor John Brooke, and in a late appearance, Jonathan Hawkins almost steals the show as the eccentric Professor Bhaer.

Photo credit: Matthew Thomas

The updating to 21st century London also works surprisingly well; there’s a freshness to the adaptation that makes it feel like a whole new story, but it’s still recognisably Little Women, and if you know the story there’s that reassuring comfort/dread of knowing more or less what’s going to happen next (if you don’t, prepare yourself for some twists and turns). Some creative licence has been taken with plot details, but the Marches’ contrasting personalities and their turbulent but loving relationship are retained; it turns out sisters will always squabble, whether they’re in 19th century Massachusetts or 21st century Crouch End. Who knew?

In the programme, Rachael Claye comments that “writing eight characters’ storylines over two acts” was one of the challenges she faced in adapting the play. There is undoubtedly a lot to cover (although the opening to Act 2 fills us in on the intervening years with the same efficiency we saw at the start of the play) and the show’s running time comes in at just under three hours. That said, everything about this production is so compelling that the time really does fly; it’s a lovely piece of storytelling, and I only wish I had more time to recommend it.

Little Women concludes at The Space on 15th September (I understand tonight’s final performance is sold out but with a waiting list; you may get lucky!)


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Review: The Full Brontë at The Space

The life and works of the Brontës have been the traffic of many a stage over the years – but I suspect never quite like this. Scary Little Girls’ two-hander “literary cabaret” The Full Brontë is a joyously chaotic homage to the famous writing family, which features song, dance, storytelling, Kate Bush, Black Lace, a “ukelady”, quite a bit of audience participation and several packets of crisps.

The show is hosted by “actor-manager” Maria (Rebecca Mordan) and her amiable, much put-upon assistant Brannie (Sharon Andrew), who does everything else – music, props, wardrobe, stage management… you get the idea. It quickly transpires that what was supposed to be a celebration of the Brontës is in reality intended as a celebration of Maria’s great artistic talent – or at least it would be if Brannie didn’t keep stealing all the best lines and showing her boss up with a more in-depth knowledge of the Brontë family history. Somewhat predictably, though Maria casts herself as the star, Brannie quietly – and quickly – wins us over, so it’s no surprise that in any moment of conflict between the two, the audience always sides with her.

It’s also no particular surprise that despite the title, there’s not actually much about the Brontës in the show. References to their novels and poetry are sketchy at best, often straying on to other topics including (of course) a couple of awkwardly shoehorned jokes about Brexit and Trump. Even the extended scenes based on the Brontës’ two best-known novels – Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights – reveal far more about the tense partnership between Maria and Brannie than they do about the literary works that inspired them.

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however (although anyone going along to actually try and learn something about the Brontës might disagree), and the comedic talents of Rebecca Mordan and Sharon Andrew more than compensate for the show’s lack of literary substance. Both audience and actors are kept on our toes by the threat/promise that most of us will be “used” at some point during the evening, and it’s often these improvised exchanges with audience members – when neither party quite knows what might happen next – that get the biggest laughs.

The Full Brontë is without doubt a very silly, chaotic 80 minutes, during which you’ll learn next to nothing about the Brontës (except that they may or may not have been Cornish…?) and may well come out a bit more confused and considerably more flustered than when you went in. But even so, it’s hard not to be charmed by this thoroughly entertaining comedy duo, and for an evening of good-natured fun, the show is well worth a visit.

The Full Brontë is at The Space until 3rd November.


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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 Рwhich also features music and poetry Рpresents 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 Nal̢n 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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