Review: The Open at The Space

2050. Brexit is (finally) done. The environment is (predictably) a mess. And Britain’s been sold and turned into a giant golf course owned and run by “The Organisation” – a.k.a. Donald Trump, who at 100 years old may or may not still be alive, and who’s taken on such God/Voldemort-like status that nobody even says his name out loud any more. The Great British Golf Course promises citizens, or at least the ones born in Britain, the opportunity to “live, work, thrive” – but three friends are about to discover what really goes on behind closed doors…

Photo credit: Kit Dambite

As with any dystopian drama, the central idea of Florence Bell’s The Open – the GBGC itself – sounds far-fetched, but the foundations on which it’s built aren’t all that implausible: a future in which money continues to be the source of power, social status is dictated purely by nationality, and any resistance is dismissed as “fake news” or simply made to disappear. Arthur (Priyank Morjaria) has bought into the dream 100%, particularly after bumping into one of the GBGC’s chief architects, Bella (Emma Austin). Such is his devotion to his employer that he’s even willing to consider betraying his closest friends, Estonian immigrant Jana (Heidi Niemi) and her boyfriend Patrick (Tom Blake), when they dare to question everything he thinks he knows.

Through the play’s four characters, we meet the full range of people who make up the GBGC community – and they’re all recognisable figures to a 2019 audience. Emma Austin’s Bella is self-involved, manipulative and absolutely lacking in remorse. At the other end of the scale, Heidi Niemi steps into the role of hero as straight-talking Jana, who’s willing to risk everything in defence of what’s right. She’s come back for Tom Blake’s innocent, almost childlike Patrick, who has his doubts – and certainly shows little loyalty to The Organisation – but would quite cheerfully continue to do and say nothing without his girlfriend there to push him into action. And then there’s Priyank Morjaria as Arthur, the embodiment of a good man turned bad by a combination of fear, promises and false information.

It’s a clever and intriguing premise, and executed well by a strong cast, so it’s surprising that The Open never completely takes flight; the ingredients are all there, but the play as a whole lacks balance. A complicated plot and back story mean that Act 1 has to spend a lot of time explaining how we got here, often through slightly circular conversations between the characters. The pace of the show starts to lag as a result, and even then it feels like there’s a lot we still haven’t quite pieced together. All the action then happens rather suddenly in Act 2, which feels rushed by comparison and, oddly, raises more laughs than Act 1, even though it’s only after the interval that the true horror of the GBGC is revealed.

Photo credit: Kit Dambite

Looking at the current state of the world, it’s not hard to imagine a situation like the one in The Open – the play essentially takes characters and attitudes that already exist and puts them into an extreme scenario to see what they’ll do. This has the potential to work really well, but the pace and structure of the unfolding drama needs some work in order for the play to fully capture the audience’s imagination.

The Open is at The Space until 12th October.

Review: The Jailer’s Daughter at The Space

You could be forgiven for not realising that The Jailer’s Daughter is based on a Shakespeare creation (or rather co-creation, in collaboration with John Fletcher), which was itself based on Chaucer. It’s not just that the title’s different, or that The Two Noble Kinsmen is less well-known than many of Shakespeare’s other works. No, the main reason you wouldn’t immediately make the connection is that this reality TV-inspired play is about as far from the early 17th century as you can get.

Photo credit: Holly Matthams

In the original, the jailer’s daughter is a lovesick teenager victimised by every male figure in her life and ultimately driven mad by her unrequited desire for an indifferent prince. Not so in Esther Joy Mackay’s reimagined version, where Julia (Grace Hussey-Burd) is one of the few characters who’s actually seeing clearly. Unfortunately her father – The Jailer (Josh Sissons), a Big Brother-esque reality TV boss – has other ideas, especially after she causes a scene in the production room by protesting his show’s moral and ethical shortcomings. Before she knows it, Julia’s in the “lockup” herself, alongside various D-list celebrities, all of them serving time on the show as punishment for crimes committed on the outside. And then there’s Palamon (Rory Gradon), the jewel in the Jailer’s crown – quite literally as it turns out, because he happens to be an actual real-life prince. Naturally, the nation wants a love story… and one way or another, the Jailer is going to make sure they get it.

In a clever twist, Mackay gives the audience a degree of control over how the story unfolds, by setting up a series of votes throughout the show. These are conducted via voting pads handed out at the start of the evening, which add a fun, unpredictable element to the story – even though the questions posed, with one possible exception, never feel like real game-changers. Given the nature of some of the challenges and punishments we’ve seen and heard being handed out (electric shocks, solitary confinement, being made to eat raw chicken or drink all the booze in the house), I was expecting to be faced with tougher choices and to feel more complicit in the characters’ fates. But perhaps that’s just me – and the fact is the reality TV angle does work very well; anyone who’s ever enjoyed, however guiltily, watching Big Brother, Love Island or I’m a Celebrity will spot plenty of references to geek out over.

Under Sarah Fox’s polished direction, the cast slip effortlessly between playing captors and captives (though there are a few moments during the chaotic group scenes when the traverse staging makes it difficult to catch all of the dialogue). It’s no surprise that the two lead male roles, Palamon – the one who’s actually lovesick – and William (Saem Ahmed) the show’s in-house doctor, have been written as blandly boring nice guys, in contrast to Julia’s fiery determination to bring her dad’s entire project crashing to the ground, come what may. Grace Hussey-Burd is a force of nature as the newly reclaimed jailer’s daughter, making it clear from the start that she has a mind of her own and she’s not afraid to use it. And it’s a pity we don’t get to see more of Rachel Wilkes’ brusquely sympathetic Cleo, a former athlete with her own reasons for objecting to the show’s policy of forcing contestants into couples.

Photo credit: Holly Matthams

The Jailer’s Daughter is based on a great idea, and certainly succeeds in its aim of bringing the nameless teenager of Shakespeare and Fletcher’s play into the light and giving her her own story and identity. From a technological point of view, too, the production is brilliantly executed – lighting, sound and the masterstroke of the voting pads all combine to create a true multimedia experience for the audience. For me, the delivery of the final climactic scene lacked a little bit of drama, but the plot twist is really well written and does genuinely catch you off guard (though who knows, it could be totally different next time). A topical and entertaining take on a 400-year-old play, this is a production that both reality TV fans and cynics alike will enjoy – and then probably debate fiercely all the way home.

The Jailer’s Daughter is at The Space until 24th August.

Review: Four O’Clock Flowers at The Space

There could be few more topical subjects for a play in London just now than knife crime, an issue that’s been dominating the headlines more and more in recent months. In Louise Breckon-Richards’ Four O’Clock Flowers, we don’t see the crime itself – instead the play’s focus is very much on the aftermath and those left behind. Two mothers thrown together in the worst possible circumstances find unlikely solace in their encounter, as each struggles to come to terms with her own grief and guilt.

Unlike some other plays on this topic, Four O’Clock Flowers doesn’t approach the subject matter with a strongly political agenda. There’s no explicit commentary on the issue of race, for instance; no mention of police cuts, and only one brief reference to gang culture. What it does do very well, however, is to expose the tragic waste of not one but two young lives, and to tackle the preconception that anyone who commits such a crime must be an inherently bad person. It’s obvious that neither mother saw the tragedy coming, and even for the audience – who meet one of the boys very briefly in the play’s opening and closing scenes – it’s hard to understand how this considerate, level-headed young man could have ended up where he is.

There’s no doubt that the play does make you think about the impact and the underlying causes of knife crime, and that it challenges one or two automatic assumptions that tend to accompany any discussion on the subject – but much more than that, it makes you feel. The fragile connection between Maya and Anna is very poignantly played out by Sophie Cartman and Caroline Trowbridge, each of them revealing their vulnerability and pain, but also their strength, at different moments. Leon Finnan also impresses as teenager Joshua, who only appears in two scenes but in between is a constant presence on and around the stage, a haunting reminder to both women of what could have been.

The story takes place over 24 hours, following Maya’s vigil for her son at the spot where he died. The action moves at a steady pace for the majority of the 70-minute running time, but then comes to a rather abrupt end after skipping from 7am to 4pm. The final image of the two women standing together is nonetheless very striking, and the scene that follows certainly packs an emotional punch. There’s also a lovely moment early on in Kesia Guillery’s production where audience members are invited to lay flowers at the shrine that sits at centre stage. One small complaint from the third row: there are important details that are referred to in the script, but very easily missed by audience members without a clear sightline, due to their being very low down or even on the floor.

Knife crime is a hugely complex and distressing subject, and Four O’Clock Flowers doesn’t set out to offer solutions, but it does paint a very insightful and moving picture of the devastation this violence can leave behind.  Sensitively written and poignantly performed, this debut play brings The Space’s annual Foreword Festival to a powerful conclusion.

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Review: The Wasp at The Space

There’s a fascinating but rather horrible nature fact at the heart of Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s 2015 play The Wasp. It concerns the tarantula hawk wasp, which is by all accounts exactly as unpleasant as it sounds. I won’t go into the full gory details – if you want to know more, go and see the play – but essentially the baby tarantula hawk wasp grows up inside the abdomen of a tarantula, eating it from the inside out and only emerging when fully grown. Oh, and apparently it’s got one of the most painful stings on the planet – because it didn’t sound bad enough already.

The Wasp at The Space
Photo credit: Robert Bettelheim

Thankfully there are no actual wasps or tarantulas in the play (though it seems only fair to those who hate both even more than I do to mention the ones on the wall – which, depending where you sit, are clearly visible throughout). It does, however, feature an equally gripping power struggle between its two characters. The question is: which of them is the wasp, and which the spider?

Heather (Lucy Pickles) and Carla (Rea Mole) haven’t seen each other since school – and there’s a very good reason for that. But then Heather gets in touch out of the blue with a proposition that unhappily married mum of many Carla can’t refuse. She thinks she knows what she’s getting herself into, but with twenty years of bitterness and disappointment between the two women, their reunion is about to take a very dark turn.

The plot feels at times a bit farfetched, but The Wasp’s sting lies not so much in what happens as why. Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, the writer of current West End hit Emilia, obviously knows how to write good female characters – and these two are no exception. We get enough information up front to assume we understand Heather and Carla’s current situations and their history, but as the story gets filled in a little at a time, we realise we’ve barely scratched the surface of what happened between them all those years ago, or the lasting impact it’s had. And while we may not all have gone through the kind of trauma that’s described in vivid, shocking detail in this play, anyone who went to school with other teenage girls can identify on some level with the characters’ experience and emotions, both then and now. (Personally I found that Carla reminded me so much of a girl in my class at school that it was actually a bit disconcerting.)

Presented by The Undisposables and directed by Sarah Fox, the play is set predominantly in Heather’s tastefully middle-class living room; the only hint of the nastiness to come can be found in the aforementioned framed bugs on the wall. As the balance of power shifts back and forth, the twists start to come so thick and fast that eventually we don’t even know who to believe, let alone whose side we should be on. This allows Lucy Pickles and Rea Mole to successfully explore different aspects of their characters; while each starts out as little more than a stereotype based on her social status, by the end of the play the two women have proven themselves to be not only much more complex but also far closer – in every sense – than anyone could have anticipated.

The Wasp at The Space
Photo credit: Robert Bettelheim

Much like the creature for which it’s named, The Wasp is not a nice play. The story delves into themes of mental illness, domestic abuse and sexual assault, and explores the ways in which human beings perpetuate cycles of violence by passing our own hurt on to others. But it’s also not without an element of hope; for all their differences, the two women do at certain moments reach a kind of understanding, and the whole play hinges on the fact that it is possible to choose kindness over violence. Above all, though, The Wasp is a gripping and suspenseful psychological thriller – so if you enjoy a good twist and a surprise ending, this is definitely the play for you.

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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.

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