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.

Four O’Clock Flowers is at The Space until 1st June.

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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.

The Wasp is at The Space until 27th April.

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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.

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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