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.


Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

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.


Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Review: A Womb of One’s Own at The Space

Apparently 1 in 3 women in the UK will have an abortion at some point in their life. I had no idea of this statistic, largely because it’s not a subject many people like to talk about. Especially if, like Baby Girl – the central character in A Womb of One’s Own – they’re the product of a strict Catholic upbringing, have no mother or close friends to turn to, and just accidentally got pregnant in their first week at uni.

Photo credit: Olivia Early

Inspired by writer and performer Claire Rammelkamp’s own experience, A Womb of One’s Own tells Baby Girl’s story as she heads off to university, ostensibly to become an “independent woman”, in reality because she wants to have lots of sex without her elderly relatives (or God) watching her every move. Baby Girl’s experiences as she revels in her new freedom are hilariously disaster-strewn, but also everyday enough that pretty much anyone in the room will be able to nod at least once and say, “Yep, that happened to me once.” (Even if it’s just having a huge crush on Idris Elba, because – well, who doesn’t?) Consequently, we’re already totally invested in Baby Girl and her story long before we get to the serious part of the evening.

Which is important, as it turns out – because the primary focus of this play isn’t a political or ethical debate about the pros and cons of abortion; though these are briefly touched on, Baby Girl is never in any doubt that at this point in her life, ending the unwanted pregnancy is absolutely the right decision. Instead, the show’s aim is to explore what it’s like, having made up your mind to have an abortion, to then go through that difficult experience, particularly if you don’t have anyone around to offer support. The agonising three-week wait between initial assessment and the actual clinic date; the temptation to do internet research into the baby’s development; and the physical and emotional impact of the procedure itself, are all explored sensitively by Danica Corns, Carla Garratt, Larissa Pinkham and writer Claire Rammelkamp. In a seamless ensemble performance directed by Holly Bond, each of the four plays a different aspect of Baby Girl’s personality, as well as enthusiastically bringing to life the various larger than life characters she encounters along the way.

Photo credit: Olivia Early

It’s an interesting decision to tackle such a sensitive subject with humour, but the show knows its limits, and approaches the second part of the story with appropriate sobriety – the aim at this point to educate more than entertain. And it’s obvious from the comprehensive support and information in the show’s programme, described in its introductory notes as a “zine”, that the ladies of newly-formed all-female collective Wonderbox have a bigger goal in mind than simply making us laugh.

Though not always an easy watch, A Womb of One’s Own is an honest, courageous and entertaining attempt to break down the walls of silence preventing people from openly discussing what it’s like to have an abortion. By sharing her experience, Claire Rammelkamp helps many of us understand a subject we may previously have given little thought to, while at the same time letting other women who’ve been through a similar experience know they’re not alone, and that it’s okay – and perhaps even helpful – to talk about it.


Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Interview: Claire Rammelkamp and Danica Corns, A Womb of One’s Own

The founding members of emerging all-female theatre company Wonderbox – who include Danica Corns, Carla Garratt, Claire Rammelkamp, Holly Bond, Larissa Pinkham and Olivia Early – met as members of the National Youth Theatre. “We got so comfortable with each other that we started oversharing about sex, periods, emotions, mental health, politics, relationships, wanking… the list goes on,” admits Claire. “So we decided to carry on doing that as a theatre company, and turn it into art. We want to explode taboos and share unheard stories with some filthy, fabulous feminism.”

They’re turning their attention first to the issue of abortion in their debut production A Womb of One’s Own, which runs at The Space from 15th-19th August.  “The play follows the story of Babygirl, an eighteen-year-old fresher who was raised Catholic by two strict elderly women and ends up getting pregnant the first time she has sex,” says Claire, who wrote and performs in the play, as she and fellow cast members Danica, Larissa and Carla bring Babygirl to life, revealing different aspects of her personality and an absurd cast of characters. “It starts off as a coming of age comedy; she’s learning how to flirt and get drunk, she’s exploring her sexuality, she’s trying not to embarrass herself on a date. Then all of a sudden she’s facing much bigger challenges.”

A Womb of One’s Own was inspired by Claire’s own personal experience: “I had an abortion at university, and I had no idea how to handle it because no one had ever spoken to me about abortions. Fortunately, I have a very supportive Mum and friends. Babygirl doesn’t have a mother, and she’s only been at uni a few weeks, so the play explores what it would be like to go through an abortion feeling totally alone.”

One of Wonderbox’s aims is to break the taboos surrounding abortion and get people talking about what’s traditionally been a difficult subject. “We’re still oddly hung up on old-fashioned notions of propriety when it comes to discussing abortion,” says Claire. “It used to be the same for divorce and homosexuality. Even periods. One in three women in the UK will have an abortion at some point, and yet people are largely silent about it. If we all spoke about it more then women wouldn’t feel scared or ashamed. We’ve still got a lot of education work to do to give women control over their own bodies and we need to make sure we don’t go backwards – like with Trump’s abortion gag order.”

Despite the heavy topic, Claire and her co-founders are quick to point out that the show is at times irreverent and laugh-out-loud funny: “I’m a firm believer in laughing at essentially everything, especially myself. We didn’t want to be didactic – an audience will pay much more attention to a comedy full of sex jokes than a lecture. It also helps to humanise a character; once the audience have shared a joke with Babygirl they’ll have more empathy when she starts having a hard time.”

And it seems to be working; they’ve been thrilled with early responses to the show, which include an endorsement in February from actor Paul McGann. “Our first performance was to a bunch of queer, feminist, theatre-lovers, so we were really preaching to the choir,” says Claire. “But then our second audience had middle-aged people, older people, Tories, and a vicar. The vicar was especially fond of it.”

Of course, starting a theatre company isn’t always easy, and co-founder Danica has no hesitation in identifying their biggest challenge: “Money! We’re a young, unfunded theatre company so this is of course the first and biggest obstacle we are having to overcome – but we are getting creative with how we do this. Finding rehearsal space free of charge has been and remains one of the biggest challenges we face, and so far we have been getting round this by using gardens, living rooms and empty classrooms at our universities/previous places of study. We even once did a voice warm-up on Clapham Common. Social media has also been a great alternative to a website for us in the first instance to help build our online presence while funding is scarce.

“Around 90% of the work we put into the company and the show is not in the rehearsal room,” she adds. “We’ve all had to turn our hands to other things and use our skills and knowledge effectively and efficiently. We’re lucky enough to have a photographer, a designer, a marketer and members with lighting technician knowledge within our company, so we haven’t had to hire anyone in yet – which would come with a cost. However, while we’re all working hard on this to get things off the ground, we have found it difficult balancing being creative and making the art with the admin and running the business side of the company – it’s a bit of a juggling act at the moment, and we’re still figuring this out. One of the things we are finding so important is timetabling separate rehearsals for creativity and meetings about important business stuff.”

Claire’s hoping that the show will speak to everyone, whether or not they have personal experience with abortion: “I hope if they’ve had an abortion, they’ll feel a sense of community, and that anyone who needs an abortion in future won’t feel so alone. I hope it encourages people to share their own experiences, and I hope it will make other people more understanding. I also hope everyone will wet themselves laughing.”

A Womb of One’s Own is at The Space from 15th-19th August.