Review: Bare: A Pop Opera at The Vaults

A couple of weeks after a priest in the USA tweeted that “Catholics should not support or attend LGBTQ ‘Pride Month’ events held in June”, Bare: A Pop Opera – the story of two teenage boys at a Catholic boarding school who are forced to keep their love a secret – feels depressingly topical. Damon Intrabartolo and Jon Hartmere’s show premiered in California nearly two decades ago, but there’s nothing historic about the issues it tackles, as is emotionally demonstrated in the powerful finale of this new London production at The Vaults.

Photo credit: Tom Grace

Set against the backdrop of a school production of Romeo and Juliet, Bare‘s own star-crossed lovers are Peter (Daniel Mack Shand) and Jason (Darragh Cowley), who know all too well the dangers of making their relationship public. While Peter tries to come out to his mum (Jo Napthine), Jason allows himself to be drawn into an ill-fated liaison with Ivy (Lizzie Emery) – with inevitably tragic consequences. Meanwhile, as the seniors prepare to graduate, Jason’s twin sister Nadia (Georgie Lovatt) and classmate Matt (Tom Hier) each deal in their own way with living in the golden boy’s shadow.

The show tackles several important issues, and on the whole does so pretty well, though the storyline feels at times a bit predictable. Intrabartolo’s rock score, performed by Alasdair Brown’s band from the balcony at one end of the theatre, is not instantly memorable but still exciting enough to hold our attention, and there are several highlights among the extensive list of musical numbers; it has the feel of a soundtrack that would really grow on you after a few repeat listens. Though the cast is universally solid, it’s the female vocalists who really stand out, especially Georgie Lovatt (in a sensational professional debut), Lizzie Emery and – not altogether surprisingly – X Factor USA finalist Stacy Francis as the delightfully exasperated Sister Chantelle.

Julie Atherton’s production gets a lot of things right, and showcases some considerable talent among its young cast. Unfortunately, though, the staging at The Vaults feels badly thought through, and results in an audience experience that isn’t nearly as enjoyable or comfortable as the show and its hardworking cast deserve. A very long, narrow stage and poor venue acoustics mean that frequently lyrics and dialogue go unheard by half the audience because the actor’s so far away, and with the stage raised at eye level, parts of the action get completely hidden from view by whatever’s happening in the foreground. In addition, there’s a thrust stage out into the auditorium that means part of the audience must watch a lot of the action over their shoulder – including the big finale, which takes place towards the back of the room – and run the risk of being dazzled by spotlights at fairly regular intervals.

Photo credit: Tom Grace

It’s a pity that we don’t get to see everything that happens, because what we do see is visually very striking. At the rear of Libby Watson’s otherwise functional set, forbidding religious art looks down on the teenagers, while at the other end stands a single tree covered in glorious autumnal foliage, the significance of which only becomes clear in the show’s emotional closing moments. Andrew Ellis’ lighting design brings extra vibrancy to certain key scenes, particularly when coupled with Stuart Rogers’ choreography.

Recent headlines have made it all too clear that Bare is a story the world still needs to hear, and this production is a decent attempt at telling it. In a different venue, it’s easy to imagine the show making quite an impact; unfortunately in its current home, it just misses the mark.

Bare: A Pop Opera is at The Vaults until 4th August.

Review: Feed at The Vaults

You might think twice about going back online after watching Theatre Témoin’s Feed. You might, but you probably won’t – which is exactly the point this darkly humorous and deeply unsettling show sets out to make. (In fact the company are so sure we’ll all be straight back on Twitter the minute it’s over that they end by encouraging us to use it to spread the word.) We all know the Internet is manipulating us: it’s full of glossy Instagram posts, clickbait headlines, fake news and targeted ads, all focused on getting our money, time, attention and more. We know it, and yet we somehow can’t seem to stop exposing ourselves to it.

Photo credit: Theatre Témoin

Devised by the cast (Jonathan Peck, Louise Lee, Esmee Marsh and Yasmine Yagchi) and directed by Ailin Conant, Feed takes a pretty everyday occurrence to extreme lengths. Journalist Kate uses a photo of a dead Palestinian boy, taken by her girlfriend Clem, on an article that goes viral. Make-up vlogger Mia sees the photo and posts an emotional tribute to the boy, which turns out to be great for her follower count. Soon, egged on by creepy troll-like SEO specialist Tim – who has distinctly un-humanitarian motives of his own – Mia’s going to ever more extreme and gory lengths to keep her followers interested, while Kate is determined to use her new-found platform to further her own causes, whatever the cost. Only “technophobe” Clem is able to see the damage being done, but she’s powerless to stop it – or is she?

Not a show for the faint-hearted (or the weak-stomached), Feed first dares us and then straight out asks us to stop watching, and yet nobody looks away. In the opening scene, Tim demonstrates how A/B testing works through dance – it makes sense at the time, I promise – and we laugh along, not realising what this means: that we’re constantly feeding the machine all the information it needs to keep harming us. By the time that realisation finally dawns, we’re past the point of no return and spiralling rapidly towards the play’s surreal and disturbing climax.

Photo credit: Theatre Témoin

This is even more unsettling given that the clues are all there, long before the chainsaw comes out and everything turns to pandemonium. Live sidebar ads for everything from toothpaste to Christian Aid are slowly tweaked to complement the on-stage action. An emoji-riddled online conversation between Mia and Tim is spoken aloud, exposing the glaring lack of actual words used. And a number of scenes freeze, rewind and repeat several times with small tweaks – almost as if the actors are experimenting to see which version gets the best response…

Theatre Témoin are known for tackling urgent topical issues in their own signature style, and Feed is no exception. It’s a cleverly devised piece that proves just how easily we can be manipulated by invisible forces into saying, doing, or buying things that we might never have thought about before. And it might just make you stop and think about how much time you spend online.

But then again, it might not.

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: Notflix – The Improvised Musical at The Vaults

Ever wanted to see Independence Day: Resurgence performed live on stage as a comedy musical? Well, unfortunately you’ve missed your chance, because that was last night and to quote one of the performers, “it will never happen again”. Who knows what the next Notflix show will be? Answer: nobody – not even the cast.

Notflix is an improvised comedy musical that recreates a movie suggested and chosen on the night by the audience. Completely made up on the spot based on a three-line synopsis and not a lot else, it’s fair to assume that the show bears little resemblance to the original film. It is, however, probably a lot more fun, and for a considerably smaller budget. And naturally it’s a musical – because as we all know, everything is better as a musical.

On the other hand, if you’re an improv performer, I imagine everything is also much more difficult as a musical. The dexterity with which the six performers – Holly Mallet, Ailis Duff, Clare Buckingham, Aisling Groves McKeown, Emma Read and Katie Pritchard (collectively known as Waiting For The Call Improv) – magic up not just characters and plot but also several song and dance numbers is nothing short of amazing. On this occasion, those musical delights included an anthem to the planet Zorbatron, and a Hamilton homage featuring the immortal line, “I am an alien…” Impressively, not only do these songs work, some of them are so catchy I caught myself still humming bits of them a day later – much of the credit for which must go to on-stage band members Patrick Stockbridge and Caroline Scott, on keys and drums respectively.

The plot of Independence Day: Resurgence: The Musical brings together a band of plucky astronauts battling to save Earth with the help of a time whip (I think…?), feuding alien brothers who must put their differences aside and work together to invade Earth, and a couple of gun-toting Americans who must decide what they love more – each other, or killing aliens. Given that nobody will ever see this show again, it’s not a spoiler to reveal that in the end Earth wins, the aliens fatally whip each other (again, I think…? I’m really not sure) then make up, and the Americans realise they do love each other, even though she just tried to destroy the planet. And in case you’re wondering – yes, it’s all exactly as insane and brilliantly bizarre as it sounds.

One tiny niggle: if, like me, you’re sitting directly in front of the speakers, you may find that some of the spoken dialogue gets drowned out by the music. But since that won’t make the slightest difference to your understanding of what’s going on, it hardly seems to matter. So if you’re in the mood for something silly, fun and boasting some serious improv talent, get yourself down to The Vaults this week for a hilarious hour of entertainment that’s also totally unique every time. You don’t get that staying home with Netflix.

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: nest at The Vaults

I think most of us would agree the idea of building a nest – a place to retire to and shut out the outside world – has been pretty tempting this week. The difference is that Jade and Liam, the couple in Katy Warner’s off-beat love story nest, aren’t sheltering from a temporary weather crisis but from a society in a state of ever-worsening decline, where shopping trolleys being pushed from the roof of their tower block is a daily occurrence, and all the windows have been removed from their stairwell to discourage people from trying to live there.

Jade (Charlotte Jane Higgins) hasn’t left their messy, run-down flat in a long time; she’s comfortable where she is, and sees no reason to risk a trip into the dangerous city streets. We stay there with her, so our knowledge of what’s going on outside mostly comes from Liam (Arthur McBain), who still maintains some social and family relationships beyond their limited circle, and is trying desperately against all odds to find a job. Everything comes to a crisis point when Jade gets pregnant, and the two have to weigh their excitement about being a family against the prospect of bringing a baby into such a messed-up world.

Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown

Directed by Yasmeen Arden, the story’s not told in chronological order, so takes a little bit of piecing together – but in a way it doesn’t matter. Jade and Liam’s life together is claustrophobic and repetitive; they have the same conversations over and over, sometimes word for word, and if not for the baby you can’t help feeling that they’d just have stayed this way forever. Their devotion to each other is touching – in a world that’s falling apart, these two vulnerable souls have been left holding tightly to the one thing they know they can rely on – but theirs is also a very dysfunctional relationship, where control and jealousy are a common feature of every conversation.

Arthur McBain’s Liam is the more obviously likeable of the two; wracked by guilt and frustration over what he sees as his own uselessness, he tries to keep Jade happy by bringing her thoughtful gifts and constantly backing down in arguments. But his kind nature leaves him open to manipulation – and not only by her; their first encounter only happens because his friend Pete played a practical joke on him. Meanwhile Jade, played by Charlotte Jane Higgins, is a tougher character to get along with, at least at first. She knows she can get her own way with Liam by sulking and threatening – but it’s only later we begin to understand the intense fear that motivates her behaviour: fear of what’s outside, of being alone, and of what the future holds.

Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown

The Vaults’ Cavern space works well as a venue, drawing our eye immediately to the shabby cosiness of Holly Pigott’s set. It’s a total mess, with discarded clothing, furniture and rubbish everywhere and a general sense of not having been cleaned in some time, and yet when compared with its damp, echoey surroundings it does feel like a haven of sorts.

The play, which marks Australian writer Katy Warner’s English debut, was inspired by a true story, and paints an uncomfortable picture of two people left behind by society and looking for a way out. We may not yet quite be at the point of raining shopping trolleys, but that doesn’t mean these characters don’t already exist – and maybe they’re closer than we think.

Review: Conquest at The Vaults

One of the interesting things about the #metoo movement that’s been sweeping social media since the Harvey Weinstein revelations is how it’s been just as much of a wake up call for women as it has for men. And not only in terms of realising the scale of the issue; many women will have spent time over the last few months re-evaluating incidents from our own lives that we might have previously played down, tried to justify to ourselves, or never even thought of as unwanted physical contact.

Alice’s #metoo moment happens in Boots, as she’s buying the morning after pill following a one night stand that on reflection, she’s not at all sure she wanted to happen but was basically too polite to put a stop to. As fate would have it, she bumps into Jo, a perfect stranger and committed feminist, who’s irritated by what she sees as Alice’s weakness (she cries a lot, apparently) but also spies an opportunity to recruit a new member for her feminist revenge group, Conquest.

Conquest’s mission is simple: to take revenge on men who’ve shown they don’t understand that no means no. They do this via the inventive medium of cupcakes – with one very unique ingredient. (I won’t go into detail, but let’s just say I went in half hoping we might get cupcakes as part of the show, and left very glad that we didn’t.) Whether this approach actually achieves anything is unclear, however, and when Alice freaks out on her first cupcake delivery run, it all begins to unravel.

Written by Katie Caden and directed by Jess Daniels, this funny and thought-provoking debut from PearShaped Theatre is brought to life by Lucy Walker-Evans and Colette Eaton, in a fast-paced performance that never flags in energy (their breaking and entering exploits are particularly fun to watch). Along the way, they take on a variety of characters, among them Jo’s chain-smoking mum Angela – also a feminist, but of the old-school variety – and Alice’s nonplussed, boxers-clad revenge target, Dave. This multi-roling approach is acknowledged early on in one of many direct addresses to the audience, but a warning that we might get confused proves unfounded; the characterisation of each is distinct, and smoothly handled by both performers as they scurry from chair to chair, adopting different postures and accents as they go.

In the end, though, this is Alice and Jo’s story; a story of two very different women drawn together by their need for solutions to a problem so massive that it’s impossible to even fully get your head around, let alone know where to start in fixing it. (Which raises the question: why should it be the responsibility of women to fix it anyway?) What makes the two unlikely friends so appealing to watch, besides their constant amicable bickering, is that there’s far more to both of them than their initial stereotyping would suggest. And while all their plans seem to end in disaster, at least they’re doing something.

At a time when sexual consent is high on many agendas, Conquest is a timely and important piece of work, which exposes the complexity of the issue in a way that speaks to both male and female audiences. And if it makes you think twice the next time someone offers you a cupcake – well, that’s probably a small price to pay.

Conquest‘s run at Vault Festival 2018 is now over – but keep an eye on @pearshapedplays for future news.

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… 😉