Review: Be Prepared at The Vaults

It’s a long time since I heard the excellent word “woggle”. But it pops up several times in Ian Bonar’s Be Prepared, on one occasion even getting an upgrade to the equally excellent “mega-woggle”. And if that’s not a word any of us expected to hear from a man making a speech at a funeral – well, let’s just say this isn’t exactly your traditional eulogy.

For one thing, the speaker – Tom, played by Bonar – never really met Mr Chambers, the man whose funeral he’s speaking at. For another, he’s clutching a small plastic keyboard and regularly breaks into song. And then there’s the minor detail that he keeps talking about his dad instead of Mr Chambers. As public speaking goes, it’s not a great effort – but for all its clumsiness, there’s a poignancy and heartfelt sincerity to both the words and the performance that turn this quirky little play into something quite powerful.

Photo Credit: The Other Richard

Inspired by Bonar’s own experience of losing his dad and then stumbling on his grandfather’s memoires, the story of how Tom comes to be at Mr Chambers’ funeral in the first place is revealed in fits and starts, sandwiched between reflections on death (and life) in general and memories of Tom’s dad in particular. As a result of his unusual “friendship” with the confused elderly man, Tom’s finally able to process and deal with his father’s recent death in a way that he never could before. He’s not over it, and nor should he be, but for the first time he’s able to remember his dad instead of repressing memories of him, and as he returns to his seat at the end of the play – still clutching his keyboard – there’s a sense that the clouds have begun to lift, just a little.

Directed by Rob Watt, Ian Bonar gives a very engaging and charmingly awkward performance, frequently losing his drift and stumbling off down increasingly random tangents (hence the mega-woggle). This unpolished, stream of consciousness approach – he discards his written notes straight away, and apologises constantly in very British fashion – is what makes the play both entertaining and believable, with Tom a character we like and can relate to. Mr Chambers, too, lives through his words (which are actually Bonar’s grandfather’s); as jumbled and unconventional as the storytelling may be, we do end up ultimately with a moving tribute to the man who, by sharing his own memories, helped Tom to do the same.

Photo Credit: The Other Richard

Be Prepared is a poignant and unexpectedly humorous portrayal of grief and how lost it can make us feel – but it’s also a reminder that there is no right or wrong way to grieve, and a testament to the power of memory to bring us back from the brink. Highly recommended.

Be Prepared is at The Vaults until 11th February.

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Review: Monster at The Vaults

Joe Sellman-Leava seems the least likely person to appear in a show about anger and violence. Affable, chatty and funny, he keeps telling us throughout his hour-long solo show Monster that he’s “not that guy”, and because we like him, we believe him – but should we?

Photo credit: Ben Borley

In essence, the show is made up of two stories; in one, Joe’s increasingly fraught relationship with his girlfriend, and in the other Joe learning his lines for a role as a violent husband. Unable to connect to the character, he embarks on some intense internet research into the lives of Patrick Stewart, whose father was abusive, and Mike Tyson, for whom violence – in and out of the ring – was simply a way of life. Both men are voiced by Sellman-Leava, who switches rapidly between the two very different personas in an impressive display of imitation and versatility.

The two threads seem at first quite separate, but ultimately collide in a dramatic climax that may or may not have really happened (we’re told up front that some of the show’s content is true, and some isn’t). It’s not just about that one scene, though; the show is full of little moments that have the potential to explode – a male director’s condescending attitude towards Joe’s female co-star, for instance, or Joe’s own memories of childhood violence, which he insists don’t count because nobody actually got hurt.

The point of all this is to demonstrate that whether we like it or not, every one of us has the potential for violence. Anger is a natural human response, but it’s how we choose to act on that emotion that decides whether or not we become “that guy”. At a time when men’s treatment of women is very much under the microscope, it’s refreshing to hear a male voice that’s not just offering platitudes but actually stepping up and admitting his own (possible) contribution to the problem.

Photo credit: Ben Borley

As in Worklight Theatre’s previous show, Labels, which explores his own personal experience of racism, Monster demonstrates Joe Sellman-Leava’s ability to boldly tackle difficult and controversial issues with passion and honesty. The fast-moving performance, directed by Yaz Al-Shaater, uses few props and consequently relies almost solely on Sellman-Leava’s personality and considerable talent for bringing multiple different characters to life. The show has a complex structure, flitting back and forth between Joe’s room, the rehearsal room, the online interviews and excerpts from some of Shakespeare’s more troubling texts, yet somehow he keeps us with him every step of the way, guiding us slowly but surely towards the show’s thought-provoking message.

Monster has been in development since it began life as a short piece in 2009. Since then it’s been rewritten and reworked multiple times, and now comes to the stage at what feels like exactly the right time, as uncomfortable but essential viewing.

Monster is at Vault Festival until today (28th January), and can also be seen at The Woodville in Gravesend on 8th February.

And if you’re quick, you can also catch Labels today at 2.45pm!

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Review: Tomorrow Creeps at the Vaults

As venues go, The Vaults isn’t going to win any awards for audience comfort. It’s dark, chilly and damp; trains rumble alarmingly overhead and every sound echoes off the tunnel walls. All of which makes it an ideal place to experience Golem!’s Tomorrow Creeps, a spooky, dramatic and powerfully atmospheric collision of Shakespeare, Kate Bush, David Lynch, Hannibal Lecter… The hour-long play draws on so many cultural influences it’s hard to keep up.

Following on from previous productions Macbeths and I Know You Of Old, in Tomorrow Creeps writer and actor David Fairs creates an original story by combining lines from sixteen works of Shakespeare with inspiration provided by the music of Kate Bush. In his dank prison cell, the Fallen Tyrant is visited by the Hollow Hero who, against his better judgment, is seeking the villain’s help to find his daughter. But he’s not the only visitor; the spirit of the Fallen Tyrant’s dead wife is there too, and she’s not about to let him go without a fight.

That’s a simple summary of a story that at times is all a bit bewildering – theatregoers who favour straightforward, easy to follow storylines may struggle to get on board. In reality, though, the plot of the play is only one element of a complex production that weaves together text, light, sound and space to produce something that’s hard to put into words (always a fun challenge for a reviewer). Ultimately, I’d suggest not trying to make sense of everything that’s happening and instead just going with it, because there’s a lot here that’s great. It can often sound negative to leave a play and remark, “That was an experience.” But in this case, it genuinely is.

The play was devised specifically for The Vaults, and the space allows for an element of realism; there’s never a moment when we don’t feel we’re right there in the prison with the characters. But this is above all a tale of fantasy, of supernatural forces and witchcraft, and director Anna Marsland brings this to life with an outstanding lighting design that picks out details, casts dramatic shadows and at times makes the whole space come alive with dizzying movement. The spooky atmosphere is heightened by Odinn Hilmarsson’s sound design, which subtly draws out the existing soundscape of the venue to spine-chilling effect.

Equally chilling are the performances of the three actors, as each character teeters on the brink of their own unique madness. Conor O’Kane is the picture of despair and self-loathing as the Hollow Hero, a broken man who’s lost everything and has now been reduced to asking for help from his enemy. David Fairs’ Fallen Tyrant is more controlled and charismatic in his exchanges with the Hollow Hero (I half expected him to start talking about fava beans and a nice Chianti) – but he too is tormented by forces beyond his control. Enter Zena Carswell as the Spectral Queen: passionate, wild and mud-spattered, she’s the living embodiment of Cathy from Wuthering Heights.

Though it continues the Golem! tradition of repurposing Shakespeare texts, Tomorrow Creeps is without doubt their most ambitious project by some margin. It won’t be for everyone, but it also doesn’t exclude anyone – for those who know and love Shakespeare, there’s the enjoyable challenge of identifying the source texts; for fans of Kate Bush there are some electrifying moments that I won’t ruin for you. Having said that, there’s nothing in the play that demands inside knowledge – and someone with no particular interest in either Shakespeare or Kate Bush is at no disadvantage compared to any other audience member.

As I said, it’s difficult to put into words. So all I can suggest is that you go and see, hear, feel and experience it for yourself.

Tomorrow Creeps is at The Vaults until 28th January.

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Review: Miss Nightingale at The Vaults

Matthew Bugg’s acclaimed WW2 musical Miss Nightingale may just have found its spiritual home at The Vaults. Entering the warren of dimly lit underground tunnels, we’re handed a chocolate bar and a programme designed to look like a ration book before stepping into the auditorium, which could very easily be an air raid shelter. As trains rumble in and out of Waterloo Station above our heads, it’s not a huge stretch to imagine what we’re actually hearing is bombs falling, and it’s almost a surprise to emerge into Launcelot Street and find all the buildings intact and ourselves back in the 21st century.

Photo credit: Robert Workman
Miss Nightingale does many things all at once. It’s a touching story of forbidden love, a social commentary on gay and women’s rights, and a feel-good (and really quite naughty) musical. By rights it probably should feel like a bit of a jumble, and it’s true that some elements of the plot end up a little sketchy through sheer lack of time – yet it’s impossible not to get swept up in the charm and sheer joy of it all.

It’s 1942, and war hero Sir Frank Worthington-Blythe (Nicholas Coutu-Langmead) hires Maggie Brown (Tamar Broadbent), a feisty nurse from oop north, to perform in his new club. The two quickly grow close, but Maggie’s already in a relationship with dodgy wheeler-dealer Tom (Niall Kerrigan) – and besides, it’s her friend and songwriter George (Conor O’Kane), a Polish Jew still in mourning for both his lost family and his beloved Berlin, who’s secretly captured Frank’s heart.

Forced by the law and social expectations to keep their illicit love affair under wraps, the two men end up embroiling both themselves and Maggie in a complex tangle of broken hearts and false hopes – all the while maintaining a facade of determined jollity in order to keep up morale. This is Britain, after all, and the show must go on, whatever dramas may be unfolding behind the scenes.

And there’s no doubt Miss Nightingale‘s outrageous comedy numbers know how to lift the spirits. Laden with every innuendo you can think of – and a few that you might not – they provide welcome light relief from the intensity of Frank and George’s tempestuous love affair, and particularly from the disturbing realisation that less than 100 years ago, gay couples still risked social ruin or even prison just for the chance to be together. (And worse – there’s a moment in Act 2 when George reflects on the unfairness of being persecuted in the country he came to seeking refuge; as recent events have shown all too clearly, these words could just as easily be spoken today.)

Photo credit: Robert Workman
The whole cast of actor-musicians are clearly in their element during the rude bits (and let’s be honest, who wouldn’t get a bit of a buzz out of a song whose main lyric is, “You’ve got to get your sausage where you can”?) but Matthew Bugg’s score demands a softer side too, particularly from the show’s three main stars, all of whom impress with their powerful vocals. Though best known as a comedian, Tamar Broadbent reveals she can do serious just as successfully, while Nicholas Coutu-Langmead and Conor O’Kane maintain an ideal balance in their blossoming on-stage relationship, with Frank’s timidity and stiff upper lip perfectly countered by George’s volatility and flamboyance.

This is the fifth production of Miss Nightingale, and it’s not hard to see why the show keeps returning – it really is the best of British, in more ways than one. Yes, it’s a huge amount of fun, but there’s a more serious point to all this. We might not be at war any more, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still battles to be fought – and in an increasingly troubled world, this show reminds us that it’s as important as ever to stand up and be counted.

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Interview: Tobias Oliver, Miss Nightingale

Since its premiere in 2011, Matthew Bugg’s Miss Nightingale has toured five times, earned numerous five-star reviews, been named one of the Guardian’s Top 50 Shows of 2016 and been voted into’s Top 100 Greatest Musicals of All Time. And now it’s finally coming back to London, with a two-month run at The Vaults from 30th March.

Miss Nightingale is not your usual musical theatre show,” explains co-producer (with writer and composer Matthew Bugg), Tobias Oliver. “It’s set in World War Two London and challenges you to stand up for yourself, to fight for what you believe in and to resist prejudice in all forms. But it does this whilst entertaining the socks off you with a gripping narrative, tender love story and a load of absolutely brilliant songs, some of which are very, very naughty! One of my favourite reviews on our last tour said it was like, ‘Cabaret – as if written by Victoria Wood.’ I really love that description.”

It’s a long-awaited return to London for Miss Nightingale. “We’ve wanted to bring the show back to London for several years and have had a number of offers but they never felt quite right,” says Tobias. “We aren’t your typical West End show and we wanted to find the right venue. When the opportunity of transferring to The Vaults came up we jumped at it. It’s just perfect and almost feels as if it were made for Miss Nightingale, particularly as all the action in the show takes place in London. And I grew up in London and it’s where I started going to and falling in love with theatre, so performing the show here is always going to be extra special for me.”

What is it that makes The Vaults an ideal venue for the show? “It’s one of the most exciting venues in the capital right now,” says Tobias. “The fact that it feels like a cross between a theatre, an illegal drinking den, a subterranean jazz club and an air-raid shelter really couldn’t be better. Miss Nightingale is set in 1942 and much of the action centres around a smoky, underground cabaret club in the heart of war-torn London. The Vaults is absolutely the perfect fit for us – and the fact that you can hear the rumble of trains and other sounds of city life sets the scene perfectly of life carrying on regardless.”

The show’s changed a lot since it was first performed six years ago: “The 2011 production was a small-scale, chamber version of the show with a cast of just three. The response was fantastic, we were the best-selling late night show at the King’s Head and the show went on to tour the UK five times. However, back in 2011 as soon as we started performing the show in front of an audience we knew there were things we wanted to change and creases to be ironed out. There’s always a missing link in making theatre until you get it in front of an audience. This is why all big-budget shows have extensive development periods, a number of workshops, lengthy previews and out-of-town runs to smooth out the glitches and fix any problems.

“So we did some fairly hefty re-writes and added several new songs before we presented the show again in a full-scale production that toured in 2013. And we’ve continued to refine the show for each new outing. I guess anyone who saw the show back in 2011 is in for a bit of a surprise when they come to watch it at The Vaults, and it will be fascinating to see their reaction.”

In addition to his co-producing responsibilities, Tobias also has a small  role in the show as well as playing double bass – and he has nothing but praise for his fellow cast members. “Our cast are seriously talented. Not only do they act, sing and dance, but they also play all the musical instruments! And there is something that is incredibly exciting about working with actor-musicians who are at the very top of their game. We spend a lot of time looking out for and casting the right people. Our two leading men, Conor O’Kane and Nicholas Coutu-Langmead have such great chemistry on-stage and it’s really beautiful watching them fall in love every night.

“We also have a couple of new cast members, including the wonderful, award-winning singer-songwriter Tamar Broadbent making her musical theatre debut as ‘Miss Nightingale’. If you’ve ever been lucky enough to see her perform her comedy shows then you know she’s a star in the making.”

Though described in one of its many rave reviews as “raucously funny”, the show also has a serious point to make. “If anything the show seems more relevant than ever in 2017 what with recent events both in the UK and overseas,” says Tobias. “We don’t know what will happen to LGBT people’s rights after Brexit because much of the protection we have gained against discrimination came from the EU. The far right is on the rise across Europe with a particularly regressive, homophobic platform. Then there’s the frankly terrifying, virulently anti-LGBT agenda of the Trump government in the United States. It’s truly frightening. Now more than ever the arts and performance – satire in particular – seem to be powerful ways to offer an alternative to these messages of hate and division.”

Finally, what’s one thing Tobias wants audiences to know before we see the show – and one word he’d like us to use to describe it afterwards? “Blimey, that’s a tricky question to end with! I want people to know that Miss Nightingale has absolutely nothing to do with Florence Nightingale – it’s set in World War Two, not the Crimean War! And I’d like them to describe the show as ‘life-affirming’. Does a hyphenated word count?”

Miss Nightingale is at The Vaults from 30th March to 20th May.