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.

nest has its final two performances at Vault Festival today at 3pm and 6pm.

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.

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Review: The Quantum Physics of My Heart at The Vaults

Writer and performer Amy Tobias introduces The Quantum Physics of My Heart as a lecture about science, which will combine anecdotes from her life, audience participation and experiments. I won’t lie – as someone who didn’t particularly love science at school, and who’s definitely not a fan of audience participation, this formula presented me with mild cause for concern – particularly having innocently taken a seat in the front row (seriously, when will I learn?). But then something unexpected happened: in a pleasantly surprising chemical reaction, everything came together to produce a show that’s funny, endearing and even a bit educational.

Photo credit: Mann Bros Media

The magic ingredient, I suspect, is Amy Tobias herself. Taking full advantage of the fact that – as she herself admits – a lot of people think she’s still a child (even though she’s not), she plays her teenage self with twinkly enthusiasm, unflinching honesty and a self-deprecating humour that proves very difficult to resist. Over the course of an hour, to a soundtrack of 90s hits and video clips from classics like Clueless and Jurassic Park, she reflects on her life between the ages of 13 and 16, including teenage crushes, her first house party, and an inappropriately placed hand on her 16-year-old knee.

The aim of all this is to try and prove the hypothesis that science can be used to explain everything. Following in her scientist dad’s footsteps, Amy loves the subject, and throughout the show manages to successfully bend various theories to make sense of life’s Big Questions – or at least what pass for Big Questions when you’re a teenager: things like why your BFF doesn’t want to be friends any more, or why last week you fancied your science teacher, and now you’re more interested in the ICT technician. But eventually she encounters a problem that can’t be explained away so easily – the aforementioned inappropriate hand – and is forced to look elsewhere for answers.

Photo credit: Mann Bros Media

Directed by Roxy Cook, the action is indeed framed very much as a (slightly unconventional) lecture, with audio and visual aids on a projector screen to help illustrate the show’s anecdotes and theories. Meanwhile down on the ground, Amy bounces around the stage in her school uniform and a lab coat, vividly recreating events so that we’re totally drawn into her story and come to really care about what happens to her.

As for the audience participation, it’s all very harmless, mostly consisting of us all delving frequently into our “experiment bags” and producing 90s-themed props (some of the edible kind). The role each of these plays in Amy’s experiments is tenuous at best, but their inclusion brings the show to life in a fun, nostalgic way. And for those of us who also grew up in the 90s or 00s, it’s a great opportunity to reflect on our own teenage years and the important moments – and music – that made us who we are today. I only wish all my science lessons at school had been this much fun.

Catch the last performance of The Quantum Physics of My Heart tonight at 7.25pm.

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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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