Review: HerStory 4 at Theatre N16

Guest review by Jemima Frankel

What might you expect from a feminist theatre festival at a small fringe theatre in Balham, in June 2017? What issues, events, people, stereotypes – laws, even – might compel feminist theatre makers to, well, make theatre right now? The more cynical amongst us might expect a hipster-infused horde of angry, “snowflake” millenials shouting loudly about the “pale stale male”.  What they would find, however, is a potent and welcome remedy to such limiting cynicism. HerStory, founded by Nastazja Somers, was born out of frustration at the repetitive, singular storyline of female characters in theatre and wider society. She invites feminists to perform work that platforms the untold stories – the real faces of intersectionality – that are so routinely trampled over in the charge for more palatable voices. HerStory does not just demand our attention; it grabs it, with consent, by the pussy.

The second of two nights at HerStory 4 (the big sister of the HerStorys 1, 2 and 3 in preceding years) was a showcase of eight richly varied solo performances. We heard the female voice on topical issues such as abortion, domestic abuse, child rape, LGBTQ issues, sexual harassment, social media, war and… Iranian mothers. What shot through the hurt, the anger, the raw and gutting sadness of several of these stories was the resounding support buzzing from the audience. Huge cheers, belly laughs and tenterhooked-gasps filled the air – testament, of course, to the quality of the performers who took to the stage.

As expected, some of the work made emotional viewing. Dannie-Lu Carr’s Just Another C*nt told the incredibly moving story of a toxic relationship with an alcoholic man who encouraged an abortion. The Twilight Zone by Suzy Gill tackles cultural discrimination and homophobia, as a young woman’s Muslim girlfriend is called away again to fight for the American army in Iraq. In one of Tolu Agbelusi’s powerful spoken word performances she spoke of the rape of a seven-year-old girl at the grabbing, angry hands of two young boys. In Mission Abort, directed by Claire Stone and performed by Therese Ramstedt, the Pro-Life words of Donald Trump – “there must be some form of punishment” – seared through the graphic re-enactment of a painful and intrusive abortion. The audience was left open-mouthed and wide-eyed, shocked into reflective silence before roaring applause acknowledged the bravery and resilience of these women.

Humour rippled in welcome and powerful moments through the evening. Amanda Holiday’s The Art Poems took artworks by diverse female painters as the inspiration for witty words, and the ridicule at the price of a handbag (that she will use as a hat, thank you very much). Social Media Suicide by Clare McCall showed us the behind-the-scenes of a very special, perfectly set up, live streamed 27th birthday party, at which she – for the benefit of you lucky viewers – was going to kill herself after much cam-girl style foreplay. The show goes out, quite literally, with a bang as the likes come rolling in. Shahbanu brilliantly performed by Lydia Bakelmun (and written, directed and produced by Melina Namdar, Anna Jeary and Penny Babakhani) revisits the childhood of a girl raised in London to an overbearing Iranian mother and English father. In the nostalgic tales of Iranian princes and (always – eye roll) beautiful princesses, we unravel the feeling of loss, displacement and desperate need to reconnect to heritage and culture. Roxanne Carney’s I’m the Hero of This Story tickled the audience with Tinder one-liners and the jaw-dropping realisation that these were lifted from real conversations with real men, probably within about five miles of you.

The Museum of Women, the poignant closing poem of Tolu Agbulesi’s set, speaks of the great women “quietly shaping” her. “This body is a monument of many women; I was not built alone,” she speaks; a perfect beacon of support and solidarity that resonated with the diverse mix of men and women in the audience. As the audience left chattering and tweeting, I was reminded once again of the power of performance – if not as a way to change the world, then as a way to get the conversation well and truly started.

Follow @HerstoryFTF for details of upcoming events and performances, as they move to a more central London location.

Review: LOOP at Theatre N16

Few things prompt more heated debate than our taste in music (it’s definitely the source of most tension in my office). We all think our own favourites are the best, and anyone who disagrees with us is automatically wrong. Yet our passion for music – any music – can also bring us together like little else, whether it’s casual banter with a stranger at a gig or a huge one-off event like last weekend’s One Love Manchester concert.

BoxLess Theatre’s LOOP takes us through three generations of one family, set to a soundtrack of the music that both unites and divides them. In the 1960s, a young woman leaves behind her home in London and sets off for a new life in Manchester. In the 80s, her teenage daughter comes home from a gig with a new boyfriend in tow – and in 2017, that same couple struggle to find common ground with their own 19-year-old son, who ultimately finds himself returning to his grandmother’s hometown in search of answers.

Though music is the common thread that links all three stories, it doesn’t dominate or overwhelm Alexander Knott’s script, which is very much character-driven. In a fast-moving introductory monologue delivered by Emily Thornton, we experience all the hopes and fears of The Woman as she leaves home for the first time and ventures out into a scary new world. Later, she returns as both mother and grandmother, perfectly capturing not only the physical changes but also the lifelong emotional fragility of a woman whose life hasn’t gone the way she hoped it would. James Demaine closes the show as the Young Man, with an equally powerful story of teenage angst and artistic ambition, but perhaps the most enjoyable – and humorous – scenes are those between the Boy and the Girl, played by Aaron Price and Rubie Ozanne, whose fledgling teenage romance is adorably awkward and very believable.

Completing the show’s finely tuned balance of words and music is the movement, directed by Zöe Grain. Working with a set that consists of just a few boxes that are rearranged for each new setting, the cast travel on trains, dance in clubs, and walk the busy city streets in this highly physical piece of theatre. In one effective scene, an act of violence becomes strangely beautiful as it unfolds in exquisite slow motion. Each of the four-strong ensemble performs these moves with precision, energy and perfect timing to bring their characters and the world around them to life.

LOOP has a little bit of everything; it’s funny and heartwarming yet not without moments of poignancy, and nostalgic but also very current – and by combining storytelling with movement and music, directors Alexander Knott and Zöe Grain have given the company an opportunity to demonstrate their broad range of talents. This is an exciting debut from BoxLess Theatre, and definitely worth a visit for music lovers of any generation.

LOOP is at Theatre N16 until 10th June.

Interview: BoxLess Theatre, LOOP

Opening next month at Theatre N16, LOOP is the debut production from BoxLess Theatre. The show charts three generations of one family, from 1965 to the present day, and explores how they evolve, change and fall in love along with the music that they listen to.

Resident Writer Alexander Knott and Artistic Director Zoë Grain collaborated on the creation of LOOP, combining words and moves with music from the 60s, 80s and present day. “The show was inspired by Zöe, who knew she wanted to do a piece that was intrinsically about music, and how it can be the soundtrack to our lives,” explains Alexander. “That, and the image of a Walkman and a set of 80s headphones. From there we brainstormed the characters and arrived at different ways of how they could be related. It was quite late on in the writing that it was apparent that they were all one family – for a while, it was just a series of unconnected vignettes, but now it’s more of a sequential story.”

“The project was jumpstarted when Second Sons Theatre asked us to devise a ten minute piece for their ‘Play Time’ festival of new writing, last September,” continues Zoë. “Alexander worked up some draft monologues and we devised a short scene, that gave the essence of the play. Half a year down the line, the rest of the play is written and that extract now comes in the middle of the story. Actors Aaron Price and Rubie Ozanne are reprising their roles as ‘The Boy’ and ‘The Girl’, with Emily Thornton and James Demaine completing the cast.”

Choreographer Zoë set up BoxLess Theatre last year, after graduating from Italia Conti. “My aim has always been to make physical theatre something accessible to people of different disciplines and experience, not just for classically trained dancers,” she explains. “The training at Italia Conti Acting, where the cast and creative team met, has always shown movement as a way of expressing the story of a play in a very immediate way, and BoxLess is taking this a step further with a piece that combines physical theatre and new writing. Dance for everyone, essentially, and not just for the few.”

After months in development, the show finally opens on 6th June at Balham’s Theatre N16. “We’re all feeling excited, with a definite hint of butterflies, and there’s still plenty to do,” says Alexander. “But N16 is a great space – intimate, yet versatile, and with a lot of atmosphere. The preview of the show was performed there, so we feel like we know how to move in that space. Rehearsals have a great, collaborative energy to them, with everyone bringing ideas to the table. There’s always going to be that ‘going out on a limb’ nervousness when creating a new piece of theatre, but the show is taking shape, and we’re starting to see it come to life.”

LOOP offers a great opportunity to enjoy a bit of musical nostalgia, but there’s a lot more to the show than a simple trip down memory lane. “We’d like audiences to go away with that feeling of having seen a satisfying story. Seeing the characters grow and change – after all, the story covers the best part of 60 years – and how something that happens to one of them in 1965 might influence choices made in the present, should be really engaging. We want the movement to be as slick and expressive as it can be – there’s something intensely satisfying in well-executed physical theatre. Also, perhaps, leaving the theatre with a sense of hopefulness; the play is, we think, about hope, about looking forward and letting go of the past.”

Book now for LOOP at Theatre N16 from 6th-10th June.

Review: Herstory at Theatre N16

Following the recent Women’s Marches across the globe, Piers Morgan took to Twitter to complain about “the creeping global emasculation of my gender by rabid feminists” – thereby revealing his ignorance of not only what the marches were all about, but more broadly what feminism even is. But unfortunately, he’s not alone in thinking that being a feminist must necessarily mean that you’re anti-men.

Maybe Piers and co should get themselves down to Theatre N16 in Balham some time and check out the Herstory feminist theatre festival. If they did, they’d find not a horde of hysterical women screaming at an audience of cowering males, but a room buzzing with mutual support and a passionate desire to make a positive change.

c48dvlwwiaersfw

Which is not to say there isn’t anger too; in fact it was anger that inspired Nastazja Somers to start Herstory last year, to say to the theatre industry and society in general, “We’ve had enough.” But Herstory channels that rage into promoting women, not tearing down men – and it does so through a varied programme of topical and courageous work. The first of two nights at Herstory 3 featured eight such pieces, the majority of them solo performances, each representing the female voice on issues including politics, race, dating and mental health.

Not surprisingly, some of the work featured made difficult viewing. In the haunting Promise by Sarah Milton, an occasion that should be joyful – the birth of a baby – is revealed in fact to be a dark tale of child exploitation. All the Colours by Davina Cole is a heartbreaking story of a mother’s struggle to support herself and her son after fleeing the war in Sierra Leone to seek refuge in the UK. Donald Trump makes a (perhaps inevitable, and you can guess in what context) appearance in Grab by Pussy Patrons, and Isabelle Stokes’ Imprints concludes with a graphic account of sexual assault, powerfully performed by Francesca Burgoyne.

There’s a lot of laughter too, though – whether it’s at Sophia Del Pizzo’s fluctuating accent in Assmonkey: In Conversation, Julie Cheung-Inhin’s patient explanation of the geography of East Asia in No More Lotus Flower, or the anxious attempts of Katie Arnstein to write a feminist anthem in Bicycles and Fish: A Girl’s Guide to Feminism. Yet even these stories are shot through with frustration and emotion, as they tackle the devastating impact of anxiety and social pressures on young women, the racial stereotyping faced by actors of East Asian descent, and the shame of a young waitress forced by her manager to ask a breastfeeding mother to leave.

Amidst all this hurt and anger, Julie Vallortigara’s Welcome Home, a movement-based call for authenticity and self-expression, shone like a beacon of hope, summing up beautifully what the festival is all about. And despite the difficult topics explored across the course of the evening, the overwhelming mood as we made our exit was one of optimism. There are many challenges that are and will continue to be faced by women across the globe, but Herstory and its contributors are facing those challenges head on – and the sell-out audience and enthusiastic response to every single performance prove they’re not alone. Sorry, Piers.

Follow @HerstoryN16 on Twitter for details of future festivals.

Review: Three Unrelated Short Plays at Theatre N16

Three Unrelated Short Plays is the debut production from Blank Tin Productions, and does exactly what it says on the… er, tin: three 20-minute plays, none of which bears any relation to the others – or indeed to reality as we know it. The press release promises weird and unexpected, and that’s exactly what we get.

In The Stuttgart Syndrome, John (James Messer) wakes up tied to a chair in a basement, next to Mickey (Dan Thorn), who seems worryingly chilled about the whole situation – possibly because his grandfather was an escapologist, or maybe just because he doesn’t actually know what kidnapping means. One Scotch sees friends Tony, Danny and Jack (James McClelland, Abe Buckoke and Will Jeffs) play a drinking game that will supposedly allow them to meet God, but it turns out (s)he isn’t quite what they were expecting… and that’s not the only surprise of the night. And in Who the Fuck is Dr Deathzo? mild-mannered Kevin (Jimmy Roye Dunne) learns that he’s got an evil alter-ego who only comes out on Saturday nights – and as if that’s not bad enough, now superhero Assorted Props Girl (Elle Banstead-Salim) and her sidekick Tape Boy are out to vanquish him.

three-unrelated-short-plays-5
Photo credit: Oliver Malam
So. You get the idea. Nothing here makes any sense, but then it’s not really supposed to. Writer James Messer has let his imagination run off pretty much wherever it wants to go, resulting in a show that’s entirely bonkers and very very silly – but hey, who doesn’t enjoy a bit of silliness every now and then?

Each play has a different director (Will Jeffs, Oliver Malam and James Messer each taking a turn) and cast to keep things fresh, and as promised in the title each is a completely separate, self-contained story. Personally, I found the middle piece, One Scotch, to be the strongest, possibly because despite being quite as mad as the others, the plot felt just a touch more coherent, and I loved the twist in the tale. But there’s something here for everyone (unless you’re not a fan of random), and it’s likely everyone will have their own favourite, for different reasons.

The show has a charming, homemade feel, with frequent references to the limitations imposed by a fringe theatre budget. And far from making excuses, it revels in its own chaos; the transitions between plays are part of the fun, with cardboard signs imploring us to look at the guy juggling, or dancing, rather than the frantic scene changing going on behind him.

three-unrelated-short-plays-4
Photo credit: Oliver Malam
The cast display a similar exuberance, throwing themselves into their assorted roles with an enthusiasm that borders at times on the hyperactive. Most appear in more than one play, with Blank Tin co-founder Elle Banstead-Salim popping up in all three as a selection of increasingly feisty women; as the only female cast member it’s down to her to bring all the girl power, and she doesn’t hesitate to accept the challenge.

As a reviewer, I often feel I have to find the meaning in every play I see, so it’s a rare pleasure to see a show that isn’t trying to tell us anything. Blank Tin just want to have a good time, and to make sure the audience have fun too. And in that they definitely succeed. It’s a surreal night out, don’t get me wrong – but it’s also a thoroughly entertaining escape from reality, and that’s something we could all do with these days.

Three Unrelated Short Plays is at Theatre N16 until 16th February.