Review: Olympilads at Theatre N16

It came as a shock to me a few weeks ago when I realised it was already the fifth anniversary of the London 2012 opening ceremony. It’s a night most of us will remember as one of patriotic pride and huge anticipation of what this prestigious event would mean, for our country in general and the people of London in particular.

Five years later, Andrew Maddock’s new play Olympilads – set during London 2012 – questions whether that promised legacy was ever really going to bring much benefit to the people on the doorstep. The story focuses on three siblings, Abigail (Michelle Barwood), Simeon (Rhys Yates) and Darren (Nebiu Samuel), as they try to rebuild their fraught relationship following the death of their father.

Photo credit: Kathy Trevelyan

The main sticking point is Darren, the youngest, whose deluded belief that he can win a gold medal in the 100m has become an obsession. Darren’s demanding and manipulative, but it seems the best anyone outside the family has been able to come up with is to suggest that he channel his aggression into a sport; after all, the Olympics are coming up. Taking care of him has become a full-time job – one that may well have contributed to their father’s death, and which Simeon was forced to take on when Abigail left.

Needless to say, the short one-act play packs quite a punch; there’s a lot of bitterness, anger and regret coming from all three characters, revealing itself in different ways. As Simeon, Rhys Yates has the shell-shocked expression of a young man forced to grow up and shoulder a massive responsibility overnight. He’s caught in the middle between the fiery temperaments of his brother and sister, but reserves his own anger for the lack of support he and Darren have received from external agencies.

Michelle Barwood’s Abigail appears at first to be the toughest of the three – but she struggles with her complicated feelings towards her brothers, and Darren in particular; while her affection for Simeon is obvious, it’s not clear how much she really wants to connect with their younger brother. Completing the cast is Nebiu Samuel, who perfectly captures the complexity of Darren’s character – on the one hand he’s a victim who’s been convinced by others that he has what it takes to be a champion; on the other he’s a bully, who’s grown used to throwing tantrums in order to get what he wants. Because of this, the play’s conclusion is a perfect balance of satisfying and devastating.

Photo credit: Kathy Trevelyan

Niall Phillips’ production is set in the round, in a room directed with British flag bunting, and with a raised stage area running through the middle that doubles as both a track and a podium. There are some other, more subtle nods to the Olympics too; Abigail’s posture as she prepares for her encounter with Darren, for example, is that of an athlete on the start line, and Simeon unknowingly echoes his brother’s line – “I ran and I ran and I ran until I couldn’t run anymore” – when remembering his old life as a petty criminal. The audience is involved throughout, with the actors more than once speaking directly to us, making us a sounding board for their views on family and society.

With the World Athletics Championships drawing to a close at the Olympic Stadium, it couldn’t be a more appropriate time to look back at the Games and reflect on their impact. Andrew Maddock has pitched this perfectly – there’s never any attempt to detract from the excitement or patriotism that London 2012 inspired, but just enough simmering anger to make us take another look. And even if you take the Olympics out of the equation altogether, Olympilads is a powerful family drama that successfully explores the complex relationships between its characters. The brevity of the play is such that we don’t get into this perhaps as much as we could, and the ending comes very suddenly; it would be great to see the piece further developed, as the story and characters are certainly interesting enough to go the distance.

Olympilads is at Theatre N16 until 26th August.

Interview: Andrew Maddock and Niall Phillips, Olympilads

Lonesome Schoolboy Productions are director Niall Phillips and writer Andrew Maddock. Following their acclaimed collaborations on In/Out (A Feeling) and He(Art), in August they return with Olympilads, a new play inspired by the legacy of London 2012, which was selected to be part of Scott Ellis’ first season as Artistic Director of Theatre N16.

“At its most base level and without giving a hell of a lot away, Olympilads is about three siblings, trying to bring their family back together under the backdrop of the Olympic Games,” explains Andrew, one of The Independent‘s Playwrights to Dominate 2017. “It’s a piece about family loyalty and about making the right decisions.

“I originally wrote the play in 2012 as an almost cynical response to the mood in London. I’m a Londoner and while I enjoyed the spirit of the Games and what it represented, I really resented the message being delivered, which was that the Games were going to leave this lasting legacy on the normal working people of London, especially our most vulnerable. Five years removed, I see lots of new buildings, new housing that only the select few can participate in. I see lots of disparity, I actually see London 2012 being a catalyst to remove a lot of people from where they were born and bred.”

Andrew wants his audiences to question the motives of the characters and put themselves in their shoes: “There are decisions made that I think in a normal, loving, safe environment, someone would never have to make,” he says. “I always want an audience member to put themselves in the shoes of a person who might not have the life they’ve had and try and see it from their perspective.”

Niall founded Lonesome Schoolboy in 2010. “Lonesome was set up with a dream to create exciting work, meet new people and be in charge of what happens next,” he says. “This industry is very tough, it’s a waiting game. I’m the least patient person I know, I want it now – so the best way was to be the person to start the process.

“The aim has never changed, to make excellent work and also to give opportunities to people starting out, the people that really want it, the driven and the passionate. We always incorporate special needs within our projects and get issues on stage we really care about. That will never change.”

Andrew continues, “I met Niall when I performed my debut show The Me Plays at The Old Red Lion. We’ve been collaborating since 2015 and I’ve enjoyed every second, we have so much in common as friends and then theatrically can have so many disagreements, in the best possible way. He challenges the way I see theatre and vice versa. But we do agree on a common thing, which is making sure we’re putting on the best possible product we can with the tools we have available to us!”

Olympilads marks the start of Lonesome Schoolboy’s summer season of new writing, which also includes the premiere of Turkey by new associate writer Frankie Meredith. Niall explains: “So we have two brand new plays that we are delighted to be bringing to the stage. But alongside that we are offering the free workshops that get loads of people together and making work!”

“These are just something we wanted to do to meet new likeminded people,” adds Andrew. “We cast two parts in Olympilads straight out of the workshop. I’m not a massive fan of ‘auditioning’ as someone who entered the industry as an actor, I find it a crap process. I also see a lot of the same faces when we put something out for an audition, and I really want to be as diverse as I can in our choices. I always want to see the right person for the part, but from a broader spectrum.

“I want to see people work in the room with other people, I want to know who they are as a person. Especially as we make and produce our own work, we answer to nobody at the moment – which means I can meet an exciting actor, have an idea for their voice and get about writing it. Olympilads went through a complete rewrite, simply based on our casting. I’m really excited about it.

“So why should people take part? We’ll always have a free workshop in our line of activities, so it’s accessible and it’s a chance to meet other people, network and interact. It’s kind of the whole reason why I wanted to get into this profession.”

“We’ll also be doing Q&A sessions and new writing nights based on the pieces we will present,” concludes Niall. “We want to get out there and get to know loads of creatives, make new friends and spread the positive vibes that sometimes this industry drains out of you.”

Olympilads runs at Theatre N16 from 8th-26th August.

Interview: Michelle Payne, The Staff Room

They’re teaching our children, but are they teaching the right things…?

Michelle Payne’s The Staff Room started life as a 15-minute piece, written for an Actor Awareness scratch night. Now a one-act play, the show is all set for its first Edinburgh preview tomorrow at The Bunker, followed by a second at Barons Court Theatre on Saturday, before heading to the Fringe.

The Staff Room follows three young teachers on their breaks through an academic year,” Michelle explains. “You can expect to see a slice of life; an insight into what our teachers get up to in state schools.”

The play was inspired by Michelle’s own experience as a freelance dance teacher. “I was working in a lot of different schools for a really long time, so I sat in a lot of staff rooms,” she says. “I found the dynamics really interesting, and often very comical. I wanted to praise our hard working, state school teachers and give them an up to date voice in the theatre!”

While the play is a must for anyone who’s ever wondered what goes on behind the staffroom door (which, let’s be honest, is all of us when we were at school), Michelle hopes it’ll also be enjoyed by those within the profession: “Definitely teachers! And I also hope it appeals to young, working class people. Hopefully it’ll make our audiences laugh, and provoke discussion about political topics.”

Joining The Staff Room‘s all female creative team are cast members Faye Derham, Hilary Murnane and Craig Webb – who audiences might recognise from a recent high-profile TV appearance. Michelle explains, “Craig, who plays our Geography teacher Hugo, was a finalist singing with Neon Panda on Gary Barlow’s Let it Shine on BBC One. Which was very exciting for us – seeing him on the telly!”

The Actor Awareness campaign, founded by Tom Stocks, has played a key role in the play’s development. “I wrote the first draft of the play especially for an Actor Awareness health themed scratch night,” says Michelle. “This was chosen and performed at Theatre N16 last year. From this we were offered a full show at N16 if I could extend the play to one act for the summer. So Actor Awareness definitely supplied me with that initial opportunity!”

Following the show’s two London previews, Michelle and the team will be heading north for a run at Edinburgh’s theSpace @ Surgeons Hall from 21st-26th August. “I’ve visited the Fringe every year for the past six years and have supported friends’ shows, so I’m glad it’s finally my turn to have a show up there!” she says. “We’re looking forward to getting some feedback and hopefully making people laugh.”

Catch The Staff Room at The Bunker on 18th July, Barons Court Theatre on 22nd July or in Edinburgh at theSpace @ Surgeons Hall, 21st-26th August.

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.