Interview: Lydia Rynne and Caley Powell, Hear Me Howl

Hear Me Howl is the first project for new theatre company Lights Down Productions. The one woman show by Lydia Rynne addresses the taboo issues of abortion and a woman’s choice to remain childless, exploring the central character’s journey through her discovery of punk music.

“It’s a late coming-of-age tale following the story of Jess – played by Alice Pitt-Carter – who’s just hitting the big three oh,” explains Lydia, a member of the Soho Theatre Writers Group. “She has a job, a long term, loving boyfriend and a rented flat that’s bigger than your average garden shed. Oh, and of course she also has that pesky body clock that everyone keeps banging on about. As she approaches her milestone birthday, Jess begins to question the life she’s plummeting towards and decides to join a punk band, cos why not? Jess tells her story from behind and with the aid of a drum kit before her first gig.”

Lydia was inspired to write the play after noticing a lack of shows about women who choose not to have children: “There have been plenty of plays and books about women or couples trying desperately to conceive. And of course there is a place for these works – wanting, and then struggling, to conceive is a heartbreaking ordeal. But for every woman who is pining for a child of her own, there is a woman considering a life without children. This is, crazily, still a taboo subject. I’m also a huge advocate of women – of any age – picking up an instrument and making NOISE.

“From a young age girls are given plastic babies, prams, tiny kitchenettes with rubber sausages to fry up like a good girl. Meanwhile our male human counterparts who just happen to have a dangly bit between their legs are handed toy racing cars, railway sets, a rocket: an open highway to go any place they like, as fast as they bloody well can. Society tells us from birth that we are born with a maternal instinct that, if not acted on within our allotted time, will leave us empty and bereft of our true life purpose. The weight of this expectation is not only offensive – how many childless male actors or politicians are probed about their lack of sprogs?! – but also a huge mental drain on a gender who are already busy enough trying to achieve equality in the workplace and combat sexism on a daily basis.”

Producer Caley Powell adds, “This will be my first play with my new theatre company Lights Down Productions, and I chose it because I saw myself in the lead character of Jess. I’ve recently turned 30 and have known for a long time that I don’t want children, so seeing a play that dealt with this topic in such an open, fun way is so rare and so necessary that I immediately wanted to come on board to produce this play.

“For me Jess is so relatable, when you’re about to turn 30 you do end up having a crisis about where your life is and what it is you want from it, and have an urge to do something drastic, like join a punk band to break out of the monotony of your life. This play shows it’s never too late to make a change in your life and that through regaining control and also through the power of music you can find your voice and your power.”

Lydia met the play’s director, Kay Michael of Empty Deck Theatre, when they were in a production of Caryl Churchill’s The Skriker together at Warwick University. “I had yet to ‘come out’ as a writer and still fancied myself as a physical theatre performer. As much as I loved playing varieties of goat-like creatures, making sense of the world through the written word quickly became my raison d’être. So I finally allowed Kay, one of my best mates – and conveniently a wonderful director – to take a peek. The rest is history. Or herstory…”

Caley’s involvement with the show came about more recently. “I met Kay whilst producing my previous play A Great Fear Of Shallow Living with In Tandem Theatre Company, and she got in touch in November 2017 to let me know about this play. I was in the process of setting up Lights Down Productions to produce new writing, particularly female writers, and I was looking for new projects so it seemed perfect timing!”

In developing the show, the team have spoken to women with varying opinions on having children, and have also thrown themselves into the world of punk ideology and music. “One particular book that inspired us is Viv Albertine (of punk band The Slits)’s autobiography, documenting her growing obsession with punk music in the 70s and 80s as she grows from girl to woman,” Lydia explains. “As Hear Me Howl is very much structured as a coming of age story, we have also, as a team of female creatives, interrogated our own lives as a series of lightbulb moments – questioning the people, experiences and music that we now know impacted our life choices. We then got into a garage full of instruments we’d never played before and bashed about for hours, and got some great audience feedback when we tested an extract, with accompanying drums, in a scratch night back in 2016.

“We hope Hear Me Howl will inspire discussion about the expectations we place on women to have kids. But we also want our audiences to have fun, to maybe take up drums, and to definitely dance around their kitchen like no-one’s watching.”

The play will be performed as a work in progress at The Landor Space in March, and the team aim to develop it with a major London venue for a full production run in the autumn of 2018. They’ll also be making a web series in the summer to explore the character of Jess further.

With Lights Down Productions Caley’s also currently producing a new play, Shards by Catherine O’Shea. “Shards is a play about memory, architecture, relationships, dating, particle physics and swing dancing… and what happens when you throw those things at each other. We just had a reading of the play at The Playwriting Suite at Canal Cafe Theatre, and have a four-week run at a major London venue later this year.”

Hear Me Howl will be at The Landor Space from 7th-9th March.

To keep updated on Lights Down Productions – including future performances of Shards – follow @LightsDownProd or find them on Facebook

Interview: Lou Stein, Chickenshed

When Lou Stein became Artistic Director of Chickenshed in 2016, it was the latest move in an already long and distinguished career. As founder of Notting Hill’s Gate Theatre and former Artistic Director of Watford Palace Theatre, he brings to the role a wealth of professional experience – but also a unique personal appreciation for the value of Chickenshed’s work.

My son Ethan, who is now eleven, has been a member of Chickenshed’s Children’s Theatre since he was seven, and it was he who brought me to Chickenshed,” explains Lou. “He has Down Syndrome and I began to see the organisation through his eyes – the eyes of a young person with ambition who doesn’t want to be labelled as having a disability, and who loves theatre. When I saw the job advertised, I saw it as an opportunity to re-focus the direction of the company to re-energise its purpose.”

That purpose is to pioneer inclusive theatre practice, something Chickenshed has been doing for over 40 years, since the company was established in 1974 by its founder – and Lou’s predecessor – Mary Ward. In addition to its professional theatre programme, Chickenshed also has a Children’s Theatre membership programme, a Youth Theatre, an Outreach Programme, a Performances for Children division, and runs an expansive Education programme ranging from BTEC to BA courses.

The uniqueness of Chickenshed is that all our various parts work together to embed notions of inclusion and diversion across everything we do,” says Lou. “In short, inclusive theatre is the language which propels all of our activities. The most exciting thing about Chickenshed for me is that when you walk through our doors, all labels are dropped. When I talk about it, I always love the fact that we have the most diverse performers and audiences in the UK. My biggest challenge as Artistic Director has been to harness the amazing core ethos of the company, which has been in development now for 44 years, and work with the company to make our current work relevant to the future and to our societal goals.”

Originally from New York, Lou arrived in London in 1978 with a life-long interest in European theatre and politics. That passion found an outlet the following year in a room above Notting Hill’s Prince Albert pub, which would become the Gate Theatre. The Gate reflected the then bohemian community in Notting Hill and the work there was devoted to international drama, particularly work that hadn’t received an outing in the UK,” says Lou. “At that time, the chance to see innovative international work was limited and the Gate filled a very important gap. When I left to become the Artistic Director of Watford Palace, I ensured that the core of the Gate’s future work was always to centre on daring, political, and innovative premieres of international drama. And that has been the bedrock of the Gate’s success throughout the years. I am so proud that it has spawned so many brilliant directors, actors, designers and playwrights.”

After ten years as Artistic Director at Watford Palace, where he worked with some of the best talent in the UK – including Helen Mirren, who turned down a stint at the RSC to appear in a new version of Madame Bovary – Lou formed his own production company to begin creating new work which explored collaboration between art forms, particularly contemporary music and theatre.

I have always been proudest of work that I’ve done which has somehow broken ground or pointed to new directions in how things can be done,” he says. Highlights come in many shapes and forms, and the projects that stand out have somehow either changed me or people around me. Certainly the raw creativity and freedom of those early years at the Gate was a huge highlight. The Gate story is a bit of a Cinderella story. With no funding in what was a very down at the heel pub, a group of outsiders came together to create work which was highly recognised very quickly.”

Another highlight for Lou is his adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which was the first production at what was then called the Gate at the Latchmere (now Theatre 503), before transferring to the Fortune Theatre in the West End. “I’ll never forget Hunter Thompson – a notoriously reclusive writer – saying that he was flying in from his home in Aspen, Colorado to see the show, and if he didn’t like it, he was going to tear the theatre apart,” he recalls. “Luckily, he loved it.”

Before coming to Chickenshed, Lou wrote, produced and directed regularly for BBC Radio 3 and 4.After my son Ethan was born, I was commissioned to write and curate a five part programme for The Essay about how children affect the creations of their artist-fathers – The Father Instinct,” he explains. “In the first episode I wrote about how Ethan positively changed my work as a director and writer, and how I approach my work. His birth was the biggest highlight of my career in that what I choose to do, and how I do it, changed dramatically. Without Ethan, I wouldn’t be at Chickenshed.”

Chickenshed’s spring season recently opened with monolog, featuring a timely revival of Alan Bennett’s Her Big Chance, the world premiere of Diane Samuels’ This Is Me, and six new monologues commissioned by Chickenshed from within the creative community. This will be followed in March by a new musical piece about climate change, called Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow, which features nearly 150 performers drawn from young members and professional creatives who are part of Chickenshed.

Finally, in April the company presents One Flew Over Cuckoo’s Nest, using a physical theatre approach and working with actors drawn from its professional staff, and a number of Chickenshed actors who will bring a special understanding of the play by drawing on their cognitive disability. “I don’t know of any theatre in the country who have the courage to do a play like this with a cast as diverse, in all ways, as ours will be,” says Lou.

The professional theatre programme is the spearhead for all our activities, and by producing high quality inclusive work, all of our various strands are pulled together. My vision for Chickenshed is that it will be a confident and highly skilled professional inclusive theatre company, which clearly places itself at the centre of London theatre’s consciousness, producing unmissable work – regularly partnering with similarly minded companies and institutions. It would be good if the Arts Council recognises this new direction and helps us to sustain this goal in the future.”

To find out more about Chickenshed, visit chickenshed.org.uk

Review: The Tempest at Brockley Jack Theatre

Controlled Chaos Theatre Company aims to promote diversity in the theatre, “including giving women a chance to take centre stage in the male dominated classics”. And they don’t come much more male dominated than The Tempest, a play in which the sole female character does exactly what she’s told by her father, then falls instantly in love with the third man she’s ever seen. Controlled Chaos aren’t the first company to turn that gender imbalance on its head with an all-female production; the Donmar did it last year, setting the action in a women’s prison, and a gender-reversed production at the Brockley Jack in 2005 saw all the male roles not only played by women but actually converted to female characters.

Photo credit: Kevin Kamara

This production keeps things much simpler: the characters are still male, and there’s no framing device; the only difference is all the parts are played by women. As in any gender-blind production, it’s a welcome sight to see female actors getting a chance to take on the meatier roles that Shakespeare never thought to grant them. That said, without any context it’s not always exactly clear what purpose the all-female concept is serving, and somewhat tentative performances from some of the cast dilute the powerful statement that could have been made by placing women in these positions of authority.

However, there’s still plenty to smile about in this version of Shakespeare’s tale of revenge, romance and magic on a deserted island. After a fierce storm shipwrecks the King of Naples and his entourage, they discover the island where they’ve landed is home not only to mischievous spirits, but also to the ousted and vengeful Duke of Milan, Prospero, his daughter Miranda and his slave Caliban. As Caliban conspires with drunken newcomers Trinculo and Stephano to kill his master, Miranda meets and falls for the king’s son Ferdinand, who’s become separated from his father and the rest of their party. And while all this is going on, elsewhere on the island Prospero’s brother Antonio plots to murder the king and put his dim-witted brother Sebastian on the throne.

Photo credit: Kevin Kamara

Dylan Lincoln’s production includes live music played and sung by the cast, to produce an atmosphere of magic and mystery, and also engages particularly well with the humour in the story. Carmella Brown’s Ariel is a delight throughout, skipping around the stage doing Prospero’s bidding with a mischievous twinkle in her eye. Michelle Pittoni also stands out as Miranda, her comical wide-eyed wonder at meeting a handsome young man replaced later by horrified embarrassment as her father lectures Ferdinand about his intentions. Shereener Browne and Afsana Sayyed are good fun as Antonio and Sebastian, whispering childishly together behind the king’s back before making a hilariously clumsy attempt on his life, and Ceri Ashe and Kimberley Capero make quite the raucous double act as Stephano and Trinculo.

At just over two hours, this is an accessible and entertaining adaptation of The Tempest, a perfect introduction for those unfamiliar with the story. As to whether the show delivers on its promise of a “bold re-imagining”, I’m not sure – but there’s plenty to enjoy either way, and any production that promotes diversity on the stage deserves to be celebrated.

The Tempest is at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 3rd March.


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: The Almighty Sometimes at The Royal Exchange

Guest review by Aleks Anders

The Royal Exchange over recent years has certainly changed its ethos in how they produce their main house productions; moving away from the comfortable, ‘bums-on-seats’ plays and musicals which were so much a part of this theatre company’s repertoire to a much more eclectic, boundary-pushing, rule-breaking, and therefore esoteric choice of productions. Even those that would traditionally be crowd-pullers, the Royal Exchange have chosen to go against the norm and challenge by cross-gender or colour-blind casting etc. So it was no surprise at all when they announced that the next play in their season was to be a Bruntwood Prize winner which tackles adolescent mental health.

The Almighty Sometimes by Kendall Feaver is a beautifully written and superbly observed piece of writing. It is honest, no punches are pulled, and yet there is great humour in there too, which serves to heighten and highlight the tensions and problems that mental health raises, especially when it concerns minors. Director Katy Rudd is right; it is one of those scripts which once you have read it you simply know you have to direct it!

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

In the world premiere production of this powerful and challenging four-hander, we see not only the inner struggles of a now 18 year old girl coming out of adolescence into adulthood, continually questioning her own mental state, caught between the perhaps unanswerable question of “what is me and what is my medication” syndrome, but we also see how her relationship and trust in both her mother, her boyfriend and her psychiatrist changes and develops over time. Her now rather fragile relationship with her mother begs questions like “Could she have done differently for me?”, “Why did she have to tell the doctors everything?”, “Was my mum or doctor always acting in my best interest?”; “What will happen if I don’t take my medication?”, “What will happen if I don’t take the doctor’s advice?”, “Did I even have a mental illness in the first place?” Indeed these same questions are being asked by her mother too, and the see-saw of their relationship is played with great passion and skill. She has been seeing the same psychiatrist since the age of 7, and they have built up a bond that could perhaps under other circumstances be called friendship; the compassion and understanding versus professionalism and correctness is played again with great understanding.

Norah Lopez Holden, no stranger to The Royal Exchange, is utterly superb as Anna, the teenager with hundreds of questions and no answers, her mood swings and her demeanour superbly measured. Another familiar face on the local circuit is Julie Hesmondhalgh playing Renee, Anna’s mother, whilst Mike Noble plays Oliver, Anna’s only real boyfriend / friend, and psychiatrist Vivienne is Sharon Duncan-Brewster.

To be honest, and without trying to sound sycophantic and gushing, the acting from all four is excellent; the chemistry between them is real, and their emotions and responses, electric.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

I do have something less positive to say though. Obviously this is only a personal reaction, but I did find that the lighting and sound detracted and misled, rather than adding and complementing. I felt very much as if I were watching a suspense thriller or similar where the background music in the film draws you in and conditions your emotional response. It was the same here, both the sound and lighting used throughout the play conditioned our emotions and told us exactly how we should be feeling and emoting at any particular point, rather than letting the wonderful words and acting affect us, each in our own way and in our own time.

The play doesn’t try to give answers or solutions to this ever-growing and contemporary issue; nor does it try to understand the problems, but with much humour and honesty simply lays the facts bare and leaves it up to the performers, director and audience to grapple with the issues in their own way. I am certain every audience member will have left the auditorium this evening with a different understanding and response to what they had just witnessed; however, what was abundantly clear was that we were all in agreement of the fact that it was exceptionally well presented by four consummate performers, and the subject was intelligently, sensitively and sensibly treated .

Certainly one of the best plays I have seen at The Royal Exchange for a long time, and a real gem of a play with a story that absolutely needs to be told.

The Almighty Sometimes is at The Royal Exchange until 24th February.

Review: The Moor at the Old Red Lion Theatre

You couldn’t get much further from the Yorkshire countryside than the bustling streets of Islington. Yet in the Old Red Lion pub theatre, a little piece of the moor is brought to life with eery authenticity in Catherine Lucie’s haunting psychological thriller. A murder mystery with a hint of the supernatural, this unpredictable tale, directed by Blythe Stewart, keeps us guessing until the very end, and beyond.

Young mother Bronagh (Jill McAusland) is threatened by her drunk, abusive partner after he sees her talking to another man at a party. The next day, she learns the other man has disappeared; not surprisingly, she soon draws her own conclusions about what kept her boyfriend Graeme (Oliver Britten) out so late. So far, so conventional. But then Bronagh’s suspicions start to develop into memories of what she saw that night, memories she relays with growing conviction to local police detective and old family friend, Pat (Jonny Magnanti). Naturally, both he and we regard her reports with equal parts suspicion and sympathy; after all, if she does have an agenda, it’s an understandable one. But does she?

Photo credit: The Other Richard

And this is where things get interesting, because Bronagh’s motivations are the biggest mystery of all. Lucie provides us with just enough detail to piece together a backstory for her central character, but stops short of supplying enough to reach any firm conclusions. We know Bronagh’s lonely, frightened, and possibly depressed following the death of her mother and birth of her baby – events that seem to have happened almost simultaneously three months earlier. But even though she frequently confides in the audience directly, it’s still impossible for us to tell if she’s making things up, having hallucinations, the victim of supernatural forces, actually telling the truth… or a combination of all four. Even when the mystery of Jordan Becker’s disappearance is solved, we’re really none the wiser as to what’s gone on; just as Bronagh reflects on alternative universes created by each choice we make, there are a multitude of possible interpretations of the play’s events, and Lucie leaves us to decide which one we think fits.

This complexity is captured beautifully in Jill McAusland’s performance as Bronagh. A small, vulnerable figure constantly on the verge of tears, at the same time there’s something deliberate and knowing in her exchanges with both Graeme and Pat that keeps us on shifting and uncertain ground. And as it turns out, the two male characters are no less complicated: Oliver Britten’s Graeme, for all his bluster and violent temper, emerges as an unexpectedly sympathetic character, while Jonny Magnanti’s kindly Pat is torn between his duties as a police officer and what is clearly a more complicated history with Bronagh and her family than either is letting on.

Photo credit: The Other Richard

Holly Pigott’s set, with a backdrop made up of rotating panels, portrays the moor as a labyrinthine world in which it’s easy to lose yourself. An ever present mist covers the stage, evoking both the wild rural landscape and the self-imposed darkness in which Bronagh and her baby daughter live.

Tense and intriguing throughout, The Moor is a skilfully constructed thriller that twists, turns and keeps us constantly questioning our own judgments. But it’s also a sensitive character study of a young woman trying to find where she belongs in a scary, isolating world – and to some extent, that’s a feeling we can all relate to.

The Moor is at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 3rd March.

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… 😉