Review: Hamlet: Rotten States at The Hope Theatre

It’s Hamlet, but not quite as we know it. For one thing, Hamlet’s not actually in it. But Brian Blessed is. Sort of.

With Hamlet: Rotten States, 6FootStories return to the three-actor format of their acclaimed Macbeth: A Tale of Sound & Fury, which was first performed at the Hope a few years ago. In this case, the three actors (Will Bridges, Amy Fleming and Jake Hassam) are, in fact, actors – specifically, the players who visit court and are promptly recruited by Hamlet to recreate the murder of his father and in doing so catch the conscience of the king. But things are about to get more complicated for our players, who are visited by the ghost of Hamlet’s father and charged with avenging his death. And so Shakespeare’s play within a play becomes a play within a play within a play, as the three set out to answer the ghost’s challenge and reawaken Hamlet’s purpose in the only way they can think of.

Photo credit: Matthew Koltenborn

This naturally involves a bit of playing around with the original text, but the result is still a coherent, if incredibly brief, retelling of Hamlet’s story. The three performers are clearly enjoying themselves as they whisk us through the key events, dividing the principal roles and speeches between them, and filling in the inevitable gaps with puppetry and props. There are song and dance routines, overblown death scenes, and sword fighting without actual swords; Gertrude appears only as a floating head, and the murder of Gonzago is portrayed using toby jugs. Oh, and the dead king looks a lot like a fiercely grinning Brian Blessed.

Needless to say, there’s a distinctly mischievous tone to the production that die-hard fans of both Shakespeare and his tragic masterpiece may find hard to stomach. But it’s important to note that there’s no lack of respect here either; while the text may be somewhat rearranged to suit the show’s purpose, we still get the core plot in the right order, and speeches delivered with appropriate passion and reverence where required. The fact that the performers then immediately break character to congratulate themselves on the quality and content of said delivery is great comedy, but it also helps the audience appreciate afresh the dramatic power of Shakespeare’s language.

Photo credit: Matthew Koltenborn

Reducing four hours of action into one necessarily calls for high energy and a pretty brisk pace, and a pumping electronic soundtrack and flashing disco lights – all managed on stage by the actors themselves – complement this well. Unlike the original, in which every action is mulled over a thousand times, this is very much “blink and you’ll miss it” Hamlet, which keeps the audience focused throughout. The production walks the line well between familiarity and originality; those who know the play well can sit back and laugh at the numerous inside jokes, while for newcomers there’s enough here for them to follow the story, and perhaps spark an interest in seeing a more traditional retelling. Cheeky but respectful fun, this entertaining show guarantees a good time for all.

Hamlet: Rotten States is at The Hope Theatre until 1st February.

Review: Twelfth Night at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

With Christmas safely behind us, ’tis now the season for Twelfth Night, and Yard Players’ new production of Shakespeare’s popular comedy is one of several opening over the next couple of weeks in London. It may also quite possibly be the darkest, with director James Eley injecting a note of malice into not only the always questionable antics of Maria and Toby, but also the play’s traditionally neat and cheery conclusion, in which more than one character casually transfers their affections and everyone is seemingly okay with that.

Photo credit: Yard Players

From the start of this version, which has been updated to take place in the 21st century, the laughs are there – but so too is the sense that all is not well. Orsino (Duncan Drury) is quickly revealed to be little more than a petulant child who wants what he can’t have. Maria (Heloise Spring), whose character is conflated here with that of Feste the fool, greets everyone with a mocking sneer – including a recently shipwrecked and clearly distressed Viola (Jess Kinsey), who believes her twin brother Sebastian (James Viller) has drowned.

Malvolio (Daniel Chrisostomou), on the other hand, is here not so much pompous as just a bit of an oddball, his loyalty and affection for his boss Olivia (Candice Price) making him an easy target. The same can be said for Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Drury again), a likeable fool whose lack of brains see him walk time and again into the traps set by his permanently inebriated “friend” Toby (Pete Picton).

This means that even the scenes which are usually particularly riotous – Malvolio and his yellow stockings being the most obvious example – feel somewhat subdued, which allows the audience to view what’s happening in a different way. Viewed from this new perspective, Malvolio’s storyline is shown to be what it is (and in fact always has been): gaslighting – having first made their victim believe Olivia secretly loves him, Maria and Toby go on to try and convince him he’s imagined the whole thing, and nearly drive him to actual madness in the process. At the same time, almost every relationship in the play is revealed to be entirely hollow, based solely on physical attraction, lust for power, or financial gain. The final scene is particularly well done – unlike in most productions, there’s little happiness on display, even from those characters who seem to have got what they wanted.

All that said, the play still makes for an entertaining night out, and there are plenty of laughs to be had from the gender swapping, mistaken identities and general mischief going on. The setting is a bit muddled; it’s obvious we’re in a seaside town, and most of the characters wear either blue or red lanyards, marking them early on as rivals in business as well as romance, though it’s quite difficult to make out what kind of company they all work for. There are suggestions, too, in the posters that adorn the set, that Orsino may have political ambitions, while Maria – who’s officially employed by Olivia – seems to have a rather lucrative sideline of her own.

Photo credit: Yard Players

As a slightly weary Twelfth Night veteran, personally I enjoyed this more sombre adaptation of the play, which remains accessible to newcomers while offering a fresh perspective to those who’ve seen it before. It may not have the belly laughs of other productions, but does ask some interesting – and refreshing – questions about whether a story that’s had audiences in stitches for centuries was really all that funny in the first place.

Twelfth Night is at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 1st February.

Quick Q&A: If This Is Normal

Where and when: VAULT Festival, 25th-28th February 2020

What it’s all about… Meeting as kids in Kilburn, siblings Madani, Maryam and school mate Alex hit it off from the moment they meet. 10 years later kids’ playful chats about ninja turtles and bobble pens have been kicked out by teen opinions powered by what they Twitter and YouTube. Still, best friends can talk about anything. So why are there suddenly so many unspoken thoughts between the three?

After last year’s critically acclaimed world premiere of If This Is Normal at the Edinburgh Fringe, Chatback Theatre are delighted to bring this new play about the sexual experiences of young adults in a world of information overload and weaponised language to VAULT Festival 2020.

You’ll like it if… you like new writing, drama with a dash of comedy, inventive and energetic staging, plays about relationships and complicated situations.

You should see it because… the play tackles an important, modern day issue in a unique and engaging way. Previously the show ran at the Edinburgh Fringe and got great reviews including four stars from The Scotsman, The Wee Review and EdFringe Review and Everything Theatre said: ‘Delivered by three compelling actors, this is the sort of play that people can’t stop talking about on their way home, splitting opinions and sparking debate.’

Anything else we should know…: There are a limited number of 2-4-1 tickets on the StageDoor App!

Where to follow:
Twitter: @ChatbackT
Facebook: @ChatbackTheatre

Book here: vaultfestival.com/whats-on/if-this-is-normal/

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Review: The Invisible Man at Brockley Jack Studio

At first glance, the Brockley Jack’s choice for their final show of the year doesn’t seem particularly festive. But while it may not be a Christmas story – nor, in its original form, a particularly cheery one – The Invisible Man proves to be another winner for the theatre’s in-house creative team, and easily as entertaining as the best panto in town.

Photo credit: Davor@The Ocular Creative

Based on the H.G. Wells novel and adapted for the stage by Derek Webb, The Invisible Man finds us in the small English village of Iping, where a stranger wrapped in bandages (Shaun Chambers) has just taken a room at the pub. Bad-tempered and mysterious, he’s quickly viewed with suspicion by the locals, among them his landlady Mrs Hall (Matthew Parker) and the village doctor, Cuss (Scott Oswald). When his secret is revealed, the Invisible Man – a scientist unable to reverse his own discovery – embarks on a reign of terror against anyone who stands in his way.

In Webb’s adaptation, fifteen characters are played by three actors – with all the ensuing chaos that ratio implies. And yet it’s perfectly managed chaos in the hands of director Kate Bannister, costume designer Martin Robinson, and of course the multi-talented cast, each of whom juggles their various roles with great enthusiasm, and without missing a beat. Wisely, both script and production openly acknowledge the multi-roling aspect, and play it for maximum laughs, delighting the audience with tongue-in-cheek observations like the fact that the three policemen (all played by Chambers) all look alike, or that Dr Cuss must always carry a medical bag to avoid confusion.

As you might expect from a show in which the main character is invisible, the production also pulls off some impressive magic tricks. Karl Swinyard’s set is deceptive in its simplicity; there are several hidden secrets waiting to be discovered as the story unfolds. Wine glasses hang in mid-air, signposts turn all by themselves, and the actors – Scott Oswald, in particular – hold entire conversations, including physical interactions, with thin air. (And they do it so successfully that it’s almost possible to believe there really is an invisible man up on stage with them.)

Photo credit: Davor@The Ocular Creative

For all the comedy, however, the show does follow Wells’ original plot pretty closely, so inevitably there are some serious moments. The Invisible Man is the target of suspicion in Iping because he’s different and doesn’t fit any of the traditional village stereotypes, and it’s ultimately this isolation that pushes him on to a dark path. There’s a political element too; he speaks more than once about the dangers of capitalism, claiming he wants to steal from the bankers and redistribute their wealth – a particularly topical reference given recent events.

We’ve come to expect great things from the Brockley Jack team, and once again this production does not disappoint. Already a compelling story, this adaptation keeps us entertained and enthralled with its slapstick humour and just the right amount of playful audience engagement, but never detracts from the story’s more solemn themes. A thoroughly enjoyable alternative to the more traditional Christmas fare – get your hands on a ticket if you can.

The Invisible Man is at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 4th January.

Review: Snow White at Chickenshed

The run-up to Christmas means different things to different people. For the team at Chickenshed, it means it’s time once again for the challenge of putting 800 people on stage in the company’s final production of the year. Not all at once – there are four casts rotating throughout the six-week run – but still, it’s no mean feat to direct 200 people at a time, particularly when the majority of them are children.

Photo credit: Daniel Beacock

This year, the inclusive theatre company bring us an alternative Snow White. Written and directed by Lou Stein, it’s set in 1960s London, with a feminist plot twist and a heartwarming message about inner beauty, the redemptive power of forgiveness and the importance of staying true to yourself no matter what. Oh, and there’s a couple of really, really catchy tunes that will stay in your head all the way home, whether you like it or not. In other words, it’s the very definition of a Chickenshed Christmas show.

The show isn’t technically a panto – though I was tempted to boo more than once at Sarah Connolly’s gleefully convincing wicked stepmother Jane De Villiers – but it has roughly the same format: lots of musical numbers, a fairly lightweight plot, fabulous costumes, random superfluous characters, a swift and somewhat implausible happy ending, and a little bit of audience participation. There’s even a man in a dress, courtesy of Ashley Driver, who totally steals the show as Jane’s delightfully sassy Mirror. If Kinky Boots ever makes a comeback (please, theatre gods) – I know who I’ll be backing to play Lola.

A bit of romance is also, of course, on the agenda (this is a fairy tale, after all), and Cara McInanny and Nathaniel Leigertwood make an engaging pair as Snow White and security guy/single dad Jason. McInanny has a beautiful voice, and really shines in the musical numbers as her character tries to understand who she is and where she belongs. But there are lighter moments too; the scene in which Jason “kills” Snow White on her stepmother’s orders, for instance, is both a bit surreal and very funny.

Photo credit: Daniel Beacock

Perhaps inevitably, given the sheer number of people involved, there are a few issues with acoustics and it’s sometimes difficult to make out all the lyrics to Dave Carey’s 60s-inspired songs (unless you happen to know BSL, as the whole show is also signed). What the musical numbers sometimes lack in vocal clarity, however, they more than make up for in terms of choreography and sheer enthusiasm. As previously mentioned, at times there are 200 people on stage, and to see them all dancing, singing and having fun together is not only an impressive directorial achievement; it also sums up exactly what Chickenshed is all about. As always, their Christmas show is a festive treat that’s guaranteed to warm your heart and send you home feeling a little bit better about the world. Who can say no to that?

Snow White is at Chickenshed until 11th January.