Review: Precious Little at Brockley Jack Theatre

A short play with a lot to talk about, Madeleine George’s Precious Little places language and communication under the microscope. Brodie (Jenny Delisle) is a linguistics researcher who’s expecting her first child, but when the amniocentesis test reveals there might be a problem, she’s faced with a difficult choice. Her much younger girlfriend Dre (Jessica Kinsey) – who can’t understand why Brodie, now 42, wants a baby in the first place – offers little comfort, so Brodie looks for answers from two unlikely sources: Cleva, an elderly research subject whose language is on the verge of dying out, and the Ape, a famous talking gorilla at the local zoo (both Deborah Maclaren).

Photo credit: Tim Stubbs Hughes

The various elements of the story at first don’t seem to quite knit together and the end comes as a bit of a surprise, offering the audience little in the way of closure. But when you look back on it, language is the constant in every encounter within the play – whether it’s the gabbling tourists from whom 100 words carry less value than the Ape’s dignified silence, or the unfortunate choice of language from Brodie’s well-meaning doctor, which immediately put her on the defensive. Cleva’s revival of a language she hasn’t spoken for years brings back memories of another life, to the alarm of her overprotective daughter, and Brodie’s choice boils down to a simple question: can she live with a child who might not have the ability to communicate?

Under the direction of Kate Bannister, all three actors give excellent performances. As Brodie, Jenny Delisle succeeds in the difficult job of turning a woman who often seems cold, scientific and verging on arrogant into a sympathetic character whose dilemma the audience can sympathise with. Jessica Kinsey gives a masterclass in multi-roling, playing no less than five characters (many more if you count each of the zoogoers separately), each of them with a lot of lines – if not always a huge amount to say. This abundance of roles means she’s on stage for pretty much the whole play, with little time for significant costume changes, and yet every character she plays is completely distinct from the rest. Deborah Maclaren, in contrast, has relatively few lines, but makes every single one of them count. As the Ape she gives a meticulously observed physical performance; it really is like watching a gorilla at the zoo. Hearing her inner monologue means we can’t help but feel sympathy for this dignified, intelligent creature who’s expected to perform day in day out for the entertainment of impatient and insensitive humans.

Photo credit: Tim Stubbs Hughes

The production’s set and lighting design (Karl Swinyard and Ben Jacobs) skilfully contrast the clinical surroundings of Brodie’s office and various medical appointments with the artificial natural environment of the Ape’s zoo enclosure. Despite frequently involving a change of costume and setting the scene changes never feel overly long, due largely to Julian Starr’s increasingly urgent music, which helps maintain the pace and atmosphere of the production throughout.

At one point in the play, Brodie is offended when her doctor tactlessly suggests that linguistics isn’t a science – but it’s an easy mistake to make. We don’t tend to give the words we use every day as much thought as we should, and this play highlights how crucial language is not only in our interactions but also in our identities. It may be called Precious Little, but this thought-provoking play has plenty to say.

Precious Little is at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 15th June.

Review: Kill Climate Deniers at the Pleasance

It’s a bold move to stand on stage in front of a room full of press, among them several bloggers taking notes for a forthcoming review, and declare repeatedly that “if you are a blogger, you do not count”. Similarly, it’s not often you see an actor point a gun directly into an audience member’s face, because it is – as the writer himself acknowledges – “a huge breach of performer / audience trust”.

Photo credit: Ali Wright

Then again, would we expect anything less from a play with the deliberately provocative title of Kill Climate Deniers? Written by David Finnigan as a cry of frustration, this riotous Australian satire takes a unique and fearless approach to the bitterly divisive issue of climate change. Australia’s Environment Minister Gwen Malkin (Felicity Ward) is having a terrible day – she’s caused outrage on national radio by clumsily announcing that the government’s new strategy to tackle global warming is to “block out the sun”, she’s become a laughing stock on Twitter, and now she’s on the verge of getting fired. Then to make matters even worse, the Fleetwood Mac concert she’s attending at Parliament House is invaded by a ruthless gang of eco-terrorists, intent on killing everyone in the building unless climate change is stopped right now. Malkin’s not taking that lying down, though, and together with her trusty press advisor Georgina Bekken (Kelly Paterniti), she sets out to take on the terrorists and restore her honour in the eyes of the nation.

In the wake of the recent Extinction Rebellion protests and youth climate strikes, Kill Climate Deniers is a very timely production – though funnily enough it’s not really about climate change per se. The writer’s stance is clear from the play’s title; it would be a waste of everyone’s time to spend more than a couple of minutes explaining the subject to an audience who, presumably, are already very much on board. Despite this, there are no good guys in this story – and nor can there ultimately be any winners, whatever the outcome of the siege. The enmity between the two sides might make for good entertainment, but as the writer himself acknowledges over the course of the play, it’s also a dangerous distraction from the real fight to save the planet. (Side note: if you can, I recommend getting a copy of the play text, which includes a lot of extra notes and information from the playwright.)

When the outlook is this bleak, you might as well have some fun with it, and there’s little doubt that Nic Connaughton’s fast-paced, highly physical production is an absolute blast from start to finish. Felicity Ward and Kelly Paterniti make a hilarious if slightly dysfunctional double act as Malkin and Bekken, taking down terrorists in slow motion action movie style to a soundtrack of 90s techno classics. Hannah Ellis Ryan delivers two of the play’s most compelling monologues so persuasively that even Bec Hill’s cynical chief terrorist Catch is forced to admit she’s “hella eloquent” (well, in one case; in the other, unable to find any holes in her argument, she just shoots her in the stomach). Meanwhile as a counterpoint to the drama on stage, Nathan Coenen provides something approaching a voice of reason as the play’s writer, Finig, who attempts to explain why the two sides of the argument may actually have more in common than we like to think.

Photo credit: Ali Wright

Though it might be preaching to the choir on the dangers of climate change, any smugness we may feel over being on “the right side” doesn’t last very long once the play gets going. Action-packed, irreverent and hilariously weird, Kill Climate Deniers nonetheless still succeeds in making a serious and important point, and provides more than enough food for thought to give you nightmares for weeks.

Kill Climate Deniers is at the Pleasance until 28th June.

Review: J’Ouvert at Theatre503

It may only just be June, but the carnival spirit is already very much alive at Theatre503. Yasmin Joseph’s debut play takes us to Notting Hill in August 2017, just in time to witness J’Ouvert – the official start of carnival, at dawn – through the eyes of three friends: Nadine (Sharla Smith), Jade (Sapphire Joy) and Nisha (Annice Boparai), each of them trying in their own way to reclaim the annual event for the community that created it. As the day passes, the three make their way through the crowds, dancing and drinking, dodging rain showers and disapproving family members – only to be faced with overpriced food, judgmental locals, and the realisation that even in the heart of the world they thought was theirs, they’re still not safe from misogyny, slut-shaming or the threat of physical and sexual violence.

J'Ouvert at Theatre503
Photo credit: Helen Murray

It’s quickly obvious this is a play that knows who it’s speaking to, and the frequent audible and unanimous responses from the majority of the audience to the characters’ experiences and observations confirm that it does so very well. As for those of us who don’t share those experiences, Joseph makes few concessions, instead challenging us to go away and make the effort to plug the gaps in our own understanding. This means the play doesn’t resonate in the same way for everyone, but it also makes perfect sense – in a play about giving Black British people back their voice, it would serve little purpose to keep interrupting the flow to make sure the minority were all keeping up.

The production, directed by Nine Night actor Rebekah Murrell, has had a bit of a bumpy road to the stage, with two cast members having to be replaced just a few days before opening night. Considering the circumstances, Sapphire Joy and Sharla Smith do an amazing job as best friends Jade and Nadine, with a very natural and believable closeness between them. Joining them is Annice Boparai as Nisha, an overenthusiastic activist of Indian descent and privileged upbringing, whose clumsy attempts to fit in with the others are often the cause of both tension and hilarity.

Sandra Falase’s flag-adorned set and sensational costumes bring the Notting Hill Carnival to vibrant life, with each of the women bringing her own interpretation to her outfit for the day. An irresistible soundtrack completes the picture, and there’s a constant sensation of movement and sound throughout, so that even in a pub theatre in Battersea you can feel the thronging crowds and lively atmosphere. The only moment where everything stops is the minute’s silence at 3pm for the victims of Grenfell Tower – a poignant moment of stillness and solidarity amidst the hubbub.

J'Ouvert at Theatre503
Photo credit: Helen Murray

Media coverage of the Notting Hill Carnival tends to focus on increased police presence and the amount of violent crimes committed during the three-day celebration. One such crime – committed by two men against the women who dared to say no – is a pivotal event in J’Ouvert. But the response to that event, and the play as a whole, demonstrate that there’s a lot more to carnival than the grim statistics that get splashed across the papers every summer. The image we’re left with is not one of violence, but of pride, friendship and resilience, and a community that’s prepared to keep fighting for as long as it takes to reclaim its voice and heritage.

J’Ouvert is at Theatre503 until 22nd June.

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Review: Country Music at Omnibus Theatre

This Dartford resident felt very much at home last night watching Simon Stephens’ Country Music, in a new production directed by Scott Le Crass. Set against the symbolic backdrop of the QEII bridge connecting Essex and Kent, the play follows central character Jamie across two decades and four significant encounters, exploring along the way the lasting impact of one bad decision on his life and relationships.

Country Music at Omnibus Theatre
Photo credit: Bonnie Britain

We first meet Jamie (Cary Crankson) in 1983 as a troubled eighteen-year-old, on the run after committing a vicious assault back home in Gravesend. With him is his almost-girlfriend Lynsey (Rebecca Stone), who’s torn between excitement and anxiety over what lies ahead. Ten years later, Jamie’s doing time for an even more serious crime, and receives a tense visit from his younger brother Matty (Dario Coates). And another decade after that, he’s travelled up north to visit his teenage daughter Emma (Frances Knight) – but it’s not quite the joyous reunion he’d hoped for.

The play’s biggest weakness lies in its failure to make the exact timeline and details of Jamie’s misdemeanours completely clear, but what is very apparent is that the split-second choice he made just prior to his escape across the river with Lynsey has gone on to direct the disappointing course of the rest of his life. A short but powerful final scene brings us back to the start of the story, offering a glimpse of what could have been that also feels like a long overdue opportunity for redemption.

Given the subject matter, it’s to be expected that the play makes for a fairly intense 80 minutes, but director Scott Le Crass and a really excellent cast succeed in wringing every last drop of tension and significance out of both Stephens’ words and, just as importantly, the silences between them. Such is the quality of all four actors’ performances that these – often quite lengthy – pauses in the dialogue are enthralling to watch; I don’t think I’ve ever been so fascinated by two people sitting and eating crisps in complete silence. Cary Crankson in particular gives an outstanding performance as Jamie, his every gesture and expression conveying what the character’s immaturity and intellectual limitations often prevent him being able to put into words.

Though little of the action actually takes place there, Jamie’s home town of Gravesend is crucial to the story; even two decades later, he still speaks of it with a kind of pride, despite the fact it’s the place where his life took such a dramatically wrong turn. He seems particularly fascinated by the QEII bridge, and mentions it often – though when his story begins, it’s little more than an idea (it was built during the 1980s, and didn’t open until 1991). Liam Shea’s striking set also takes inspiration from the bridge’s towering and architecturally impressive structure, with ropes that converge on a simple raised platform in the centre where the action unfolds.

Country Music at Omnibus Theatre
Photo credit: Bonnie Britain

The tragedy of Country Music is that while it’s all too easy for a life to go off course, getting it back on track can be an impossible struggle. The Jamie who meets his seventeen-year-old daughter is an entirely different man to the volatile teenager who went on the run all those years before – yet he’s still forced to live with the consequences of that boy’s mistakes, however desperately he wishes he could undo them. The plot may at times be slightly muddled, but the sense of waste and irretrievable loss at its heart comes through powerfully in this excellent revival.

Country Music is at the Omnibus Theatre until 23rd June.

Review: Four O’Clock Flowers at The Space

There could be few more topical subjects for a play in London just now than knife crime, an issue that’s been dominating the headlines more and more in recent months. In Louise Breckon-Richards’ Four O’Clock Flowers, we don’t see the crime itself – instead the play’s focus is very much on the aftermath and those left behind. Two mothers thrown together in the worst possible circumstances find unlikely solace in their encounter, as each struggles to come to terms with her own grief and guilt.

Unlike some other plays on this topic, Four O’Clock Flowers doesn’t approach the subject matter with a strongly political agenda. There’s no explicit commentary on the issue of race, for instance; no mention of police cuts, and only one brief reference to gang culture. What it does do very well, however, is to expose the tragic waste of not one but two young lives, and to tackle the preconception that anyone who commits such a crime must be an inherently bad person. It’s obvious that neither mother saw the tragedy coming, and even for the audience – who meet one of the boys very briefly in the play’s opening and closing scenes – it’s hard to understand how this considerate, level-headed young man could have ended up where he is.

There’s no doubt that the play does make you think about the impact and the underlying causes of knife crime, and that it challenges one or two automatic assumptions that tend to accompany any discussion on the subject – but much more than that, it makes you feel. The fragile connection between Maya and Anna is very poignantly played out by Sophie Cartman and Caroline Trowbridge, each of them revealing their vulnerability and pain, but also their strength, at different moments. Leon Finnan also impresses as teenager Joshua, who only appears in two scenes but in between is a constant presence on and around the stage, a haunting reminder to both women of what could have been.

The story takes place over 24 hours, following Maya’s vigil for her son at the spot where he died. The action moves at a steady pace for the majority of the 70-minute running time, but then comes to a rather abrupt end after skipping from 7am to 4pm. The final image of the two women standing together is nonetheless very striking, and the scene that follows certainly packs an emotional punch. There’s also a lovely moment early on in Kesia Guillery’s production where audience members are invited to lay flowers at the shrine that sits at centre stage. One small complaint from the third row: there are important details that are referred to in the script, but very easily missed by audience members without a clear sightline, due to their being very low down or even on the floor.

Knife crime is a hugely complex and distressing subject, and Four O’Clock Flowers doesn’t set out to offer solutions, but it does paint a very insightful and moving picture of the devastation this violence can leave behind.  Sensitively written and poignantly performed, this debut play brings The Space’s annual Foreword Festival to a powerful conclusion.

Four O’Clock Flowers is at The Space until 1st June.

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… 😉