Review: Voices From Home at Theatre503

Since its inception in 2017, Broken Silence Theatre’s Voices From Home has been championing new writers from across the South East, and more importantly from outside the capital. Volume 3 found the event in a new home at Theatre503 and showcasing five original pieces on a variety of themes and covering a broad emotional spectrum.

Anatomy of a Victim by Rachel Tookey (Surrey) is an intriguing and slightly unsettling piece about the murder of a young woman. The play starts with an unsentimental laying out of the facts from A (Abbi Douetil) and B (Ella Dorman-Gajic), who are a bit disappointed at the clichéd nature of the young woman’s disappearance, and convinced they’ve just uncovered a huge miscarriage of justice. Which is all well and good, until we’re taken back to the beginning of the story, and meet Rebecca (Hatty Jones) – the victim – who at this point is still alive and well and full of plans for the future, as she tells her friend about a frightening encounter she’s just had with the boyfriend that A and B are so keen to exonerate. The play ends on an abrupt and ambiguous note, leaving us to make up our own minds about what really happened that night, and slightly chastened by the realisation that behind every sensational true crime documentary, there first has to be a real victim.

From the first Kent writer to be featured in Voices From Home, Mark Daniels’ My Boys is a bittersweet portrayal of a grieving family as they take their first steps towards reconciliation after a lengthy estrangement. Stacha Hicks gives a particularly powerful performance as the newly widowed but still delightfully stoical Pauline, alongside David Ellis and Steven Jeram as her sons Jamie and Lenny. Tomorrow is the funeral of their late dad Len, and as he lies in his open casket, the remaining family members finally have a chance to say all the things they couldn’t say before – but have they left it too late? Funny and sad in equal measure, this enjoyable play about family and forgiveness will make you want to call your loved ones (especially if you’ve not seen them in a while) just to say hi.

Also on the topic of grief, Like and Subscribe by Berkshire’s Rachel Causer sees another awkward reunion, this time between two former best friends. One, Polly (Alanna Flynn), has gone on to become a successful podcaster, while the other, Kas (Antonia Salib), has been struggling to come to terms with her mum’s death. With Polly portrayed as superficial and self-absorbed, we’re immediately inclined to dislike both her and her brand of forced positivity, particularly when she appears to be trying to capitalise on her friend’s grief. But things aren’t quite as simple as they seem, and behind the weird podcast voice and fixed grin, there’s more to Polly’s positivity than meets the eye. Like and Subscribe is a witty and relatable story about friendship and the lengths we’re prepared to go to convince the rest of the world we’re fine – even when we’re anything but.

In Losers by Precious Alabi (Essex), two complete strangers meet outside a club. It’s 31st October 2019, and Her (Dominique Moutia) is having a bad night when she runs into Him (Andy Sellers). He thinks she’s superficial, she thinks he’s rude – but as the minutes tick down towards Brexit, they realise that maybe they have more in common than they thought. Though it may sound like it, Losers isn’t really a political play; it’s about two human beings finding a brief connection in a world that’s not treating either of them particularly well, and the many ways in which we make assumptions about others based on first impressions. The conclusion – in which Her has a revelation about how badly she’s behaved – feels a little bit too neat and tidy, but were the piece to be expanded into something longer, there’s potential here for some really interesting character development on both sides.

Last but by no means least, My first time was in a parking lot by Phoebe Wood from Norfolk is a powerful and disturbing story of one woman’s teenage trauma and the lasting impact it’s had on her life, relationships and mental health. Though Mira (Eleanor Grace) talks about her first time with seeming nonchalance, each time she returns to the story it becomes a little clearer that there was a lot more to it than we first thought – and not in a good way. Eleanor Grace gives a brilliant solo performance as this complex character who masks her pain with humour, and while it’s difficult to watch, at the same time this is the kind of piece you want to see again because there’s so much detail in those few short minutes.

With high quality writing, direction and acting across the board, the third outing for Voices From Home was as enjoyable, varied and thought-provoking as the previous two, and as always, it’s refreshing to see talent from outside London being given a voice. Roll on the next one…

For more details about Voices From Home, visit or follow @BrokenSilenceT

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.

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Review: Cuzco at Theatre503

Machu Picchu isn’t the only thing in ruins by the end of Cuzco, an intense two-hander about the fiery death of a relationship by Spanish playwright Víctor Sánchez Rodríguez. In an attempt to salvage their relationship, He and She have travelled to Peru – but their dream holiday quickly turns sour. As the play begins, He wants to go out with another Spanish couple they’ve befriended. She is not so keen, claiming altitude sickness and choosing to stay behind. When She does venture out of the hotel, it’s to immerse herself in the local culture (arguably a little too enthusiastically), while He is seduced by the charms of his new friends and pays little attention to his surroundings.

Photo credit: Holly Lucas

Nor does the audience get to enjoy the sights and sounds of the Inca trail, except at second hand. Far from rebuilding their relationship, the couple seem to spend most of the time apart; the play is set in a series of soulless hotel rooms – perfectly captured by Stephanie Williams’ simple set – in which they each take it in turns to describe what they’ve experienced to the other in great detail. It’s a parting of the ways in every possible sense, and although there are a few surprises in store before the end, the story ultimately plays out with crushing inevitability. Perhaps because we don’t get to see more than a snatched moment or two of the couple seeming happy together, we can never imagine any other outcome than what eventually happens.

The premise of the play is a good one, and the direction by Kate O’Connor and performances from Dilek Rose and Gareth Jones are all excellent. Where the play stumbles a little is in transmitting the intense passions between the characters to the audience. Neither He nor She is ever particularly likeable – though certainly they both have moments where we lean more to one side or the other – and there’s not enough variety in their interactions; because all they do from the very first scene is argue, it’s difficult for us to feel invested in their relationship, or to care very much when the end finally comes. In fact there are several moments where you’re left wondering why they even felt the relationship was worth coming all this way to save in the first place.

What is interesting about Cuzco, however, is that while in some respects it’s a very down-to-earth, everyday tale, at the same time the play has an increasingly otherworldly feel. Part of this lies in the story itself, which returns throughout to the fascination of both characters – She in particular – with Incan mythology and symbolism, but above all it’s in the way the play is written. William Gregory has translated Sánchez Rodríguez’s evocative language beautifully into English without losing any of its distinctive Spanish feel. And if that means sacrificing a little bit of realism – this couple argue far more eloquently than any I’ve ever met – it’s worth it for the opportunity to sit back and enjoy the poetry.

Photo credit: Holly Lucas

Despite some incredibly emotional scenes, Cuzco on the whole feels aimed more at the head than the heart, and as such it may not appeal to everyone. The play does, however, ask some interesting and at times uncomfortably probing questions about why and how people choose to travel, and the impact that experience can have on both the traveller and the cultures they set out to explore. Not the most emotionally engaging play, perhaps, but beautifully written – and it certainly leaves you with plenty to think about.

Review: The Dark Room at Theatre503

As the title suggests, the UK premiere of Angela Betzien’s The Dark Room makes for decidedly bleak viewing. Set in a run-down motel near Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory, it tells three interconnected stories, which unfold simultaneously on stage but in reality months apart, taking in themes including police brutality and child abuse. Betzien weaves these narrative threads together, as the characters slip in and out of each other’s lives, resulting in an intense 75 minutes that makes you think, keeps you guessing and ultimately leaves you reeling.

Photo credit: Alex Brenner

First to arrive are youth worker Anni (Katy Brittain) and her latest charge Grace (Annabel Smith), staying for the night while Anni tries to find a new home for the traumatised teenager. Next, we meet policeman Stephen (Tamlyn Henderson) and his pregnant wife Emma (Fiona Skinner), returning from a wedding but in far from high spirits. And last to enter the room is Craig (Alasdair Craig), another police officer, who’s facing up to recent events involving another teenager, Joseph (Paul Adeyefa), and the implications for his life and career.

The Dark Room is not an easy play, either in its subject matter or its format. The script blurs and overlaps scenes, with the actors remaining in the room throughout while other stories are told. Yet each pairing occupies their own separate world, and director Audrey Sheffield skilfully manoeuvres the actors around the space so that each strand of the plot remains distinct and clear. There’s a connection between the three, which is gradually revealed as the play goes on, and places Joseph and Stephen at the centre of the intricate framework. Tamlyn Henderson is excellent as Stephen; he’s clearly a good man who loves his wife and wants to do the right thing, but has found himself trapped in a world where masculinity always wins, at the expense of everyone and everything else.

Ultimately, though, it’s Grace’s story that lingers most in the mind. Annabel Smith is mesmerising as the volatile and vulnerable young girl whose life has been so horrific it’s left her broken and feral. In contrast, Katy Brittain’s Anni exudes the weary patience of an experienced youth worker who’s seen it all before – not just in this case but in an endless line of mistreated and neglected children over the course of ten years. Her lack of surprise in the face of Grace’s outbursts is perhaps the most disconcerting point of all.

Photo credit: Alex Brenner

After carefully building the suspense little by little, the play’s conclusion comes suddenly in a burst of drama (with lighting designer Will Monks creating some genuinely unnerving effects in the play’s dying moments). Though conclusion is perhaps the wrong word, as we’re left with the depressing sensation that nothing’s really changed; just as they weren’t the first, Grace and Joseph won’t be the last young people to end up in their situation. And though the play’s set in Australia, it issues a universal challenge to society to change the way it treats its most vulnerable members. Certainly not a light evening’s entertainment, but a grimly thought-provoking piece of theatre that deserves to be seen by many.

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Review: Hyem (yem, hjem, home) at Theatre 503

A quick examination of the cluttered living room set of Philip Correia’s debut play Hyem (yem, hjem, home) suggests we’re in the domain of a slightly eccentric collector. Family photos are proudly displayed alongside – amongst other assorted oddities – Viking helmets, guns, some ugly animal ornaments and a side table adorned with a gold dildo. Oh and let’s not forget the glass tank, which turns out to contain a six foot python.

In fact, Jasmine Swan’s set is a pretty accurate metaphor for the home of Mick and Sylv. Located on a dodgy estate in Northumberland, the house provides a refuge of sorts for an assortment of local kids, all of whom for whatever reason feel they have nowhere else to go. It’s not hard to see why they keep coming back – at Mick and Sylv’s they can smoke, drink and party as much as they like, and far from trying to keep boys and girls away from each other, romantic liaisons are actively encouraged.

Photo credit: Nick Rutter

But though the couple clearly care about their young visitors, there’s something not quite right about the whole setup, and once we learn the neighbours have been talking (not to mention throwing bricks through the window) it becomes more and more difficult to see it all as entirely innocent.

Correia clearly doesn’t believe in making it easy for us, and Jonny Kelly’s production keeps things ambiguous throughout, hinting at just enough of an uncomfortably physical relationship between Mick and newcomer Dummey – a fatherless thirteen-year-old who bears an uncanny resemblance to Mick’s absent son – to fuel our suspicions, but never quite enough to prove anything. Ryan Nolan and Patrick Driver play this relationship perfectly; seen from one perspective it’s heartwarming, from another quite disturbing.

Both also excel individually – as Dummey, Nolan displays all the hilarious awkwardness of any teenage boy just discovering girls for the first time. But there’s also a touching vulnerability to the character; at the end of the day, Dummey just wants someone, anyone, to want him. Driver explodes on to the stage as cheerful Cockney Mick, “the Pied Piper of Fountain Park”, who seems – for better or worse, and despite his clearly genuine love for his wife – to only really come alive when he’s surrounded by young people.

Charlie Hardwick is perfectly cast as Mick’s wife Sylv, her bawdy good humour dissolving over time as she becomes increasingly concerned about her husband’s behaviour. Here too there’s ambiguity, and it’s sometimes difficult to tell if she’s afraid of what people think, or if she has suspicions of her own. Sylv totally steals the show in the closing moments, baring her soul in a powerful rant against those who judge the way she’s chosen to live her life. With similarly strong and complex performances from the other cast members – Sarah Balfour, Aimee Kelly and Joe Blakemore as the lost souls who currently complete Mick and Sylv’s unconventional “family” – the stage is set for 90 minutes of unsettling but compelling domestic drama, which has the potential to develop in all kinds of directions.

Photo credit: Nick Rutter

Another great thing about the play – a production from NorthSee Theatre – is its use of language, and specifically the Geordie dialect, which is thick enough to be authentic but not so much that the dialogue becomes difficult to understand for audiences outside the North East.

Hyem is a layered, intriguing play that draws us into the home of its title and invites us to join the party, yet still somehow leaves us feeling slightly out in the cold, wondering what’s really going on inside. Not one for those who like all their loose ends neatly tied up, maybe – but if you’re okay with a bit of ambiguity, this fascinating exploration of what really makes a house a home is definitely worth checking out.

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