Review: The Acedian Pirates at Theatre503

Jay Taylor’s debut play The Acedian Pirates was shortlisted for the inaugural Theatre503 Playwriting Award in 2014. Now, two years later, it’s come back home in dramatic, devastating style, to confront one of the oldest questions in history: why do human beings go to war?

Jacob, a young man newly transferred to the Intelligence division, sits in a lighthouse with his fellow soldiers, listening to the sounds of a mysterious woman being interrogated on the floor above. We don’t know where they are; we don’t know who they’re fighting or what they’re waiting for. We don’t even know when the story’s set – it could just as easily be ancient past, present day or dystopian future. And somehow that doesn’t matter; this is, after all, just one more war in an endless series of wars, so who cares where or when it’s taking place?

Photo credit: Savannah Photographic
Photo credit: Savannah Photographic

Besides, it’s another question that interests Jacob: why they’re at war at all. Why, he wonders, is he called a hero for killing fifteen strangers just because they wore a different uniform to him? What is it that keeps them all there, on that island, year after year? The other men answer in meaningless rote responses – that they’re there to fight, to help, to do some good – but even they seem unconvinced. In frustration, Jacob finally turns to the only other person who might be able to answer him: the woman upstairs, the one nobody’s seen but who all nonetheless firmly believe to be “everything”.

This isn’t a particularly easy play, either in its heavy subject matter or its intellectual tone; I’d recommend brushing up on your Greek mythology before leaving home. Yet despite the sophisticated vocabulary and the numerous classical references, Jay Taylor’s writing still captures the natural speech patterns of a bunch of men who’ve been cooped up together for a long time. Light-hearted banter, explosive rage and wistful nostalgia combine in a script that’s not only totally believable but also brilliantly delivered by an excellent cast.

Cavan Clarke leads the way as Jacob, skilfully managing his character’s transition from youthful arrogance to the very brink of madness. His quiet thoughtfulness is matched by that of Marc Bannerman as Bull, a man of so few words that when he does choose to speak, we listen. Meanwhile Ivan (Matthew Lloyd Davies) and Bernie (Andrew P Stephen) rarely shut up, constantly full of stories from the glorious past; whether they’re actually their own stories is neither here nor there. Rowan Polonski is the oddly charismatic commanding officer Troy, who seems quite mad but may just turn out to be the sanest of them all, while Sheena Patel is a refreshingly sharp-tongued damsel in distress.

Photo credit: Savannah Photographic
Photo credit: Savannah Photographic

Trapped as we are within the lighthouse – beautifully imagined by designer Helen Coyston – there’s a simmering tension in Bobby Brook’s production that has little to do with the fear of physical harm. Lighting and sound effects from Cat Webb and Simon Slater give us a powerful impression of the conflict raging outside, but the real struggle is unfolding within these walls, and the only question is how and when it’ll reach its climax.

The Acedian Pirates feels particularly relevant at a moment in our history when the habit of parroting dangerous ideologies without hesitation seems to be on the rise, and those who dare to disagree are accused of being unpatriotic or disrespectful. The play doesn’t offer any answers to its central question, but perhaps that’s because there simply isn’t one to offer. Or rather there are too many; the sad fact is we’ll always find a reason to make war against each other – even if, after a while, nobody can quite remember what it was.

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… 😉

Interview: Jay Taylor, The Acedian Pirates

“Funny. Surreal. Savage,” says actor-turned-writer Jay Taylor, when given three words to sum up his debut play, which was shortlisted for the inaugural Theatre503 Playwriting Award in 2014, and opens at Theatre503 on 26th October. “The Acedian Pirates is a dark comic-drama about military occupation, the moral conundrum of armed intervention and the mythology of warfare,” he adds, when allowed a few more.


What led Jay to choose this weighty subject for his first play? “I wanted to write something about the way people mythologise conflict and also about man’s obsession with war,” he explains. “It seemed to me that Helen of Troy was the ultimate idol and myth, so I wanted to offer a radically different perspective on the ‘face that launched a thousand ships’. This play was intended to investigate belief, propaganda and the moral dilemma of intervention; all themes that seem very relevant considering the amount of instability and conflict in the world today.

“I hope it challenges a few perceptions and attitudes towards the military: their recruitment policy, their moral responsibility and their genuine intentions when invading or occupying another territory. But this is not intended to be a condemnation of the military or a pacifist diatribe. The crux of the play is the moral dilemma of intervention; for example, what would have happened if the allies had not intervened in the Second World War in order to defeat fascism?”

After 10 years as an actor, Jay’s finding it fascinating to approach the creative process from the other side: “I’m quite used to being in an audition environment, but being on the other side of the table for our casting process was a hugely informative experience. And being in rehearsals is fantastic – the actors are able to investigate their characters with great specificity and turn them into fully realised people. Plus, they’re not letting me off the hook with regard to the characters’ desires and objectives, which forces me to rethink certain aspects of the play. It’s brilliant.

“There are many transferable skills between acting and writing. Essentially they’re both about critical thinking and determining what characters, choices and attitudes best serve the story you are trying to tell. Acting also gives you a good ear for dialogue, as well as a desire to make every character as dynamic as possible. I’ve played plenty of characters that are purely there to exposit and give information to the protagonist. That sort of writing is lazy, so I try my best not to do that!”


Jay’s over the moon to see his work performed at Theatre503. “It’s thrilling. Theatre503 rightly has the reputation of being one of the most bold, ambitious and innovative theatres in London. For a theatre with such limited space and resources, their output is extraordinary. I’m delighted that my first play has been programmed there; I think it’s worth mentioning that I sent The Acedian Pirates direct to the theatre, through their unsolicited script submission portal. Their resident literary manager and dramaturg Steve Harper has offered invaluable support to me as a writer – this production wouldn’t be happening without him.”

The Acedian Pirates takes place in a lighthouse, with a set designed by Helen Coyston. “Helen’s been a fantastic addition to the creative team,” says Jay. “Having only seen the model box and costume design drawings, I think her design is going to be deeply atmospheric, offering a pressure cooker environment for the characters to inhabit. I’m personally looking forward to seeing how we cram six actors, a lighthouse, the moon, the sea and some pretty significant special effects all onto the diminutive stage at Theatre503! But we will and it will obviously be deeply cool and brilliant… I hope!”

Finally, what advice does Jay have for someone thinking about getting into writing, but not sure where to begin? “People often say to write what you know, but my advice is to be as bold, inventive and imaginative as you can. I love nothing more than going to the theatre and seeing something subversive, different and theatrical. I feel like our addiction to television box sets has stifled creativity and made theatrical exuberance unfashionable.

“Don’t write what someone else tells you to write or what you think might please someone. Think with your inner child; write about something that inspires you and something you really believe in.”

The Acedian Pirates is at Theatre503 from 26th October-19th November.

Review: Screwed at Theatre503

For a lot of people, 30 is the milestone age when we start to think about our ‘life plan’: to consider who we are, who we want to be, and how we’re going to get there. But what if you don’t have a life plan, and you don’t even know where you’ll end up tomorrow, let alone in five years’ time?

Kathryn O’Reilly’s debut play, Screwed, introduces us to Charlene and Luce, two friends in their early 30s whose only goal is to lurch from one drunken night out to the next, filling the hours in between at their mind-numbingly boring factory job and popping caffeine pills to get through the day. Shrugging off the attempts of friends and family to set them straight, the two girls stumble down the path to self-destruction – but then one night things go too far, putting their dysfunctional friendship to the test, and changing several lives forever.

Photo credit: Sophie Mutevelian
Photo credit: Sophie Mutevelian

Samantha Robinson and Eloise Joseph are a perfect team as eternal teenagers Charlene and Luce. O’Reilly’s produced a choppy, off-beat script that allows the friends to fall into a familiar routine and bounce off each other in a way that’s both funny and oddly touching; you get the feeling they’ve had the same conversation many times before, and know each other back to front. And yet there’s a bitchiness underlying almost all their banter that establishes the power balance early on in the play: the brash, confident Luce (Eloise Joseph) calls the shots, while vulnerable, self-loathing Charlene (Samantha Robinson) falls in line, often at the expense of her own happiness. Consequently the friendship becomes both uncomfortable and frustrating to watch, as we not only see both girls wasting the potential they undoubtedly possess, but also find ourselves willing Charlene to break free of Luce’s damaging influence.

If the girls are often difficult for us to like, the other two characters in the play fall at the opposite end of the spectrum; in fact, if anything, they’re a bit too good. The girls’ work colleague – and Charlene’s love interest – Paulo (Stephen Myott-Meadows) is endlessly patient and idealistic, while Luce’s trans parent, Doris (Derek Elroy), is a shining example of someone who saw what they wanted from life and made it happen, against the odds and whilst single-handedly raising a difficult and ungrateful daughter. Both the male characters are admirable and likeable enough, but next to the complexities of the central characters, they do feel just a little one-dimensional.

Photo credit: Sophie Mutevelian
Photo credit: Sophie Mutevelian

Sarah Meadows’ production is slick and energetic, and leaves plenty to the audience’s imagination. Much like a drunken night out, some of the most significant events are blacked out, and we (and others) are forced to rely on the girls’ memories – which are unreliable at best, downright dishonest at worst – to piece the story together. The set, designed by Catherine Morgan, is simple yet multifunctional, adapting easily to become everything from factory to hospital, nightclub to kebab van. The concealed mirrors are a nice touch too, allowing for an increasing amount of self-examination from the characters as the play goes on… though whether it does anyone any good is questionable.

Screwed is a hard-hitting play, and not always that enjoyable to watch, though it certainly has its moments. Underneath the bawdy humour lies a cautionary tale about wasted opportunities – in love, work, and life in general – and the party culture that, much like Luce and Charlene’s friendship, does far more harm than good. Kathryn O’Reilly’s decision to explore this social trend with a focus on female characters is refreshing, if a little bit depressing, and while the play doesn’t offer a lot in the way of answers, it certainly paints a vivid picture.

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… 😉

Theatre round-up: 8 Nov 2015

Right, I haven’t done a theatre round-up for weeks – not because I haven’t been going to the theatre (far from it) but just because of lack of time. There are definitely not enough hours in the day lately.

So in an attempt to get back into a routine… this week I’ve had two theatre trips. And one of my recent reviews, of The Forbidden by Doll’s Eye Theatre, got a mention in an article on the Guardian website, which was pretty exciting 🙂

Anita and Me, and Rotterdam

Rotterdam (Theatre503)

It’s New Year’s in Rotterdam, and Alice is finally ready to come out to her parents by email – until her girlfriend Fiona makes the sudden announcement that she wants to start living as a man. Suddenly finding herself in a relationship with Adrian, instead of Fiona, leaves Alice wondering if this means she’s now straight. This touching and heartwarming comedy by Jon Brittain considers the labels placed on us by society, but also those we place on ourselves. Well worth a look if you can get there – it’s on until 21st November.

Review of Rotterdam for LondonTheatre1

Anita and Me (Theatre Royal Stratford East)

Based on Meera Syal’s 1997 novel and adapted by Tanika Gupta, Anita and Me is the story of 13-year-old Meena, and her friendship with the rebellious Anita. Faced with changes within their family and their neighbourhood, the girls have to decide what’s most important to them. This is a fun, entertaining play with some catchy tunes – but it tries to squeeze a bit too much in to a relatively short time, which makes it hard to get into the story or identify with the characters. I didn’t love it – but definitely didn’t dislike it either; it has a lot of potential to be a really good show.

Anita and Me review for LondonTheatre1

What have you seen at the theatre this week? Any recommendations?

Next week’s theatre

Puttin’ on the Ritz – Orchard Theatre, Dartford

Staying Alive (Blackshaw Theatre Company) – Pleasance Theatre

Review: And Then Come The Nightjars at Theatre503

One of my favourite things about theatre is the way it constantly surprises. You go into a play thinking you know what it’s about, and how you’ll react to it – and it turns out you’re totally wrong, in the best possible way.

An example: the unexpected delight that is And Then Come The Nightjars. Written by Bea Roberts, and co-produced by Theatre503 and the Bristol Old Vic Theatre, it’s billed as a story about the foot and mouth crisis that struck Britain’s farms in 2001. Which may not sound like laugh-a-minute stuff, but it turns out this wonderful play is funnier and more uplifting than I could have imagined.

And Then Come The NightjarsPerhaps that’s because the depressing topic of foot and mouth is only a part of what this two-man play is really about. More than that, it focuses on the relationship between two friends: Michael, a Devonshire farmer, and Jeff, the local vet. The action covers several years, beginning in the early days of the foot and mouth epidemic, and on into the years that follow. Michael and Jeff’s chalk and cheese relationship has its ups and downs, like all friendships, but they’re exacerbated by the crisis, which places them unwillingly on opposite sides. In the years that follow, it’s not only Michael’s farm and the rural community that needs to recover.

So not surprisingly, there are some really poignant moments in Paul Robinson’s production, but there are also a lot of laughs – mostly thanks to the delightful character of Michael, played by David Fielder. With his gruff manner and thick West Country accent, which – as impenetrable as it sometimes is – can’t conceal his fondness for the f word, Michael’s the epitome of the grumpy old man, but with a vulnerability that means you can’t help but love him. Well-spoken and relentlessly cheerful Geoffrey (Nigel Hastings), who fills every silence with pub quiz questions, is Michael’s polar opposite, and yet that’s what makes their friendship so much fun to watch – it shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. The two actors are clearly having fun with their roles; they have great chemistry, and the affection between them is totally believable.

Though everything we see takes place in Michael’s barn, it wouldn’t be true to say that’s where all the action is; Max Dorey’s beautifully rustic set is only half the story. There’s an awful lot happening off stage too, but we don’t need to see it to understand what’s going on, and nor would we necessarily want to. One of the most powerful and heartbreaking scenes takes place at the height of the foot and mouth crisis; as Michael and Jeff stand silent and motionless in the centre of the barn, a flickering orange light tells us all we need to know about what’s occurring outside. It’s simple but incredibly effective – as are the slow interludes between scenes, where subtle shifts in the lighting, designed by Sally Ferguson, mean we can literally see time passing before our eyes.

And Then Come The Nightjars is a moving tale of friendship, and resilience in the face of almost unbearable loss. And it addresses these themes with such warmth and humour that I didn’t want it to end. Who would have thought a story about foot and mouth would be so enjoyable? Certainly not me.

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… 😉