Review: Love Lab at Tristan Bates Theatre

Love Island meets Big Brother meets Black Mirror in Sam Coulson’s Love Lab, which sees two singletons locked in a room together for 7 days in an attempt to make them fall in love. It’s the latest reality TV show, watched by millions – but that’s little comfort to Perry (Michael Rivers), who doesn’t even remember applying. And he’s definitely not okay with being kidnapped and forced to live on cold baked beans for a week with a total stranger, while a cheerful disembodied voice asks them increasingly personal questions.

Photo credit: Sam Tibi

Livia (Harriet Barrow), on the other hand, is much more at ease. She’s watched the show before, which helps, but we also learn this isn’t her first time in front of the cameras. And she’s considerably more au fait with dating apps and social media than her selected match, who’d much rather meet up with his friends in person over a cuppa than follow them on Facebook. Livia’s even been allowed to keep her phone, whereas Perry’s is nowhere to be seen. She seems to have the upper hand, but then the mind games kick in and the balance of power begins to shift – until, in a final fiendish twist, the Love Lab pulls the rug from under both their feet.

Set in a perhaps not so distant future, Séan Aydon’s slick production embraces the technological theme with stark lighting and unsettling sound effects – and let’s not forget the frequent interruptions of friendly matchmaker Lucy, whose pleasant but mechanical enunciation begins to sound increasingly sinister as the play goes on. Actors Michael Rivers and Harriet Barrow have great chemistry as the mismatched pair, whether they’re engaging in rapid-fire banter or sharing a moment of genuine connection. In fact, despite some significant flaws both characters ultimately prove rather likeable, and by the end we’re almost rooting for them to run off into the sunset together.

My main complaint about Love Lab is actually a compliment in disguise: I wanted more. The premise is intriguing, and the play offers some fascinating (and slightly scary) insights about dating in the 21st century – but at only 50 minutes it feels too short, and as clever as the final twist is, it’s all a bit abrupt. Just as we feel like we’re starting to get to know the characters and what might have brought them here, it’s all over. I’d love to see a longer version of the play that lets us spend a bit more time in the Love Lab (and yes I appreciate the irony of that statement, given that Perry spends a significant amount of his time trying to get out).

Photo credit: Sam Tibi

Witty and insightful, the play asks “what is love?” in a world where off-line connection is starting to feel like the exception rather than the rule. We may lament the fact that nobody meets in person any more, but Love Lab leaves us wondering if that’s actually a self-fulfilling prophecy – are we all too glued to our dating apps to look up and see who’s right in front of us? The play doesn’t condemn online dating; even Perry acknowledges it’s a great idea in theory. But it still might make you stop and think twice the next time you swipe right.

Love Lab is at Tristan Bates Theatre until 18th August.

Review: Getting Over Everest at Tristan Bates Theatre

Getting over a break-up is never easy. But when you’ve spent ten years – a third of your life – building a future with the man who’s just unceremoniously dumped you, recovery can feel like an impossible task. It’s no coincidence, therefore, that the ex in Natasha Santos’ new play is called Rob Everest, and that main character Libby is struggling to get over him. She’s not eating; she’s been spotted crying into a stolen pair of Rob’s pants at work (when she’s not listening to Sinead O’Connor on repeat, that is); and she’s started recording her farts – just because she can.

Needless to say, Getting Over Everest is a comedy, in which Libby (Natasha Santos) confesses all the crazy things she’s doing to try and get over her ex. When we first meet her, she’s leaving him yet another voicemail – in this case, a heartfelt rendition of I Will Always Love You. Later, encouraged by her friend Steph (Grace Dunne), she goes clubbing and ends up having an ill-advised sexual encounter with a floppy-haired random (George Vafakis) whose name she never bothers to find out.

It’s all very funny, and the cast of three play the outrageous material for every well-deserved laugh, with Grace Dunne and George Vafakis providing strong support as a variety of comic characters alongside Natasha Santos’ wry, self-deprecating Libby. But there’s a lot more going on here than just a newly single woman going a bit mad for a while, and it’s in its quieter moments that the play really touches a nerve. We never meet Rob (although we hear his voicemail message a lot), and there’s a reason for that – though he might have sparked it, Libby’s panic is never about him but about what he represents. She’s hurt and heartbroken by his rejection, but more than that she’s terrified of what the future holds for an almost-30-year-old whose entire life has been defined for a decade by her relationship status.

And you don’t need to have recently come out of a long-term relationship to identify with that feeling – anyone who’s ever gone through a bereavement, or lost a job, or simply woken up one day and realised their life isn’t going the way they’d hoped will be able to recognise a little of themselves in what Libby’s going through. (Though it’s likely – I hope – that most of us haven’t yet resorted to recording our farts.) In reality, this play isn’t so much about a breakup as it is about the importance of being able to talk about our fears and emotions; it’s only when Libby finally opens up and shares how she’s feeling with a kindly stranger that she’s finally set on the road to recovery. As funny as the rest of the play is, I wish we could have seen a bit more of Libby’s emotional journey instead of just the first steps, even at the expense of some of the earlier comedy.

Laugh-out-loud funny, at times unashamedly filthy and at others unexpectedly poignant, Getting Over Everest is an entertaining and relatable hour of theatre that touches on some very topical issues – and above all reminds us (repeatedly) that “it’s okay to not be okay”.

Getting Over Everest is at Tristan Bates Theatre until 11th August.

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Review: Locked Up at Tristan Bates Theatre

Possibly the only thing worse than being locked up and kept in isolation for an indeterminate amount of time is not knowing who’s responsible or why. This is the plight of the characters in Locked Up, a tense two-hander that’s both the professional London debut of writer Heather Simpkin and the first full-length play from emerging theatre company Bear in the Air Productions.

Locked Up at Tristan Bates Theatre
Photo credit: Rosalind White Photography

We first meet Declan (Samuel Ranger), who passes his time pacing the floor of the cell, attempting to do push-ups, and singing “99 bottles of beer on the wall” in an endless, mind-numbing loop. The opening minutes of James McAndrew’s production convey very effectively the monotony of Declan’s day-to-day existence, and after a series of short, sharp scenes it’s not long before we too have lost track of time. It’s as much of a shock for us as it is for Declan, then, when one day he suddenly finds he’s no longer alone. His new cellmate is Topher (Conor Cook), who’s equally clueless as to their captors’ intentions – or is he?

Time passes, and the two slowly grow more relaxed around each other, allowing us to get to know them better and fill in a bit of their backstories. We soon learn that they’re very different personalities: Samuel Ranger’s Declan is sensitive and risk-averse, while Conor Cook’s Topher takes a “no guts, no glory” approach to life – so it’s no surprise that he’s the one who ends up taking charge of their escape plan. The uneasy friendship and shifting dynamic between the two is interesting to watch as it develops, particularly as we’re also not sure who – if anyone – we can trust.

Locked Up is a story about human relationships, first and foremost, and asks some searching questions about trust, betrayal and the ways in which a crisis can bring together even the unlikeliest collaborators. But it also touches on current political and social issues that we can all relate to, like the threat of terrorism and government surveillance, and the fear of failure that so often holds us back from pursuing what we really want in life.

If Simpkin’s writing isn’t enough to keep us on the edge of our seats then the light and sound effects employed at each scene change will finish the job; lighting designer Euan Davies has a row of bright spotlights shine directly on to the audience, accompanied by loud and unsettling noises. This has the practical purpose of allowing the actors to invisibly reset the stage – occasionally disappearing from it altogether when one of the characters is taken away for interrogation in the mysterious White Room – but it also keeps the audience on our toes; there’s little chance of us getting too comfortable at any point during the hour-long play.

Locked Up at Tristan Bates Theatre
Photo credit: Rosalind White Photography

Similarly, Justin Williams and Jonny Rust’s set design is logistically clever, allowing the actors to leave and return seemingly out of thin air, but it also helps reinforce the play’s claustrophobic atmosphere. The characters aren’t the only ones who have no idea what’s going on outside these four walls; for the duration of the play, we’re as trapped and in the dark (both literally and figuratively) as they are.

The end, when it comes, is abrupt and catches us completely off guard, and though it’s frustrating that the story cuts off where it does, in a way it’s the perfect moment to stop and leave it to the audience to ponder answers to our many remaining questions. An intriguing and unnerving hour of theatre, Locked Up will keep you guessing to the end – and beyond.

Locked Up is at Tristan Bates Theatre until 28th July.

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Review: The Gulf at Tristan Bates Theatre

We could be forgiven, as Audrey Cefaly’s The Gulf begins, for thinking we’d stumbled on an idyllic scene. Two women sit by the water in what appears to be companionable silence: one fishing, the other sunbathing. It’s only when the silence is broken that we begin to realise the vast distance that separates Kendra and Betty, even when they’re sitting right next to each other. Stranded on a broken down fishing boat, as the light fades around them, the couple are forced for the first time to really face up to their problems and make some tough decisions about their future.

Photo credit: Rachael Cummings

The Gulf is an intimate and realistic portrayal of a relationship in crisis; like any couple, Betty and Kendra’s conversations keep circling back to the same few subjects, and when there’s nothing left to say they lapse into long, awkward silences. Unfortunately, in achieving this verisimilitude, the play sacrifices any sense of drama, and the lack of pace in Matthew Gould’s production means that much like the broken down boat the two women are stuck on, it ultimately doesn’t really go anywhere.

All of which is a pity, because the performances from Louisa Lytton and Anna Acton are very good. Both nail the distinctive Alabama accent, and we get a clear sense of both the journey their characters go on throughout the play, and the striking difference in their personalities. Betty (Acton) is an optimist, who always says what’s on her mind, and is on a mission to improve her own life but blind to the fact that her attempts to do the same for Kendra might be misconstrued as criticism. Kendra (Lytton), on the other hand, is quite content to stay where she’s comfortable; unlike Betty, she mostly keeps her thoughts to herself, but when pushed reveals a deep vulnerability that’s masked by her tough and at times deliberately provocative manner.

It’s also refreshing to see a play that depicts a same-sex relationship but doesn’t make it the main focus of the story. In fact Betty and Kendra’s sexuality is completely incidental to the plot: they could be two women, two men, a man and a woman, or any combination, and the issues they’re facing would still be exactly the same, because they go far deeper than gender or sexuality.

Photo credit: Rachael Cummings

Visually, the production is impressive in its detail – boat engine, picnic lunches, fish guts and all – although at times this contributes further to the slowing of the action; Betty’s careful preparation of a snack, for instance, pauses proceedings for a good couple of minutes, and is particularly frustrating because the audience can’t see what she’s doing. Mitchell Reeve’s lighting works very well, however, fading imperceptibly over the course of the 90 minutes, until the two characters end up sitting in near darkness.

There’s a lot to like about The Gulf, as it delves insightfully into what makes relationships work, and what makes them fail. Unfortunately, though, despite strong performances the play is let down by a lack of drama and pace, making it difficult to really engage with Betty and Kendra’s predicament – as much as we might want to.

The Gulf is at Tristan Bates Theatre until 5th May.

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Review: Love Me Now at Tristan Bates Theatre

Love Me Now might be Michelle Barnette’s debut play, but there’s nothing tentative about this funny and infuriatingly on-the-money portrayal of dating and sex in 2018. B is an independent, modern woman, who for the last few months has been enjoying a casual sexual relationship with A. He said it could be whatever she wanted it to be – except she doesn’t really know what that is any more, and it turns out he didn’t really mean it anyway.

The fact that B (Helena Wilson) is not called A in her own story is our first clue that all is not well, even though initially the arrangement seems to be working out for both of them. It soon becomes clear that A (Alistair Toovey) repeatedly puts his own needs and desires – sexual and otherwise – before B’s, and on the one occasion she doesn’t let him get away with it, he labels her a psychopath, tries to physically and sexually assault her, and then tells her not to play the victim. Later, she starts dating C (Gianbruno Spena), who appears to be A’s opposite but turns out to be just as obnoxious and casually sexist – the only difference being he’s less upfront about it. And somehow in both cases, B ends up getting the blame when the relationship crashes and burns.

Photo credit: Helen Murray

And it’s with this important point that the play really makes an impact. We live in supposedly enlightened times, where anyone – male or female – can have any kind of relationship they want free of judgment, but the truth is attitudes haven’t really changed that much. So it’s fine for A to have six sexual partners at once, but if B does the same, she’s easy – and when it turns out she doesn’t, she’s a tease. On their third date, C presents B with a bracelet that his niece made for her, but when she speaks jokingly about reclaiming her virginity, he dumps her (over voicemail) because she’s “obviously looking for something serious”. She literally can’t win – and it’s maddening to watch, mostly because it’s so depressingly relatable.

In fact, the play thrives on its audience’s rage, with several deliberately provocative lines from both men that can’t fail to get a reaction. It’s quite something to not only see and hear but actually feel a theatre full of people respond, spontaneously and in perfect unison, to the actions of a character on stage – whether that reaction is hearty laughter (of which there is a lot) or shocked disgust (of which there is also quite a bit).

All three actors get their performances spot-on. Helena Wilson demonstrates an incredible emotional range, from confident and flirtatious in those fleeting moments where B has the upper hand, to shocked, angry and confused by the way both men have treated her. As A, Alistair Toovey has an irresistible boyish charm that leaves us in no doubt why B is attracted to him, but is just as convincing in his character’s darker moments; the climactic scene between them is genuinely frightening in its intensity. Despite having considerably less stage time, Gianbruno Spena is great as the dull and patronising C – and gets arguably one of the best audience reactions with his stunningly ill-judged attempt to stop B talking.

Photo credit: Helen Murray

The play makes use of multiple timelines, so that as well as B’s short-lived relationship with C, we also drop in on her time with A at various points. Jamie Armitage’s production neatly separates these moments in time with the help of Ben Jacobs’ excellent lighting design – but does little else to distinguish between them, which leaves the audience a little confused, particularly towards the end of the play, as to whether we’re in the past or present.

This small complaint aside, Love Me Now is a brilliant debut from Michelle Barnette. Her writing is witty and insightful, not afraid to go to some pretty bleak places, and I guarantee there will be something in it that everyone can relate to. Will it make you laugh? Definitely. Will it make you angry? Absolutely. Will it make you consider giving up dating altogether and getting a cat instead? Quite possibly. But should you go and see it? 100% yes.

Love Me Now is at Tristan Bates Theatre until 14th April.

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