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.

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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.

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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.

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Review: Bunny at Tristan Bates Theatre

Jack Thorne has become something of a household name in recent years, writing for several well-known TV dramas including Skins and Shameless, and for the stage – among others a little show you might have heard of called Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Bunny is one of his earlier works, first performed in 2010 and now revived for a second time by Fabricate Theatre following a successful run last year.

Bunny is the story of 18-year-old Katie from Luton, whose “sort of boyfriend, sort of not” Abe gets in a fight after a kid on a bike knocks his ice cream out of his hand. The fight itself is brief and disappointing – but the evening’s far from over, and it’s not long before Katie finds herself sitting in a car in a dodgy part of town with a strange man and no knickers.

Photo credit: Michael Lindall

Of course it doesn’t happen quite as abruptly as that, and Katie talks us through the whole series of events in a rapid-fire monologue that covers race, class, sex, family and a whole lot more. As the play ends, Katie’s left with a decision to make – will she continue to follow the pack in the hopes of winning their favour, or will she go her own way for once?

The story might not be a precise reflection of everyone’s adolescent experience (or at least let’s hope not) but Katie herself, with all her faults, is actually very relatable. No longer a girl but not yet a woman, she hasn’t quite figured out who she is yet, and allows other people’s opinions of her – or at least what she perceives them to be – to shape her actions. So she plays down her obvious intelligence so as not to annoy Abe; she applies to university because her dad wants her to; and she goes along with the events of this particular evening for fear of losing her companions’ respect – not realising until it’s too late that her compliance might be having the opposite effect. When things don’t go her way, she takes revenge in a variety of vindictive ways, but does so in secret so as not to reveal she actually cares about anything.

Photo credit: Michael Lindall

Jack Thorne’s vivid, compelling writing is complemented by a captivating performance from Catherine Lamb, who captures to perfection the complexities and contradictions of her character. With only an old armchair and some fluffy clouds for company, she fills the remaining space with Katie’s larger than life personality, keeping her just personable enough that we want to keep listening even though we might not like what we hear, and showing just enough vulnerability to ensure that – rightly or wrongly – we remain on her side.

Simply staged by director Lucy Curtis, Bunny‘s impact lies in its script and performance, both of which are exceptional. Fabricate Theatre was founded to create exciting and relevant theatre for young people, and Bunny certainly ticks that box – but there’s plenty here for audiences of any age to enjoy. We were all young once, after all.

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Interview: Catherine Lamb, Bunny

“I first saw Bunny when I was 18 and I found it hugely inspiring; it’s a very funny and thought provoking show. I would urge anyone to come and see it, but especially young people who perhaps don’t normally feel that theatre is really for them.”

Catherine Lamb is the founder of Fabricate Theatre, a new theatre company dedicated to creating exciting and relevant work that speaks to young people. Later this month she’ll be reprising her role as teenager Katie in Jack Thorne’s one-woman play Bunny, which transfers to the Tristan Bates Theatre for a limited run from 15th-27th January.

Photo credit: Brandon Bishop

Bunny is the story of one young girl growing up in Luton struggling to find her place in a world lacking intimacy and connection,” says Catherine. “It examines what happens when cultures collide and you find yourself in unknown territory. It is a fast, funny and ruthless look into what it is to be growing up today.

“Jack Thorne has recently been named one of theatre’s most influential people, so this is a fantastic opportunity to see one of his early pieces. The writing is outstanding. It’s just over an hour in length and is a brave and bold piece of work which doesn’t shy away from anything. The show explores many heavy topics such as racism, sexual awakening, clashing cultures and the class and education system. The audience sees all these things through the eyes of an 18-year-old girl growing up in Luton.”

The coming-of-age drama was first performed in Edinburgh in 2010, where it won a Fringe First award. “I was drawn to the play because of how much it related to me,” says Catherine. “I recognised myself and my friends in Katie as well as all the other characters. It was a piece of theatre made for and about my generation, and I found that to be not only very exciting but also quite rare.”

Catherine believes it’s her character’s imperfections that make her interesting: “I like how flawed she is. There’s a lot of ugliness in her character, but you can still empathise with her. Her confusion is something that really resonated with me. There are massive contradictions in her character, she is painfully self aware and yet utterly oblivious at the same time.

“I love playing someone who I know other young women and girls will see themselves in; I find that very exciting. Katie is witty, bold and outrageous yet extremely vulnerable. This makes her wonderfully complex and a real challenge to play.”

Catherine founded Fabricate Theatre in January 2017, motivated by a desire to make and produce her own work. “I wanted to become part of the conversation,” she explains. “I asked a good friend, Sophia Nicholson, to come on board to help with the producing and communications, and the two of us now run the company together. Our aim is to get Fabricate known for creating work that speaks to young people. We’re dedicated to creating and producing fast-paced, exciting productions that reflect and examine our young people.”

Bunny is the company’s first production, which enjoyed a successful first run last year at the White Bear Theatre. “It’s fantastic to get another go at staging the show,” says Catherine. “We had such a short rehearsal process first time around so it is lovely to be able to go back and perfect things. It’s also interesting to re-stage it to suit a new space. We are so proud of this production, so it’s lovely to have all that hard work recognised.”