Review: nest at The Vaults

I think most of us would agree the idea of building a nest – a place to retire to and shut out the outside world – has been pretty tempting this week. The difference is that Jade and Liam, the couple in Katy Warner’s off-beat love story nest, aren’t sheltering from a temporary weather crisis but from a society in a state of ever-worsening decline, where shopping trolleys being pushed from the roof of their tower block is a daily occurrence, and all the windows have been removed from their stairwell to discourage people from trying to live there.

Jade (Charlotte Jane Higgins) hasn’t left their messy, run-down flat in a long time; she’s comfortable where she is, and sees no reason to risk a trip into the dangerous city streets. We stay there with her, so our knowledge of what’s going on outside mostly comes from Liam (Arthur McBain), who still maintains some social and family relationships beyond their limited circle, and is trying desperately against all odds to find a job. Everything comes to a crisis point when Jade gets pregnant, and the two have to weigh their excitement about being a family against the prospect of bringing a baby into such a messed-up world.

Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown

Directed by Yasmeen Arden, the story’s not told in chronological order, so takes a little bit of piecing together – but in a way it doesn’t matter. Jade and Liam’s life together is claustrophobic and repetitive; they have the same conversations over and over, sometimes word for word, and if not for the baby you can’t help feeling that they’d just have stayed this way forever. Their devotion to each other is touching – in a world that’s falling apart, these two vulnerable souls have been left holding tightly to the one thing they know they can rely on – but theirs is also a very dysfunctional relationship, where control and jealousy are a common feature of every conversation.

Arthur McBain’s Liam is the more obviously likeable of the two; wracked by guilt and frustration over what he sees as his own uselessness, he tries to keep Jade happy by bringing her thoughtful gifts and constantly backing down in arguments. But his kind nature leaves him open to manipulation – and not only by her; their first encounter only happens because his friend Pete played a practical joke on him. Meanwhile Jade, played by Charlotte Jane Higgins, is a tougher character to get along with, at least at first. She knows she can get her own way with Liam by sulking and threatening – but it’s only later we begin to understand the intense fear that motivates her behaviour: fear of what’s outside, of being alone, and of what the future holds.

Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown

The Vaults’ Cavern space works well as a venue, drawing our eye immediately to the shabby cosiness of Holly Pigott’s set. It’s a total mess, with discarded clothing, furniture and rubbish everywhere and a general sense of not having been cleaned in some time, and yet when compared with its damp, echoey surroundings it does feel like a haven of sorts.

The play, which marks Australian writer Katy Warner’s English debut, was inspired by a true story, and paints an uncomfortable picture of two people left behind by society and looking for a way out. We may not yet quite be at the point of raining shopping trolleys, but that doesn’t mean these characters don’t already exist – and maybe they’re closer than we think.

nest has its final two performances at Vault Festival today at 3pm and 6pm.

Review: Conquest at The Vaults

One of the interesting things about the #metoo movement that’s been sweeping social media since the Harvey Weinstein revelations is how it’s been just as much of a wake up call for women as it has for men. And not only in terms of realising the scale of the issue; many women will have spent time over the last few months re-evaluating incidents from our own lives that we might have previously played down, tried to justify to ourselves, or never even thought of as unwanted physical contact.

Alice’s #metoo moment happens in Boots, as she’s buying the morning after pill following a one night stand that on reflection, she’s not at all sure she wanted to happen but was basically too polite to put a stop to. As fate would have it, she bumps into Jo, a perfect stranger and committed feminist, who’s irritated by what she sees as Alice’s weakness (she cries a lot, apparently) but also spies an opportunity to recruit a new member for her feminist revenge group, Conquest.

Conquest’s mission is simple: to take revenge on men who’ve shown they don’t understand that no means no. They do this via the inventive medium of cupcakes – with one very unique ingredient. (I won’t go into detail, but let’s just say I went in half hoping we might get cupcakes as part of the show, and left very glad that we didn’t.) Whether this approach actually achieves anything is unclear, however, and when Alice freaks out on her first cupcake delivery run, it all begins to unravel.

Written by Katie Caden and directed by Jess Daniels, this funny and thought-provoking debut from PearShaped Theatre is brought to life by Lucy Walker-Evans and Colette Eaton, in a fast-paced performance that never flags in energy (their breaking and entering exploits are particularly fun to watch). Along the way, they take on a variety of characters, among them Jo’s chain-smoking mum Angela – also a feminist, but of the old-school variety – and Alice’s nonplussed, boxers-clad revenge target, Dave. This multi-roling approach is acknowledged early on in one of many direct addresses to the audience, but a warning that we might get confused proves unfounded; the characterisation of each is distinct, and smoothly handled by both performers as they scurry from chair to chair, adopting different postures and accents as they go.

In the end, though, this is Alice and Jo’s story; a story of two very different women drawn together by their need for solutions to a problem so massive that it’s impossible to even fully get your head around, let alone know where to start in fixing it. (Which raises the question: why should it be the responsibility of women to fix it anyway?) What makes the two unlikely friends so appealing to watch, besides their constant amicable bickering, is that there’s far more to both of them than their initial stereotyping would suggest. And while all their plans seem to end in disaster, at least they’re doing something.

At a time when sexual consent is high on many agendas, Conquest is a timely and important piece of work, which exposes the complexity of the issue in a way that speaks to both male and female audiences. And if it makes you think twice the next time someone offers you a cupcake – well, that’s probably a small price to pay.

Conquest‘s run at Vault Festival 2018 is now over – but keep an eye on @pearshapedplays for future news.

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Review: The Quantum Physics of My Heart at The Vaults

Writer and performer Amy Tobias introduces The Quantum Physics of My Heart as a lecture about science, which will combine anecdotes from her life, audience participation and experiments. I won’t lie – as someone who didn’t particularly love science at school, and who’s definitely not a fan of audience participation, this formula presented me with mild cause for concern – particularly having innocently taken a seat in the front row (seriously, when will I learn?). But then something unexpected happened: in a pleasantly surprising chemical reaction, everything came together to produce a show that’s funny, endearing and even a bit educational.

Photo credit: Mann Bros Media

The magic ingredient, I suspect, is Amy Tobias herself. Taking full advantage of the fact that – as she herself admits – a lot of people think she’s still a child (even though she’s not), she plays her teenage self with twinkly enthusiasm, unflinching honesty and a self-deprecating humour that proves very difficult to resist. Over the course of an hour, to a soundtrack of 90s hits and video clips from classics like Clueless and Jurassic Park, she reflects on her life between the ages of 13 and 16, including teenage crushes, her first house party, and an inappropriately placed hand on her 16-year-old knee.

The aim of all this is to try and prove the hypothesis that science can be used to explain everything. Following in her scientist dad’s footsteps, Amy loves the subject, and throughout the show manages to successfully bend various theories to make sense of life’s Big Questions – or at least what pass for Big Questions when you’re a teenager: things like why your BFF doesn’t want to be friends any more, or why last week you fancied your science teacher, and now you’re more interested in the ICT technician. But eventually she encounters a problem that can’t be explained away so easily – the aforementioned inappropriate hand – and is forced to look elsewhere for answers.

Photo credit: Mann Bros Media

Directed by Roxy Cook, the action is indeed framed very much as a (slightly unconventional) lecture, with audio and visual aids on a projector screen to help illustrate the show’s anecdotes and theories. Meanwhile down on the ground, Amy bounces around the stage in her school uniform and a lab coat, vividly recreating events so that we’re totally drawn into her story and come to really care about what happens to her.

As for the audience participation, it’s all very harmless, mostly consisting of us all delving frequently into our “experiment bags” and producing 90s-themed props (some of the edible kind). The role each of these plays in Amy’s experiments is tenuous at best, but their inclusion brings the show to life in a fun, nostalgic way. And for those of us who also grew up in the 90s or 00s, it’s a great opportunity to reflect on our own teenage years and the important moments – and music – that made us who we are today. I only wish all my science lessons at school had been this much fun.

Catch the last performance of The Quantum Physics of My Heart tonight at 7.25pm.

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Review: Monster at The Vaults

Joe Sellman-Leava seems the least likely person to appear in a show about anger and violence. Affable, chatty and funny, he keeps telling us throughout his hour-long solo show Monster that he’s “not that guy”, and because we like him, we believe him – but should we?

Photo credit: Ben Borley

In essence, the show is made up of two stories; in one, Joe’s increasingly fraught relationship with his girlfriend, and in the other Joe learning his lines for a role as a violent husband. Unable to connect to the character, he embarks on some intense internet research into the lives of Patrick Stewart, whose father was abusive, and Mike Tyson, for whom violence – in and out of the ring – was simply a way of life. Both men are voiced by Sellman-Leava, who switches rapidly between the two very different personas in an impressive display of imitation and versatility.

The two threads seem at first quite separate, but ultimately collide in a dramatic climax that may or may not have really happened (we’re told up front that some of the show’s content is true, and some isn’t). It’s not just about that one scene, though; the show is full of little moments that have the potential to explode – a male director’s condescending attitude towards Joe’s female co-star, for instance, or Joe’s own memories of childhood violence, which he insists don’t count because nobody actually got hurt.

The point of all this is to demonstrate that whether we like it or not, every one of us has the potential for violence. Anger is a natural human response, but it’s how we choose to act on that emotion that decides whether or not we become “that guy”. At a time when men’s treatment of women is very much under the microscope, it’s refreshing to hear a male voice that’s not just offering platitudes but actually stepping up and admitting his own (possible) contribution to the problem.

Photo credit: Ben Borley

As in Worklight Theatre’s previous show, Labels, which explores his own personal experience of racism, Monster demonstrates Joe Sellman-Leava’s ability to boldly tackle difficult and controversial issues with passion and honesty. The fast-moving performance, directed by Yaz Al-Shaater, uses few props and consequently relies almost solely on Sellman-Leava’s personality and considerable talent for bringing multiple different characters to life. The show has a complex structure, flitting back and forth between Joe’s room, the rehearsal room, the online interviews and excerpts from some of Shakespeare’s more troubling texts, yet somehow he keeps us with him every step of the way, guiding us slowly but surely towards the show’s thought-provoking message.

Monster has been in development since it began life as a short piece in 2009. Since then it’s been rewritten and reworked multiple times, and now comes to the stage at what feels like exactly the right time, as uncomfortable but essential viewing.

Monster is at Vault Festival until today (28th January), and can also be seen at The Woodville in Gravesend on 8th February.

And if you’re quick, you can also catch Labels today at 2.45pm!

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Interview: David Fairs and Anna Marsland, Tomorrow Creeps

GOLEM! is a Shakespeare theatre company with a difference. Last year their second production I Know You Of Old took the text of Much Ado About Nothing and rearranged it into a new story; the year before that, they brought us Macbeths, a unique take on Shakespeare’s famous tragedy from the sole perspective of the two central characters.

Now GOLEM! return with a new and even more ambitious project, Tomorrow Creeps. The play combines raw material from 16 Shakespeare plays and sonnets, and also takes inspiration from the music of Kate Bush, among a multitude of other influences.

“This is completely invented, new narrative, so it’s not going to reflect in any way a particular Shakespeare play like the previous two have,” explains director Anna Marsland. “It’s an exciting piece of work in terms of what adaptation can be; I think we’re doing something quite bold formally. Also if you want something that is hopefully a little bit chilling, a little bit exciting and immerses you in something that’s a bit dark and scary, this will be your cup of tea.”

The play, which features three characters – the Fallen Tyrant, the Spectral Queen and the Hollow Hero – will be performed in the Cavern space at this year’s VAULT Festival from 24th to 28th January. “This is a new venture for us, being part of the VAULT festival,” says Anna. “It’s such a great environment because it feels like a mini Edinburgh underground, and we’re excited about making something that’s part of that artistic community. And also it’s a space for us to try something bolder and more experimental, and take this idea of re-orchestration even further.”

“And that was very exciting in terms of creating the script, knowing that that was the environment we’re working in,” adds writer David Fairs, who also plays the Fallen Tyrant. “There was that brilliant liberation knowing that the whole thing would be taking place in this really huge, cavernous long structure. It gave so much free rein in terms of how we were playing the physical journey of the character, and also it allows the audience to have a very experiential time while they’re following this narrative.”

The production features a soundscape designed by Odinn Hilmarsson, which draws on the aesthetic of the Vaults: “We’re going to use that creepy underground space to our advantage,” says Anna. “In fact David kind of formed the idea of the plot based on the idea that we could set this in an underground prison cell, so the Vaults were very much in mind.

“One thing about those Vaults spaces is that I think you have to embrace the sound quality in there – you’ve got the rumbling trains, a bit of water dripping from the roof, a slight echo. That’s part of the atmosphere and you can’t ignore it, so Odinn is creating something that’s pretty much durational for the whole piece, that adds to, enhances, and allows space for the sound of the Vaults itself, in order to create this world which is inhabited by supernatural forces and ultimately transformed in ways through sounds.”

David describes his writing process for this play as “similar but more expansive” than previously. “With I Know You Of Old, though it was based on the one play and the basic plot elements was taken from Much Ado, there was still that sense that what I wanted to do was create my own narrative within that, then work with the parts of the original play to do that. This one just took that and extended it to a new level – so I mapped out and knew what I wanted the plot, characters and journey to be. There was a lot of reading and delving back into the plays, re-familiarising myself with sections, then it was really just a very organic process, pulling things out of the texts and transferring that on to the page as a draft of the script.”

Though much of the writing is a solitary process, he points out that this time he wasn’t quite alone: “While I was writing I was listening to a huge amount of Kate Bush, who was both an influence and a really key part of the actual development of the script. I think she’s a brilliant lyrical and musical storyteller – so more than as a musician, I was looking at her as a writer, almost. Somebody like Shakespeare who creates brilliant expressions and stories, like Wuthering Heights, which is her creative response to this brilliant source novel. I was interested in how elements of that storytelling could form part of a narrative. The use of her as an idea, and her music and the way that she tells her stories, that very much weaves through this play along with the Shakespeare text.”

The production also draws on a wide range of other influences: “There’s the horror aspect, the supernatural elements including spirits and possession – so we’ve been looking at sources like American Horror Story, The Exorcist, Hammer Horror, Silence of the Lambs – which is a springboard for the relationship between the Hollow Hero and the Fallen Tyrant,” explains Anna. “And also beyond that, aliens have been an influence and as with other work that we’ve made, David Lynch, Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive. So lots of filmic references that we’ve been drawing on.”

When asked to expand on their respect for David Lynch, both David and Anna are full of enthusiasm. “Some people watch David Lynch films and don’t understand what’s happening, so you either find that really intriguing and you go with how it makes you feel and respond, or some people find it distancing,” says Anna. “I feel like the thing that interests me about Lynch is the character; there’s a truth in that character but there’s also a heightened world, and just clever surreal details that he merges with realism, that feels very exciting to watch.”

And all the details, characters and dialogue form something that does make absolute sense for you, but you get almost what you’re willing to give it,” continues David. “You have to be there and ready to experience each of these things, because his narratives often are very present, and you have to piece together the wider everything from those immediate experiences that are coloured with so much detail and so much imagination. It’s not about intellectually gathering it and understanding in that way; you just sit with it, experience it and it builds, and you feel that narrative.”

Although it’s inspired by Shakespeare, the play is “so far stretched” from the original texts on which it draws that it can be enjoyed equally by those who know Shakespeare and those who don’t. “This is very much a new play, you can come in and watch this, and you have no idea about any Shakespeare narratives or characters and it really doesn’t matter,” explains David. “If you do have it, you’ll enjoy different aspects perhaps, but that’s certainly not our intention by any means. These are three new characters, a new story, a new environment and you really need no prior knowledge at all to enjoy it.”

Catch Tomorrow Creeps at the VAULT Festival from 24th-28th January.