Review: 100% Chance of Rain at Chickenshed

Since 2017, Chickenshed have used their annual spring show as an opportunity to tackle important issues affecting young people. Following the success of Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow, last year’s Offie-winning take on climate change, this time around the inclusive theatre company is exploring mental health in new show, 100% Chance of Rain.

Conceived and directed by Lou Stein, the ambitious production doesn’t follow a “traditional” narrative thread, but instead is made up of several individual pieces, each depicting a different aspect of mental health through music, movement and storytelling. Linking these together are monologues from the show’s single recurring character, Liz Abulafia (Belinda McGuirk) – an arts therapist who reflects on her own mental health journey through creative expression, and encourages us to do the same.

100% Chance of Rain at Chickenshed
Photo credit: Caz Dyer

Taking this instruction to heart, the production practically bursts with creative talent. The use of colour, light and movement make for a visually stunning combination, the songs are beautifully performed by Chickenshed’s Vocal Voices (their a cappella rendition of Back to Black is a particular highlight), and there’s effective use of projections and video to supplement the action on stage. Though some of the pieces are a little more abstract in their presentation, they remain (with one possible exception) accessible to the audience, never losing sight of their message amidst the spectacle.

One of the things that makes the performance a success is that the diverse and predominantly young cast clearly have a deep understanding of the issues they’re portraying. Each of the seven aspects of mental health explored – which include self-harm, panic attacks, the pressures of being a single parent, and the growing obsession with online gaming – has been workshopped extensively, to ensure that the voice of its performers comes through loud and clear in every case. And as always, it’s a joy to see the Chickenshed spirit of inclusivity and community represented so completely on stage. Just as mental health can affect anyone, so this production has a place for everyone in its cast.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, 100% Chance of Rain is not always an easy watch; it’s both startling and saddening to realise how many different ways young people are suffering, and the decision to add an interval (the performance was originally advertised as 90 minutes straight through) offers a welcome respite. Similarly, the show’s upbeat ending comes at just the right time to save us from descending into a pit of gloom, with the acknowledgment that though things may seem dark right now, at some point the clouds will part and it will get better.

100% Chance of Rain at Chickenshed
Photo credit: Daniel Beacock

Mental health has become an increasingly topical issue in recent years, but it’s still one that individuals can find difficult to discuss on their own behalf, because of embarrassment, denial or simply not realising that what they’re going through “counts” as a mental health problem. Some of the issues covered in 100% Chance of Rain are well-documented – self-harm, for instance, is a serious problem that we know affects many young people. Others are less so; one piece explores the impact of leaving the family home for the first time, and the feelings of isolation and abandonment that it can cause on both sides. Taken as a whole, the show seeks to open up the conversation, and to encourage anyone who’s suffering – in any way – that it’s okay to reach out for help.

Review: Cuckoo at Soho Theatre

Exploring what it is to be young in Ireland today, Lisa Carroll’s debut play Cuckoo comes roaring to life at Soho Theatre, leading us without preamble into the world of best friends – and social outcasts – Iona (Caitriona Ennis) and Pingu (Elise Heaven). After being publicly humiliated one too many times by their peers, the two have decided to get out of their home town of Crumlin and move to the magical city of London… although quite what they’re going to do when they get there they’re not exactly sure.

Photo credit: David Gill

There’s a big difference between making a decision and actually seeing it through, though, and it’s not long before Iona’s excitement about their trip begins to wane – particularly when she suddenly finds herself being chatted up by local guys Pockets (Colin Campbell) and Trix (Peter Newington). It’s obvious to both Pingu and Iona’s childhood friend turned tormenter Toller (Sade Malone) – not to mention the audience – that their intentions are less than honourable, but despite multiple warnings Iona allows herself to be flattered into submission, with disastrous results for all concerned.

The heart of the story is the relationship between Iona and Pingu; the events that take place in the run-up to their departure from Dublin are, you can’t help but feel, only a catalyst to something that was always going to happen at some point anyway. In an excellent cast, Caitriona Ennis and Elise Heaven give standout performances as the two friends. Iona is an eccentric chatterbox whose over the top approach to just about everything is at first enjoyable but soon becomes wearing and ultimately alienating. Pingu, meanwhile, has opted to give up speaking altogether, having grown tired of constantly needing to justify their non-binary status, and communicates instead through a range of emphatic facial expressions.

On paper this makes for a rather uneven friendship, but it’s one that seems to work. The two stand up for each other against the bullies, and seem to communicate perfectly without any need for words. All the while they only have each other, everything’s great – but when Iona gets the first hint of a better offer, we start to realise that her friendship with Pingu might not have been quite as selfless as it appeared. One of the play’s strongest points is its conclusion, which avoids the predictable route we might expect in favour of an outcome that’s less “nice”, but perhaps rather more realistic.

Photo credit: David Gill

Despite being two hours without an interval, the production never drags or fails to hold our attention; director Debbie Hannan keeps up a fast pace and building intensity throughout, and the energy of the cast never flags. The play isn’t afraid to take on some difficult themes, including toxic masculinity, the damaging influence of social media, and prejudice – driven by fear – against those who dare to be different. But it does so with plenty of laugh out loud humour, which means that the play is actually a lot of fun to watch despite some of its content.

An impressive debut from Lisa Carroll, Cuckoo shows a very clear understanding of what motivates young people to do the things they do – good and bad. While we may not have lived the exact scenario we see unfolding on stage, there are aspects of the story that will resonate with all of us; we were all young once, after all, and chances are we made a bit of a mess of it too. A witty and compelling play, Cuckoo is definitely worth a visit.

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Review: Our Big Love Story at The Hope Theatre

In June 2017, Theresa May concluded her response to the UK’s third terrorist attack in as many months with these defiant words: “We must come together, we must pull together, and united we will take on and defeat our enemies.”

The call for unity and defiance is a common refrain at times like these, and rightly so; faced with such mindless horror and violence, it’s important that we look out for each other, and of course we should present a united front against those who want to harm us. But what happens when that determination to protect our way of life at all costs goes a step too far?

In Our Big Love Story, Stephanie Silver explores the idea of radicalisation of teenagers – only not, as one might expect, that of young Muslims. Instead it’s a young white girl, Destiny (Holly Ashman), who’s drawn in by the racist rhetoric of her dad’s EDL group following the July 7 bombings in 2005. Her anger at the devastation and loss of life is both understandable and relatable, but it’s also wildly misplaced – having finally convinced herself that her classmate and secret crush Anjum (Naina Kohli) isn’t a terrorist because she’s not a Muslim, she moves on to a new and equally innocent target, with horrifying consequences.

Though the story takes place on and immediately after the 2005 attack, it could just as easily be happening today, at a time when the threat of terror attacks remains high, and far right groups in the UK and overseas gain ever more ground, both socially and politically. That said, July 7 feels like a particularly significant landmark to choose: the first example of radical Islamist terror most of us – and certainly the four teenage characters in the play – can remember on home soil, and the moment at which attitudes towards Muslims began to shift rapidly in an uncomfortable direction.

The play begins as two separate love stories, neither of which has any obvious connection to terrorism; it’s not until it’s almost over that all the threads finally link together. While Destiny and Anjum discuss their mutual attraction and Destiny worries what her dad will think, Katie (Emelia Marshall Lovsey) and Jack (Alex Britt) are more coy about their own budding romance, recalling with some embarrassment their parents’ attempts to educate them on the birds and bees. It’s instantly clear that although they’re on the brink of adulthood, these young people are still of an age where their parents have an influence on them – a fact that will take on darker significance as the play goes on.

Into the midst of all this youthful exuberance steps The Teacher (Osman Baig), a religious Muslim man injured in the attack, with an account that’s harrowing in its graphic detail. He’s traumatised by what he saw that day, but even more so by not knowing the fate of a fellow passenger and his little girl, and over the course of the play describes how this trauma affected his life in the days and weeks afterwards. At the same time, he gives us an insight into the judgment and suspicion faced by Muslims in the wake of this and other attacks – a judgment he eventually begins to turn on himself as his precious faith slips away.

The Teacher’s appearances slow the tempo of Calum Robshaw’s otherwise fast-paced production, with Osman Baig’s direct and personal delivery ensuring that we hang on his every word. The play’s conclusion brings all five characters together and is performed with genuine and heartfelt emotion by the young cast, but it’s reassuring to see that while in some ways their lives have been irrevocably changed, we can still catch glimpses of those giddy teenagers we met earlier, still falling in love and convinced they can conquer the world.

I saw an extract from the opening of Our Big Love Story at an Actor Awareness scratch night last year, and was intrigued by the multiple different themes that the play seemed to be dealing with: love, sex, religion, racism, porn… It’s satisfying therefore to see how the full-length play successfully weaves these themes together, forming a coherent narrative that’s thought-provoking, moving and, at times, quite unsettling. There’s still a lot going on, and the play could be longer to allow it to delve into each issue in more depth – but as it stands, the story already provides more than enough food for thought to keep us going for quite some time.

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Review: Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow at Chickenshed

As the narrator of Chickenshed’s Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow – a fictional climate change artist called Oscar Buhari – points out, here in the UK we’ve become largely desensitised to the topic of saving the planet. Living as we do in our privileged first world environment, it’s difficult for us to really appreciate the damage that’s already being done, and which will only get worse, as a result of our own irresponsible actions.

The show aims to tackle this by discussing climate change not in terms of the theoretical science (though there is a little of that), but through showing us the real world implications for both our fellow citizens of the world, and ultimately for ourselves. The result is a show that is big, bold and visually stunning, but also terrifying and humbling – not least because it’s performed by a young cast who understand that they’ll be left to deal with the chaos previous generations have created.

Photo credit: Daniel Beacock

Lou Stein’s production is made up of several short pieces blending dance, song and spoken word, each introduced by a short monologue from the affable Oscar Buhari, played by Ashley Driver. These performances take us from the depths of the sea, where marine life is destroyed by an army of discarded plastic, to the lively streets of New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina approaches, to an imagined future world whose limited water supply is rationed by a little more each day. The theme of refugees also recurs several times, with stark reminders that it’s not only war that can drive people from their homes.

It’s not all bad news, though, and the show does conclude on a positive note, first by introducing us to two resourceful communities who brought their villages back from the brink of disaster, and finally with a word of gentle advice from Oscar: he’s shown us the picture as he sees it, and now it’s up to us to decide what to do about it.

Musical director Dave Carey’s score features original music, as well as excellent live renditions of popular tracks including Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi, Johnny Cash’s Hurt and Fleetwood Mac’s Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow, all imbued with new significance by the context of the show. There’s also a reworded version of The Star-Spangled Banner, reflecting the inadequate political response to Katrina, which packs quite a punch – especially when accompanied by a photo of George W. Bush looking down on the devastation from the safety of Air Force One.

Photo credit: Daniel Beacock

Although each piece was devised by a different team and therefore has its own unique style, they’re all united by a creative incorporation of recycled everyday materials, and a use of colour and light that really brings each performance to life. And as always, it’s a pleasure to see the inclusivity that is Chickenshed’s driving force reflected on stage, both in the show’s large and diverse cast and in the collaborative, mutually supportive spirit of the performance. The young ensemble shows a real understanding of the show’s important message, and their energy and commitment is infectious.

Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow is a powerful call to arms that looks and sounds great, and also makes you stop and think about the careless way we treat our planet, and what the impact of that might be. A fascinating watch, this show is well worth the long trip to the end of the Piccadilly Line.


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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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