In Amy Conway’s personal, personable show, she draws together her love of video games and the reality of depression, trying to understand them in conjunction with each other. How is Mario always happy even if he’s just fallen into a pit of fire? How does goodness always triumph?
Conway merges the two worlds, trying to use video game techniques to bop the bad thoughts on the head. But we don’t always have the power to press pause or save on our own lives. This show is a demonstration that Mario’s positive attitude can’t always be replicated in reality, that the pep talks on video games are often atrocious examples of how to talk to those in need of help, and that the difficulties of facing the darkness alone are sometimes insurmountable.
The audience are encouraged to get up and play silly games, spilling giggles over the seats and highlighting the social aspect of playing. She shares her love of these beautiful adventures with us. Her enthusiasm is infectious, and her honesty is gracious. It is not a slick show, but for the majority of it, she creates an atmosphere of comfort and support, as she tells of her own struggles, and her subsequent work with the Samaritans.
The highly personal nature of the show frames its parameters, sometimes restrictively so, at times feeling like an interactive essay. At the end of the show she confronts the audience in an action intended as supportive, but that is in reality—at least for myself and a friend in the theatre—extremely uncomfortable.
Aside from the final few minutes, Amy Conway’s Super Awesome World is in turns delightful and sombre, and a gentle hour of care welcome at a chaotic festival.
A sledgehammer swings into flaming rubble. Darkness pours down her. A body. A rustle in the corner. A gap in the fence and a word between the line. They drive away and we don’t see them fall. Anyone’s Guess is a ghost story. Best told around a campfire (with a neon tube or two to spare), this is a tale of everyday monsters ready to eat you up. It looks at how what you owe and what you own can define and destroy you. How debt – emotional or financial- can burn a house and rip the skin from a skeleton.
When a story is not allowed to end it naturally deviates from its original plot points. It gets more outrageous and less realistic as it is forced to add new details. Barrel Organ make the concept of debt into such a story. It doesn’t just go away when you want it to. It grows like a tumour, clutching to you, hollowing you out.
Following their previous shows Nothingand Some People Talk About Violence, Barrel Organ have a weight of expectation on them. They play with this lightly, like a ball for the audience to catch. What to do with a long car journey? Time for a game? But Anyone’s Guess takes a different path from the company’s previous work, leaving behind the racing circles and competitions. There are traits that lean into their past: the disjointed style, the same breath leaping from one mouth to the other, the little unexpected moments to trip up audience expectations. Nothing played with form, then Some Peopleplayed with words. Here, Anyone’s Guess plays with time.
In some ways, Anyone’s Guess has none of this intensity. The sledgehammer and the flames are just a postage stamp. It’s a casual chat in a car that makes up the envelope. Bryony Davies and Rosie Gray are in trackies. One has a coffee cup. There are gaps of silence as they wait for someone to think of something to say. But it’s that everyday-ness of the show’s opening that makes the darkness what it is.
Jack Perkins’ writing doesn’t hold the tight logic of Lulu Raczka’s work. It carries a different energy, slightly wilder and more unruly. There are gaps plugged with blu-tak, when what it really needs is superglue.
The infuriating delight of Barrel Organ is their non-linear thinking, the feeling that they are always one step ahead, or rather one step sideways. The final image in Anyone’s Guess is unnecessarily obvious, a fun but on-the-nose decoration kicking its way into the otherwise nuanced direction. It should have been a white out.
It sounds like every other modern love story: two people meet online and fall in love. But this beautiful, bumbling three-hander leapfrogs over other couples to dig its way into your heart. It runs wildly, whacking the opponents with a drumstick along the way, and then awkwardly stops right behind you, waiting for you to turn around and realise that it’s what you’ve been looking for all along.
A man (Ste Murray) and a woman (Catherine Russell) match on a dating app. As they chat, a human incarnation of the internet (Aoife Spratt) watches. Spratt is a digital cupid, a judgemental, nosy, sarky, hilarious, geeky middle-man. In her retro haze, she highlights the modern realities of knowledge sharing, of not fully reading articles, of GIFs and pictures replacing words in our flirting vocabulary. When the relationship jolts or pauses, she is the desperate friend trying to pull them back together.
With the burden of a past event that can’t help but breed distrust and fear of intimacy, the decision to turn the funny face on a screen into a fully dimensional human being takes an astronomical leap of trust. In this way, Dylan Coburn Gray’s seemingly frivolous production carries a huge weight as it deals with something society still isn’t very good at talking about.
BlackCatfishMusketeer fizzles with charm, but it’s not the extraordinary lives or remarkable staging that makes it so endearing. It is the mundanity. These encounters, these beginnings, these GIFs sent late at night to a stranger you feel a connection with – they’re happening everyday. It is a deeply hopeful, humorous, delicate exploration of modern dating, of fear and trust, of suggestive ellipses, of love.
Locating the historic tussle between inventors Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla in an Orwellian dystopia, this cracked history gets lost in a sea of glitter.
In an alternative past, a determined Tesla (Zoe Feldman) is robotically manipulated by a demonic Edison (Jaz Blain). The fundamentals are rooted in truth as Edison was Tesla’s employer, and history tells of a great feud between them, but this wonky retelling focuses more on its aesthetics than on creating coherent content.
The controlling environment of Edison’s factory, where every step is overseen and every deviation noted, is a check list of traditional dystopian tropes. Surreal elements are randomly chucked in to disrupt this, but as a result feel incongruous: a lip-synced golden rave; a flirtatious pigeon. They lack a logical connection with the script.
Sound levels undulate, making the details of the plot harder to understand. Film clips and sound queues deafen and drown out the shouts of the actors. Even without background noise, some dialogue in the opening scenes is lost through a lack of projection.
There are lovely touches: translated subtitles projected onto a back wall, and a sparkling swimming pool of gold ribbon. Kirstyn Ballard’s compositions of five-part harmonies are luxurious, with the female chorus providing a beautiful background for several scenes. But they are underused, this delicacy not replicated throughout the rest of the production.
This company clearly have some bright ideas, but their execution could do with some polishing.
The progression of this show is not dissimilar to those nights when a friend gets blind drunk, starts a rambling story that never reaches its conclusion, gets very intimate and finally ends up in a corner crying. At a certain point in the performance the audience are forced to share their recent emotions. Today we’ve got: unease, confusion, terror. It is uncertain whether the suggestions refer to this year as a whole or specifically this show.
Manic clown Alexandra Tatarsky presents her audience with an endurance test of tumbling, nonsensical garbling. One word sparks a new thought as she sparsley covers the broad ground of the disaster of American politics, though at no point offering insight or humour on any event or person. This element of performance art could almost be taken as a clever literal staging of America today, if it were not for the fact that she follows this section with a session of laughter yoga.
It is exhaustingly ridiculous in the least entertaining way. Laughter, tears, vomit, scream. A deep-throat ketchup scene pushes it beyond this reviewer’s patience and gag reflex.
There is enough vomit-inducing, tear-staining, shatteringly vile politics going on right now. We don’t need it to be staged too, especially not when it runs over its time slot by 10 minutes. Unease. Confusion. Terror. Mixed in with a good dollop of boredom and frustration, that pretty much sums it up.
On the back wall of the theatre are a mass of jumbled fairy lights. Like the lives of people in shared spaces, they are messily, inseparably tangled.
Jess Murrain and Lucy Bairstow present a series of duos struggling with limited living conditions. An uptight landlady and an edgy lodger who talk at rather than to each other. Two perfectly presented lesbians whose facade cracks as they repeat the words of a scene with a different tone. A single girl, finally with a space of her own, who can’t sleep because of the urban noise.
The comedy goes some way to displaying the pressures of living with another, but the characters aren’t quite full, funny or clever enough to shatter stereotypes or produce belly laughs. By displaying straightforward stereotypes of millennials, Theatre with Legs do little to transcend those typical narratives.
The sketches don’t push hard enough at Murrain and Bairstow’s frustrations. The domestics simmer but rarely boil. Moments of song present potential for more original work, but the scenes aren’t given enough space to build. The devised scenes are neither cohesive nor absurdly scrambled enough to have an identity, resulting in a tangle much like the mass of fairy lights.
The addition of microphones, a sprinkling of glitter and nakedness demonstrate attempts at crossing into more innovative ground, but the half-hearted aesthetic experiments are more like a deposit than a solid month’s rent.
Siân Rowland’s three-hander boldly tries to unpick complex modern situations, but falls short, leaving underdeveloped characters struggling with subjects too big for them to carry.
From the tip of the pencil to the little lies told, everything in Gazing at a Distant Star is clean and white. Anonymous. Each of the characters is dealing with loss, of another and of their own identity. Arun (a gentle Harpal Hayer) blends into his cold-calling job, using the name Adam so as not to put people off by sounding too “ethnic”. Anna (an amicable Serin Ibrahim) reminisces about her sister’s potentially abusive partner. Karen (a broken Victoria Porter) sends a message to her missing son as she rides waves of guilt.
The play asks where responsibility lies, and who is to be blamed. What should they have done? Shouldn’t they have seen the signs? Couldn’t they have changed the end of these stories?
The exploration of these big questions lacks nuance. The meet-cutes are too easy, plot changes are dolloped heavily, and the twist that drives the second half of the play is easily guessed early on.
Rowland’s ideas are ambitious and her writing touches on delicate subjects worthy of discussion. The specific situation of Karen’s character—the mother of an attacker—is one unseen on most stages and increasingly relevant to our modern world, but the restricted form of the monologue Rowland provides her with limits her character to that of a victim. Combined with the other two stories, this script doesn’t carry enough weight to make an impact.
Tom Thum’s voice is a symphony orchestra. With a bass low enough to shake the seats and a falsetto high enough that glass breaking is not unimaginable, his beatboxing releases a kaleidoscopic sound. His limbs move as he beatboxes, as if the sounds are tied in with muscle memory.
Singer-songwriter Jamie MacDowell plays on the audience’s awe of Thum. “Some of the show will be me,” he says with dry wit. And MacDowell does shine too, his chilled guitar and clean vocals making the music less about showing off, and more about constructing a story.
Demonstrating their loop pedal and sampling the audience’s cheers, this talented Australian duo guide us around their mixing desk. Finding common ground in 90s R&B, their different styles – Thum is more East Coast rap while MacDowell’s rhythmic sound lends itself to campfire pop-acoustic – blend beautifully.
In this hour-long show the remarkable pair perform a mixture of original songs and classic mash-ups. Both take turns leading with personal pieces, their solos more delicate than their duets.Thum dedicates a remix of Bill Withers’ ‘Grandma’s Hands’ to his own grandma, while MacDowell performs a beautiful solo for a friend struggling with coming out, referencing the current politics of hostility back home.
The Australian duo aren’t precious over their set or their skills. “It’s totally fine if you wanna film it, just don’t do anything weird with it,” Thum laughs. The pair joke, ad lib piss-takes and stop to start over when they make mistakes. A little bit of falling, a lot of getting up.
Delicately woven together, the stories of Annie (Charlie Sellers) and Sophie (Maureen Lennon) unravel like a salty lullaby. With their melancholic monologues underscored by live folk music—played by Mortiboy who sits centre stage, watching the action unfold—Hull-based company Bellow Theatre have created a story to tell in hushed tones round a campfire.
Study, work, marriage, babies. Annie and Sophie are desperate for more than the ordinary. As they both catch a current they can’t turn back on, the play reveals the pressures and expectations on young women.
Theirs are the stories of cruel men and crap jobs. Annie, thrown into a life she’s not ready for, tries to regain control through slight acts of rebellion and slow-burning self-destruction. Sophie, trapped by a possessive husband, resorts to other people’s stories. She tells bedtime tales in order to understand her own, recounting Arabian Nights with its myths of honour, horror and possession. When she dives into her own story, Sophie makes it clear the tales of girls trapped by kings don’t only belong in fairytales.
Everything in the production is approached with care. The direction is subtle, the drama creeping through in words rather than actions. At times it begs for a harder edge. Their voices are gentle as they build up the courage to speak out, with Mortiboy’s gentle strumming dappling below their words, never quite allowing the intensity to land. This dark, delicate production reminds us there is still a chance to change the end of every story. Watching it feels like being wrapped in a warm towel after jumping into the cold sea.
The only redeeming feature of this play is the strength of Lucy Roslyn’s legs. Keeping the pose of chimpanzee Goody for an hour, Roslyn bounces and clambers around the stage, doing all she can to make the audience laugh as they consider escaping their own cage of the theatre.
Jesse Rutherford struggles more with his role of Goody’s abusive owner Frances. With slack body language and a lack of variation in his voice, his impressions are tricky to tell apart, and neither humour nor dominance flows easily from him. Frances’s authority is never realised, creating a power dynamic that has no space to play in. He is an insecure owner who turns to violence every time he can’t control Goody, but the relationship between them is not strong enough to make us care.
Where the play really suffers is the logic of its language. At first Goody communicates through sign language. Sporadically, she speaks aloud, either to Frances or to announce subtext, clumsily thrown into the script like dung at an annoying zookeeper. Frances sometimes hears and sometimes doesn’t. It sometimes matters and sometimes doesn’t. The script falters and drags. The logical thread is dropped so many times I think it must have got tangled in Goody’s cage, and no one bothers to unpick it.
As Frances and Goody half-heartedly search for comfort in the damaged love of the other, this play is essentially a weakly-told story of a lonely man gaslighting a chimpanzee.
Tattered dolls and cuddly toys are scattered around the room, inanimate until they grab the hungry attention of double act Mireille and Mathieu. Performing in a mixture of English, French and garbled nonsense, these riotous performers are just big kids.
Their attention spins from one toy to the next, inventing stories that rip the objects from their original context. Babies box; Barbie and Ken get mixed up in a futuristic, Biblical fable; and mischievous rabbits play Knock-Down-Ginger.
Aside from a misplaced phallic joke, the childish delight the pair instill ripples across the audience. The speed with which they change story, power structure and character keeps the energy high throughout.
Mireille and Mathieu don’t hide their bodies like many puppeteers. They are as flexible, malleable and prone to manipulation as the toys they control.
The pair race to catch up with each other and make us laugh even more. Mireille turns the ironing board into a horse—entirely believably—until Mathieu gets distracted by a bin lid and the horse is discarded, its former use redundant. They communicate through their puppetry rather than directly in coversation, their domestics turning into childish tiffs. The duo aren’t afraid to be brutal with each other either, thumping and rolling their way across the stage.
Top-notch tech isn’t needed to transport the audience in Arm, only a leap of imagination. At the end of this unruly performance, it seems appropriate that the toys get a round of applause too.