Just over 20 years on from its Royal Court debut, Conor McPherson’s haunting drama has been resurrected once more, this time for a co-production by English Touring Theatre and Colchester’s Mercury. In a remote pub in rural Ireland, the locals avoid the solitude of their homes by clinging to each other’s stories, as Adele Thomas’s revival reveals the horror of loneliness to be on a par with fear of the undead.

Full review here. Published 29 Jan.

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Put together in under a month and rehearsed in three days, The Words Are Coming Now is a rapid response to the #MeToo moment, presenting 10 short plays (all under 10 minutes long) accompanied by post-show discussions. Featuring established and emerging playwrights, the production avoids the stark polarity of debate about consent that it is easy to fall into on social media. Instead it carves a space for empathy, humour and a multiplicity of viewpoints in a complex area at a time when sexual harassment and misconduct allegations have rocked theatre, film and other industries.

Guardian review 26/01

WhatsOnStage blog 29/01

Photograph: Tristram Kenton

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Nils Frahm’s music is an expanding lung. It wheezes and gasps as it’s squeezed tight. It fills and fills and keeps on growing and the edges get thinner and it’s about to burst and then it releases and sinks back down again and contracts. Then back up it goes.

Frahm’s composition is underscored by a kind of non-sound that fills the room entirely. It’s like a tyre halting – a sound that shouldn’t be there and occupies a different space from the thing that makes it. It has a nothing-y quality to it, that kind of nothing that we used to learn about in school where nothing is actually everything. You just look at Cordelia or Barrel Organ or loneliness and you see how those two opposites can be exactly the same. It’s that sound/feeling/emotion of the silence/nothing/gasping breath that propels the actors in Things I Know To Be True, Frantic Assembly’s beautiful melody on familial relationships. The music keeps breathing as one ordinary family’s life is unpicked onstage, each character taking their turn to untangle our first assumptions of them, and their assumptions of each other.

Frahm’s music captures the feel of the play. It’s the moment of shock. It’s the space in between two words, between two people as they dance, between your body and the other side of the bed.

It’s the space between being sick of home and being homesick, between explaining and understanding, between the power of the front seat of the car and the infantalism of the back seat.

It’s the space between the lips of a man and his father, between Hallet Cove and Vancouver, between the person you are with and the person you actually want.

It’s the space between before and after and all of it at once.

Then suddenly that space is punctured.

As all the play’s knotty issues pale in significance at this puncturing, the little nuances suddenly gain more power. The touch of the back in comfort that no one else notices, the little grin, the piss takes. The things you don’t fully acknowledge or appreciate in the moment but that make up a relationship. It’s this – the tiny details combined with the huge overbearing power of emotion – that makes this play extraordinary.

And it’s created with such care. The gliding kitchen shifts perspective as the cast masterfully carry out their physical theatre. I’ve seen Frantic Assembly’s work copied badly so many times. Last night was the first show of theirs I’ve caught and it was a joy to see it done so well. Geoff Cobham’s lighting design positively thumps and glitters, shining tear drops falling from above.

Bovell’s writing demonstrates how we really don’t know how we’re going to react until something happens to us. How it’s much harder for someone (a parent) to deal with an issue when it’s placed around their kitchen table. They’d normally be fine with it, just so long as it was happening to someone else. We want to think better of ourselves but we don’t know if we’ll be able to accept our children when they turn out to be different to how we hoped. We don’t know if we’ll be able to cope when we’re asked to tell the truth. We don’t know why we do something even though we know it’s wrong. We don’t know how we’ll be able to fathom the reality of something we never expected.

Underneath it all, Frahm’s heavy, breathy music is there. It’s like a kitchen table that stays the same, no matter how many marks are scratched into it. No matter how many people sit round it. No matter how much those people change.

 

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Photo: Katt Webster for CPT.

 

 

I don’t know how to write about sexual assault anymore.

I don’t know how to write about sexual assault anymore.

I don’t know how to write about sexual assault anymore.

I don’t know how to write about sexual assault anymore.

I don’t know how to write about sexual assault anymore.

I don’t know how to write about sexual assault anymore.

I don’t know how to write about sexual assault anymore.

I don’t know how to write about sexual assault anymore.

I don’t know how to write about sexual assault anymore.

I don’t know how to write about sexual assault anymore.

 

Writer and performer Alissa Cooper doesn’t tell us what the man is called. She dodges around it, as if applying a title to him solidifies his actions, makes them concrete around her and traps her in. She talks to us but behind her on a screen the words “I can’t say his name” repeat over and over.

Visually arresting and emotionally knackering, this moment guts you.

Sexual assault has become part of our daily conversation. It’s in every newspaper. It’s crawling out of every surface. Speaking up carries so much weight and yet so many are dragging themselves through it. Change feels tangible.

Awareness is vital and it’s both breaking down horrific cultural norms and revealing monstrous actions, but the unrelenting news cycle and debate can be exhausting, particularly if you are surrounded by people who disagree with you, or if you have personal experience of assault.

So talking about it can be tough. Putting words down makes it present all over again.

Because one night, one action, one choice to ignore someone’s refusal can mean that it loops around your head for a long, long time after. A repeated sentence or image, projected again and again onto the back of a wall.

“I can’t say his name.”

There are signs of boldness and unique experimentation that break away from the classic autobiographical one-person show in Love Songs: “Never Have I Ever”; the projected writing on the wall; an appliqued jumper standing in for another character; witty moments of audience interaction. Cooper eloquently links porn and pizza while vilifying the hypersexualisation of East Asian women, and uses a hula hoop to express her emotions when words won’t do, in a way reminiscent of Edinburgh’s hit show Hot Brown Honey.

Though the experiments don’t always land, they hold the most weight. They extract the original meaning of a game or an object and replace them with something that is entirely hers.

For a show with sexual assault at its heart, Love Songs is surprisingly sweet, like a bitter pill covered in layers of sugar, in an attempt to show that she is far more than what happened to her that night. The show is largely about navigating love. It’s jolly, bouncy, self-mocking and funny. When Cooper reveals just how in love she is today, the unbound joy is not even a tiny bit cringe worthy, it’s just delightful.

Cooper is most comfortable when she is dancing around the stage, putting the audience at ease while making us giggle, little winks and nudges tucked into lip syncs. Her humour is charming and her bravery admirable.

There are chunks of the show that aren’t as cleverly curated, where the aesthetics are scrappier, the language slightly throwaway and the poetry unable to stand up either for comedic or theatrical purposes. But ultimately Cooper creates an environment where we really care for her, to the point where we’re happy to listen to cheesy love songs all night and are genuinely thrilled for her happy ending.

 

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It is always harder to criticise a show that’s based on personal history because you’re often dealing with very real and often very present pain. The three performers in As a Tiger in the Jungle – an international production from Ali Williams and Circus Xanti – joined the circus as a result of human trafficking. Renu Ghalan and Aman Tamang were trafficked aged five. In a recent interview, Ghalan said, “I was in the circus in India for nine years, from age five to age 14. I don’t like talking about what happened to me there.”

There is something uneasy about this discomfort being translated into a show where he is forced to retell parts of his story every night. If the production was exceptionally brilliant, perhaps it would lend the show a level of honesty, or humility, or rawness. But a traumatic true story does not immediately make good theatre.

This piece, although a pleasantly entertaining hour with some good circus skills, does not justify the adaptation of real suffering. If we’re not being blown away by the injustice of their story, then we’re just witnessing their pain. That they speak very little English in the piece adds to the feeling that we, as an audience, are somehow exploiting them.

On a bamboo-like structure, Loan TP Hoang, Ghalan and Tamang clamber about. Tamang scrambles around a hamster cage, lifted by Hoang as he leaps up to drop her by the rope that holds them together, two weighing scales tipping up and over. Later the cage is replaced with a ring, and they glide over each other, almost embracing as their skin breezes past. Ghalan and Tamang are the more agile, leaping and twisting, while Hoang narrates, relating their stories with wide-eyed horror, as you would a ghost story round a campfire.

But director Sverre Waage’s script tips the story tips into melodrama with moralistic, storybook tropes that feel a little over the top. The attempts to combine the actions with the words are the weakest parts of the production. It is strongest when the choreography stands alone.

In one section of the dance, Ghalan and Tamang fight. They chuck themselves at each other with the full force of their weight. But just as their sibling is about to fall, their weight appears to slide off and they glide to the floor rather than thump. They flip when they should fall. A light touch moves into a violent thud. They are so utterly in control of their bodies they seem to defy physics.

After the fight, they sit, their bodies touching. One looks at the other. The other looks away. Their gaze glides past each other, just falling short of making contact. It is these moments of silence and beautiful movement that stand out, but it is the melodramatic script and the uncomfortable morals of the piece that linger.

One of the last pieces of choreography involves Ghalan dangling from and dancing around a length of fabric. He dresses up for it, demonstrating to us that he is acting. Then he sheds the costume and he winds himself up and up and up in the fabric. He knots himself into it, his muscles shaking and hair sweating. It feels like an act of self-harm.

How can we congratulate something that feels like exploitative?

Original: Exeunt

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team viking

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With a loop pedal and a slightly shattered heart, James Rowland stands alone onstage. He wears scuffed trainers, odd socks and a viking helmet. Paddling his way through our emotions, he tells us an extraordinary tale of grief, robbery and Christmas pudding. 

Growing up, Rowland used to play vikings with his best friends Tom and Sarah. That childish delight never really disappeared from their friendship, so when Tom is diagnosed with incurable heart cancer, it is only fitting that he asks his two best friends to give him a properly spectacular ending: a viking funeral.  

It’s funny how much someone can make you care about another person just through words and a few bad jokes. As Rowland describes Tom’s devastating deterioration, humour and sadness jolt through each other like an electric shock passing through water.

The way Rowland carves this story is at once beautifully groomed and wonderfully raggedy. His style of speech is causal and tangential, yet each strand of story is carefully gathered together and tied neatly, providing such a sense of catharsis, with layer upon layer of emotion offering us a full, thick fabric of a life. A loop-pedalled song divides the piece up, providing a respite to let the words settle, and Rowland’s slightly scratchy voice that sounds as if he’s had a pint before the show only serves to make it more charming. This play simply swells.

Team Viking is about grief and friendship. But within its humility and simplicity it holds so much more. It is anger for the things that weren’t good enough. It is joy for the little moments that make up existence. It is the look passed between friends when someone says something you’re too polite to outwardly react to, but you both think is utterly ridiculous. It is the joy of gathering with a group of strangers and sharing a story. It is the innocence of a child and the awkwardness of a teen. It is the awful urge to laugh in a tragic situation. It is fiction being better than real life. It is the excruciating faults of humans. It is the pain of living and the unfairness of death. It is wanting to be remembered after you are gone. It is the details you add to make a better ending. It is, I reckon, a little bit golden.

I watched Team Viking sitting next to one of my best friends. At the most overwhelming point of the show, when my face wasn’t so much streaming with tears but rather had itself become a puddle, he gently touched my arm, just to say that he was there. I put my hand on his knee, to say thank you. I think that’s what this play is about.

Original: Exeunt

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lists

Things I liked about Lists for the End of the World:

  • That they try to tap into the nostalgia that gives a little warm glow from trivial but personally important things.
  • That they blend future/past/present.
  • The line: “I’d steal all my ex-husband’s money and donate it to charities he’d hate.”
  • It reminded me of Duncan Macmillan’s Every Brilliant Thing.
  • The aim: “Make someone laugh in another language.”  This was one of a few moments that conjured a silent smile and a little shiver of warmth, like when you think back on a happy memory.
  • The moments of crossover from separate lists like: “I love you”, “Fuck”.
  • That it made me want to write my own set of lists about goals and reflections.
  • That their lists don’t have a number so they could always either be complete or always have the potential of having more items added.
  • The list: “Times my eight-year-old self would be proud of me.”
  • That they let me in when I was four minutes late.

Things I didn’t like about Lists for the End of the World:

  • That actually, when you think about it, it simply seems to steal some of the best bits from Duncan Macmillan’s Every Brilliant Thing and doesn’t offer much in way of authenticity.
  • That the cast of four read out certain lists like Oscar speeches and dark confessions, overacting as if they carry far more emotional weight than they actually do.
  • That they are too emotional. The joy of lists is their matter-of-factness. They are a way to dissipate stress and excess emotions by laying them out on a page. They are an organisational function. Their delight is precisely the lack of emotion. No matter how frivolous the list, they carry logic and reason, and try to do away with overly passionate feelings. Here, it felt like the production team had a sweet collection of lists pinned on a wall and decided that the best way to stage it was by throwing intense balls of emotions at them, like that balloon-paint scene in The Princess Diaries.
  • There is no undercurrent of story.
  • It’s like a Forced Ents list-reeling endurance test without the endurance.
  • The game seems more fun for them than for us.
  • All shows are in a tougher position in Edinburgh than in a usual run of a show because audiences are generally seeing several shows a day, so the “meh” shows tip out people’s minds if they’re not either spectacularly good or astonishingly bad. Because of this, companies are under pressure to try to make more of an impact. With Lists for the End of the World, they suffered from their own attempt to get us to sit up and pay attention through the cheesy music, dramatic emotional switches and over-energetic direction. Really, their movements around stage were an unnecessary distraction. The crowd-sourced lists were delightful, blending the lightness and darkness of every life, at once nodding to individuality and the lack of originality of human beings. Unfortunately, for us to enjoy the lists, it didn’t really need to be a play.
  • The cheesy song choices.

Original: Exeunt

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If stories are not continued to be told, the lives they contain can be wiped away like chalk on a blackboard. In the basement of Edinburgh’s Army Reserve Centre, Will Huggins preserves the story of his great uncle Edgar, a veteran of the First World War. This is a story of boys thrown into battle, of horses and of dreams never quite realised.

Dotted with recordings of Edgar’s voice, collected by the Imperial War Museum, there are delicate moments of humour and love. As it becomes clear that Edgar was resistant to talking about the darker details of his time during the war, perhaps the greatest reveal is the guilt of being alive some soldiers feel, that surviving somehow makes you less of a hero.

Huggins acknowledges that as a child he unconsciously glorified his great uncle’s trauma, looking at a war wound with “horrified wonder”. Here, he approaches the topic with care, but the pain is never blistering and he moves too fast to let it settle.

Huggins illustrates his words with chalk, noting dates, names and ill-prepared attack strategies like an old fashioned lecture. The pedagogical style seeps into the content. It is a tragic story but told by numbers. This personal history lesson is an important record, but could be just as impactful, and perhaps more so, were it made for radio.

At the end of the play Huggins wipes the blackboard clean. He leaves two numbers: year of birth and death. In the end, this is how most of us are remembered. While this may not be the most accomplished play, it is lovely that Edgar’s story can now also be remembered by strangers through his great nephew’s performance.

Original: Fest

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Yaël Farber’s thrumming production returns to the Fringe after it first stalked the stage in 2012. Creating a vivid, bloody drama of race and class, August Strindberg’s Miss Julie is transposed to post-apartheid South Africa. The intensity holds throughout as Julie (played with feral desire by Hilda Cronje) tempts her manservant John (with an avalanche of a performance by Bongile Mantsai) in this production which roars for its full 90 minutes.

The love between the impossible duo is so ferocious the stage seems to beat. Their destructive passions never settle, power constantly throwing them across the stage. A gun is pointed one way then the other. Lungs crack and blood seeps.

Though Julie and John’s bodies fit together, they are unable to find any sense of harmony. There is a temporary moment of calm where tensions reduce to a simmer, limbs bubbling to touch, before cascading once again into a thumping, savage haze. Over the haunting, metallic tune of the onstage band, they replay the tensions between their ancestors as they rip wildly at each other’s cores. The vast theatre is not ideal for the intensity of the production, but it pulsates regardless.

While bundled in the illicit couple’s searing lust, the production also shows how John’s mother is traumatised by her past, agony tangible in her song. The tragedy of the ignorance of youth is revealed in the last few moments of the play, as the dust settles, and John’s mother is left to clear up the devastating mess.

Original: Fest. Photo: Murdo Macleod.

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