Behind the scenes

BT publicity

Preview: Bouncers

John Godber’s play Bouncers is, in the playwrights own words, a ‘grotesque’ comedy of exaggerated characters, and the ‘Poor Player Productions’ version of it looks set to practically ooze this. The play, with a cast of four, is based around the preparation for a big Friday night, and moves fluidly from one set of characters to the next, culminating in a well-executed finale.

The four actors in the production rotate between extremes with ease, not only limited to character. Completely in control of their sound and movement, the players here command their stage entirely, and convincingly and effortlessly morph between the different sets of characters.

These include (but are not limited to) the nightclub bouncers of the title, the ‘girls’ before the big Friday night out and the ‘lads’ (or perhaps, more appropriately, ‘ladz’). The juxtaposition between the almost aggressively hilarious masculinity of the bouncers and the boys and the ridiculous femininity of the girls is pulled off well.

Both the play and the players are also comically self-aware. The group of bouncers mocking lads in general brings ironic layers into the performance: the actors imitate and caricature not only as themselves but as characters mocking other characters.

Disorientating as that may sound, this production group does bring it off persuasively, and as an audience member you never feel left out of their jokes. The exaggeration of the comedy brings the audience completely on side, particularly in the near ritualistic scenes of the lads getting ready – you’re laughing with them, and yet it doesn’t feel forced: something quite rare in such extravagant comedy.

Bouncers is more than just a romp through the potential to parody a night out however, and the cast do show glimpses of true emotion underneath, and sometimes through, their ridiculousness.

The ludicrous images the characters, especially the bouncers themselves, build up are only occasionally permeated by the back stories that turn them (just) into people, and the very rare instances of this emphasises the grotesqueness of the majority of the play.

Many of these result in almost scary fights or near fights, the excellent direction of which is indicative of the fast-paced yet well thought out work of the two co-directors, Adam Leonard and James Watt, throughout the production.

It begins and ends, of course, with the bouncers, and these are the most convincing and comedic caricatures in the production. At the very least, they will make you snort, and, more likely, the whole play will have you laughing – easily worth a visit.

‘Bouncers’ plays at the Burton Taylor studio from 28th October – 1st November

Photo credit: BT publicity


Preview: Fat Pig

I arrive mid-rehearsal of Fat Pig into an intense argument that feels more like a courtroom drama than the scene of a comedy. Yet, the immediate connection I witnessed between characters solidifies what this play is about – human relations and interactions.

Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig has been widely performed since its inception in 2006 from Melbourne to Mexico City. This is indicative of the play’s universal appeal dealing with the endless obsession with weight in society.

Talking to the director/producer/lead actress (and probably more roles than can be listed here) Phosile Mashinkila, she tells me that this universal appeal is why she wanted to put this play on in Oxford. We are bombarded with a constant stream of body shaming every day in the media yet it still remains a difficult topic to talk about.

Fat Pig concerns Tom (Jason Imlach) who falls in love with plus-sized Helen (the aforementioned Phosile Mashinkila) and how his friends and colleagues react to this. Yet, this play with its brash direct dialogue is not pushing morals but instead about confronting this issue head on. The audience may feel uncomfortable, they may not want to hear the horrible things that are being discussed but surely a shout out loud is better than a whisper behind backs.

The Burton Taylor Studio, then, is perhaps a perfect venue for this play. With its not-quite darkness, and closely compacted seats, the will be no space for an audience to hide. This is not to say that the play isn’t an enjoyable watch as LaBute’s writing offers comedy as well as depth that Mashinkila’s clever directorial touches aid – whether it be the sly offering of chocolate or the dramatic dropping of a book.

The scene I was shown was the second scene in the play – a tense office scene where Tom is confronted by both his co-workers – Jeanie (Martha Reed) and Carter (Brian Chandrabose) – asking whether he is seeing someone. Even in this brief extract it is clear to see that the actors have thought a great deal about their dynamics and relationship. As an audience member, you already begin to question your sympathy when the bullied Tom in one interaction becomes spineless in another.

This play is what the best drama is – real people and real situations. Down to its uncomfortable dialogue, bitter sweet ending and comedic moments, this is a play you won’t want to miss.

‘Fat Pig’ plays at the Burton Taylor Studio from 22nd October – 25th October

Photo credit: BT publicity


Notes from the Dressing Room

There are a few things in life you learn from your mother. Morals, unshakeable stubbornness, and how to make a meal out of two eggs and four tins of stockpiled, just-in-case-there’s-a-nuclear-fallout food are amongst them. My mother also taught me two other (arguably) valuable skills: namely, a mean left hook, and how to put a tape measure to the right nooks and crannies of the human body, and somehow come out of the end of the process with a wearable garment.

I got straight to putting one of my maternally-inherited talents to work this week, plunging into Michaelmas with gusto: at the first read-through for what promises to be one of the O’Reilly’s most sophisticated and raw Sondheim productions yet, 7th week’s ‘Assassins’. And no, that doesn’t mean I ended up lamping any diva-stropping actors (they’re a lovely bunch, and very down-to-earth, which is something that continues to surprise me about Oxford thesps); but it does mean I had to whip out my tape measure and swan around, Edith Head-style, explaining why I’m just different to any predecessors who might have been satisfied with a quick bulk-shop in Primark. I doubt I’ll ever actually need to know your “Body Rise” inches, but it makes me happier to know I have the distance between your waist and the biggest part of your bottom available in a spreadsheet… you know, just in case. You ask for an OCD dressmaker, you definitely get.

Costume Directing an Oxford production is a brilliantly multifaceted role, one that grapples with a number of necessities, and I’d recommend it to anyone interested in theatre here who knows a thing or two about sartorial psychology (i.e. why we wear clothes, rather than just how we wear them – not too difficult to research, and some people have a knack for it, without needing to break out the Roland Barthes). For a start, it gives you an inside track on all the shenanigans going on in the glittery world of Oxford drama (who doesn’t want to know all the red curtain gossip?), and a means of perceiving how a production is put together without the added pressure of trying to harness the whole thing yourself straight away – great for people starting out in these intense climes! It’s also very creatively demanding and satisfying – but that doesn’t just mean pretty pictures of nice dresses; concept sketches are only the starting point.

After that, there’s measuring, sourcing the costumes, making some of the more specific garments (a sewing kit and machine are handy items to have around). And, of course, there are the wonderfully talented people you get to work with…in most cases, the wackier the better: for example, a certain director who rose to acclaim last year with a brilliant production of a John Ford play is returning to form and bringing some feathery friends along with him this time… although, luckily, I’m not required to make any costumes for the birds (at least, I hope not). That said, he does have me constructing animals in some fashion…

In any case, we’re not even a week into MT, but already the backstage corridors of Oxford’s luminous theatre world are raring to go. This morning saw a bleary-eyed coffee shop contingency of ‘West Side Story’ production team members putting together what promises to be the Playhouse production to see in Hilary, and I’ve already learned that concept sketch delivery is so much better when aided by superlative hot chocolate. With marshmallows. ‘Assassins’ sketches are currently midway through completion and scattered around my room, possibly where there should be critical editions of the works of Edmund Spenser instead, but hey – it’s not like the drama people here do degrees or anything. And I’m in the process of acquiring the sexiest sewing machine I can budget for, except the guy on the end of the John Lewis helpline doesn’t seem to care about the fact he’s dealing with a Playhouse costumier (ugh).

In the meantime, however, this is me over and out – I’m off to measure the cast of ‘Jersualem’ (which may just be the most fantastical and intense production to have ever held a fourth-week O’Reilly slot) while they do their photo-shoot. A little birdie (cough) tells me there’s some kind of nakedness going on for this shoot today; but one must remain professional when faced with this kind of thing. That, after all, is something else I learned from my mother. And she’s never wrong.

Until next time!

Interrogation room

Sneak peek: The Pillowman

What has resulted from days work at ‘The Pillowman’ is astounding. Lines learned and characters formed, this outstanding team is now looking at the several weeks they still have ahead as an opportunity to try on every possible version of their production and see which one fits best.

Thomas Bailey’s innovative direction is crafting ‘The Pillowman’ into something many believed it couldn’t be: a deeply moving and funny story. The play, written by Martin McDonagh (In Bruges), has often been called ‘hollow’ or ‘empty’ for its seemingly pointless grotesque imagery and apparent lack of meaning. But if there was ever a team to bring ‘The Pillowman’ to life, it seems that this would be it.

Thomas is using a layering technique in rehearsals, which involves repeating a scene over and over, while giving each actor a new ‘point of concentration’ every time. By the end of the process, the actors should have built up a way to play the scene that incorporates all these different angles and emotions. This promises to open up the play to a new depth and clarity that may be what it has often lacked.

Claire Bowman (Katurian) reveals how Thomas is also ensuring that their characters feel authentic by making them play out various everyday scenarios in character, such as a Christmas dinner for her and Emma D’Arcy (Michal) to cement the sibling bond.

Thomas explains that he is using a gender blind cast merely for the sake of taking advantage of the fantastic female talent in Oxford. In such a small cast (traditionally of four male actors), there’s opportunity to hand pick the very best that Oxford has to offer – and that’s certainly what he’s done.

With a team of four of Oxford drama’s heavyweights, which also includes Jonathan Purkiss and Dominic Applewhite, ‘The Pillowman’ can’t go wrong – and the word team really is the most appropriate way to describe the group behind this particular production. They detail how the way to play each character was thought through by all individually and then set out as a group, as well as how comfortable and lucky they feel to be in such an encouraging environment.

Given how unusual it is for such a small student cast to hold a slot at The Oxford Playhouse, the decision to stage this production involved a high risk. However, with glorious talent, a phenomenal set, and utterly exceptional direction, ‘The Pillowman’ is looking to be one of the shows of this term.

Look forward to this very small team putting on a very big show.

‘The Pillowman’ plays at The Oxford Playhouse from 29 October to 1 November.


Preview: The Furies, by Aeschylus

An Oxonian institution worth celebrating, the triennial Oxford Greek Play is going strong. Following on in the footsteps of 2008’s ‘Agamemnon’ and 2011’s ‘Clytemnestra’, this year’s installment will complete Aeschylus’ trilogy with ‘The Furies’, under the directorship of Arabella Currie. Where 2011’s ‘Clytemnestra’ was unusually interpreted with elements of Japanese theatre,The ‘ Furies’ promises to renew Aeschylus’ play with a stark, tortured aesthetic. Director Arabella wants to strip the play down to its core, to see Aeschylus as “a painter and a musician”, vividly bringing out the colours and rhythms of his work. Although the visual elements of the production are not quite in place yet, (though talk of “oily” Furies and “metallic” Gods certainly piqued the imagination), it is easy to see just how central movement and rhythm are to this production.

Influenced by the strange sculptures of Henry Moore and the haunting paintings of Francis Bacon, the choreography of the Furies (the play’s chorus) is entrancing as they contort their bodies, crawl and squat on their haunches like wild animals (perhaps evoking the savagery of life in a society not knowing Athenian justice). During scenes in which they fade more into the background, the Furies still ebb and flow across the stage, a palpably menacing presence; as Orestes supplicates the Gods for forgiveness, the Furies gradually surround him, avatars of an inevitable fate.

The only presence which subdues them is Apollo’s – yet even he, supposedly an envoy of true justice, is subsumed by the bleak, macabre aesthetic, as he creepily caresses Orestes’ back and almost throttles the Furies to direct them to where he wants. In similar fashion, we watch the ghost of Clytemnestra emerge from a sort of plastic cocoon with jerky, robotic motions, which convey a whole world of torment and anger. A lot of work has clearly gone into this precise choreography, and indeed when speaking to the cast and director, we find out that to come up with ideas, they have not only watched and improvised from old mime videos and practised imitating predator and prey sequences from old David Attenborough documentaries, but even prepared for some rehearsals with yoga sessions!

Complimenting this fascinating choreography is an array of musical devices. Intermittent gusts of shrill string music, followed by staccato salvos of percussion, stretched the tension taut like a bowstring, while the chorus sections have been transformed into song, song which sounds darkly, perversely lyrical, yet is also contorted with strange angular intervals. One especially brilliant chorus section saw them alternating a breathless, panting a cappella of panic with a slow, dreamy interlude – similar contrasts abounded; the often joyous music jarred powerfully against the gruesome content of their verses. Composer Joseph Currie informs us that, in addition to this already rich range, there will be a semi-improvisational element in the ensemble playing.

The acting still has some way to go, but performance was pretty strong from all, with Hannah Marsters’ Clytemnestra and Jack Taylor’s commanding Apollo as standouts. Overall quality is astonishing for a play in ancient Greek in which half the cast don’t even study Classics! No matter how many rooms you put in your memory palace (apparently one cast member’s technique for learning lines), memorising that many words, which are essentially gibberish to you, is an incredible feat. Given how potent this half of a run-through was – without costumes, lighting, set (and everyone knowing their lines!) – we can only imagine how good this is going to be.

The Furies plays at the Oxford Playhouse from 15 October until 18 October.

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