Reviews

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Review: Welcome to the Parish of Cummerbund-upon-Tweed

 

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“Have you ever eaten a sandwich and then forgotten how it tasted?” A somewhat odd question posed by the courageously self-named ‘dinner man’ which I take home to ponder, my stomach still tickling slightly from the unceasing belly-laughs of tonight’s production of Welcome to the Parish of Cummerbund-Upon-Tweed: Please Drive Carefully.

The show itself is one big charmingly random adventure – enacting snapshot soliloquies and dialogues of the lives of the various and varying citizens of the small, proud northern town that is Cummerbund-upon-Tweed.

The audience is immediately thrust into the action even before the lights have gone down – we find ourselves greeted by the bustling citizens upon arrival, having been handed this week’s mass sheet, a small token with which we commence our whistle-stop tour of Cummerbund’s finest.

We begin in the local church for the somewhat modernised Sunday service lead by the crisp, well-spoken vicar, Desmond Desmond – ecclesiastical modernity incarnate with her innovative services presented on PowerPoint. We venture on to the expected culprits, the ‘big players’ in local government and the community : the council help worker who seeks to get his pledge signed for Pret a Manger to change their Hot Wrap labels after an incident involving a deceptive label and a slice of Halloumi; a discipline obsessed traffic warden who seeks to fix the ills of the world through her vigorous vigilance of the streets; the competitive and shouty Cummerbund football coach; the ‘dinner man’ who by choice of profession has been hurtled into the matriarchal world of the lunch server and forced to subject himself to linguistic castration by being called ‘dinner lady’.

Our journey is not limited to the elite in Cummerbund’s social fabric as we encounter those with perhaps a less obvious community role: the self-titled Morris dancer ‘Jenny of the Block’, a pair of Australian hippies, Cummerbund-upon-Tweed’s best (or at least arguably so) folk duo, and most unforgettably of all a bird who watches down upon the town.

The rants, thoughts and ponderings of each Cummerboy (and girl) are in turn perfectly punctuated by the recurring presence of Malcolm, an effeminate pensioner with an uncanny resemblance to Alan Bennett who regales the audience with tales of his small daily victories in Cummerbund, resulting in the uttering of his mantra ‘Malcolm one : World nil.’

The show is unequivocally hilarious in its randomness, each sketch as outrageous as the last – it displays a meticulous attention to detail and wholly convincing execution of each character: a perfect and playful exploration of the archetypal figures pertaining to any small town, sometimes an exaggeration of the expected or a side-splitting glimpse at the frankly quite bazaar.

The cast manages the big laughs by embodying and fulfilling the expectations of the stereotype, but keep every audience member on the edge of their seat by small bubbles of surprise injected into every proud Cummerboy (or girl), each as fascinating as the last.

Brilliant and a must see.
Welcome to the Parish of Cummerbund-Upon-Tweed is playing at the Burton Taylor Studio until 1st November

PHOTO/David Meredith and Tom Dowling

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Review: Bouncers

 

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A small space, pounding music, flashing lights. Sound familiar? At the Burton Taylor the cast of John Godber’s Bouncers unapologetically conjures up a night out in a Northern town. From the ritual of getting ready, to the unsteady taxi ride home, snapshots of the night are punctuated by the condescending glare of the four Bouncers who observe it all.

The comedy itself is far from half-hearted, offering all the bawdy humour one might expect from a play about a drunken club night: slurred swearing, pissing against walls, violent vomiting. Consequently, the cast are at their best when they throw themselves unrestrained into their caricatures.

Their portrayals of girls getting ready for a 21st is effective, as they do their hair and choose drinks, whilst their depictions of smarmy posh ‘college boys’ elicited a well-deserved laugh from the audience.

The Burton Taylor seems an ideal space to perform the play, the simplicity of the space and set offering a base to be transformed into one of a myriad of locations (namely barbers, bathrooms, clubs and pubs).

Clad in black, and armed only with four stools, the cast certainly can’t rely on showy props or design. Luckily, their ability to flit between these different stereotypes at any given moment is impressive: the quartet of figures, arms crossed, gruffly voiced, embody bouncers, but transform in a second to outspoken lads or screeching girls.

Chris Connell particularly deserves praise for this, fluctuating between the bouncer ‘Lucy Eric’ and tipsy club attendees. The comedy centres on stereotype, and the production certainly makes the most of this, although the characterisation occasionally feels undermined by moments of self-consciousness.

With a range of people and situations, some episodes do feel more successful than others. There are moments of witty poignancy: a bouncer offering his ‘philosophy on life’, a girl crying surrounded by friends (“the tears begin to flow and with it the mascara”), the tired looking lads sitting forlorn, heads in hands.

However, the on-going depiction of alcohol induced stumbling across the stage, the aggression of the blokey bouncers and their intoxicated customers, does begin to feel a little repetitive. As a result it sometimes feels as though the play struggles to maintain momentum.

Equally, some of the dialogue would benefit from a quicker pace: the moments when the cast work together in a stylised way, speaking and posing in perfect unison, prove how effective this can be, but it is not always consistently shown.

Nonetheless, the cast’s ability to work together as a compact group, and the energy of their responses to the script cannot be faulted. At once outrageous, surreal, yet recognisable, Bouncers is worth a look.

Bouncers is playing at the Burton Taylor Studio until 1st November

 

PHOTO/James Watt

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Review: Fat Pig

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“A play with a great personality” – so runs the tagline for Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig, currently on at the Burton Taylor Studio. It’s a brilliant and witty description that gets to the heart of what this interesting piece is all about: the stereotypes, awkwardness, shame, discrimination and, indeed, hatred that surrounds fat people (or should that be plus-sized?). (more…)

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Review: From the Horse’s Mouth

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Stand-up, spoken-word and performance poetry have long seemed secondary in Oxford’s crowded cultural milieu to theatre and music, driven underground and out of town to places like Jericho’s Albion Beatnik Bookstore. New spoken-word night From the Horse’s Mouth aims for nothing less than bringing what has long been a quietly thriving scene to the ears, eyes, hearts and souls of the Oxford mainstream.
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“Frenzying, Maddening”: The Oxford Greek Play

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As light coaxes the scene into visibility, a man drags himself across the front of the stage. Behind him is an enormous extension of plastic, part-dangling placenta, part-distorted womb, part-shackling net. One is reminded of Atlas and the earth that it is his destiny to shoulder. Inside the plastic is a body. Soon we will realise that it is the man’s dead mother, and that it is he who has killed her.

So opens the triennial Oxford Greek Play, which brings the final part of Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy, The Eumenides (otherwise known as The Furies) to the Oxford Playhouse. Entirely in ancient Greek, with English subtitles, the Oxford Greek Play has a well-deserved reputation for extreme difficulty in conception and for excellence in realisation. The Furies, directed by Arabella Currie, does not disappoint.

The play is a masterful rendering of Aeschylus, with an innovative artistic interpretation that enables the language—the evocative revival of which is the whole point of the Oxford Greek Play—to kindle forcefully a sense of the power and range of its meaning.

Orestes has killed his mother, Clytemnestra, to avenge the death of his father, Agamemnon, murdered by Clytemnestra and her lover upon his glorious victory return from Troy. The Furies want vengeance and have sworn to plague Orestes beyond the grave for having murdered his kin. While The Oresteia is famous for its exploration of justice, what this production brings out is its artistry.

Currie’s play makes manifest the horror of Orestes’ experience, showcasing the sheer range of the resources of drama with obvious commitment, passion and talent. The hideousness of the Furies, for instance, is evident in every aspect: their shrieks, their movement, their number, their pleas and accusations and curses, even their song.

And that omits the most important of all: their words. For it is the achievement in language in this production that especially compels attention. In one of the earlier scenes, Clytemnestra exhorts the sleeping Furies to avenge her death. Frightfully she urges them to curse and quell her son. Her emphatic insistence on the way that Orestes is ‘laughing at you’ awakens the Eumenides, forcing them into a response that is already for them a kind of torture, recalling them to their fate as ‘daughters of the night’, foul and frenzied beings that are neither human nor god, and fit only for the most inhuman and ungodly vengeance.

Quite how consummate has been Currie’s direction and how complete her attention to the production is indicated by the link between Clytemnestra’s reference to the ‘tightest net’ of guilt, from which she claims Orestes has escaped, and the image with which the play begins. The mention of ‘net’ recalls the visual imprint marked in the opening scene, that of Orestes dragging his mother’s corpse in plastic behind him. It is clear that the net is something he has not escaped, whether or not the Furies continue to follow him. This makes the mother’s relishing of the prospect of her son’s punishment all the more awful: ‘I am Clytemnestra, calling to you’, she shrieks at the Furies. And, worse: ‘What are you for, except to do evil?’

The torturous imagery of the language is told in good characters as well as bad. Apollo, wonderfully played by Jack Taylor, wreaks cursing words on the Furies that are almost as devastating as those they hail on Orestes. He is merciless, objurgating them even for their presence amidst ‘prophetic walls’, which ‘it is wrong for you to touch’, as they belong only in the hell-place where ‘murder is justice’. He tells them to ‘vomit those clots you slurp from slaughter’. Let no one accuse Aeschylus of writing only didactically.

Instructive though the interrogation of justice certainly is, above all it is language that holds the key to those who adhere to or deviate from it. Hearing the Greek and seeing the English, words from two and a half millennia ago, only makes this clearer. While the Furies chant a death-song over their victim, revelling in its ‘frenzying, maddening, mind-sickening’ qualities, Apollo advocates the ‘ice cold thrust of the public whip’.

It is Athena who is able to conciliate Apollo and clear Orestes; most importantly, though, it is she who can bring a justice to the Furies that is also merciful. The building of music at the end and a slow shifting of the set from red to white present strikingly the creation of a new order of justice. The reign of the Furies, whose ‘hymn [is] to bind the soul lyreless, man-withering’, is at an end, along with the horrors of their language. Currie makes this point even more forcefully by having the voices of the Furies change along with their demeanour at the play’s close.

This is an astonishing feat. You don’t need to know Aeschylus. You don’t need to know Greek. Just go and see this year’s Oxford Greek Play.

The Furies runs at The Oxford Playhouse until 18th October

PHOTO/Duncan Cornish

 

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Falling for The Bard: Shakespeare in Love finds its home in West End

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It seems fitting that the 1998 film, Shakespeare in Love – a joyous celebration of all things theatrical – has finally moved to the stage, which is surely its natural home.

Lee Hall’s adaptation of Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s screenplay, while not a radical departure,does bring to the fore many themes that are perhaps less immediately evident in the film. Though still a romance, Shakespeare in Love the play is also a historical drama and an insight into the world of actors, and the often precarious, occasionally chaotic circumstances in which they find themselves.

Writers, and the relationships between them, are brought to life through the characters of Marlowe and Shakespeare. Hall gives Marlowe (played with panache by David Oakes) a much bigger role in his script, and while keeping the running joke that Will has a habit of nicking Kit’s poetry and plots, this is developed into both a thoughtful examination of artistic influence and exchange, and a portrayal of the brotherly friendship between the successful first man among us (Marlowe) and the struggling young upstart (Shakespeare).

Indeed it is refreshing to see The Bard as a man before he became a myth. With frequent winks and nods, the play and the actors both exploit the comic irony, inviting the audience to laugh along with them knowingly. Even more so than the film, the play abounds in Shakespearean allusions, and Twelfth Night casts an especially long shadow, with all of the songs and even bits of dialogue lifted directly from it.

But the self-awareness that permeates the action does sometimes lead to over-acting verging on the hammy. The play truly comes into its own near the end of the second half, with Shakespeare’s troupe giving the first ever performance of Romeo and Juliet. Here, actors, script and Nick Ormerod’s simple yet stunning set work together beautifully to create a compelling and utterly convincing evocation of an Elizabethan playhouse. The theatre setting in this case undoubtedly trumps the film, as we the audience become the audience of 1593, made to feel an essential part of the action; the theatre is shown to be a community, an arena for actors, writers, and audience alike.

And this is the real triumph of the night. You leave the performance with a renewed enthusiasm for what the theatre can achieve, and a renewed love for Shakespeare, too. Not because he is venerated or mythologised, but because of the opposite – because we are allowed to see him as a flawed human being, a human being who struggles to pay his way, steals his ideas from the cleverer kid and, of course, falls in love.

Shakespeare in Love is playing at Noël Coward Theatre, London until summer 2015

PHOTO/The Corner Shop

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