Rough-Hewn Theatre Company lives up to its name in Devised Play One: FEAR: the play eschews smoothing over unattractive issues, confronting personal and collective fears in their purest, most terrifying forms. Whether the issue is child pornography or the slightly more flippant filicidal mother, it is the instinct, in the words of one of the characters, to “keep it in the margins” against which the company strives. In this minimalist production – created by writer Emma Levinkind and the cast – nothing is hidden from view, no matter how much we may not want to see it.
The play opens not unconventionally: a frustrated mother calling her reclusive teenage son downstairs, while he remains in a quasi-hypnotic state, transfixed by his computer. Cut to the mother visiting the family planning clinic, asking for an abortion. So far so normal. Things take a turn for the absurd, however, when we find out that the child she wishes to abort is 16 years old – “I could do with the space,” she says in a flash of black humour. It is typical of the play’s desire to shock, and to play on the audience’s desire to be shocked. We are disturbingly similar to the 16 year old internet-obsessed Cameron, who develops a penchant for child pornography because he has lost any sense of what it’s acceptable to like, knowing only that he “like[s] to be shocked.” The play toys with our expectations in making the familiar unfamiliar: the typing of office workers becomes a strange, repetitive hand-flapping, and smoking cigarettes a tense and mechanical movement performed in unison.
Fears are most fearful when they are immediate, in their purest rough-hewn state. The play seems to want to reduce everything to such a state. Cameron’s parents’ dinnertime chatter disintegrates into the bare bones of a conversation – “day,” “happy,” “pizza” – no longer conveying meaning, only anxiety. Office work is reduced to its essential elements: typing, gossiping, coffee-drinking, going to the toilet, and watching videos of pandas sneezing. A wonderful performance from Emma D’Arcy as Cameron’s introverted younger sister brings the girl’s very personal fear of public speaking to centre stage: stripped of any opportunity to hide herself, she is forced to speak her mind to the audience – a feat which D’Arcy portrays with a poignant diffidence that avoided affection. With a prop set consisting of a few chairs, the staging is stripped back enough to make sure these fears are confronted without mediation.
The distinctly modern mania that Devised Play One: FEAR addresses was a final, collective fear for the audience to confront – not so much a mania for life as for the half-lives we pursue in monotonous office jobs or on the internet. Watching this energetic madness unfold is a bizarre, disturbing, even humorous experience at times. For the brief 45 minutes that it lasted, it was exhilarating.
Without beating around the bush too much, Commensal’s production of John Ford’s play Tis Pity She’s a Whore is a resounding success. The seventeenth century tale of incest and blood is rendered in a way that preserves the integrity of the original text, it’s serious shock value, but paints the play (using ketchup and a pigs heart as a brush, may I add) in a fresh light that many productions often fail to do.
Audiences are always wary when a production adopts a different time period to the original. Yet, Commensal’s production succeeds in utilising a modern staging whilst maintaining the integrity of the original script and plot. The modern innovations on the Luhrman-esque stage enhance the original play text, as opposed to detracting from it. The highlight of this successful fusion is the blending of excellent live music with contemporary (quite often risqué) fantasised dance routines that transport the lusting desires of both Soranzo and Giovanni onto the stage. The audience can’t help but laugh when Annabella asks demurely ‘Sir, what you will with me?’ after she has just proceeded to throw herself around the central platform of the stage in a highly suggestive way. The performance is littered with these little comic moments of reinvention like this that provide the audience with a brief reprieve from the intense and violent plot, and the audience resounds every time with a great deal of laughter.
An energetic cast keeps the cast moving, preventing there from ever being a slow moment as the performance mounts towards the ending climax. It is at this point that Giovanni thrusts himself into the limelight with an impassioned performance that sticks in the mind of every member of the audience as they leave. But I won’t spoil this (gory) surprise that still continues to shock centuries later. Let’s just say that the audience should feel more pity for the strong stomached cleaners left to deal with the aftermath than Annabella. But anyone can put up with a bit of blood in return for such a fantastic performance.
Brechtian ‘Epic Theatre’: it was a challenge from the start. In The Caucasian Chalk Circle Brecht created a play within a play in the complex world of post-revolutionary Grusinia. Auden’s scripted translation, complete with pithy ironies, jokes and musical interludes served as the framework for this production.
The two stories are presided over by the ever-present narrator, played by Jack Sain , whose entire demeanour (costume, make up, mannerisms and use of the stage), started off brilliantly in his role of puppet master. In distracting your attention with the brief burning of paper, and creeping behind the actors like some evil magician, manipulating their movements and whispering in their ears the stage was set for a powerful and gripping performance. Unfortunately, his poor tonal range and often weak projection that left his overall portrayal fairly undynamic; a part that needed a commanding stage presence was in the end was reduced to a fairly smug ring-master.
The set, scaffolding comprising two levels of three compartments, sat awkwardly at the back of the stage throughout, its potential utilized fully only in the very first scene where shadows appear in each compartment. For the rest of the performance it became a white elephant. It appeared as though a great task at great expense had been undertaken and the outcome left me wondering for what end. The ‘epic’ bridge scene exemplifies the general disappointment, where the characters are building up to the imminent struggle of Grusha and Michael crossing of a shaky bridge over a deep ravine. Here the installation and sound worked well, but when it came to the crux she just skipped across the bridge behind the curtain, arriving on the other side: ‘Ta-da!’. There was no tension: a large compelling build up produced a disappointing outcome.
Despite this, there were some re-juvinating scenes, gripping and well done: the wedding party in all its hilarity and the puppet children playing by the river were cause for light relief in a play that was otherwise struggling to keep up with itself. Furthermore, some of the chorus put in brilliant performances, notably Claire Bowman, whose performance of varying characters all felt new and fresh, and Dominic Applewhite, who brought some much needed light-hearted moments to the first half. Luke Rollason held the second half together in his portrayal of the judge Azdak, providing some moments of hilarity in his presentation of popular misogynistic humour, but somehow his camp stage presence didn’t quite manage to unmask the inner lunacy of the wise fool as he makes a merry mockery of the legal system in his unsubtle bribery and passing of absurd rulings. But that in part may have been due to the fact that at this point I was unsure as to whether the whole performance had broken down into pantomime.
I struggled to find what was holding the whole thing together and unfortunately so did a number of other people in the audience who didn’t quite make it back to their seats after the interval. Unfortunately the sheer scale of the set was the only thing that managed to fill the stage, leaving me with distinct disappointment in a play that could have been great in the more intimate setting of the Keble O’Reilly, but had unfortunately became dwarfed in the Playhouse.
Lamorna Ash’s offering for the Oxford New Writing Festival delivers a powerful indictment of modern sexual politics – but considering its subject matter, the play feels remarkably chaste. Love Plus is a dystopian parable warning against the dangers of men’s desire for perfection, manifested in the titular ‘Love Plus’ programme – a living and breathing ‘woman’ subservient to the whims of its owner. The clear overtones of prostitution and sexual slavery are evident; why, then, does this performance feel so distant from the very real threat of violence it seeks to portray?
It’s partly the unfortunate lack of chemistry between gentle James and his narcissistic boyfriend Chris, the genius behind Love Plus’ creation. The interactions between James and Ayah, his virtual girlfriend (the latter of whom is, intriguingly, replaced by a different actress in each scene), also feel wrong, but in an awkward, rather than voyeuristic, sense. Even when he is pushed to breaking point and slaps her, the moment doesn’t feel as wrong as it should. The set, by contrast, feels perfectly suited to the bleak atmosphere of stagnation. Oppressive wooden blocks are the only furniture onstage, and when one Ayah is present with James her two counterparts remain slightly obscured by a translucent screen in the corner. One almost forgets their presence until certain of Ayah’s catchphrases – ‘you’re such a great boyfriend’ – are spoken by all three in unison. The effect is disturbing, all the more so when one recognises that at no point in the play is any character really offstage. There is no privacy in this piece.
The pervasive unsettling quality of Love Plus is certainly Ash’s most impressive achievement. The transitions between scenes are abrupt, unexpected and create a disorienting chronology, which fits in perfectly with both James and Chris’ diminishing perception of what is real and what is not. Subtle hints to the state of the outside world give the play a Huxley-esque edge as the male characters slip between states of catharsis and catatonia, drugging themselves with flawless female bodies, even though the action never leaves their apartment. The steady corruption of the Love Plus not-quite-robots from sustained interaction with Chris and James is a nice touch as well, as their language as well as their bodies decay. Misha Pinnington’s performance as the final incarnation of Love Plus is particularly affecting as the machines slowly gain awareness of the flaws in both Chris and Jamie; one feels that their plight is a greater tragedy than even James’. Love Plus’s message is clear and strident regarding the horrors of slavery as well as patriarchy, but I can’t help but feel that the play’s stilted relationships prevent it from being more than good.
When reincarnating something as famous as Strangers on a Train, it can be easy to fall into the trap of trying to reinvent every aspect of the production. Robert Allan Ackerman’s interpretation, however, revels in the history of this work. While more faithful in plot to Patricia Highman’s novel, from the second the curtain rises to reveal a projection of a chugging steam train through to the play’s denouement, there is clear homage being paid to Hitchcock’s screenplay’s film noir style.
Undoubtedly the most impressive aspect of this production is the staging, which alternates between complex sets that would not look out of place in a film, to minimalist scenes with nothing but a spotlight. The most striking of these is the scene on the carousel in the first half, which makes sublime use of the rotating stage. However, it is not the physical incarnations of the stalking and the murders that create the fear and suspense in this play, but the intensity of characterisation. The actors are at their best in the soliloquy scenes, as Bruno’s obsession and Haines’ mental decline intensify throughout the latter stages of the first act. Jack Huston’s Bruno captivates the audience’s attention from the moment he appears on stage until the final scene, striking up disturbing, yet believable relationships with both his mother and his companion in crime, which he delivers with searing vivacity. Unfortunately, Lawrence Fox has marginally less success in portraying Haines. At times, he is Huston’s equal, particularly during the scenes of mental disintegration as Bruno blackmails Haines into murder. However, at other moments it is hard to believe that Fox is playing the same character as in the preceding scene, since his portrayal alters from a nervous, stammering Haines to one of confidence and stature. This is particularly apparent in the opening scenes: he seems incredibly awkward when first confronted by Bruno, yet then incredibly confident in dealing with his former wife in the scene which follows.
Nonetheless, these momentary lapses of characterisation do not detract greatly from the first half of the production simply because the action moves so fast, with the audience so immersed in this gripping tale of blackmail, friendship and psychological disorder so as not to notice them.
The second half of the production is slower and, in this case, consequently weaker. However, the denouement is executed with such drama and unexpectedness as to redeem the entire second half of the performance, and is undoubtedly the most shocking and impressive ending I have ever witnessed on stage. In short, this interpretation of Strangers on a Train is so fast-paced and, in general, well-executed as to hide its flaws, and thus make it nothing short of an exceptionally compelling drama.
Set in the height of the roaring twenties, The Great Gatsby has always been a favourite for adaptations in spite of it being a notoriously hard novel to put on stage or screen. However, Dominic Pollard’s slick, fun production combats this problem with intelligent directorial choices.
The story follows the mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby’s (Percy Stubbs) attempts to win back his once love Daisy Buchannan (Hannah Schofield). He longs for her to one day walk into one of his lavish parties so he can impress her with his money and sophistication – two attributes Daisy adores.
However, this is not in itself what makes the novel “great”. The events are filtered through the narrative voice of Nick Carroway whose distancing commentary defines the feel of the novel. Many adaptations resolve this by adding extra scenes to make the love story of Gatsby and Daisy more prominent. Dominic Pollard cleverly resolves this through having a narrator – Old Nick played by Henry van Oosterom – throughout. This not only allows a faithful adaptation but also permits a medium for the beauty of Fitzgerald’s lengthy prose to be presented.
Van Oosterom as a narrator drives the story competently allowing direction where it could be potentially lost and leads a strong main cast.
However, standout performances are delivered by those underlying in the main action, such as Kimberly Sadovich’s Jordan whose understated cool confidence in scenes reflects the ennui of the age. Keelan Kember’s Young Nick also stands out with a performance that grew in confidence building up to his captivating last lines:
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
The set, costumes and music transformed the theatre into a party in the 1920s. Some elements were disappointing, however, as the eyes of T. J. Eckleberg lost their symbolic power when they were reduced simply to two lopsided blue dots of light.
My main quibble with the production was the scene changes. The difficulty of limited stage and set meant that the blackouts were sometimes necessary but too frequent. This meant that the continuity of the piece and the attention of the audience was disrupted.
However, this is a production put on by someone who understands The Great Gatsby and at its heart is the intellectual retelling of the story one would hope for.
Howard Coase shines as writer of Polly, part of the OUDS New Writing Festival at the Burton Taylor Studio. He has delivered a witty script, but the production occasionally misses a beat.
The play, under the direction of Daniel de Lisle, revolves around the dysfunctional relationship of Harry and Natalie, who have the parish priest round to help patch things up. Their daughter Polly is an unseen presence in the play. In a BT season that has already seen productions like Pinter’s Betrayal, the topic of breakdown in marriage risks becoming clichéd and unoriginal, but the vicar, played by Christopher Pike, adds a distinctive element to the play. He is marvellously apologetic, awkwardly sipping orange juice while caught in the middle of the sparring couple, and provides a hilarious surprise towards the end of the play. Nicholas Fanthorpe is also well cast as the friend Malcolm: gangly, nervously licking his lips and looking appropriately out of place.
For a play that revolves around awkward pauses interspersed with cutting remarks, the relationship between Harry and Natalie was not initially spot-on. Missy Malek impressed as a frustrated yet rather formidable, hard-drinking wife but she didn’t consistently meet her match in Joshua Dolphin, playing Harry. Harry oscillates between pained uncertainty and a more self-assured contempt for his wife, but at times in the performance Dolphin’s tone lacked dynamism and his delivery self-confidence. More could have been made, at first, of the couple’s marital tension as it broke out from under the surface of polite conversation in front of the vicar and built up into full-blown conflict. As a result, their relationship seemed a little flat. They talked over each other quite a lot, which sometimes contributed exceedingly well to the naturalistic mode of the play but at other times seemed more like error. Although by the third act their chemistry became more compelling, with a little tightening their interaction could have been sharper and could have built its momentum more effectively.
The play deals in lapses: lapses in time, lapses in fidelity, lapses in religious faith, lapses in the ability to laugh in response to life. The production itself also has some lapses, but eventually does adequate, if not full, justice to what is some excellent new writing.
Lover’s Suicide – Jamie Biondi’s entry into the OUDS New Writing Festival – toes a difficult line. It gives time to the dramatic-potency of its characters’ self-destructive impulses, but also injects some much needed dark comedy into what could otherwise be, let’s be honest, a bit of an emotional slog. As the title would suggest, the play deals with some sensitive subject matter, centering around the lives of Gabe and Anna: two members of a support group for those who have attempted suicide. The tone is appropriately sinister; and due to some innovative (and bloody) make-up decisions, the audience remains hyper-aware that the story charts an intense slow-burn towards an inevitably dark conclusion. But, all is not as it seems in Lover’s Suicide, and the play contains enough twists and turns to keep us engaged.
The show indulges in too many of the clichés associated with this kind of plot-line (I wonder if Anna and Gabe will form a romantic connection?) and, as a result, the drama verges on ‘safe’ and a little predictable throughout. But, happily, the show breathes new life into these dramatic conventions with some clever comedy and some solid (sometimes extremely good) acting. At its best, its right-on-the-knuckle jokes leaves the audience in fits. Anna’s friendly banter with Gabe’s mother (played by Nathalie Wright) and her no-nonsense, ‘in-yer-face’ attitude provides a comic foil to Gabe’s anxiousness. Also, Gabe’s musical number (I won’t ruin it for you; but it’s a moment not to be missed) is another comic highlight. Moreover, given the show’s primary focus on Gabe and Anna, it’s a pleasant surprise to see the obvious comic talent of supporting cast-member, Doug Taylor, in his delightful performance as the endearingly eager, and hilariously right-on, support-group leader, Peter. Costumed in a perfect – I’ve-been-dressed-to-look-professional-and-sickeningly-friendly-all-at-the-same-time number (the trainers and pink shirt combo had me giggling before he even opened his mouth) – Taylor charmed the audience from the start and, for me, stole the show.
In contrast, the ‘serious’ sections of the drama were a mixed bag. Lynch and Flynn pulled off some very impressive scenes as Gabe and Anna, fully committing to the difficulties which come with playing characters with suicidal intent in an authentic and unpretentious way. But, despite some accomplished acting (their on-stage chemistry was particularly strong), the two protagonists struggled a little to give Biondi’s ending enough energy and, as a result, the last scenes left me cold where the actors were obviously aiming for shock and horror. The situation was aggravated by the great frequency of irritatingly long black-outs and some clunky prop management in the dark which stopped the actors’ performances from ever really gaining momentum. This is understandable, given the lack of rehearsal time with the full technical elements usually allotted to student productions in the Burton Taylor, but a problem, nonetheless. However, for a short, low-budget show, and one which only costs £5/£6 to boot, Lover’s Suicide is worth a watch. It may be a little too safe, but the show is a enjoyable and competent one, particularly in its unexpected comic charm.