Play review

Very loud (laughter)

Tom Garton
Burton Taylor Studio
Tues-Sat 9.30pm
Rating: 4/5

A priest, a journalist, a politician and a drunk are sitting in a room together.

The start of a bad joke. Or a very funny play.

Fourtissimo is a piece of new writing by Tom Garton. Essentially, it’s a play made up of four scenes of four men talking.

Hence the title.

During these scenes the four guys talk about their dalliances and downfalls with women. The concept is a standard “what men talk about when women aren’t there” number. What makes this fairly standard idea stand out is the alarmingly high level of comedy.

The play is essentially a sitcom and Garton doesn’t miss a chance to make a bad situation more entertainingly awkward for his characters.

When the politician unsuccessfully tries to reveal an embarrassing secret to his best friend, a Roman Catholic priest, he gives up with the line “you go love Jesus, you crazy”.

Not so funny on paper, perhaps, but on stage… such is the comic timing of the cast. Rhys Bevan playing Jacob, the slightly dirty twisted priest, and Alex Jeffery as the aspiring politician are both particularly hilarious.

Deadpan line after deadpan line is delivered wonderfully and their interaction with each other is a highlight. The characters in Fourtissimo are supposed to be caricatures of societal stereotypes, and the cast’s slightly exaggerated style brings the comic scenes to raucous life.

However, when the action moves away from the silly stuff, Garton’s writing is slightly less confident, hitting the occasional cliché, and for some of the scenes the depth of character naturalism delivers was rather missed.

This play may not take you on an emotional journey of self discovery, but it will make you roar with laughter: a perfect production for the late BT slot, and a pudding of a play to follow hall.

All in all, Fourtissimo is bravissimo!

Closet thing to crazy

Closet Land
Radha Bharadwaj
Burton Taylor Studio
Tues-Sat 7.30pm
Rating: 3.5/5

Closet Land is a sinister production exploring an interrogator’s manipulation of a female author believed by the government to have planted anarchistic propaganda into her latest children’s story: Closet Land.

The interrogator is convinced throughout that the author is guilty, but as the play progresses it becomes increasingly apparent that there’s a far darker reason why the author chose to write Closet Land.

The piece is a shocking examination of power and control, and the manner in which the interrogator is able to enter the author’s head. Adam Scott Taylor as the interrogator is fantastically creepy, exuding a sense of power and control, whilst at the same time maintaining a gaiety that is even more disconcerting.

Even at his first entrance, with the author blindfolded, he takes on two personae to menace her with a twisted ‘good cop, bad cop’ routine. He is the remorseful aggressor who in the first instance harms without question and in the second fawns, trying to correct his wrong.

The interrogator’s joviality is mixed in with the occasional slamming of tables and leaves the audience as jumpy and fearful as the author; being led into a false sense of security by his apparent warmth.

Scott Taylor’s portrayal is unnerving and yet shocking, and he captures the audience with the same power of manipulation with which he menaces the author.

Olivia Charlton-Jones as the author was also very successful as the confused and disoriented author. With no idea what she has done or why she is there, her pain, both mental and physical, contrast well with the seeming  joy of the interrogator, adding a disturbing edge to the dynamic.

At times however, her fear slightly missed the mark and felt slightly contrived, seeming to appear in full force and then vanish in the next instant.

For the most part, though, she was very impressive: working well with Adam to create a mesmerising dark scenario.

Closet Land will leave you uncomfortable in your seat and that is exactly what it should do. The interrogator is there to menace the audience just as much as the author, for is this not a piece on the tyrannical repression of the government over their people?

Woo-hoo for Much Ado

Much Ado About Nothing
OFS Studio
Tues-Sat 7.30pm
Rating: 4/5

Simon Tavener and his company, Oxford Triptych Theatre, are well known for their minimalist OFS Shakespeares, drawing from both Town and Gown to swell the ranks of their actors.

With the OFS closing its doors for the last time, Much Ado About Nothing is not only OTT’s final production on its stage, but the final show to take place in the OFS Studio. So is it a worthy swan-song for one of Oxford’s most beloved venues?

In a word, yes.

In multiple words, it’s an ambitious production whose aims the performers ably meet. Gone is the usual minimalism and modern dress replaced by an atmospheric French Resistance setting, with radio broadcasts huge tricolour and the wafting scents of coffee and Gauloises cigarettes, not to mention some gorgeous costumes.

The acting too is of a generally high standard as well. Some of the more obvious humour is sacrificed to a more sombre tone, but this works well with the backdrop.

Beatrice and Benedick, Will Hatcher and Vicky Coleman have an excellent, biting chemistry in their insult-slinging contests, although this does make the later love scenes a challenge, one that they occasionally falter at.

Other highlights include a pleasingly tender Leonato, played as a cafe owner by Mike Taylor, and Colin Burnie’s Don Pedro, who nimbly switches from stateliness to boisterous, rapid-fire dialogue with Claudio and Benedick.

The villains of the piece are also excellent: though Jaffar Khan’s Don John occasionally drifts from engagingly vicious to slightly pantomimic, he is backed up by a classic comedic couple in the form of his henchman.

Josh Hall plays Conrade as adorably naive, which contrasts well with the drunken Borachio, played by James Phillips, who provides some pleasingly dirty laughs in the form of drunkenness and… all that drunkenness entails.

The watch scenes work well, though they could stand to tighten up the more physically comic elements, and while Eli Keehn plays Claudio the wide-eyed lover exceptionally, it is somewhat hard to believe he ever looked on any lady or battlefield with “a soldier’s eyes.”

Overall, a classic Shakespeare in an interesting setting well-evoked, and a fitting send-off for the OFS Studio. Check it out, and bon appetit

No way out, hard to get into

No Exit
Jean-Paul Sartre
Frewin Undercross
Tues-Sat 7.00pm
Rating: 3/5

In No Exit, threes are trapped together in Hell. No sulphur and brimstone to be found here: this Hell takes the form of a ‘Second-Empirestyle saloon’, with three sofas and a table providing the only props; nor is there a single tormentor to be seen.

Sartre’s devil is economical: he lets the damned do their own work of tormenting one another. The trio, comprising Estelle, Garcin and Inez, soon become aware of the fact, so often quoted from this play, that “L’Enfer, C’est Les Autres“, Hell is other people.

Cue an hour and a half of unabated emotional torture, in which each character grapples with the others for understanding, sympathy and supremacy.

No Exit is, understandably, a static play, confined to three actors in a small room. Hardly surprising, given this is Hell. The production, therefore, relies heavily on inner exploration and Sartre’s biting humour to sustain suspense.

The cast make good use of a simplistic set: the clever sofa-swapping reflects a constant realignment of loyalties.

The growing frustration and interdependence of the infernal threesome builds to a pitch wonderfully demonstrated by Garcin’s failure to even kiss Estelle in Inez’s presence.

Yet for all this, the production did lack a certain oomph. Characters often failed to show a true appreciation for the horror of the situation, with some of the more vindictive, hysterical speeches being marred by a rather inanimate delivery.

More importantly, there was a woeful lack of that character interaction which is key to the whole play. An awareness of the audience also sometimes belied their alleged isolation, and a more inward-looking performance would heighten the claustrophobia of the piece.

These faults, however, are forgivable. This is a slow-moving, disquieting play, which is for the most part performed by a highly disturbing ménage à trois.

Particular credit must go to Louisa Holloway, who brings the smart, sadistic Inez to life with an evil smile and slow, unsettling drawl. After all, with a script as compelling and satirical as this one, it would be hard to go too far wrong.

Hopefully this production will stop resting on its laurels and inject some true dynamism into an excellent piece.

Don’t be a fool, go see Pool

Pool (No Water)
Mark Ravenhill
St. Catz Amphitheatre
15th-16th May
Rating: 4.5/5

Pool (No Water) follows the fortunes of a group of artists as the rise to fame of one of them results in bitterness and jealousy within the group.

This play explores the fragility of friendship, and delves into the deepest and darkest parts of man’s soul, bearing the horrific truth for all the audience to see.
Often in productions of this play, the figures are all presented being largely the same character. Sarah McCready, on the other hand, has attempted to instil a greater variance to make the questions of morality far more poignant.

The actors work well together, often directly addressing the audience to create a confessional aura. The audience are not meant to feel comfortable but are ‘dragged into the minds of the characters and forced to question their own morals.’ The relationship between the actors was impressive, with the slickness of cues giving the production the energy it requires for success.

The changes in pace engulf the audience in the action, often going from joyful frivolity to sickening chaos in the blink of an eye. Much of the action offers a disturbing insight into the morals of humanity.

The creation of art through suffering in this piece is particularly stark, endowing the casual statement that ‘we are all artists’ with a far more sinister undertone to it. The creation of tension and the chilling fear instilled by the horrific incident were incredibly successful.

The ability of the actors to engage with the audience was both disconcerting and strangely cathartic in their brutal honesty. Despite McCready’s attempt to move the emphasis from physical theatre into the characters themselves, the physical theatre itself was very effective.

This production will make you question your own morals, challenging you to engage in the sick creation of art taking place, whilst presenting, in itself, the grotesque mask of human nature: “we are all bad people.”

A damned good hour

The Hourglass
W.B. Yeats
Burton Theatre
Tues-Sat 9.30pm
Rating: 3.5/5

Short and sweet would be a brief summation of this play.

Coming in at just under a turn of your own hourglass, Yeats’ philosophical mystery play is well executed, if it tends towards the self-indulgent at times, as a worldly Wiseman has an hour before his death to find a true believer for an angel.

The visuals are particularly effective, with monochrome costumes and the action of ripping books being both painful to watch and an excellent image of the student’s “study”, not to mention suiting the pleasingly dream-like tone of the whole show.

The performances were uniformly strong, with a curious blend of naturalism and physical theatre being well executed by all involved.

Louisa Holloway played the Wiseman with stately grace, while the true highlight was the fool, whose frenetically infectious energy conveyed a curious blend of cynicism and innocence. Having her dub the Latin was also a nice touch.

On the whole, the show was only marred by a slight lack of energy and the somewhat contrived poeticism of the script itself, which seemed to hinder the creative thrust, rather than enable it.

All in all, a good investment of an hour of your theatre-going time.

Laborious loveliness

Love’s Labours Lost
St John’s Gardens
Mon-Weds 6.30pm
Rating: 4/5

Love’s Labour’s Lost opens with four men vowing to give up all women (and only sleep for three hours each night) for the next three years, in order to devote all their energies to studying.

Freshers may have some sympathy for this situation. What ensues is a tangle of romances as all the men promptly fell in love with French princesses, courtiers, and wenches.

St John’s Mummers have chosen this rarely performed Shakespearian play for their annual garden show and should be credited for their choice.

The company have cut many of the more obscure scenes to make the most of the Bard’s RomCom. And the result is real hilarity. Not “I’m laughing because I get a joke in Shakespeare” laughing, but proper laughing.

The standout performance, however, is Joel Philamore’s Berown. All six foot something of him exudes confidence as the heartthrob.

All seventeen members of this large cast are members of St John’s, which makes for a ridiculously talented college. Everyone is confident and entertaining in their role.

A bit more subtlety could improve the performances of some of the more overtly comical characters. Costard, the clown and Anthony Dull have some very witty lines and don’t need to overplay them.

This production has all the elements of a fabulous garden show: a stunning location, a great cast and a romp of a play. So pack a picnic basket with strawberries and champagne, borrow a blanket and soak up some sun and Shakespeare at St John’s.

Sophocles & Music (S&M)

Greek tragedy is hard.

Static speeches, choruses of dubious old men intoning between scenes and all the fun bits happening quite decidedly off-stage: it’s not a recipe for something most audiences axe eager to stomach.

So when Flipping the Bird, the company behind The Magic Toyshop, say they’re planning to do it in The Cellar, with an 18+ age rating and an S&M theme, you’d be forgiven if your first reaction is polite incredulity.

Yet such is their plan and, outlining their plans for the actors and the space, it sounds like it just might work. The watchword for the show is immersion. All the action happens in the round (or more precisely, in the crowd), with mini-scenes taking place in the alcoves, and the bar serving booze throughout and the fifteen-person chorus improvising their way around the space.

Of course, this improvisation is mainly centred on sex and hardcore drug-use. Make no mistake, they’re immersing themselves in the sordid setting as much as the audience.

At any time, the audience will be able to see the twisted excess around them, and by their presence, be implicated in the very decadence that leads to tragedy. Gore will also make an appearance at the orgy (gorgy?), although that’ll be left as a surprise.

With sex and drugs, of course, comes rock n’ roll, and the soundtrack plays an essential part in Antigone. Heavy, pulsing dance tracks, whipping up die performers and, they hope, the audience into the frenzied decadence of decaying Thebes.

Of course, with the darkness comes the camp, amusing side that can only really be achieved by a production sponsored by a sex shop, with funny, involving and sick physical humour.

It’s looking like this could be a crowning moment in Oxford twisted sexy fun, so if you’re into that, give it a shot