Review: Threesome

Almost Professional Productions

Brighton Fringe

03/03/21

The nerves of meeting a new potential housemate are an experience most of us can relate to. Will they be nice? Will they be messy? Will they be loud? Will they be a serial killer who eats small kittens on sandwiches?

This is the situation that Eve and Alex find themselves in at the start of Almost Professional’s debut show, Threesome, written by Eric Silver. The pair are housemates, living in London and looking for someone to fill the empty room in their house, before they have to pay the rent in it. Judging by their tumultuous argumentative friendship, in which Alex reverts to cynicism and sarcastic quips as his defensive default response, and Eve is loud, overbearing and impatient – they also need a third housemate to balance out their dynamic. Enter Evan, the prospective housemate who grew up in a cult, delivers his opinions with no filter…and is unlikely to bring balance to anything.

As the Zoom-call between the trio takes ever stranger twists and turns down tangents of religion, cults, homophobia, sex, rats and a wide range of other topics, there are some moments of sharp, witty writing and character. However, Threesome, which was originally conceived as a live, staged production, falls foul of the transfer to the digital medium. The at times over the top acting style may have added to the comedy on stage, but boxed into the restrictive format of Zoom, it comes across as strained and over-done. Similarly, moments in which characters break the fourth wall fall wide of the mark, lacking the definition they would have had on stage to make them effective interludes in the conversation between the trio of characters.

Zoom-transfer aside, the production felt underdeveloped. Though it included many funny moments and strong characters, there were several instances in which ideas were introduced into the script that felt out of place among the rest of the characters’ conversation. A discussion about the character of Eve considering sleeping with her boss to get ahead in her career veers towards a conversation around feminism but is cut short, and similarly the final moments of the play feel abrupt. There is no director listed in any credits, copy or press information, and that lack of a director with a view of how the performance works as whole may be the reason for these uneven patches in the show.  

Taking the familiar setting of meeting a prospective housemate, and exaggerating and playing with it to create a comic and entertaining play, Threesome is a promising production that leaves some key dramatic threads untied and finds itself frayed at the edges.

Threesome is available to stream as part of Brighton Fringe Festival until 27th June.

Review – SHE(ME): Reclaiming Shame

Brighton Fringe (Online)

31/06/21

At one point in SHE(ME): Reclaiming Shame, one of the performers describes shame as something that “grew like ivy up on an old castle wall.” An apt simile for something that has such deep roots and far-reaching effects on our society. As the vines wind their way across the wall, it becomes more and more difficult to remove them, or even to see their starting point – so too does shame wind its way across our lives and confuse our understanding of where it begins and how to rid ourselves of it.

As the first of the show’s vignettes wittily demonstrates, this proliferation of shame is a problem that particularly affects women. In a hysterical parody of online beauty tutorials, Georgia Rona takes the audience through her ‘effortless’ beauty regimen, highlighting the beauty industry’s reliance on the continued shaming of women for how they look naturally.

Created through 10 hours of online rehearsal between the 6 cast members and director Shea Donovan, the sketches and vignettes that follow are a mixture of comic and harrowing, revealing the many ways in which shame permeates through life. Some land more successfully than others – a strong ensemble dance with tape measures and a satirical period product advert stand out – while some feel underdeveloped. Some images are repeated (such as a sanitary towel worn across the eyes), confusing their meaning within the work, and there are movement sections where the pacing feels drawn out and worn thin. Matching this unevenness, the sound quality of the recording varies considerably, which left me with one hand on the remote control throughout, ready to adjust the volume as each new vignette began.  

However, considering the short rehearsal period, and the challenges of distance the creators worked with, the piece overall is an engaging and successful work. SHE(ME):Reclaiming Shame is a show that tackles a lot in its short 45minute run time, and does so with passion, verve and confidence.

SHE(ME): Reclaiming Shame is available to watch as part of Brighton Fringe Festival until 27th June 2021.

Review: The Merthyr Stigmatist

An image of Carys, a sixteen year old schoolgirl played by Bethan MCLean, and Sian her teacher played by Bethan Mary James standing face to face in confrontation.

Photo by Mark Douet

Sherman Theatre (Online)

28/05/21

“Do you have any idea what that’s been like, Miss? To see my hands every Friday and think, I must exist.”

In Merthyr Tydfil, on a Friday afternoon, a teenager is in detention. But unlike the myriad other teenagers in Friday detention in other schools in other towns, Carys is in detention because she appears to have stigmata, the wounds of Christ. As Carys and Siân, her frustrated, cynical teacher, argue over Carys’ decision to share a video about her stigmata online, The Merthyr Stigmatist paints a picture of a community seeking a moment of divinity.

Lisa Parry’s deft two-hander, directed by Emma Callander, conjures a vivid sense of the town on stage, despite the only connections to the world outside the classroom being a laptop on a desk and the haunting strains of a local choir singing their support of Carys from the schoolyard. In Bethan-Mary James’ taut Siân, we see a woman who tried to escape and distance herself from a town that she felt stifled and trapped in, while Bethan McLean’s recalcitrant Carys presents a young woman who wants to find her freedom through making herself and her town visible and unforgettable. In less than an hour of tense, revealing dialogue, Parry poses pertinent questions about how towns like Merthyr Tydfil are treated by governments, and about the too-easy assumption that a young person has to leave their town to make something of themselves. Carys’ pride and frustration in her town challenges us to consider what changes can be made, and Siân’s experience describes the danger of ignoring that challenge.

Elin Steele’s stark set design, and Andy Pike’s lighting design combine to create moments of the sublime in the plain setting of a secondary school. As shafts of warm light stream through the windows onto the laptop where Carys’ video is garnering viral attention, it is as though they are falling through the stained glass of a church window, illuminating Merthyr’s young Messiah, “Carys Christ.”

Whether Carys’ stigmata are real or not, they deliver a vivid moment of possibility for her and her town. As she cries “I’ve just caused what might soon possibly be a global situation because you’ve stopped thinking a person like me is worth hearing,” McClean declares the crux of the play. Carys and her community don’t need another martyr like the town’s namesake, and they don’t need to escape, they need to be listened to and heard.

In its sharp balance of humour, pathos and cutting insight, The Merthyr Stigmatist crafts a striking and affecting celebration of the power and resilience of community.

The Merthyr Stigmatist is available to watch as a streamed performance from The Sherman Theatre until the 12th of June.

Review: Faith Healer

Photo by Ave Calvar on Unsplash

Old Vic In Camera: Playback

22/01/21

Part of the joy, the singularity, of theatre is its liveness and its sense of presence. In a theatre auditorium, nothing competes for your attention, everything about the space is designed to focus your attention on the performance and allow you to leave the distractions of the world outside behind. Streamed and broadcast theatre doesn’t have that luxury. However, despite competition from guinea pigs zooming around their pen and chowing down on some particularly crunchy lettuce, the strains of piano practice drifting through from the other room, and the general debris of day-to-day life around me, I found myself transported from my sitting room by the Old Vic In Camera: Playback broadcast of Faith Healer.

Opening with Michael Sheen, as the “Fantastic Francis Hardy, Faith Healer,” reciting a resonant roll call of the dying villages of Wales and Scotland, this production broadcast from an empty auditorium arrests the audience’s attention and draws them into the mythology of Friel’s haunting play.

And mythology it is, not of the valiant, ancient sort, but a mythology-by-necessity, as each character tells a mercurial, shifting story of touring parish halls of Wales and Scotland, offering hope of cures to others, but finding hurt themselves. Each omits, adds and alters the story; whether in deliberate acts of misdirection or genuine remembering and misremembering, we are never sure. Through this triptych of recollections, from Francis, Grace and Teddy, we build a picture of unhappy relationships, painful loss, equally painful love, and a trio grappling with faith and hope.

Under Matthew Warchus’ direction, Sheen deftly portrays the restlessness of Francis Hardy, the shifts in mood from a buoyant and charming performer, to the haunted uncertainty of a could-be-con-man, and Indira Varma’s Grace is a shaken, smarting character who feels achingly adrift. However, it is David Threlfall who steals the show as Hardy’s Cockney manager Teddy. His mastery of both comic and tragic timing is sublime, and the story comes vividly to life with a new spark as Threlfall flits between humorous tales of previous acts, including a difficult but brilliant bagpipe-playing whippet, and heart breaking moments of loss and love.

The design, with beautiful lighting by Tim Lutkin and Sarah Brown, and Rob Howell’s set design comprised of a small selection of objects, each of which serves a clear dramatic use, is inventive and makes use of the unusual setting of the empty auditorium. By setting the play with the broadcast audience situated upstage, looking out to the vacant seats behind the performers, this does not pretend to be a normal theatre experience. It is a, for the most part successful, experiment in lockdown theatre. At times, the camera is too present, with shaky close ups making you aware that you are watching a filmed version of a play and sitting in an awkward space between theatre and film. However, to capture even a portion of the magic of live theatre and broadcast that to people in lockdown across the world is a laudable feat.

Though faith is a troubling entity in Friel’s play, this production is a reassuring exercise of faith in trying times. Seizing a window of opportunity between lockdowns, the Old Vic has produced a work that reminds us of the ‘breathless charm’ of theatre, and provides sustenance while stages are dark.

Review – The University of Wonder and Imagination

Two men standing beside a flight case marked Cahoots NI, surrounded by frames and lighting bars. The man in the foreground holds a sign saying "The University of Wonder and Imagination."
Cahoots Artistic Director Paul McEneaney with actor Hugh W Brown launching the new Cahoots show University of Wonder & Imagination. Photo by Francine Montgomery.

“Wonder can always exist if we use our imagination” 

Wise words from Professor Bamberg (Sean Kearns), and with this production Cahoots NI prove that they have imagination in spades. The University of Wonder and Imagination is not streamed theatre, or theatre transferred to Zoom, it is a new, pandemic-born creature – Zoom Theatre. The company is not making theatre despite having to use Zoom, it is making theatre for Zoom. With innovation aplenty, The University of Wonder and Imagination transports its audience from their homes into a wonderland of treats, tricks and fun.

Entering the “telecomology” device, the audience is brought to visit a handful of the Professors in the warren of the University. After a visit to the Professor of Probability (Lata Sharma), the audience chooses what professors to visit and are off into on an interactive journey of wonder and imagination. From “mathemagic” with Professor Carmo, played by magician Caolan McBride, to songs about space with Professor Lola Hurst (Philippa O’Hara), and painting marvels in the art department with Professor Hoffman (Hugh W. Brown), there is something to delight everyone.

The entire cast appears as comfortable on Zoom as they would be on stage; interacting with the audience members, navigating green-screen sets, and deftly handling transitions between virtual spaces. Though the audience are on their sofas at home, the cast draws them fully into the world of the show, using every virtual trick and tool available to them.

Director Paul Bosco Mc Eneaney has taken the limitations of pandemic theatre and turned them into possibilities, creating an innovative, exciting and engaging work for young audiences. The University of Wonder and Imagination certainly lives up to its name.

The University of Wonder and Imagination runs at the Belfast International Arts Festival from Thursday 22 October to Sunday 25 October and Thursday 29 October – Sunday 1 November. It is recommended for ages 7+.

Fight Back 2020 Festival – Week 2

For thoughts from the first week of Fight Back 2020 Festival, click here.

Fight+Back+2020+Festival+Poster

I’m used to theatre festivals meaning a few weeks of running around, subsisting on sandwiches slightly squashed in pockets as I clock up the kilometres between venues, and taking up residence in corner seats of theatre or near-the-theatre cafés imbibing coffee and probably crisps as I type up my reviews in the brief gaps between shows. It has felt a little strange to travel no further than the distance between the back garden where I lazed in the sun watching the first two of this week’s performances, to the couch in the sitting room where I watched the second two performances after the breeze outside threatened to steal the pages I was writing on. However, though Fight Back 2020 Festival is not a normal theatre festival, it has still brought the work of some of Ireland’s talented writers and performers to the fore.

The second week of the festival opened with a delightful monologue written by Ultan Pringle. Toffee, performed by Clelia Murphy, tells the story of a Aisling, who is going on a first date with a woman at the National Gallery Café. While she waits for her date to arrive, she tells the audience about her experience of going to university in her mid-40s, after a divorce, and raising her two grown up children. There are no major twists or surprises in the 15-minute monologue, but none are needed. Exactly the sort of heart-warming story that is called for in these trying times, Toffee is as sweet as its title.

Day six of the festival brings another love story, but not such a straightforward one. A hilarious and slightly bizarre lockdown story, Ali Hardiman’s Hug takes the form of a lockdown diary inspired by Matt Damon’s video diaries in The Martian. As she grumbles about her neighbours, reminisces about her childhood friend Jack, and reveals the difficulties in her family. Bringing an interesting twist to escapism, Clíodhna, played by Madi O’Carroll, will certainly make you laugh but will also make you pause and think.

Ella Skolimowski’s monologue Pandemic Panic, tells the story of a very different reaction to the Covid-19 lockdown. Aneta Dina Kedar plays a very stressed character who is struggling to manage her OCD while in lockdown. Though the monologue is funny in moments, it is also a tense watch which clearly conveys the fear and panic that the character is feeling.

The final day of Week 2 brought a comic story of a time machine in a wardrobe. Written by David Halpin and performed by Jed Murray, Backwards and Forwards takes the form of a FaceTime call, in which the main character is excitedly discussing the dilemma of whether to go backwards or forwards in time with his newly constructed wardrobe time machine in order to save the world. Though it is light-hearted and funny on the surface, Backwards and Forwards, like many of the other monologues this week, also conveys the frustration and uncertainty of a character in lockdown.

Fight Back 2020 Festival continues until 24th April.

Fight Back Festival and Theatre in Lockdown

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I’m sure I’m not the only one who has felt the pang of absence lately upon hanging up a phone call, FaceTime or Zoom chat. Though these technologies help us to stay in touch, and bridge the gap between one isolated household and another, they also highlight the distance that is separating us. The slightly pixelated images of friends on your screen, constrained by the reach of their webcam, as you have an online “pub” session during lockdown serves to remind us of the things that we are missing. A chat over zoom can’t really replace the feeling of walking into the pub and seeing your mates sitting at a table in the corner, a packet of crisps torn open in the middle of the table for sharing, someone already mid-scéal as you sit down and join them.

It has been uplifting to see the ingenuity, community spirit and enthusiasm that has been displayed by the theatre sector from the outset of this lockdown. The theatres closed, but people stepped quickly into the breach and began generously sharing work online. Amid this wave of creative generosity though, I can’t help but feel a cold current of absence running through it. When we move theatre online, we lose a lot of what makes theatre what it is. Like the Zoom “pub” gatherings, though a great deal of care and talent is evident in them, these online theatrical offerings remind us of the things that we love about theatre that are missing.

As I watched the first week’s plays in The New Theatre and takeyourseats.ie’s Fight Back 2020 Festival, this feeling of absence was brought into focus. The four works told engaging stories, written and performed by talented artists but throughout them all, the lack of so many vital elements of live theatre were brought into focus on camera.

The Festival opened on Tuesday 7th April with An Unmade Bed, written by Elizabeth Moynihan and performed by Laoisa Sexton. The story was one of a woman struggling in a relationship with a man addicted to recreational drugs. The setting of the piece during the Covid-19 lockdown heightened the sense of isolation and entrapment that the woman was feeling as she warred with her love for her partner and the knowledge that his addiction was wearing them both down. In terms of pacing and tone, the work would, like most of the other pieces in the festival, have benefitted from a directorial eye. Overall, the fifteen-minute work felt more like an eloquent short film than a play, with a voice-over narrating beautiful close up shots of Sexton’s character observing the world from her window, and slow fades and between shots of her in a tangle of white sheets as she considers her relationship. Billed as a short film, this piece would be more satisfying, as the cinematic nature of the performance and editing meant that An Unmade Bed did not come across as the theatrical play it was described as.

The second day of the Festival brought a similarly meditative piece, with Tara Maria Lovett’s The One Tree, performed by Pat Nolan. This short play is the most theatrical of the week, with Nolan’s grounded storytelling style holding the audience’s attention as he speaks to someone just beyond the camera. Filmed from a single angle, with static images marking scene changes, the simplicity of this work is its strength. Lovett’s magic-realist script and Nolan’s performance bring to life a bittersweet story of love and loss in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Given the input of designers and directors, the space to elaborate on the story, and freed from the restrictions of a tightly focused camera, The One Tree has all of the ingredients for a successful one man play.

Day three presented a double bill of Shard, written by Stewart Roche and performed by Neill Flemming, and The Pleasureometer, written by Jack Harte and performed by Gerard Lee. These two contrasting pieces were filmed in a similarly straightforward manner as The One Tree, and both similarly felt like scratch pieces for successful one-handers. Shard tells an increasingly unsettling story of a commune on an island off the coast of Cork. The plan to set up the commune seems suspect from the outset, but as older and more powerful forces than they could ever have expected come into play, the characters gradually realise that they are in far out of their depth. The piece could be a longer one, with the suspense of the story held for longer, and as with An Unmade Bed, the piece would have benefitted from directorial input in the staging and filming of the play. However, the story is engaging and original, and Flemming delivers a strong performance as a member of the commune recounting the story from quarantine in the near after being rescued from the island. Finally, The Pleasureometer provides some comic relief to close the week. As he laments the closure of the pub for the lockdown, Lee’s character meditates on the community that is formed around the pub, with the different characters that he sees only in that setting – the Teacher, the Cynic, the Young Lad, and Himself. Himself, the classic chancer that every community has. Telling the story of one particular day in which Himself brings along a new invention to test on his fellow pub-goers, Harte brings some comic lightness to the lockdown situation, and provides a laugh to end the first week of the Festival on.

When I set out to review work online, I had no idea of the quandary I was setting up for myself, the position I would be putting myself in as a theatre critic reviewing not-quite-theatre. Though the skill of their writers and performers is evident, all four of these works, and many of the other works that are being produced online in lockdown, are a reminder of the collective effort that goes into creating a production – the designers, the technicians, the directors, the dramaturgs,  the writers and the performers. No man can be an island in theatre. While we enjoy and support the work that is filling the gap left by the closure of venues, and make no mistake I have been enjoying it, we must also fix our minds on the eventual return to the stage for we can’t forget that theatre is in its very essence a live, collective art form in which social-distancing is not an option.  As the writer Griselda Gambaro once wrote, “A theatre piece of itself, demands a confrontation with the audience. It demands that you connect with people; it demands a collective and social effort with the company and later with the audience.”

Lovecraft (Not The Sex Shop in Cardiff) – Review

Ffresh, Wales Millenium Centre

Cardiff

29/11/19

Lovecraft credit Kirsten McTernan (1)

Credit: Kirsten McTernan

Self-professed international love-monger, Carys Eleri, takes to the stage in Ffresh to introduce the audience to Lovecraft (Not the Sex Shop in Cardiff), her one-woman science comedy musical about the brilliant neurological nonsense that is love. In her hour on stage, Eleri takes a comprehensive, comic and considered look at the loneliness epidemic that is sneakily working its way through society, and at the importance of love in life to combat it.

Telling anecdotes of her past relationships (with the memorable characters, Eddie Pie-Hands and Bernie the Beautiful Shit) Eleri takes her audience on a journey through the chemical processes of falling in love, and reminds them of the importance of all sorts of love – romantic, platonic, familial. However, this is not just a science or sociology lecture. Throughout the show Eleri accents her point with howlingly funny stories and songs about rejection, jealousy, tinder, and cocaine-addicted mice among other topics. The musical numbers, produced by Branwen Munn, are welcome earworms that will stay in your mind and provide you with residual giggles well after you have left the theatre.

Not only are Eleri’s writing and performance excellent, the slideshow that accompanies her performance on screens at either side of the stage is the source of much hilarity. I know, a slideshow in a theatre show; it doesn’t sound like it will work, but with glitzy hormones and dancing rats, and a kaleidoscopic mammary montage, this is not your average PowerPoint presentation. Like the rest of this show, it is slightly mad, and yet catches the audience and draws out common experiences that make Eleri’s escapades easy for the audience to relate to.

From the moment she walks on stage, Eleri has the audience in the palm of her hand. Even I, an avowed avoider of audience interaction, was happy to join in the audience-wide cwtch (Welsh for cuddle), and sing-along songs. Lovecraft (Not the Sex Shop in Cardiff) is an open, frank show that draws its audience in with ease as Carys Eleri not only reminds the audience that life is short and best spent in the company of others, she gives the audience a chance to enjoy the reality of it as they share an evening of laughter, chocolate and music with each other.

Beginning -Review

Gate Theatre

04/04/19

Photo Ros Kavanagh

Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Something happens after midnight. Perhaps it’s the light from the stars, or maybe the silence in the air, but whatever it is, it brings truth much closer to the surface and people much closer to each other. It’s the early hours, and Laura and Danny are the last two people left after Laura’s housewarming party.

They don’t know each other.

This is where we find ourselves at the start of David Eldridge’s Beginning. Directed by Marc Atkinson, and starring Marty Rea and Eileen Walsh, this production is a compelling story of honesty, loneliness and love.

As Laura moves from playful seduction to laying her heart on the table in front of Danny, and her vulnerability is gradually reciprocated, Eldridge paints a picture of two intensely realistic characters who find themselves making an unprecedented connection. A masterclass in storytelling and characterisation, Eldridge’s script, with its comic back and forth, absorbing monologues, and touching moments of mundane humanity, is brought vividly to the stage by Atkinson, whose direction is clear and precise, but never laboured.

This subtle precision and attention to detail is what makes this production. Rea and Walsh bat the power in the evening’s conversation back and forth with an intent naturalism – drawing the story out of each other, and tying the audience’s hearts to these two lonely souls as Danny and Laura edge closer to each other. In one scene in particular, where the pair begin tidying up the flat, the silence of both as they work, with the tension punctuated by quick glances and clattered plates, speaks volumes. And never before has a fish-finger sandwich said so much.

The beautifully theatrical naturalism does not only lie in the direction and performances though. Sarah Bacon’s set and costume design delights in detail –  Laura’s favourite colours are evident as the colour palette of her costume mirrors the paint swatches on her wall, but the rich, muted pinks and blues soon infuse more layers of her character than just her wardrobe choices. The front door, placed upstage centre, poses a constant question to both the characters and audience.

Selina Cartmell’s current programme at The Gate promises love and courage, and this production of Beginning delivers both in its touchingly comic staging of love, loneliness and connection.

Review – Dinner in Mulberry Street

Bewley’s Café Theatre

05/12/18

j o'neill, a dorrell, f roggio in mulberry 3-1

Image: Futoshi Sakauchi

A Christmas show in Bewley’s is always a treat, even without the pre-show mince pie and coffee I enjoyed beside the fire yesterday. Adapted by Michael James Ford and directed by Bairbre Ni Chaoimh, this year’s Christmas production of Dinner in Mulberry Street tells the story of a young couple, Agnes and Dick Burdoon, who have fallen on hard times and find themselves living on Mulberry Street with a dying fire, hungry bellies, and little else. However, when Dick sells one of their last possessions, they are greeted with a stroke of luck that changes the course of their story.

Ford’s play is based on Fitz-James O’Brien’s 1881 short story Duke Humphrey’s Dinner, and is quite a faithful adaptation; one character is changed, but the overall shape of the story remains the same. Though it is a charming and entertaining story both on the page and the stage, the adaptation may have been wise to stray a little further from the shape of the short story. The lack of action or plot development in the early portions of the short story, and the sudden resolution of events in the final few pages mean that the pacing of the plot is uneven for the stage.

However, the issues of plot and pacing fade as Ashleigh Dorrell and Jamie O’Neill revel in the language of the earlier parts of the play under Ni Chaoimh’s strong direction – though there is little action per se, they bring energy and character to every word as they lament their situation and describe the sumptuous meals they wish they were eating. This is accentuated by Nicola Burke’s costume design which captures perfectly the fall from splendour Dick and Agnes have experienced.

From a seduction via cheese-board to fisticuffs between Fabiano Roggio’s effusive and eccentric Giacomo and O’Neill’s Dick Burdoon, Dinner in Mulberry Street is a play that never takes itself too seriously, and in doing so provides a fun, diverting Christmas show which (despite the Burdoon’s lack of coal), promises warmth and laughter throughout.

 

Dinner In Mulberry Street runs at Bewley’s Café Theatre until December 22nd.