Comedy, Musical, Theatre

Orpheus

Battersea Arts Centre ~ Friday 9th May 2014

Greek mythology and Parisian Hot Jazz collide in Little Bulb’s high-energy, deliberately over-the top Orpheus.

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Dominic Conway plays virtuoso gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt who in turn plays the legendary musical genius Orpheus. Battersea Arts Centre has been transformed into a 1930’s Parisian cabaret venue where candlelit tables are laden with wine and cheese (there’s the normal auditorium at the back for the likes of us in the cheap seats).

Our host for the evening is cabaret chanteuse Yvette Pépin, played by Eugenie Pastor, who later becomes Orpheus’s lover Eurydice. The remainder of the talented Little Bulb company are, for now, a six-piece hot jazz band on drums, clarinet/soprano sax, violin, piano, double bass, piano accordion and vocals, not to mention the two leads’ on guitar and flute.

Soon, though, the land of Greek mythology behind the red velvet curtain is revealed, where Django becomes Orpheus, plucking not his guitar but a cardboard-rendered, gold painted lyre. The musicians, now animals, merrily prance, the Furies dance, the three-headed Cerberus barks and Persephone wails as softly as the white down feathers on her (well, actually his) mask suggest.

Many of these scenes are extremely energetic, silly and played for laughs. The cabaret scenes are lively but slightly less overdone. It is a particular approach to theatre that isn’t concerned with overly technical bells and whistles and is happy with a slightly primary school-ish, home-made feel and huge levels of enthusiasm. For me this left a bit of disconnect with the tragedy of Orpheus. It was just too enthusiastically jolly to do justice to the more poignant and passionate elements.

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I can accept the strong possibility that I’m a stick-in-the-mud for not running with Little Bulb’s charm and delight, but for me it felt a bit like mixing a full-bodied Bordeaux with a shot of Ouzo. A good night can be had on both, but by combining them in one glass you may become quickly disorientated and bleary-eyed.

More enjoyable for me was the half hour after the interval, set firmly in the world of chanson and cabaret. Also, technically outside the show itself, the guitar playing and swing dancing in the bar afterwards was a tad less excitable and more palatable for this clearly hardened cynic. Apparently there is more gypsy swing to be found at Le QuecumBar just down the road…délicieux.

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Theatre

Blind

The Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury  ~  Saturday 5th April 2014
A one hander performed by the multi-talented and twice UK female beat-boxing champion Grace Savage, Blind delivers on its promise to be ‘an interrogation into the influences on young women today’ and in the process provides a biting argument as to why feminism is still needed.

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Directed and devised by The Paper Birds Theatre Company who have form touring original theatre with women at the forefront, Blind draws on Grace’s formative influences to explore how the messages we hear can shape us. This includes the voices of her mother and school friends as well as popular music and media representations from the Spice Girls to Margaret Thatcher.

 

Grace acts, sings, mimics, beat-boxes and live-loops to give a whistlestop tour of the history of beat-boxing, of her development and, by implication, that of any young women attempting to carve a place in a culture that is not as modern and receptive as we sometimes like to think.
It is a fast-paced show with plenty of variety, including visual projections and whole-audience participation where we are encouraged try a bit of beat-boxing for ourselves. I’m doubtful that a new career in beat-boxing is calling – my human hi-hat sounded more like an overzealous shushing librarian as I tried not to accidentally spit on the people in the next row.
There is much fun and light-heartedness in the performance but this is not to detract from its serious moments and messages.  There is one particularly intense section as Grace recalls a nasty situation unfolding on a late-night train which, through its method of delivery, rapidly heightens tension. Savage is an engaging, energetic and extremely likeable performer and as she recounted some of the sexist attitudes she has experienced in her career I became increasingly enraged.
I found the show incisive and funny as many of the cultural references were very familiar to me, but you don’t have to have been a teenager when those ridiculously contradictory representations of ‘girl power’ were all over the media to enjoy this.
The Paper Birds are taking this production to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August 2014.

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Comedy, Musical, Spoken Word

On The Beach / The Islanders

Tom Thumb Theatre, Margate ~ Saturday 26th April 2014

A double bill of holiday-themed escapism, troubled love, subtle melancholy and simple pleasures at the gorgeously quirky Tom Thumb Theatre.

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John Osborne’s one hander On The Beach provides a nostalgic escape from everyday annoyances just in time to put you in the mood for summer. This is followed by a wallow in the pleasure-pain of slightly troubled young love and an Isle of Wight adventure with Amy Mason and Eddie Argos’s ‘lo-fi musical’ The Islanders.

Both shows are engaging in their simplicity. Osborne’s lunch break escape from his disappointing Weymouth summer job sparks a spate of seaside people-watching. With immense hope and just a touch of cynicism he entertains us with his observations of typically British seaside tropes – families bonding over beach cricket, couples variously falling in or out of love, friends sharing a sneaky sick day in the sun and tacky seaside souvenir shops selling ‘world’s laziest’ and ‘if found please return to pub’ t-shirts.

With understated humour Osborne’s sun-bleached vignettes imagine the situations that brought these people to the beach. His imaginings are interspersed with projected images of packed British seaside resorts in their heyday or waves lapping the harbour and overlaid with pensive indie pop.  Now where did I put my bucket and spade?

The Islanders is a slightly less optimistic but no less amusing look back at the angsty, nearly-adult relationship between Amy Mason and Art Brut’s Eddie Argos. They attempt to improve their youthful but already disappointing nineties existence as grungers in a grotty bedsit with a trip to the Isle of Wight – surely paradise in comparison?!

Through postcards to their younger selves and the benefit of hindsight, along with Amy’s sardonic accounts of their rows, dark moods and Eddie’s incessant playing of Billy Bragg records, we get the impression that the young (then) lovers, or their memories of the trip at least, are islands apart. Argos and Jim Moray’s wryly minimal songs form the musical element – especially funny is ‘B&B Anxiety’ where Amy hides from ghostly noises under the duvet while Eddie wonders if the coffee and tea is complimentary. Accomplished folk musician Moray, a previous winner of the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, takes a surprisingly back-seat role here.

We left upbeat and full of ideas of escape, adventure and sand castles, running towards Margate beach singing Billy Bragg’s A New England at the tops of our voices.

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Storytelling

Story Hunt

Margate  ~  Saturday 12th April 2014

Meeting at the Theatre Royal, Margate on Saturday morning for our hour-long walking tour, we are introduced to our tour guide and the writer of Story Hunt, Daniel Bye. More than just a walking tour of Margate past, present and future, Story Hunt challenges the view that Margate is somewhere history happened to.

Our group of around 15 inquisitive souls, from toddlers to one gentleman in his eighties, are guided by Mr Bye and his imaginary yellow umbrella to various sites around the town, frequently stopping to hear stories of Margate’s people and places – some unchanged, some no longer there and some that on another day you probably would have walked past without a second glance.

This is very far from a dry, linear tour commentary and for someone like me where a monologue of dates, facts and figures will quickly dissipate into a sludgy mush, the storytelling, people-based approach was very welcome. At one point as we stand overlooking the beach we are invited to imagine a gleeful young woman on a day trip who has lost the bottle of stout she buried in the sand, with other day-trippers lending a hand with her digging and searching. Then, jumping quickly to another point in Margate’s past, we are told of the infamous mods and rockers descending to the beach and running riot. This is followed by the tale of 46,000 exhausted troops arriving on the sands from Dunkirk in World War II to nothing more than the kindness of Margate residents, who rush to bring blankets and provisions from their meagre supplies. And all this before Dreamland is even mentioned!

The vividness of the characters linked only by place is heightened further when members of the tour group (or perhaps that should be audience; for this is also a performance) are asked to read a few lines on hastily whipped out flash cards, instantly becoming characters of times past. There is a balance between gentle humour and sombre reflection, which the short walks between our pauses allow us to ponder or discuss.

Now and again during the tour Bye invites us to think about the future of a young, imagined girl who our group has named Chloe and who we first meet marvelling over the existence of hidden tunnels under the Theatre Royal. This narrative thread, in which we see glimpses of the child’s life as she grows older, suggests that our ‘Chloe’ could be many children of Margate’s future. Here and through the stories of all the other characters we meet on our journey we are shown that the history of Margate is shaped though the actions of its residents, as well as people just passing through. The future of the young girl and ultimately the future of Margate is up to us.

This was a one-day only event so you’ve missed your chance for this one, but there have been other Story Hunts by Daniel Bye, ARC Stockton and Fuel in Gateshead, Stockton and Berwick and perhaps there will be another in a town near you.

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Theatre

The Drowned Man

Temple Studios, Paddington, London  ~  Wednesday 16th April 2014

The immersive, promenade performance The Drowned Man is difficult to summarise, firstly because a significant part of the attraction is its mystery and suspense, which I am loath to ruin.   Secondly, as a result of its vastness and ‘choose your own adventure’ approach (remember those books?) it is nigh on impossible to generalise about what can be a highly personal experience.

A little bit of context is useful, though.  A friend who had recommended the show sent me some tips and a few web links to help me out. I was told to lose my friends, not to be scared (alarm bells!!) and to follow a character. I heeded her warning and it was useful without spoiling anything.

Upon arrival we handed in our bags and coats at the cloakroom (this is a must), were presented with a small slip of paper very briefly outlining the two main narratives of the piece, and were supplied with the obligatory white mask to be worn at all times, except in the bar. Curioser and curiouser.

From here the audience become groups of be-masked explorers wandering around in near darkness – the blind leading the blind.  We stay entirely silent and follow where’ere our senses or the actors guide us. We have little influence over the action as it must all be perfectly timed and scripted for the complexities of the production to work. Despite this it somehow felt driven by the audience.  But I am in danger of revealing too much.

The performance itself lasts for three hours and having sat through Hamlet recently, which to be brutally honest made my bum ache, I didn’t think this was too bad – it certainly doesn’t feel overly long.   In fact I had to go for a little sit down in the bar after a couple of hours to rest my weary legs.

Although I’ve been to immersive theatre before this was by far the most impressive and innovative, partly because of its scale, ambition, and the remarkable level of detail. During the evening I was alternately surprised, frightened, baffled and frustrated, much like my first foray in to the films of David Lynch, especially Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire.  As with Lynch, The Drowned Man left me pondering and even dreaming of its beautifully dark mysteries, bizarre narrative structures and the subtle balance of  power, influence and inference at play in its approach to storytelling.

For me, half the fun of this production was comparing notes with friends at the end of the performance and for days afterwards. Two of us had completely different experiences and if we went back, the prospect of which is enormously tempting, no doubt we would not see the same things again. Alas I fear my bank balance has already decided this for me.

This is the kind of theatrical experience that undoubtedly invites a cult following and behaviour normally associated with obsessive fandom (not that I would know anything about that of course). Although mobile phones are not allowed on set I saw one gentleman surreptitiously whispering the actions of actors and audience members into his mobile, perhaps desperately trying to decipher layers of hidden meaning to solve the intertwining mysteries. Or maybe he was just an amateur hack with a poor memory.

If you are expecting a clear, linear  narrative from Punchdrunk then don’t be fooled. This experience rewards patience as well as mental (and a bit of physical) leg-work and it took me a while to get to grips with this. If you aren’t afraid to let your imagination run wild and are willing to accept that not all of the choices and directions you take will pay off, you will be richly rewarded.

 

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