Monthly Archives: February 2014

Secret Cinema: The Grand Budapest Hotel

gbh

As a lover of immersive theatre, I jumped at the chance to sample a “theatrical immersive experience” based around the upcoming Wes Anderson film The Grand Budapest Hotel. It promised to plunge me into the glamour and opulence of the 1930s in fictional European state, Zubrowka.  I was sent a string of intriguing emails hinting at a secret location in Farringdon, asking me to adhere to a strict 1930’s eveningwear dress code (presumably to blur the lines between actors and audience), to read up on the history of Zubrowka, to fill in some travel documents which we should carry at all times, to memorise a poem, to bring something from a list of suggested items – a large amount of preparation which only served to increase my excitement.  Yet the evening itself left me feeling quite underwhelmed.

A long queue snaked towards a building with a projection of the hotel frontage – a very effective look from outside.  We were met by a string of hotel staff in their purple uniforms and guided towards an area where we could drop off our electronic devices and we then stepped into the grand reception – where they promptly took my travel documents, put them in a clipboard and I never saw them again.  So much for carrying them with me everywhere.  The vast majority of the audience had made the effort to dress up, yet there were a handful who were just there in skinny jeans and jumpers which rather spoilt the illusion – so much for the dress code.  Once into the main lobby, it became apparent that my previous experiences of immersive theatre and their painstakingly detailed sets had truly spoilt me.

My tickets were courtesy of Bargain Theatre.  To read the review in full, please click here.

(They have transposed it from past tense to present tense and there are a few SPG errors in their version.  It was immaculate when I sent it to them).

Heist Live – Marylebone Gardens

I have just been involved in a robbery. Heist Live gives you the chance to live a life of crime for one night. Your accomplices can get you in and they can get you out, but for the planning and execution – you’re on your own.  You and a team of up to 7 other people.  I’ve spent the evening creeping around darkened corridors and staircases, crawling around the floor, evading CCTV cameras and hiding from roaming security guards. With hearts pounding and adrenaline coursing through veins, we pulled off our Heist.

We begin in an innocuous office lobby in Marylebone – we’re given lanyards (we are now ’employees’ of Mr Spotless Cleaning Company) and taken up to the bar where there are lockers for bags and coats and we meet One-Step, a dodgy dealer type who sorts us out with drinks (the bar is cash only but absurdly cheap for London) and gives each of us a codename: Detention (myself), Seaweed, Log Flume, Placemat, Peanut, Towers, Mars Bar and The Colonel.

We’re then taken in to meet Doyle who guides us through our task over a hand of poker: what we’re there to steal and where to find it. We’re then taken to break into the neighbouring building and meet AJ who has been working as a cleaner, so has gained a bit of inside knowledge to start us off – “if you get caught by security, remember that you’re a cleaner.  Innocent people don’t run.”  But it’s up to us to find the resources to aid ourselves (and there’s nothing to stop you bringing in a few things yourself, within reason – a torch and a pen come in very handy – but beyond that, most of the stuff that you’ll actually need is in the building for you to find). This is where the boundaries begin to blur between performance and live gaming. There are various tasks we have to complete in a set order so that we can obtain floor plans, get codes, disable CCTV hard drives and unlock rooms. Without being caught. This is possibly the most epic game of hide and seek I’ve ever played.

There is a huge amount of teamwork required – decisions to be made as to whether you stay as a group, split into pairs, where you establish a base (and when to move on) who goes out on what task, how they get there and how they get back. The creators have designed 17 possible permutations of events so the outcome is based on the choices you make as you go along – and there’s no guarantee that you’ll succeed.  There was a real heart-in-mouth moment after one little foray – voices crackled through one walkie-talkie (designated for listening to the security guards): “hey, did you leave this door open?” / “No…..” – we soon learnt our lesson!

Communication between the group is paramount and success rides on how well you divvy up the tasks.  With logistics so critical, not everyone can steal the object, but they can help play a part in locating it, accessing it, creating diversions, being on lookout etc. But even if you do find it, that’s not the end of the story – we chose our route out but it seems there may have been another option with a different outcome. But we got out without being caught. I was further from the main action, but settled into the role I was given (which aside from scouring rooms was pretty important) and having completed a few other minor tasks, it seems the work was fairly evenly spread between us.  But I found myself wishing I’d done a little more than sit staring at CCTV screens and perhaps a bit more scrabbling around the floor and diving under tables like a nutcase.  On the way home I started to think up all sorts of things we could’ve done.

Would I go back?  In a heartbeat.  Now, how to steal a ticket…..

Heist Live is on until Saturday 29th March 2014 at Marylebone Gardens, 35 Marylebone High Street, London, W1U 4QA.  This event is now sold out but a small number of returns may be available on certain dates.  All participants must be 18 or over.  For tickets and more information go to http://heistlive.com/ 

The Knight of the Burning Pestle – Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

When Shakespeare’s Globe was built in the 1990s, the plan was always to have 2 theatres on the site – one of course being the open air Globe Theatre – but their budget fell short of being able to cover the costs of building an indoor candlelit Jacobean-style theatre, so space was left and the empty shell was used as a rehearsal room for over a decade.  But for the last few years, they’ve been fundraising (I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve put in a fiver here and a tenner there) and building the sort of theatre that Shakespeare and his contemporaries would’ve been familiar with – and I finally got to see it in all its glory last week for a performance of The Knight of the Burning Pestle.  It is BEAUTIFUL.  With its oak framed U-shape and seating for just 340 people, it is wonderfully cosy and intimate – and right now, it contains the silliest play in all of London Town.

Rather than ‘a play within a play’, this is almost a play outside of a play.  We the audience are gathered to watch The London Merchant but there’s a commotion in the front row; Citizen (Phil Daniels) stands up to complain that plays are always about the nobility and that there should be more plays about ordinary people, so he suggests that the players include his apprentice, Rafe (Matthew Needham) as a knight in their story.  The Citizen and his busybody Wife (Pauline McLynn, best known as Mrs Doyle in Father Ted) then spend the evening upstaging the players by noisily eating roasted nuts out of a paper bag, offering them around their nearby audience, talking over the actors and interfering with the plot when Rafe has been off stage for too long.  It is utter mayhem and you never quite know what situation they’ll dream up next.

Pauline McLynn and Phil Daniels

The players valiantly try to carry on with their tale of The London Merchant in spite of the frequent interruptions – the Merchant’s headstrong daughter, Luce (Sarah MacRae) is engaged to be married to wet blanket Humphrey (Dickon Tyrell), but instead she has fallen in love with the devil-may-care Jasper (Alex Waldmann), the son of Mr Merrythought (Paul Rider), a rather Falstaff-like character, and his moralistic wife Mistress Merrythought (Hannah McPake).

Each scene is bookended with a traditional Boy (Samuel Hargreaves) who gracefully presents placards and plays the lute.  It seems that two stage hands, Tim and George (Dennis Herdman and Dean Nolan), have been enlisted as squires on Rafe’s great quest, much to their annoyance.  But it is these two who provide endless amounts of comedy, shuffling about rather like the little men you’d see on a cuckoo clock, falling over, turning the Boy into a human maypole, almost strangling him with ribbons.

It’s occasionally confusing to watch, but you can tune into the language very quickly and there is so much slapstick that it almost doesn’t matter which plot we’re in – when the Merrythoughts and their precocious son Michael (Giles Cooper) set out to rescue Luce, they enlist Rafe and his companions to fight Jasper, which soon descends into chaos as various character flail about with swords, clamber through the audience and tear around the outer perimeter of the auditorium (there’s a wonderful moment when a face slides down a window) and tumble back onto the stage in a mess of shouting limbs.  Brendan O’Hea also plays a variety of increasingly ridiculous characters (as requested by the Citizen’s Wife) including a pirate and a grotesque giant.

Matthew Needham, Brendan O’Hea and Dean Nolan

But in total contrast, there are some darker moments of drama where a candlelit venue really comes into its own; all of the candelabras can be raised and lowered on ropes – so during one scene they were brought right down, hovering just a foot off the stage floor – the total change in atmosphere was incredibly effective, to the point that you’d almost forgotten that you were watching a comedy.

At times the whole thing descends into utter nonsense – but very entertaining nonsense.  Yes it is far-fetched, but this is a zany satire on badly behaved audiences, a problem which remains in theatres today with mobile phones, chattering and rustling.  If you are happy to put realism on hold for an evening, this rebellious comedy will have you grinning from ear to ear all the way home.

The Knight of the Burning Pestle is on at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe, 21 New Globe Walk, Bankside, SE1 9DT until Sunday 30th March 2014.  For tickets and information, go to http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/theatre/whats-on/sam-wanamaker-playhouse/the-knight-of-the-burning-pestle 

Rapture, Blister, Burn – Hampstead Theatre

Can any woman have it all?  Friends Gwen and Catherine have taken very different paths since leaving grad school; Catherine has had a very successful academic career, while Gwen has married Catherine’s former boyfriend, Don and settled into family life.  When Catherine’s mother Alice is taken ill, she drops everything to return to her childhood home and find herself rekindling old friendships.  Reunited for the first time in 10 years, both women are starting to covet each other’s life and when Catherine drunkenly suggests they should switch places, a dangerous game begins.

Gwen and Catherine

Ultimately, this is a play about ‘what ifs’, about love and relationships, about men and women – and feminism.  I must however make the distinction that this is ABOUT feminism rather than being a feminist play (there is a difference); playwright Gina Gionfriddo is not pushing an agenda, simply observing the minefield of gender politics in modern society – it is savagely funny and some of the loudest laughter was coming from the men in the audience.  I suspect that Hampstead Theatre have played down the feminism card in order not to put people off.

Catherine (Emilia Fox – currently in BBC’s Silent Witness) manages to be both alluring and approachable – there’s a real sense that she’s comfortable in her own skin and the life she has carved out for herself.  She’s completely at ease in skinny jeans and stilettoes, a total contrast to Gwen (Emma Fielding), who in capri pants, loose blouse and deck shoes has settled into the lifestyle of full-time motherhood.  She is happily resigned to the fact that her marriage has lost its spark, yet she has very little impetus to do anything about it.  Gwen’s husband, Don (Adam James) is charismatic and funny – he always has a wisecrack up his sleeve and you can easily see how, by being a big kid at heart, he’s a great Dad but a crap husband.  It’s hard to tell who drifted from who first; Gwen, into housework and bedtime stories or Don, into porn and smoking cannabis.

Alice (Polly Adams) succeeds in balancing 2 very unlikely characteristics; on the face of it, she has a gentle and cuddly disposition, but with a mischievous, subversive undercurrent.  When Catherine realises she still has feelings for Don, Alice brightly observes: “you could have him, you know.  He was yours first.” with an impish twinkle in her eye.  It is this which sets Catherine thinking that perhaps if Don had married her, he’d be more motivated to get on in life, to write that book he was threatening to write.  But he has relaxed into his apathy and equilibrium, so there is very little that anyone can do about it, even Catherine.

Avery, Alice and Catherine

Avery (Shannon Tarbet) is Gwen and Don’s wayward teenage babysitter; young and naïve with a very stark black/white view of things, she has some really cracking lines delivered with unapologetic bluntness.  She is hellbent on complete sexual liberation (much to the puzzlement of the 2 generations above her – for them, this wasn’t the aim of feminism), but it is Alice’s comment “a man won’t buy the cow if he’s getting the milk for free” which ultimately changes how Avery views her own feminist ideals and how she uses them in a way which is counter-intuitive to their ethos, but – for a while, at least – gets her what she wants.

Gionfriddo has written 5 likeable characters, all with their own very human shortcomings; this is an exploration of what happens when you drag up ghosts that have been laid to rest – none of them are bad people, but there is a conflict of interests.  Yet in spite of the love triangle between 3 of them, you still find yourself wanting everyone to get their happy ending – and that’s just not possible.

Rapture, Blister, Burn is on at Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, Swiss Cottage, NW3 3EU until Saturday 22nd February 2014.  Suitable for ages 16+.  Contains strong language and references to sexual themes.  For tickets and more information go to http://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/whats-on/2014/rapture-blister-burn/