Monthly Archives: April 2015

The History Boys – Churchill Theatre, Bromley

In 2013, Alan Bennett’s The History Boys was voted The Nation’s Favourite Play. It’s certainly one of mine. After a successful run at the National Theatre, a stint on Broadway, a film adaptation and a scene in the NT’s 50th anniversary celebrations, how do you pull off a successful revival of something so iconic and beloved by the public?

After a clean sweep of exceptional A-level results, 8 students return to the classroom in order to spend a year preparing for Oxbridge entrance exams.  At odds with each other are teachers Irwin, who is determined to coach the boys in how to write outstanding essays and wow the university dons, and Hector, who is more preoccupied with broadening their horizons and knowledge for its own sake.

Director Kate Jackson does a great job of setting the scene with 80s pop hits as we walk into the auditorium, and Libby Watson’s set design perfectly captures the drab Sheffield classroom with the addition of Hector’s motorbike suspended from above, which adds an extra dimension that prevents this from being too “naturalistic box set”. At times the lighting does seem to be trying too hard to be evocative, occasionally leaving the actors speaking asides in semi-darkness.

My ticket was courtesy of Bargain Theatre – to read the review in full, please click here.

The History Boys is on until Saturday 2nd May 2015 at Churchill Theatre, High Street, Bromley, Kent, BR1 1HA.  It is on tour until July 2015.  Contains very strong language.  Cigarettes are smoked during the performance. For tickets and more information, please go to http://www.historyboysuk.com/ 

A Level Playing Field – Jermyn Street Theatre

Education, education, education – or results, results, results?

It’s exam season in a fee-paying London secondary school: due to a timetable clash, a group of 11 students are being held in isolation in the music room to avoid the risk of cheating.  With an hour to wait until their exam starts and no sign of their supervising teacher, it doesn’t take long for everything to unravel.  Jonathan Lewis’ new play explores the darker side of education, grades and just how far schools will go to hold their position in the league tables.  In Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, the focus is on well-rounded knowledge; A Level Playing Field is its antithesis, with the kids being groomed in exam technique and staff bonuses riding on the outcome.  Amongst the chaos and anxiety, it is both profound and savagely funny.

In the intimacy of the Jermyn Street Theatre, we are practically in the classroom ourselves, which has been liberally wallpapered in photocopies of Nicholas Cage’s maniacal grin – a riff on them being “caged” for an hour – by the reckless Aldous (Jack Bass). With such a large cast, we are thankfully introduced to a few characters at a time, getting to know who they really are in little break out soliloquies. These rhythmic personal statements snap back and forth mid-sentence between earnestly polite and darkly cynical, each with a music soundtrack to match the student. alpf1

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

A Level Playing Field is on until Saturday 9th May 2015 at Jermyn Street Theatre, 16b Jermyn Street, London, SW1Y 6ST.  Contains strong language.  Cigarettes are smoked during the performance.  For tickets and more information, go to http://www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk/whatson.html#alevelplayingfield 

The Money – Battersea Arts Centre

How often do you go to the theatre and come home £80 richer than when you went in?

No, I haven’t been doing anything illegal or immoral.  It wasn’t even my idea for me to get the money in the first place.  Also, that money comes with conditions: I have signed a contract, promising to spend it in the way that the group has unanimously agreed.

Let’s go back to the beginning…

The Money is a piece of game-theatre constructed by a group called Kaleider. The premise is simple: you buy a ticket and the money from that goes in a pot.  The audience is split into Benefactors and Silent Witnesses, and the Benefactors have 2 hours to decide how to spend the money within the rules of the game.  They can spend it on anything they like – but their decision must be unanimous.  If an agreement cannot be reached in 2 hours, the group loses the money and it rolls over to the next show.  Silent Witnesses have the option to buy in at any point and become a Benefactor.

So what happens when 12 people – most of whom have never met each other – are given a pile of real money to spend, while 4 people quietly observe their decision-making process?

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Once we’re all seated in rows on either side of a table, there is a pounding at the chamber door and a security man walks in with a large sealed box and a hush descends.  A woman slowly lays items out on a tray, the silence only broken by the rifling of notes and the clanking of coins.  There is something about hearing the sound of money that adds pressure to the atmosphere – the responsibility of deciding how best to spend it.  We’re presented with £129.80 in cash, a pro forma and a set of rules.  A large digital clock on the wall stands at 2 hours and it begins its countdown.  Loads of time – or so we think.  The performers retreat to the back of the room and leave us to get on with it.  No guidance, no influence – it’s down to us.

Everyone is a little tentative at first, trying to establish how the show works, but slowly a conversation begins.  It doesn’t take long for one Benefactor to stump up another 20 pence to round it up to £130.  We relax and begin to talk more easily.  We’re fairly sure we want to do “something good” with the money – something charitable.  We’re sitting in a building which lost its Grand Hall in a fire just over 4 weeks ago.  But the words which keep cropping up are “a drop in the ocean” – how the value of money is relative to what it’s being spent on: a week’s worth of food shopping for a family, a pair of West End theatre tickets, a suit for a job interview.

Over the course of 90 minutes we meander through a very unstructured discussion – whether to try to do something with it as a lump sum, to split it between ourselves and each go and do something with it, how quickly it should be spent, who or what on, leave it for someone to find, spend it on ourselves, go and put it behind the bar downstairs (benefiting both ourselves and the BAC Scratch Bar), roll it over to the next group, do something silly and fun with it, donate it to charity, donate it to someone in the group (one person had recently had their bike stolen).  Many ideas and justifications were provided, but little in the way of consensus.

Ultimately you can draw parallels with many aspects of life and politics – how easily money can be wasted, how government departments have to fight over the same pot of money, how hard it is to get people to all agree, the desire to be the ones to decide how it is spent, because the next lot are an unknown quantity and the fear that they may be greedy with it, which is not how we as a group would like it to be used.  This is a very subtle piece of political theatre, which encourages you to explore what you really think, all the while being watched by your fellow Benefactors and the Silent Witnesses.  No one wants to be seen to be selfish or inconsiderate.

Before you know it, 90 minutes have gone and it’s heading towards crunch time – with an eye on the clock, we wanted to make a considered decision rather than a rushed one.  We go around the group with suggestions as diverse as giving to a charity which helps unemployed people to buy a suit for a job interview, paying for a balloon modeller to go to Great Ormond Street Hospital, throwing the money out the window and seeing who picks it up, and paying for the person with the oldest living relative in the group to go and see them and spend some time with them.

It was that last suggestion that struck a real chord with everyone.

After all that discussion, a suggestion mooted by BAC Artistic Director David Jubb in the last 10 minutes was THE ONE.  We had our consensus.  The pro forma was filled in, precise instructions written down and signed by all the Benefactors.  The performers struck a gong as the clock hit 00:00:00 and the decision was made.

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So, in an unexpected turn of events, the lovely people in the picture have paid for me (red skirt) and Katie (over my right shoulder) to go and visit our oldest relatives.  Her grandparents in Croydon and my grandmother in Devon, all in their nineties.  I have been planning to go down to see her, I’ve just needed to get it organised.

So Granny – I’m coming to see you.  I’m taking you out for lunch.  We’re going to go and eat ice cream on the seafront at Sidmouth.  We’re going to wander through the gardens at Jacob’s Ladder.  And if you dare to take out your purse at any point during my visit, you will have broken my contract with these 11 people.  I love you, and I don’t see you as often as I should.  Time with you is this money well spent.

I think you have to agree, I look pretty amazing for 90.

The Money is on until Friday 1st May 2015 at Battersea Arts Centre, Lavender Hill, Battersea, London, SW11 5TN. When you purchase your ticket, you will have the option to be either a Benefactor or a Silent Witness. Silent Witnesses can buy in and become a benefactor at any point during the 2 hours.  For tickets and more information, please go to https://www.bac.org.uk/content/35467/see_whats_on/whats_on/shows/the_money

Fringe-24 Creativity Takes Courage: Day 2

12 hours down, 12 to go.

We have bits and pieces, but nothing approaching a play – yet.  It’s time to knuckle down and start making decisions.  After a morning of pooling resources and recapping on ideas, everything is still a bit fractured and disparate – the early half of the afternoon is taken up with trying to find a way to make all of the different elements gel together and put them into some sort of order.  It’s not easy.  There is a lot of going round and round in circles.  It’s hard to say whether the song structure is a help or a hindrance.

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By mid-afternoon, we seem to have hit a wall – that horrible point where we might have to consider jettisoning stuff that people have worked on for hours – not because any of it is bad, but because it bears little relation to anything else. The difficulty with collaborative work (particularly when all the components are dreamt up independently of each other) is that it often pulls in too many different directions and cohesion is all but a distant memory. It feels awkward and futile – we are primed for all of this to fall flat on its face and for arguments to break out.

But they don’t.

I love The Apprentice – I love watching that car-crash-TV moment where in a brainstorming session someone isn’t listened to (or is overruled), so they spend the rest of the task being uncooperative and sniping at their manager, until their project ultimately fails and they’re being pointed at by Lord Sugar and fired from the process.  But that is pseudo-business-turned-entertainment, and this is theatre.  I like these people and I desperately want something good to come out of this experiment.

Instead, everyone pours out everything they are thinking.  Everyone from the actors to the stage manager to the producer are encouraged to speak up – even I am asked for my opinion.  We all have a stake in making this succeed.  Themes, sequences, ideas, juxtapositions – everything is discussed, nothing is ruled out.  There are no stupid ideas, no silly questions – by drilling down into what we have and what links it all together, we finally have a breakthrough.  It is a joy to watch the complete opposite of what happens on The Apprentice.  We move forward as one, and suddenly the momentum picks up. Working to lots of little deadlines – 20 minutes for this and 30 minutes for that – helps to maximise use of the time rather than letting people drift along aimlessly.

Cue feverish activity: They run scenes, they walk things through, they play around with everything.  Ash is plugged into his headphones, absorbed in his own little world of composing music on an electric piano and a guitar.  Monologues get fleshed out further, they build a den with chairs, blankets and pegs, they find inventive ways to use props.  Suddenly everything slots together and more ideas are had on how to improve certain aspects.  No one is afraid to take an honest, critical eye and ask questions.  They trim and refine – everything is valuable, but nothing is sacred.  After this much work, they’re focused on the bigger picture and there isn’t room for anyone to be precious.

As we head into the evening, the room is feeling very industrious. People write and type furiously, a great hush descends, tempered only by the soothing sounds of Laura Marling on Spotify, with the occasional outbreak of softly-spoken chatter.  I finally get around to writing most of this down at about 7 o’clock (I’ve been too busy watching and listening until now).  After a bit of re-jigging, scenes are run in order – we have about 20-25 minutes of material.  It’s a start.  It can still be fleshed out further, but it’s a start.  Some of it still needs a bit of honing, but it’s heading in the right direction.

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As we draw close to 10pm, we have not only something to put in front of an audience, but something actually worth watching.  It’s poignant, it’s funny, it’s human, it’s truthful.  It’s been made from scratch in 24 hours.  We are even more tired than yesterday, but all set for tomorrow.  I would like to say a HUGE thank you to everyone involved in Fringe 24 for inviting me to come along – the whole process has been a real eye-opener and I’ve learnt a lot about making theatre, and above all, how important it is to play and never stop playing.

(I should have posted this yesterday morning, but I was shattered and stayed in bed until 12:30.  At that time, they we getting into the theatre to have a final runthrough and do a matinee.  They are amazing).

Fringe-24 – Creativity Takes Courage: Day 1

Challenge: To write and rehearse a new play in 24 hours.

In two 12-hour rehearsals, Fringe-24 aim to create a performance lasting 50 minutes, and it’s going in front of a paying audience on Saturday 4th April at the Etcerera Theatre in Camden at 3pm and 7.30pm (so no pressure then).  My role in all of this?  To blog their rehearsal process – process being the operative word.  To focus on the journey rather than the destination.  There will be an end product – it’s just that we’re not quite sure what it will look or sound like.  In some ways, it is a dangerous way to work – and that’s what makes it so interesting.

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I am hopeless with names, so when I arrive, I’m relieved that I’m only faced with meeting a small group of people to begin with (others arrive throughout the day).  Directors Jennifer and Ella, musician Ash, dramaturg Hannah, and actors Jennie, Faye and Bella.  When I walk through the door of the rehearsal space, all of them are sprawled on the floor, deep into a writing exercise; paper, pens, newspapers, magazine and cushions are scattered everywhere.  Sheets are covered in brainstorms, copious notes, lists and errant doodles.

They are working on something akin to a hybrid game of Consequences and I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue’s Cheddar Gorge, where in two teams of 3, they take it in turns to write 1 word, 2 words, 3 words etc. until they’ve come up with a stream-of-consciousness monologue.  The aim of this is to get the actors into a writing frame of mind and just committing pen to paper.

Jennifer put the actors through various improvisation techniques in order to get the creative juices flowing.  But by far the most interesting exercise was to put their written texts into unlikely situations – turning one into a shady transaction of selling a phone in an alleyway and the other into a political debate – by playing with words in this way, it forces the actors to use more physicality, intonation and change of pace in order to make the scenario believable.  Initially the words seem so out of place, but the more you toy with them, the more you find ways to make them sound relevant.

The speeches are flipped between the two groups, new situations assigned and rehearsed, but on performance (and without prior warning), other actors are assigned tasks to chip in with the scene. It requires a certain fearlessness from the actors to respond to whatever is thrown at them, all the while staying in character and sticking to the script.

As a rehearsal technique, it’s fascinating to watch – the importance of playing around with text, making the time for stress-testing, experimenting, screwing up and striking gold, because in the midst of all the jibberish, there’s something worth developing.  When so much theatre relies on financially breaking even (or making a profit), it’s tempting to plunge straight into rehearsals – so to witness a day of textual playtime is very refreshing.

But mindful of the deadline, the best part of the afternoon and evening was taken up with brainstorming ideas, themes and stories for the play itself – looking at current affairs, recent news stories, key anniversaries coming up in 2015, and exploring how these related to each other. Snippets of writing were done, but mostly personal reflection and memories rather than creating characters.

By breaking out into smaller groups and doing a bit of free writing, various members of the group were beginning to produce little bits of content.  Music and games provided stimuli, but mostly the group seemed to generate mountains of ideas.  One of the things I’ll be interested to see (if it goes ahead) is the concept of a play that is structured like a song (verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus).

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As the evening wore on, it became clear that it was time to focus on just one or two ideas – there are many more, but if you throw too many themes at a show, it all risks becoming a little bit GCSE Drama.  Right towards the end of the first 12 hours, the group began to agree on some of the basics and what needed to be achieved in the next rehearsal.  We were tired…. but inspired and excited.

I can’t wait to see what tomorrow holds…..

A full gallery of the photos I took can be found by clicking here.