Monthly Archives: June 2015

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – The Savill Garden, Windsor

“Immersive” is theatre’s buzzword of the moment. But it has come to mean various different things. On one hand, it can be the sensation of stepping through the fourth wall and being immersed in a world which feels completely real, leaving behind the humdrum of ordinary life.  On the other, there is the complex niche genre where you as an audience member have a bearing on your experience of the performance, be that through making active (or passive) choices which then have a tangible impact on how things play out, or wandering through spaces where there are several scenes running simultaneously and it would require repeat visits in order to see all of it. Just when you think you’ve understood how to pinpoint what is and isn’t immersive, another company comes along and throws that definition out of the window.

Watch Your Head’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is very much the former: a site-specific promenade production. But in truth these are clunky words which risk alienating the general public before they’ve even bought their tickets –  and that would be a terrible shame as while it doesn’t break any new ground in terms of immersive theatre, this is a very strong, imaginative and accessible Shakespearean production filled with magic and mischief, set in the breathtakingly beautiful Savill Gardens near Windsor. We were well attended by families, with kids boisterously racing from one scene to the next, lapping up the novelty of multiple locations in the fresh air and fading daylight.

All of Shakespeare’s familiar story is here: bickering lovers, bumbling mechanicals and troublesome fairies – but with plenty more besides. This versatile cast double up as woodland creatures that trill, chirrup and squeak as they guide us deeper into the park.  There is the added bonus of live music, ranging from close harmony singing to bluesy jazz, perfectly complementing the 1920s-inspired costumes.  The passages of text delivered as song add an extra dimension and are pulled off with great finesse. There’s even a little bit of audience participation snuck in, to great comic effect.

My cast highlight was Joss Wyre as a very magnetic Puck – veering between remorseful child and wild-eyed sprite, there are times when you’re never quite sure if she’s made a genuine mistake or is reveling in the havoc she has created; but then an impish twinkle flashes across her face and we know exactly what she’s up to. There are some roles which demand that you crank the overacting up to 11 and Oliver Lavery is the quintessential Bottom, brashly steamrollering through the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe, much to the horror of earnest director, Quince (George Jennings).

By far the stand-out performance of the lovers is Paige Round as Helena – bruised of heart by her unrequited love for Demetrius (Edward Firth), she cuts a very sympathetic character – partly because he comes across as so spiteful that it’s a wonder what she sees in him in the first place, apart from his unattainability. Sara Langridge is effortlessly elegant as Hermia – right up until she loses the affections of Lysander (Jared Garfield) to Helena in a slight ‘puck up’ as the flower juice takes effect and everyone falls in love with the wrong person. It is a joy to watch the two boys squabble over Hermia in a hilarious fight scene.

There’s a large amount of doubling up in the cast, e.g. Theseus/Oberon by the brooding and serious Jack Bannell, and Anneli Page who switches from the gentle, reserved Hippolyta into hippy-dippy Titania. While the mechanicals provide the obvious comedy, it’s really refreshing to see them bring contrast and personality to their secondary roles as the fairies. Joshua Considine as the almost Gollum-like Moth, Bruno Major as a very dopey Mustardseed, and Emma Jane Morton as ethereal fruitloop Peaseblossom.

The only thing that spoils it slightly is the inescapable noise from the Heathrow flight path. There are many beautifully subtle moments which are sadly drowned out by passing aeroplanes – but it is testament to the performers that they still manage to tell a very rich story, even if we do miss a few lines. While this is closer to a traditional Shakespeare than the more experimental end of the immersive theatre spectrum, it is still nonetheless a bewitching production filled with wit, depth and invention that is absolutely worth a trip outside the big smoke. Go and see it.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is playing until Sunday 19th July at The Savill Garden, Wick Lane, Englefield Green, Windsor, Surrey TW20 0UU. Running time approximately 2 hours including an interval. This is a promenade (walking) production through parkland. In the event of rain, an indoor version will be performed instead. For those travelling from London, the closest station is Egham and taxis are available outside; it takes around 10 minutes and costs about £9 each way. For tickets and more information, please go to http://watch-your-head.co.uk/

Advertisements

Constellations – Richmond Theatre

Most plays only tell us one story: Constellations tells us many – including the ones that didn’t actually happen (but might’ve done).

In this intimate exploration of infinite possibilities, we see the same two people together at various points in space and time, meandering through a chains of events and darting down both forks in the road.  By playing these scenes in groups, it’s anyone’s guess which path is the one actually taken, or where it will lead. It’s Sliding Doors multiplied out sideways: a love story through the lens of quantum mechanics that demands you to engage your brain from the very start. If you don’t think you understand quantum mehanics now, you will by the end of the play.

For a story which grows exponentially in every direction, it’s a massive task for a cast of just two.  Louise Brealey and Joe Armstrong handle Nick Payne’s script admirably, both bringing great clarity to what is potentially a very confusing narrative, full of fiendishly similar scenes. While on the surface this appears to be quite repetitive, each is played as if we were watching it for the first time, with perfect mimicry and then subtle tweaks – there is is no “going through the motions”. There is a greater purpose to this as these little snapshots shuffle themselves from chaos into a devastatingly poignant sequence.

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

36 things every theatre blogger knows

One of THOSE lists:

1. There aren’t enough evenings in the week to see everything you want to see.
2. Or to review as much as you’d like to.
3. Taking notes in the dark is actually pretty difficult.
4. You spend your interval deciphering your illegible scrawl and transcribing onto your phone.
5. Actually, you do most of your writing on your phone on the way home from the theatre.
6. I say writing. It’s mostly flinging words at a screen and hoping some of them are useful.  Right now, it’s jibberish.
7. You’ve now learnt to charge your phone before you leave work.
8. You’re still writing the following morning on the way to work.
9. Probably still tweaking on your lunchbreak.
10. You know the word you want, but can Thesaurus.com find it? Can it fuck.
11. Wondering whether you should asterisk out swearing in quotes. Nah.
12. Writers block.
13. You have no idea off the top of your head what you’re seeing tomorrow night, just that you’re going to the theatre.
14. Your handbag is filled with old tickets.
15. You sometimes wonder if you should turn them into some sort of art installation.
16. A night at home to do washing and eat something nutritious seems like such a waste. Besides, you have nothing in the fridge.
17. Your life would fall apart without Google Calendar.
18. And Google Maps.
19. And Tube Assistant.
20. And Twitter.
21. Getting press invites for nights that you’re already busy.
22. Press invites being allocated to someone else.
23. Not getting a plus one.
24. Getting a plus one and then not being able to find anyone to join you at such short notice.
25. The delirious joy of your first ever press invite sent directly to YOU – usually for a fringe thing at a theatre you’ve never even heard of (and you’re pretty sure you’ve been to most of the teeny tiny venues).
26. Getting a bit ahead of yourself and emailing West End theatres for press tickets.
27. Subsequent silence.
28. Seeing something unutterably terrible and trying to find a way to slate it without being too horrible.
29. Becoming very well acquainted with M&S Food To Go/Pret A Manger and taking a picnic to eat on the tube/bus/train between work and the theatre.
30. You acquire terrible bags under your eyes from all those late nights.
31. Your brain is usually spinning right when you need to go to sleep.
32. Waking up at 3am with a sudden flash of inspiration for how to phrase that sentence or some devilishly witty analogy.
33. Your stats page. While it’s reassuring to know that your readership extends beyond your parents, you’re bemused as to why a 3 month old review is being read by someone in Azerbaijan.
34. Running into fellow bloggers in the foyer on press nights.
35. You end up seeing them more than your actual friends – at least they understand your incurable theatre addiction.
36. Plucking up the courage to ask an emerging company for a press ticket in exchange for a review (don’t ask, don’t get, right?) and getting a reply asking whether you’d like a pair.

Please feel free to add more in the comments below!

Absent Friends – Richmond Theatre

“The past is a foreign country.” ~ L.P. Hartley.

In 2015, Ayckbourn’s Absent Friends feels very dated – and so it should. It’s one of the greatest arguments for feminism and shows just how far Britain has come from the primitive gender politics of the 1970s. While this may be billed as a comedy, it’s probably better described as a “tragedy of manners” with Ayckbourn’s toxic mix of characters constantly battling to keep up appearances in a two-act exploration of embarrassment. It has more in common with the gawky humour of The Inbetweeners, packed with plenty of cringeworthy moments that had me wincing and laughing (often both at the same time).

Diane and Paul have a lovely home* and a loveless marriage (*lovely by 1970s decor standards – the whole set makes use of every conceivable shade of orange and brown). When they discover that their friend Colin (who they haven’t seen for 3 years) has recently been bereaved after his fiancée drowned, they rally around a few old friends and invite him over for a sympathetic catch up. What begins as a well-meaning get-together, soon descends into an awkward melting pot of gripes and bickering.

Kathryn Ritchie makes for a thoroughly crass and gormless Evelyn, with an accent so caustic that you could use it to strip wallpaper. She barely contains her contempt for her husband, John (John Dorney) who seems to spend the entire play hoppitting about in a one-man pre-cursor to Riverdance (at times, a little distracting from the main action) and sliding off bar stools in his vomit-hued corduroy flares.  Neither is particularly inclined towards hiding the fact that their brief marriage has already gone sour.

By contrast, Diana (Catherine Harvey) is cripplingly neurotic and frantically trying to disguise the fact that she and the boorish Paul (Kevin Drury) are a long way from wedded bliss. He treats her with utter disdain, and as little more than a catering manager for his business clients. Alice Selwyn is a cheery-but-vacuous Marge, constantly talking, but with nothing of value to say. Ashley Cook exudes social ineptitude as beta-male Colin, in a performance reminiscent of Michael Palin as Mr Anchovy in the Lion Taming sketch from Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

Director Michael Cabot stirs up plenty of uncomfortable moments to good comic effect – conversation-killing anecdotes, deafening silences and tiptoeing around sensitive topics are all made fist-gnawingly awful. There is great physical comedy when John is abandoned with Colin and very quickly runs out of things to say to him – he buckles under the pressure of silence and it takes several attempts to extricate himself from the room.  But there is also tender pathos as Diana confesses to her desperate unhappiness with life – in spite of financial comfort, she realises it is too late to fulfil any of her own aspirations for a happy marriage (and of joining the Royal Canadian Mounted Police).

While the characterisation does occasionally stray into caricature, the cast very much do justice to Ayckbourn’s writing which ultimately holds the mirror up to the audience, forcing us to examine our own lives and to think about what – and who – we take for granted.

Absent Friends is on tour around the UK until 18th July 2015 visiting Crewe, Greenwich, Margate, Tunbridge Wells, Derby and Cheltenham.  For tickets and more information go to http://www.londonclassictheatre.co.uk/index.php/2014/05/absent-friends/ 

Miss Wilson’s Waterloo – Finborough Theatre

For a play billed as a rehearsed reading, the small-but-perfectly-formed Finborough Theatre certainly do pull out a good few stops. There is music, a simple set comprised of a small table and chairs, some lighting and sound, and two actors dressed to give a feel for the mid-19th century period setting – far more than I was expecting. But Miss Wilson’s Waterloo – a development of Martin Wimbush’s earlier play, Wellington – is still very much a work in progress.

Produced to coincide with the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo, this is a series of conversations between the Duke of Wellington (Martin Wimbush) and Harriette Wilson, interspersed with flashbacks to events involving the many women in his life. All the women are played by the very versatile Karen Archer. While they may be holding their scripts, the two actors bring life and vigour to the words and move about the stage with purpose – this could very easily be a rehearsal just before ‘books down’.

Wimbush makes for a varied Wellington, depending on which woman he’s with. He plays the whimsical buffoon as he prepares for the arrival of his grandchildren (with a touch of Boris Johnson about him) but is also a rapacious flirt and a masterful army commander. Archer deftly switches between the witty and coquettish Harriette and her other characters, each scene demarcated by a change in the lighting (simple yet effective). She creates a very feline and calculating Kitty Pakenham, the droll and supercilious Duchess of Richmond, and breathy, young ingenue Mary Ann Jervis.

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

So, when are you going to become an actress?

I get asked this question from time to time. The truth is that I gave up on the professional acting dream quite some time ago – at least the one whereby the definition of dream is “anything less and my whole life will be an unmitigated failure and not worth living.”  And I’m kinda glad that I did.

Earlier today, this article popped up in my facebook newsfeed – and it made me smile.  I am in my early thirties.  I work in an office.  My screen is filled with a vast array of spreadsheets containing bewilderingly complex formulae.  My hair is an approximately normal colour.  20-year-old me would be most unimpressed with how things have turned out.  Back then, I honestly couldn’t have imagined myself doing anything other than acting (I also couldn’t imagine having hair any colour apart from bright fuschia pink).  So what happened to those fierce hopes of going to RADA and forging a successful career on the stage? 12 years ago I applied, I auditioned… and I didn’t get in.

But I’ll still be onstage tonight.

Since coming home from university, I’ve been part of my local amateur theatre company. We have facilities to rival some London theatres, if only on a smaller scale.  In the past 12 months I’ve acted in Far From The Madding Crowd (which we also took to the Minack Theatre in Cornwall for a week), stage-managed our youth theatre’s production of Alice in Wonderland, helped with make-up on Journey’s End and taken their show photos, been stage crew (and a little old lady in a rent-a-crowd scene) in The Ladykillers, directed A Fine Bright Day Today, taken more show photos for Anne Boleyn, and for the rest of this week I’m acting in Jekyll and Hyde.  In amongst all of this I’ve been reviewing plays for myself, Bargain Theatre and with the #LDNTheatreBloggers, and working full-time in central London. Sometimes I manage to indulge my dancing side with a bit of salsa and bachata.  My life is nothing if not busy – and that’s just the way I like it.

My story (if you can even call it that) is not unique – I know plenty of people whose lives have taken similar paths.  A passion for theatre which never ceases – it just manifests itself in a way that many of us never considered.  I’ve managed to find a nice work/life balance: a good job which pays the bills, keeps a roof over my head, leaves a bit of disposable income, and allows me to take my annual leave in lots of little chunks (I go home an hour early on performance nights so as not to have a nervous breakdown).  I have mastered the art of the hour turnaround between getting home from work and leaving to go to rehearsal.  Spaghetti is often on the menu as that can cook while I’m washing my hair.

But every now and again I get asked when I’m going to go and make a living out of it: it’s usually an innocent question from those well outside the theatre bubble who assume that my current lifestyle is just a stop-gap until I make the leap into the world of professional acting. But having heard from friends the hard truth about the acting industry, it’s precariousness and insularity, the sheer cost of maintaining your profile and skills versus how little actors actually get paid, the reality being so far from the dream… I really thought it was what I wanted – it isn’t.  Amateur theatre has permitted me a great amount of versatility and the chance to play roles that I may never have had in the professional world.  I still think Gretchen from Boeing Boeing and my ‘moment’ with the carpet will be my favourite for a while yet.

1280870_10151597308787085_2092363040_n Professional acting is like the world’s most brutal, unpredictable and appearance-obsessed temping agency, which takes on a fresh batch of new talent each year as graduates pour out of drama schools.  I’ve known one friend who went through round after round of callbacks for one role, and she got down to the last two.  They picked the other girl on her hair colour.  Some of you will be shouting “but they can’t do that!” They can, and they do.  When you’re casting a brother and sister and you have narrowed it down to the two most exceptional auditionees, both perfect for the role, the decision really can be as arbitrary as which actor/actress pairing look most like they’re related to each other.

This is by no means a denigration of the choices of my friends to put themselves at the mercy of agents and directors – I admire them enormously for their resilience and tenacity in the face of a system which is so competitive and frequently demoralising.  I am immensely proud of them when they get cast in a role, but also when they dust themselves off after a “no” (or the deafening silence of “successful auditionees will be contacted by Friday.”) and hurl themselves at the next available casting opportunity with the same gusto. In addition to ability, it requires steely determination and unfailing optimism. It’s not a career for the faint hearted or the easily discouraged.  If I were offered a place at RADA tomorrow, would I take it?  In all honesty, probably not. Have I ruled it out completely? ……No.

I am not where I thought I’d be by now – but there’s more to life than fixating on clear, defined goals.  It’s good to have more than one dream.  I don’t for one minute regret where I’ve ended up.  Sometimes it’s good to go along with the scenic route and see where it takes you. For me, it’s led to writing, which in turn has introduced me to a whole network of incredible people who love watching live theatre (in all its guises) as much as I do. For all the hiccups along the way, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in my life right now.

So then, scenic route… where are we off to next?