Scratch performance: Lipstick - a fairytale of modern Iran, Omnibus Theatre

Considering this is a scratch performance it is only the scripts in hand that really give it away as a work in progress.

The costumes, props and set seem pretty fleshed out, only the physical necessity of holding the script slightly holding up the flow.

FB Banner - Lipstick - credit Aaron Jacob JonesIt is a colourful, vibrant piece with darker edges utilising various genres from boylesque, drag, vaudeville and story telling and is based on writer/director Sarah Chew's own experiences finding herself in Iran as part of an arts project during the Green uprising in 2010.

Laura Dos Santos plays Orla who makes the six-week trip to Tehran as part of a cultural exchange to teach and learn about theatre - just as protests begin and relationships between Iran and the UK are getting more strained.

Nathan Kelly plays her friend with whom she is setting up a club back home who leaves long rambling messages on her hotel voicemail. He also plays most of the other characters rapidly switching between costumes and props to distinguish between them.

Against a backdrop of civil unrest, the arts project seems like a frivolity but there is far more to this shared cultural experience than first meets the eye.

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Q&A: Writer/director Sarah Chew on mixing genres and the Beyond Borders theatre season, Omnibus Theatre

Lipstick: A Modern Fairytale of Iran is part of a series ‘Beyond Borders’ at the Omnibus in Clapham, tell us a bit about the season and its focus.
Beyond Borders is a series of conversations and provocations around current trends towards the hardening of National and cultural borders.

Beyond Borders Festival ImageWhen I was in Iran in 2010, Iran was part of the area the US Government still titled the Axis of Evil. The title coloured my assumptions of what I would find there - assumptions which were challenged on a daily basis throughout my stay in Iran. 

What does Brexit, and the threat of a hard border with Ireland, do to our perceptions of people we see as Other?

What role does tightened immigration here, and Trump's travel bans in the US, play in this?

How, specifically, are women affected by the process of being Othered?

These questions can be explored verbally, but it is sometimes easier to play with these ideas in non-verbal formats. Sometimes, removing language as the primary means of communication can provide a shortcut through anxiety and terminology and towards more instinctive engagement.
The inspiration for Lipstick came from the time you spent in Iran in 2010, what made you want to use that experience as the basis of a piece of theatre?

It was a life changing experience. I met some extraordinary people, I saw some extraordinary theatre, and I saw at firsthand what the courage to keep making passionate, beautiful, honest theatre, even under the threat of censorship and imprisonment, looked like. 

I would have loved to work in Iran more, but the relationship between our two countries makes getting visas and setting up projects almost impossible.

Theatre is made of the people who make it. I felt a sense of loss, after I left Iran, at the absence of collaborators I knew I could have made beautiful theatre with.

But that experience also made me cherish and celebrate the collaborators and the cultural community I have here. Lipstick is at once an acknowledgement of loss and a celebration of community and continuity.

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Review: The arresting, immersive #NationalTrust Suffragette City Experience

If you want to learn a little of what it was like being a suffragette in a more experiential way then this is fun and informative hour

I'm walking down Jermyn Street trying to look casual while being vigilant. I've got a package to post in my bag and if found with it I could get arrested - I'm a suffragette and this is about 'deeds not words'.

Suffragette City experience national TrustKeeping to the opposite pavement before double backing towards the post box, all seems clear so I deposit the parcel and head back to HQ via a different route, checking to see if I'm followed.

HQ is the WSPU (Women's Social and Political Union) beneath a café just off Piccadilly Circus and this is an immersive theatre/exhibition experience, produced by the National Trust and National Archive, in which you get a taste of what it was like to walk in the shoes of a suffragette.

It's hands on, no sitting and watching, you might find yourself making rosettes, painting banners or learning new protest songs.

You might also find yourself on a protest march or taking part in other forms of direct action but there are fellow suffragettes on hand to brief you on what to do, particularly if you do get 'arrested'.

There is something exhilarating about marching down a street in central London with a banner, singing - our small but vocal group got a few rounds of applause as well as stares.

While only a small flavour of the suffragette experience, it does give you a sense of what they were up against and how far they were prepared to go to get equality.

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Review: Trap Street, New Diorama - raises more questions than it answers about social housing

There is far more to this subject than is, or can, be explored in an 80 minute play and as a result it feels like the brush strokes are too broad.

Social housing or rather the rise and fall of the post-war council estates comes under the spotlight in a new, devised, piece Trap Street at the New Diorama theatre but before I go on with my thoughts, I feel I should explain my background.

Trap street New diorama
Danusia Samal, Amelda Brown and Hamish MacDougall in Trap Street, New Diorama

I've spent the last 20 years as a journalist writing about development and regeneration so estates renewal and property is familiar territory and has undoubtedly influenced where my interest in the piece lies - and also my frustrations.

Trap Street - a reference to the fake streets added to maps by cartographers so as to protect copyright - focuses on one family to chart the history of an estate and generate social commentary.

It jumps back and forth in time from when Valerie (Amelda Brown) rents a brand new flat on the estate with her two young children - Andrea (Danusia Samal/Amelda Brown) and Graham (Hamish MacDougall) - through to the estate's decline and proposed demolition, by which time Andrea owns the flat.

At first life on the estate is full of promise, a sense of community with residents associations and organisations and people looking out for each other but gradually apathy sets in, cracks in the community appear and the sense of pride begins to disappear.

Rubbish, graffiti, crime and poor maintenance colour the years leading up to plans to demolish and replace with new housing, a mixture of private and social.

Andrea is offered a price for her flat which is a fraction of what it would cost to buy in the new development.

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Review: Brutal, cold, dystopian Macbeth, National Theatre and a Children of Men comparison

You don't walk away feeling any sense of tragedy merely that you've watched a bunch of unsavoury characters killing each other.

The first time we see Macbeth (Rory Kinnear) in Rufus Norris' production at the National Theatre, he is committing a brutal act of violence on an enemy. It sets the play down a path that doesn't necessarily lead to satisfactory conclusions.

Macbeth-mobileherospot_2160x2160-sfw-5The setting is some point in the future when society seems to have broken down.

It's a landscape of generators, machetes, chest armour held together with parcel tape and clothes and buildings patched-up using whatever is available - mainly polythene it seems.

Only King Duncan (Stephen Boxer) wears a smart, intact, red, tailored suit.

Stylistically it reminded me of parts of Alfonso Cuarón's film Children of Men (which I love), thematically there are similarities too.

The film is about an infertility crisis which leads to societal breakdown and of course Lady Macbeth (Anne-Marie Duff) and her husband are childless.

It could be argued that they seek out self-fulfilment in a desperate and increasingly brutal pursuit of power.

I liked the dark tone of the setting, even the Back to the Future, Doc Brown-esque porter played by Trevor Fox.

And I really liked the witches who were all different in their movements and energy levels and seem to haunt the dark corners of the stage. 

But the characters are nearly as unrelentingly cold and brutal as the landscape they live in and it is easy not to care.

There is no charisma to Rory Kinnear's Macbeth and how can you sympathise with a man - and the woman who spurs him on - who is capable of such horrific acts from the outset?

In this video interview, Rufus Norris describes them as in one sense 'Shakespeare's most happily married couple' but this is no love story or crime of passion.

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Review: The heartbreaking Summer and Smoke, Almeida Theatre

Summer and Smoke is tender and delicate and yet simultaneously as emotionally intense as the heat of the season during which it is set.

Tennessee William's Summer and Smoke is a coming of age story, a self-discovery story and a heart-breaking love story.

Set in a small, gossipy, Mississippi town during a hot summer Alma (Patsy Ferran) is the minister's daughter chaste, principled, spiritual and spirited. John (Matthew Needham) is the doctor's son and is more material and physical.

Summer_and_Smoke_FINAL_banner_1470x690Both are products of their upbringing and feel trapped by it. Alma's mother has had some sort of nervous breakdown pushing Alma into the position of carer and house-keeper.

John is expected to follow in his father's footsteps and feels the weight of that expectation, he seeks out physical diversion and satisfaction whether that is alcohol or girls.

Alma has long harboured feelings for John and there is obviously a spark between them that always seems on the verge of fully igniting. Is it their different outlooks? Is it denial of a different side of themselves? Is it fear of being trapped or fear of giving themselves over to another physically and emotionally?

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That was February in London theatre - new plays, keeping it in the family and some wizard celeb spots

* Romola Garai has been cast as The Writer in... The Writer at the Almeida. It's a new play by Ella Hickson which opens on 14 April and is directed by Blanche McIntyre.

Wizard* The casting director for An Ideal Husband at the Vaudeville is keeping it in the family with real life father and son Edward and Freddie Fox playing father and son characters in the play. Frances Barber also stars and it opens on 20 April.

* Ciaran Hinds and Aoife Duffin join Colin Morgan in the cast of Brian Friel's Translations at the National Theatre which opens on May 22.

* Nicholas Hytner continues an exciting first year at the Bridge Theatre with a new Alan Bennett play, Allelujah which opens July 11. I'm already curious about who might be in the cast.

* Hadyn Gwynne has replaced Linda Bassett in The Way of The World at the Donmar Warehouse which opens 29 March.

* Another cast swap, Rhys Ifans is being replaced by Ben Chaplin for Joe Penhall's new play Mood Music at the Old Vic. Jemma Redgrave and Pip Carter have joined the cast and it opens on April 21.

* The Royal Court has announced its new season (a good summary here from What's On Stage) but here are just a small handful that catch my eye: A new play - Ear for Eye - by Debbie Tucker Green, Rory Mullarkey's new play Pity (curious about this after St George And The Dragon), Game of Throne's actress Ellie Kendrick's writing debut Hole and James Macdonald directing Cordelia Lynn's One For Sorrow.

Celeb spots:

While January had a bumper crop of actor, director and playwright spots, February was quieter but had a magical quality.... Daniel Radcliffe and Danny DeVito were both spotted watching Fanny & Alexander at the Old Vic and Poly spotted Ian McKellan at Waterloo Station. But those weren't the only spots, oh no, Sam Mendes was at the Bridge Theatre watching Q (Ben Whishaw) play Brutus in Julius Caesar, Richard E Grant was at the Royal Court watching Carey Mulligan in Girls and Boys  and Nikki Amuka Bird was at the Almeida for Summer and Smoke.


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Interview: Milly Thomas on writing and performing suicide aftermath play Dust, Soho Theatre

Dust is rooted in personal experience, what made you want to write about it?
I think it all stems from a lack of communication. It was something I really struggled to talk about with friends, family and loved ones, so it came from a burst of panic, rage and confusion that I’d sat on for years and years.

Milly Thomas Headshot - courtesy of Jack Sain
Milly Thomas. Photo: Jack Sain

What was the process like committing it to page and then lifting it off the page?
It was actually pretty difficult. Once I’d made the decision to write I thought the rest would come easily, but that wasn’t the case.

 I’m a pretty fast writer but I’m only as fast as I am because I take a few weeks to ruminate until my head is too full and I’ve got to commit it to paper.

But this felt so raw and painful, it felt almost like it was birthed in stages. And then when the script was finally done it was rebirthed again when we finally took it into a rehearsal room and stood it up. 

It’s a monologue - just you and the audience for 70 minutes, what is that like and how do you prepare? 
Honestly I know this sounds counter-intuitive, but I don’t prepare.

All I do is I warm up my voice, my body and I try and play games with myself to keep myself as reactive as possible.

The play moves so fast and it’s such a rollercoaster for Alice as well as the audience that it works best when I let it happen to me.

I am in control of the decisions but Alice isn’t and Alice and I have got to constantly battle for the drivers seat in my body in order to keep the play live.

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Review: Fanny & Alexander, Old Vic - tense, gripping, joyous but still overly long

It is at times gripping, tense, funny and joyful but equally there were times when I was impatient for it to move on

There was a moment after the first of two intervals during Fanny & Alexander at the Old Vic when I felt myself sit up straight. Up until that point the play had been entertaining but suddenly it got interesting as well.

Now there is nothing wrong with entertaining - it can be an overlooked element of theatre - but when you've got a play with a running time of 3 hours 45  minutes (when I saw it, it's since had 15 minutes trimmed away) entertaining isn't quite enough.

fanny and alexander old vic jay brooks
Fanny & Alexander, Old Vic. Photo: Jay Brooks

The Ingmar Bergman film, from which this has been adapted by Stephen Beresford, was also a bit of a beast in its running time - just over three hours - but I've not seen it so the story was a surprise.

Fanny and Alexander are young siblings growing up in a bohemian apartment block. Their parents Emilie (Catherine Walker) and Oscar (Sargon Yelda) are actors who run a successful theatre.

Their grandmother (Penelope Wilton) is an actress, their uncle Gustav (Jonathan Slinger) is a womaniser and uncle Carl (Thomas Arnold) has married a German woman no one seems to like.

The children take parts in their parents plays and it is a sociable, creative and free upbringing among their extended family and friends.

It is a childhood full of stories, play and fun, despite the various tensions between the adults.

Oscar has a vivid if sometimes macabre imagination - he 'sees' and talks to the grim reaper. Is he just a worrier or is there something more fatalistic about his visions of death?

The latter would appear true when his father Oscar dies suddenly and, still grieving, Emilie, marries Edvard (Kevin Doyle) a widowed bishop.

This was the moment that I sat up. The hour or so up to the first interval is like watching a colourful, animated toy box with its set of ornate furniture and rich, red theatrical drapes.

When Emilie moves with the children into Edvard's home, the set is stark, the box has been stripped bare and painted white. It reflects the austere, strict, authoritarian style of parenting that Edvard employs.

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Review: Suicide under the spotlight in Milly Thomas' Dust, #SohoTheatre

Dust - Milly Thomas (courtesy of The Other Richard)_3
Dust - Milly Thomas. Photo: The Other Richard

Alice wakes up in a hospital, staring down at her own corpse. She is now an outsider in her own life, an invisible shadow in the aftermath of her suicide.

She follows her parents home, visits hers friends and cheating boyfriend, watching how her death affects them all. We get flash backs to her life, her depression, her isolation.

It's a candid frank and witty account, written and performed by Milly Thomas wearing a flesh coloured body stocking with only a shiny metal morgue table and four mirrors for a set - metaphors aplenty. 

Against the vanilla-attired Alice, her friends and family are the colour - her drug-taking, shower-avoiding brother, wealthy and officious aunt and supportive best friend just three.

They are well-drawn and astutely performed by Thomas who flits between multiple characters with ease and pin-point timing. They are also well-observed, as are the reactions and their interactions following her death.

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