Review: Is God Is, Royal Court Theatre - superb quirky, dark revenge comedy

Two actors on stage describe their characters as if the direction in the playtext is part of the script. It is the first of many quirks in Aleshea Harris' dark revenge comedy Is God Is.

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(l-r) Adelayo Adedayo and Tamara Lawrence in Is God Is, Royal Court. Photo Tristram Kenton

Twin sisters Racine (Tamara Lawrence) and Anaia (Adelayo Adedayo) receive a letter from their mother (Cecilia Noble), whom they thought was dead.

When they visit her, she tells them her dying wish is that she is avenged for a horrific past crime, and so the two set off from the "Dirty South" to California armed with just a name and a determination to carry out their mother's deadly wishes.

Dressed differently by their mother as young children so she could tell them apart, Racine is the natural leader, often protecting her more 'emotional' sister Anaia. But their mission proves revealing both about their family, their mother's past and themselves.

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(l-r) Adelayo Adedayo,  Ray Emmett Brown, Tamara Lawrence in Is God Is, Royal Court. Photo Tristram Kenton

The brutality that fuels and defines the narrative is played out against incongruous sets of candy-coloured houses, cartoon-like props and sound effects. There are backdrops that would look at home in a spaghetti western and signs in different styles that announce each scene.

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Review: Camp Siegfried, Old Vic Theatre - teen romance and radicalisation

Camp Siegfried is more than a German-themed summer camp for German Americans in 1938 Long Island; alongside all the usual fun activities, Nazi doctrines are openly pedalled.

Old Vic Camp Siegfried
Camp Siegfried, Old Vic, Sept 2021. Photo: Rev Stan

The camp is based on a real Camp Siegfried, which operated in the 1930s and included flower beds in the shape of swastikas.

Bess Wohl's play sets the innocence of a teen romance against a backdrop of fascist grooming.

Our teenagers, played by Patsy Ferran and Luke Thallon, are in the process of finding out who they are and what they want out of life. They are impressionable but without realising it. 

Thallon's Him is 17 and already fully immersed in the camp and its values, having visited several times before. He spots Ferran's Her, a shy 16-year old and makes a bee-line towards her.

It's her first camp, she's there with an Aunt and not finding it easy. The marching bands are loud, she doesn't like dancing and is no good at sports or anything outdoorsy.

Romance is encouraged

As the two hang out together more and more, we learn of how 'romance' is encouraged to further the Nazi cause and, through camp gossip, how the reality is often inexperienced fumblings and embarrassment, not the great love and conquest most anticipate. 

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Review: The Memory of Water, Hampstead Theatre - siblings spar over childhood memories

In the bedroom set on the Hampstead Theatre stage, three grown-up sisters are arguing or is it bickering? Even that becomes a point of contention. It will be a scene familiar to many with siblings, the shared upbringing that can be a comfort but equally provide all the right triggers to arguments.

The Memory of Water Production Image 7 Sitting Front L-R Lucy Black  Carolina Main Back Laura Rogers © Helen Murray sml
The Memory of Water, Hampstead Theatre 2021. Front L-R Lucy Black Carolina Main Back Laura Rogers © Helen Murray

The three sisters in Shelagh Stephenson's play The Memory of Water - Teresa (Lucy Black), Mary (Laura Rogers) and Catherine (Carolina Main) - have gathered at their mother's home ahead of her funeral.

Teresa, the oldest, runs a herbal remedy business with her solid husband Frank (Kulvinder Ghir), always organising and making lists but tired of taking all the responsibility.

Mary is a doctor and having an affair with married TV doctor Mike (Adam James). She's the 'successful' one, perceived as the golden child who had an easy ride. But she's haunted by her mother Vi's resentful ghost (Lizzie McInnerny) and finding something from her past.

Catherine is the youngest. Over from Spain, where she lives with the latest in a string of unfaithful boyfriends. She's a hypochondriac, irresponsible ("broke doesn't mean you can't buy stuff") and feels overlooked, which makes her self-centred and needy.

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Interview: Theatre creativity during lockdown and its legacy - with Chloe Nelkin

Instagram Live chat with Chloe Nelkin

Chloe Nelkin has run theatre, arts and opera PR company, Chloe Nelkin Consulting, for 10 years, and we sat down to talk about how theatres responded during lockdown and what the legacy will be. I also asked her what we should look out for and what she's most looking forward to seeing.

You can watch the full chat with Chloe on IGTV (link below).

What was it like when lockdown was announced in March 2020?

Crikey, it was devastating. Everything that we know and loved in this industry was just torn apart. The live entertainment industry, the very nature of it is all about being out and about and suddenly we were all locked inside for our own safety.

So, it was a horrible time, especially as we didn't know how long it was going to go on for and if everybody would get through it.

At the beginning of March, we'd actually celebrated CNC 10th anniversary and brought together loads of our past clients and our current clients and friends, and it was then the most bizarre thing that a week later suddenly that was all ripped away from us.  So it was bittersweet as, of course, we just entered such a horrible 18 months.

What was the response from theatres like?

I think what was incredible was the resilience of so many theatres, particularly smaller theatres, who were suddenly working to get their programmes online, were working within the restrictions to try and film new work to still make things accessible.

Or were commissioning and coming up with new projects or fundraising initiatives.

Just thinking back to what we worked on, we worked on something called All The Web's A Stage for Shakespeare day last April. And loads of artists came together and just donated their time to raise money for those in the arts who were affected by the pandemic.

So they were amazing initiatives like that.  We also worked with High Tide, and they commissioned five new writers to create pieces in response to what was going on: Love in the time of Corona.

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NEWS: My first Instagram Live interview with Chloe Nelkin - and plans for the future

Very excited (and nervous) to be doing my first Instagram Live interview next week with theatre and opera PR and all-around lovely person Chloe Nelkin.

We're going to be chatting about theatre (naturally), including what was produced during the lockdown and how that will shape theatre in the future.

It's happening on Tuesday 7 September at 7 pm GMT on my Instagram channel.

If you've been a visitor to my theatre blog for a while, you may have seen my Q&A interviews with theatre creators.

These were always done via email, mainly for time and logistics reasons.

But it is never the same as chatting in person, which is something I've always wanted to do (I'm a professional question asker by day 🙂).

And I'm hugely curious about how theatre is made and the creative process - and all things theatre, really.

I toyed with starting a theatre podcast, but it's a big investment of time to produce and promote, and there are costs involved. I know this mainly because I'm launching a podcast for my business.

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Review: The Madhouse, Fancy Dress & Party Shop, Network Theatre - eccentric and odd mystery

There is a slight whiff of beneath-railway-arches damp at the Network Theatre, which feels appropriate for The Madhouse, Fancy Dress & Party Shop play. The shop of the title, as we quickly find out, has a damp problem in its basement, the odour of which has reached the retail area.

Madhouse fancy dress party shop flyer

But this turns out to be the least of Gloria's (Eliza McClelland) worries. The owner of the shop, Gloria, is an ex-actress and newly separated from her husband.

She quickly reveals a personality that bubbles with eccentricity. Talking directly to the audience, she reveals random facts about herself, such as her dislike of dipping bread soldiers in a boiled egg. She also has a favourite doll with which she talks and plays.

There are certain things that are incongruous which create a slightly unnerving feel to the play. Gloria's demeanour is mostly cheerful and maybe a bit scatty, and yet there is something odd about the way she plays with her doll and talks about smashing eggs when she was a child.

Her chatter reveals one side of her, her behaviour and occasional outbursts reveal another.

Missing mystery

When her son rings to say he can't get hold of his father, she dismisses the absence as a bender. It sets the play up as a mystery. Except it is pretty obvious from early on what has happened, so there is no shocking reveal.

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Review: After Life, National Theatre - a bittersweet, warm, fuzzy glow of a play

If you had to choose one memory to take with you into the afterlife, what would you choose - and how would you choose? This is the premise of After Life, adapted by Jack Thorne from a film by Hirokazu Kore-eda.

After Life flyer at the National Theatre
After Life, National Theatre Dorfman stage

And it's an intriguing concept. One which gnaws at your mind while you are watching the story unfold in front of you.

Set in a sort of in-between place - kinda like 'King's Cross station' in the Harry Potter book - where people go for a week after they die. It looks a bit like a 1940/50's Government department, bureaucratic and grey.

The back wall of the Dorfman stage is floor to ceiling metal filing draws. There is a ladder on tracks of the sort you see in old libraries to help the staff reach the higher draws.

Its staff are there to guide the newly deceased in their choice of memory and then recreate it for them so they can pass on with their chosen memory.

Challenges and mistakes

They have their own issues and challenges, make mistakes and occasionally face a moral dilemma. It adds a rich layer to the story, another layer of humanity.

Naturally, different people respond to the place and the task they have in different ways.

There's the elderly lady more concerned about her cat, the teenager who settles on a memory very quickly, the young man who refuses to engage with the process and the workaholic who struggles to settle on something meaningful.

The search and recollection of memories provoke a huge mixture of emotions, but amid the maelstrom of anger, hurt, and regret, there are bundles of tender moments and joy.

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Review: Wonderville Magic & Illusion, Palace Theatre - fun and entertainment (for all the family)

Wonderville Magic & Illusion is, as its title suggests, an evening of (family-friendly) magic and illusion but with the occasional bit of variety thrown in - think roller-skating hula hooping. 

Wonderville 1 Multi-award-winning mind reader and TV star Chris Cox Photo by Pamela Raith
Wonderville: Multi-award-winning mind reader and TV star Chris Cox. Photo by Pamela Raith

And while much of it is a variation of stuff you'll have seen before, you can't help but be awed by a lot of what you are apparently witnessing.

Mindreader Chris Cox both performs and comperes, marshalling the mixture of acts who take it in turns to do short stints.

While some acts lend themselves to quick switches, the different pace of some performances makes the transitions a little clunky at times. But it does mean that you never linger on any one act for too long. 

Edward Hilsum does traditional sleight of hand tricks. Occasionally you can see how he does it, but then he'll immediately wow you with the seemingly impossible. There is a particularly cute moment with a young volunteer from the audience.

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Review: The Two Character Play, Hampstead Theatre - siblings make for an odd couple in a mixed play

The stage at Hampstead Theatre is part set, backstage equipment and lighting rigs. Zubin Varla's Felice is trying to prep the area for a performance, after which he practices a few lines from a play he's writing, delivering them to a camera on the stage, the image projected onto the back wall. 

The Two Character Play Image 9 Zubin Varla Photo © Marc Brenner
The Two Character Play: Zubin Varla. Photo © Marc Brenner

It is one of the ways high tech equipment is used in The Two Character Play - one of the later works by Tennessee Williams. It plants it firmly in two different times and is perhaps a cheeky nod to digital theatre during lockdown.

Felice is an actor as well as a writer, but the company he is touring with has upped and left him and his actor sister Claire (Kate O'Flynn). The note they leave declares that the two are insane.

Even their manager has abandoned them.

Claire arrives all skittish and wants to cancel the evening's performance but Felice insists they do The Two Character Play instead. Claire agrees, but only if she can make cuts as they go, something she will signal by playing a C-sharp on the piano.

The Two Character Play Image 4 L-R Kate O%u2019Flynn  Zubin Varla Photo © Marc Brenner
The Two Character Play:  L-R Kate O'Flynn &  Zubin Varla Photo © Marc Brenner

They warn each other they might dry and have to improvise, but 'the show must go on'.

And so, the play within the play begins. Claire frustrates Felice with her random cuts, and Felice has to run 'off-stage' to change cassette tapes with the music.

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Review: Lava, Bush Theatre - 'witty, weighted and lyrical'

Last year a critic described a dramatic response to the Black Lives Matter protests, to which Benedict Lombe contributed, as 'more lecture than theatre'. The quote is projected onto the set of her debut play, Lava, at the Bush Theatre.

Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo in 'Lava' at the Bush Theatre. Photo credit Helen Murray_47
Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo in 'Lava' at the Bush Theatre. Photo credit: Helen Murray

It appears about three-quarters of the way through the play, a punctuation point, a punch, perhaps a poke but certainly a powerful note that underlines what has gone before and the overarching message of the piece.

What has gone before is the story of a missing first name in a passport. Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo plays Benedict, recounting the story of getting her British passport renewed and finding out why her first name is missing.

Her investigation takes her back to Congo, the country where she was born but much further back in history to colonialism and the years that followed that have shaped her life and the lives of so many.

It is the tale of a family moving from place to place as Benedict's parents seek out a country where they can lead fulfilled lives - and just be.

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