Review: Alma Mater, Almeida Theatre - gripping and thought provoking

Alma mater almeida poster

It's been a bit of a build-up to seeing Alma Mater at the Almeida Theatre. Twice performances we booked were cancelled, and tickets had to be rearranged.

So it was a relief to finally sit in the theatre watching it on a third attempt.

There has been a cast change; Justine Mitchell has taken over the role of Jo from Lia Williams, who had to pull out due to ill health.

With so little rehearsal time, Justine Mitchell still had her script in hand when I saw it, but her performance was such that I barely noticed. She plays an ex-journalist, feminist campaigner and now master of an esteemed college steeped in tradition and history.

When fresher Paige (Liv Hill) confides in student Nikki (Phoebe Campbell) that she was sexually assaulted, Nikki decides to take up the cause and turns to Jo.

But when Jo doesn't give Nikki the answers she wants, battle lines are drawn.

Kendall Feaver's play is knotty; there are no simple answers or straightforward characters.

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Review: Visit From An Unknown Woman, Hampstead Theatre - Mystery and chemistry

Natalie Simpson as Marianne and James Corrigan as Stefan_credit Marc Brenner
Natalie Simpson as Marianne and James Corrigan as Stefan. Photo: Marc Brenner

It's curious that the play description on the Hampstead Theatre website for Visit From An Unknown Woman focuses on the male character, Stefan, played by James Corrigan, while the story firmly revolves around the mysterious Marianne (Natalie Simpson).

Based on a short story by Stefan Zweig and adapted for the stage by Christopher Hampton, the 1930s Vienna-set play opens with Stefan arriving at his sparse apartment with a woman he's just picked up at a nightclub.

Or at least he thinks he just picked her up. Marianne, it seems, is more familiar with Stefan than he is with her. The clue is in the younger version of Marianne (Jessie Gattward), who haunts the edges of the stage.

The source short story is a letter Marianne writes to Stefan, a successful novelist and her former neighbour.

In the play, she has the majority of the dialogue, which means that Marianne becomes the main conduit through which we learn about Stefan and how her life is linked to his. 

A childhood crush on him has developed into an obsession in adult life. She's been a keen observer/stalker of him ever since, to the point where she understands him probably better than he understands himself.

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Review: Fuckboy, Riverside Studios

Fuckboy riverside studios artwork

Part of Riverside Studios Bitesize Festival, Fuckboy is a play about gender dysphoria that packs a lot into its 50 minutes.

Written and performed by Freddie Haberfellner, it explores how it feels to navigate a disconnect between one's sense of self and assigned gender through four interweaving timelines in the life of Frankie.

There's a drink-fuelled night out at a club, a tube journey from Aldgate to Richmond carrying a pair of scissors, a fantasy scenario involving Andrew Garfield and therapy sessions.

It has an increasingly frantic pace, flicking between timelines with a blink of a lighting change.

Tube stations tick down, the desire to use the scissors hung ominously within reach above the stage grows, questions become increasingly probing, and a need to have fun while getting increasingly drunk.

Time spent in the fantasy with Andrew Garfield is an amusing place of calm and contentment.

Yet there are constant questions about self, how Frankie feels, their experiences and treatment by others. Where do they fit in when they don't feel at home in their own body, and what does that mean about their place in the world?

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Review: George, Omnibus Theatre - gender identity in the 19th century

George Omnibus Theatre

REVIEW: George Sand (Léa des Garets), a successful French novelist, has writer's block. It's 1839, and she's both lauded by the press for her work and pilloried for her lifestyle choices. She likes to wear men's suits and has many lovers.

Strapped for cash, she's asked to write a play, so she creates a story about a woman raised as a man called Gabriel by her Grandfather in an attempt to avoid an inheritance going to a distant male relative.

Léa des Garet's play is inspired by the real George Sand, a French writer who sold more books than her male contemporaries, Victor Hugo and Honoré Balzac. She also lived a life that challenged the prescribed norms of French society.

George, the play, has parallel narratives: George, under pressure, writing the play with the help of her actress lover Marie (Iniki Mariano) and Gabriel's story, learning the truth about her upbringing and how she subsequently wants to live her life.

They weave together seamlessly. Léa des Garets also plays Gabriel, and Iniki Mariano takes on the role of Gabriel's male cousin.

Both reflect the prejudices of society towards gender and identity and the hypocrisy at play, particularly when it comes to money. George supports her husband financially, yet she isn't afforded the same rights he has as a man.

A backlash from her agent about Gabriel's ending exposes these prejudices further, and George has to decide whether to compromise what she wants the play to say or consign her work to a draw.

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Review: The Constituent, Old Vic - promises, promises

Old Vic The Constituent

There's been a lot of buzz on social media about The Constituent at the Old Vic, and on paper, it holds a lot of promise. But did it live up to expectations?

Anna Maxwell Martin plays Monica, a back-bench opposition MP who is having new security cameras and a panic button fitted at her constituency office. The person doing the work, Alec (James Corden), happens to be a constituent and has gone to the same school.

Monica is a politician with a lot of empathy. Ex-army Alec's marriage has ended, and he is fighting to see his kids. He thinks laws need to change, and Monica can help with that.

The play starts with an almost jovial comic tone, with funny quips and ripples of laughter. But the story starts to take a darker turn.

Monica receives rape and death threats, and her office is smashed up. The name Alec means 'defender of men', which is the position Alec, the character, takes when it comes to father's rights.

Is this a comedy or a dark drama? It is difficult to discern. The comedy is too cheery in tone to make it a black comedy, and given the subject matter, it gets harder and harder to laugh. 

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Review: The Bounds, Royal Court Theatre - peculiar and perplexing

The Bounds production photo Von Fox Promotions
L-R Soroosh Lavasani, Ryan Nolan, Lauren Waine in The Bounds. Photo: Von Fox Promotions


Stewart Pringle's play The Bounds at the Royal Court Theatre upstairs is set in 1553. It's the day of a much-anticipated football game between two rival Northumberland villages.

But this isn't football as we now know it; Tudor football is played over a sprawling area, it's violent, and it lasts as long as it takes for there to be a winner.

Percy (Ryan Nolan) and Rowan (Lauren Waine) are positioned on one of the very outer edges of the game, keeping an eye out for any sign of play coming their way. Then Sam (Saroosh Lavasani) turns up. Neither Percy nor Rowan really know who he is or why he is there. 

In the introduction to the play text, Stewart Pringle describes The Bounds as the most peculiar play he's written, and as it progresses, it becomes evident why.

The opening scene of banter between Percy and Rowan about the previous year's games and what might happen at this one is full of witty lines, but the football game eventually becomes a background accompaniment to other things going on.

In 1553, the boy-king Edward VI was on the throne, and his advisors were instigating a wholesale purging of what was left of Catholicism—finishing what Henry VIII, Edward's father, had started.

We see the impact of this through the attitude of Percy and Rowan to Catholics, particularly when the reality of Protestant landgrabs hits home.

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Interview: Actor & writer Léa des Garets talks about her new play George and LGBTQ+ representation in theatre

Lea des Garets - press shot
Actor & writer Lea des Garets

Léa des Garets is a queer award-winning actor, writer and theatre-maker from France. Through her company MQT Productions, Léa aims to give more visibility to hidden voices from the past and the present, focusing particularly on international voices, female-led narratives and the LGBTQIA+ community.

Here, she talks to me about George, her new play, which opens at the Omnibus Theatre later this month, playing a writer writing a play and LGBTQ+ representation in theatre. (Scroll to the end for the video)

George is inspired by the story of queer French author George Sand. How did you discover her, and what made you want to write the play?

So I am French, and George Sand is quite well known in France, but in a very limited way. Although she sold more books than Victor Hugo and Honoré Balzac in her time, she isn't nearly as well known as they are today.

At school, I had only studied two of her works, so I wasn't drawn to her literary works. But what I did know was that she dressed as a man, she used a male pen name and allegedly had many lovers.

I had this sense that she was a free woman or expressed her gender in whatever way she wanted, and she was still really, really successful in 19th-century France.

In 2019, I was really exploring my own queerness and craving for figures, not only to study but also to potentially embody as an actor, and I re-stumbled upon her.

In spite of all the press slandering, she still fought for equality and went against the norms, not only in what she represented but also in what she was saying. She really has something to say to our time, so I needed to write about her. And how amazing would it be to play her?

You play George and wrote the play, how does being the playwright inform your performance process, particularly as George in the play is a writer?

I had this image of three circles, there was my world, Léa the writer, and her world, George Sand the writer and the work that she is writing in George the play, which is her play Gabriel.

So much of the writing process of George is included in the play itself. There was a lot of bouncing off ideas with loved ones who are in the industry and who aren't, as well as brainstorming. There was some getting up in the middle of the night to write and also not commanding inspiration but having things come at you from the outside.

But then there is also the tunnel vision for something that you end up being so incredibly passionate about. I really found and experienced that, and I know what it feels like to hold on to what you believe in.

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Review: GRILLS, Camden People's Theatre - a fun play with a powerful roar

L-R Olivia Dowd Ishmael Kirby Jaye Hudson India JJ - credit Harry Elletson
L-R Olivia Dowd, Ishmael Kirby, Jaye Hudson and India JJ. Photo: Harry Elletson

 

GRILLS at the Camden People's Theatre is set in two time periods and two places connected by the queer experience and history.

Four modern self-professed queer nerds - Vall, Bee, Jaz and Mo - are visiting the Glasgow Women's Library, which is where the archive from the Camden Lesbian Centre and Black Lesbian Group is now kept. 

The CLC and BLG joined forces in the 1980s, and we are transported back to life in their centre through their discoveries while rifling through the archive.

There are revealing snippets from documented phone calls the centre received, which paint a picture of the work the centre did to support queer people. It is a place which created community, support and camaraderie in the face of prejudice and abuse. 

The documents also expose the challenges the centre faced from the politics of the day. Conservative Party rhetoric stoked homophobia, and Section 28 decimated funding for the centre, which was eventually forced to close. Attitudes towards transwomen are also revealed through the internal politics.

 

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Review: Eddie Izzard's Hamlet, Riverside Studios - grappling with performance and personality

Eddie Izzard hamlet poster

When someone plays not just many characters but all the characters in a classic play as Eddie Izzard does here for Hamlet, I have two key questions: How will they do it and why, i.e. what will it add?

When I saw Andrew Scott's one-man Vanya, while a technically brilliant performance, it didn't add to or elevate the play. I missed seeing him riff off other actors.

The jury was still out at the interval of Eddie Izzard's Hamlet. I simply wasn't sure what to make of it, but for different reasons to Vanya. It didn't feel like it was missing other actors, perhaps because I'm used to Eddie Izzard being a solo performer.

Here, the problem was how inextricably linked Eddie Izzard's persona is with her stand-up, at least in my mind. She has a distinct comic style and tone, which is evident in the 23 different characters she plays.

Was she being tongue-in-cheek? I could see her doing little bits of Hamlet in her stand-up show, but this is the whole play, which, while there is some humour to be found, is a tragedy.

But while I grappled with the question of comedy, some scenes worked really well with some interesting decisions.

She plays the characters mostly by taking a step into a different position. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are the exceptions; here, she talks with his hands, which is very silly, but it works for the characters who are puppets of Hamlet's uncle Claudius.

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Review: Bluets, Royal Court Theatre - technically impressive but emotionally unengaging.

Bluets Royal Court Theatre building

I haven't read Maggie Nelson's book Bluets, but after watching this stage version adapted by Margaret Perry at the Royal Court Theatre, I don't feel the need to.

It's directed by Katie Mitchell, and given the technical/live film treatment I last saw her use in ...some trace of her at Soho Theatre, which I really enjoyed.

In Bluets, three actors, Emma D'Arcy, Kayla Meikle and Ben Whishaw, play the same character. They stand in a row, each with a table and video camera, and above each is a screen.

They take turns delivering lines, sometimes just a few words, that tell the story of how, after a relationship breaks up, a woman falls in love with the colour blue.

It is voice-over style, so who you see on screen doesn't match who you hear. Only one screen is active at a time, allowing the other performers to set up the next snippet of live film.

The film performance is focused on reenactment/positioning shots to illustrate the story on screen. So the actor will stand side on to the camera, arms positioned to look like they are driving, while footage of a street passing plays behind them, for example.

Among the visual effects are 'walking' along a street, drinking whisky, laying in bed looking at a phone, those sorts of things.

It's technically mesmerising and fascinating to watch, at least for a while. The actors have to remember not only their snippets of dialogue but also all the video cues, where they need to be standing, what props to hold, etc.

But I have problems with it.

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