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January 2024

Review: Afterglow, Southwark Playhouse - passionate and poignant

Afterglow_011_Victor Hugo_James Nicholson_credit The Other Richard
Victor Hugo and James Nicholson in Afterglow, Southwark Playhouse, Jan 2024. Photo: The Other Richard

Afterglow at the Southwark Playhouse is a modern love story and a modern family story. Married couple Alex (Victor Hugo) and Josh (Peter McPherson) have an open relationship within certain boundaries.

The play opens with them having a steamy threesome with Darius (James Nicholson). Both are taken with the younger man and agree that they can meet up with him alone.

What starts as mostly about sex develops into something more for two of the men.

All this plays out against the backdrop of a soon-to-be expanded family as Alex and Josh are expecting a baby via a surrogate. It adds an extra layer of jeopardy to the relationship as there is more at risk than their marriage.

The staging is fairly simple, with shiny black surfaces that scream bachelor pad or nightclub. Although at one point, it is lit up and glitters beautifully to represent a clear starry sky.

A square framed platform makes up a bed or is dismantled and arranged into seats or a massage table to transport the narrative from apartments to workplaces and bars.

The centre of the stage is also cleared away to make way for a shower. Although how many shower scenes does one play need before it looks like an excuse to merely show off naked male bodies?

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Review: Cockfosters, The Turbine Theatre - fun and peculiar

Cockfosters The turbine theatre
Cockfosters, The Turbine Theatre January 2024

Described as a surreal comedy, Cockfosters at The Turbine Theatre is set on the Piccadilly line and centres on a man and a woman who get on at Heathrow.

Both are returning from trips abroad, and they strike up a conversation, which is surreal given the unwritten rules of tube etiquette 😉.

While travelling to Cockfosters at the other end of the line, various colourful and often outlandish passengers get on and off.

Among them are the loud American tourists in matching shirts, a loud hen do, a loud busker and a loud 'friend' of the man's (it is a surreal comedy).

Given how loud the passengers are, it wouldn't take much to flip this tube journey into the horror genre.

It's part a romantic comedy and part love letter to the underground.

Aside from the stereotypical tube passengers, it's packed full of references to the quirks of the underground, the sort of things that are never questioned but just accepted, like those mazes on the walls at the tube stations and the snippets of poetry.

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Review: The Unfriend, Wyndham's Theatre - Frances Barber elevates every scene she is in

Lee Mack  Frances Barber and Sarah Alexander in The Unfriend - photo by Manuel Harlan
Lee Mack, Frances Barber and Sarah Alexander in The Unfriend. Photo by Manuel Harlan

If you like sitcom-style comedy, then Steven Moffat's  The Unfriend at the Wyndham's Theatre could be the show for you. It centres on an unwelcome house guest whom the hosts are too polite (or British) to ask to leave despite discovering said guest's suspected murderous past.

Brits Peter (Lee Mack) and Debbie (Sarah Alexander) meet American Elsa (Frances Barber) on a cruise. Elsa is not afraid to share her opinions and vocalise her observations. And she makes for amusing and harmless company while on holiday.

However, when a polite rather than serious post-holiday invite is taken up, suspicion grows about who Peter and Debbie will have staying under their roof.

Attempts to curtail Elsa's stay are hampered by farcical and awkward ineptitude and the unexpected impact of Elsa on their two teenage kids, Alex (Jem Matthews) and Rosie (Maddie Holliday).

Peter and Debbie seem unable to deal with anything head-on, as the situation with Elsa, recurring visits by a boring neighbour, and attempts to parent their children demonstrate. It is in stark contrast with the direct and persuasive Elsa.

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Review: The Sex Lives of Puppets, Southwark Playhouse - cheeky and laugh out loud funny

The Sex Lives of Puppets  Southwark Playhouse
Simon Scardifield, Mark Down, Isobel Griffiths and Dale Wylde perform The Sex Lives of Puppets, Southwark Playhouse January 2024. Photo. Nigel Bewly

Puppets manipulated by humans talking about sex could be viewed as some sort of weird voyeurism, fetish or even an odd fantasy reenactment.

But in Blind Summit's The Sex Lives of Puppets at Southwark Playhouse, when one puppet bluntly corrects her lover's grammar while they are sexting, it moves it beyond the realms of titillation into a rich, observational human comedy.

Performed by four puppeteers - Simon Scardifield, Mark Down, Isobel Griffiths and Dale Wylde - The Sex Lives of Puppets is a series of interviews with individual puppets or 'couples'.

Each interview has a particular subject to do with sex, with the question to be discussed written on a piece of brown cardboard and displayed to the audience.

What goes on behind closed doors between two consenting 'adults' is naturally fascinating, and there is enough variety of questions and 'personalities' to keep it interesting.

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Theatre in 5 questions: Mark Down & Ben Keaton, co-writers/directors, The Sex Lives of Puppets, Southwark Playhouse

Ben Keaton Mark Down interview screenshot
What inspired theatre co-writers/directors Mark Down and Ben Keaton to create The Sex Lives of Puppets? I sat down with Mark and Ben ahead of the opening night at the Southwark Playhouse to find out more about Blind Summit's latest production and their theatre work.

Here's what they had to say (edited), and you can watch the full interview on YouTube by clicking here.

1. What inspired you to write The Sex Lives of Puppets? And why puppets?

Mark Down: We were messing around, and we loved them (the puppets) doing interview-style sort of backstage interviews, and they were very good when they talked about sex. 

Ben Keaton: You had a great title for a start.

Mark: I think it was a good title. And once we had it, it was sort of irresistible.

Ben: Mark brought me in, and I've said it many times, we just have to create a show around a great title. 

2. You are co-writers and co-directors. How does the collaboration work?

Mark: It's a f*cking nightmare.

Ben: I've made sure it's difficult. It's been my job to do this.

Mark: It came about because Ben auditioned, and he said, 'I know nothing about puppets'. And I was blown away by his voice.

I looked at who'd auditioned and said to my co-director, I want Ben, and if he really can't do puppets, I will do something else. And so that's how we got together, and then the arguments started.

Ben: Mark has an immense experience. He's incredibly passionate about what he does; he has a thing in his mind that he wants. And I come from a different world.

So the combination of our two skills come together in this, but not without bumping heads, that's for darn sure. What I love is we have one agenda, which is to make a great show, and everything clears its way for that.

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