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Review: Word-Play, Royal Court Theatre - powerful and punchy play on words

Yusra Warsama  Issam Al Ghussain  Kosar Ali  Simon Manyonda  Sirine Saba Word-Play Royal Court Johan Persson
Word-Play, Royal Court Theatre July 2023 l-r Yusra Warsama, Issam Al Ghussain, Kosar Ali, Simon Manyonda, Sirine Saba. Photo Johan Persson

Rabiah Hussain's play Word-Play starts with a PR team in crisis mode, having just heard the Prime Minister use a particular word (we don't know what that word is) in a live interview. The press and social media are crawling all over it.

The Prime Minister refuses to apologise, and there are hints of a less sweary Thick Of It as one of the team Googles synonyms for 'sorry' for the statement they want to put out.

Performed behind a glass screen at one end of the oblong performance space, it gives the sense of being a clinical observer. We return to the story later, and there are also snippets of reactions in Whatsapp groups and social media. 

But the bulk of the play is a mixture of monologues and scenes exploring the complexity and power of words, particularly when it comes to culture and identity.

In one scene, impartiality is challenged to the point where choosing certain descriptive words is deemed 'opinion'. In another, a father is racked with guilt have having told his children the lie that 'names don't hurt'.

And in another, 'See it, say it, sorted' sparks a debate on what is and isn't normal.

The most powerful is the final story of a mother who is challenged over the use of her mother tongue when her young daughter uses it at school.

Less effective are the scenes where words are repeated and shouted - to what end?

The majority of the play is performed in the central space (audience on three sides) with the occasional use of plastic chairs although there is one amusing and tongue-in-cheek meta moment involving the audience.

Word-Play punches at appropriation, prejudice, and the distortion of meaning. It highlights how meaning can be ascribed through the lens of who uses or hears the word. And how language is rich, fluid and powerful.

I'm giving it ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Word-Play, Royal Court Theatre

Written by Rabiah Hussain

Directed by Nimmo Ismail

Cast: Issam Al Ghussain, Kosar Ali, Simon Manyonda, Sirine Saba, Yusra Warsama

Running time 80 minutes, no interval

Booking until 26 August; for more details and to buy tickets, visit the Royal Court's website.

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Review: Sea Creatures, Hampstead Theatre Downstairs - a strange and unsatisfactory mix

Grace Saif with Tom Mothersdale in Sea Creatures_credit Marc Brenner
Grace Saif with Tom Mothersdale in Sea Creatures, Hampstead Theatre, April 2023, Photo: Marc Brenner

Cordelia Lynn's play is set in an old fisherman's cottage, which has been extended over the years and now includes a glass-fronted kitchen area from where you can take in the view of the sea.

The cottage and its contemporary extension are a bit like its inhabitants: A modern family with a love of old stories and myths full of sea creatures like mermaids and selkies.

It's a holiday retreat owned by Shirley (Geraldine Alexander), a professor who doesn't like anyone in her office unless invited.

Her partner Sarah (Thusitha Jayasundera), is an artist who paints urban landscapes when she is in the country and the country when she's in the city. Toni (Grace Saif) is Shirley's youngest daughter and 'consciously naive' (she behaves like someone much younger), and her sister George (Pearl Chanda) is unhappily pregnant.

Then there is the third sibling Robin, whose whereabouts is unknown. Her boyfriend, Mark (Tom Mothersdale), is staying in her room in the hope that she turns up.

And that's kind of the play, the wait and the whereabouts of Robin.

Continue reading "Review: Sea Creatures, Hampstead Theatre Downstairs - a strange and unsatisfactory mix" »

Review: Freud's Last Session, King's Head Theatre - a compelling watch

Mark St Germain's play Freud's Last Session at the King's Head Theatre in Islington is a compact yet powerful play which imagines a clash of intellect and reasoning between two famous minds.

Freud's Last Session King's Head Theatre
Consulting couch on the set of Freud's Last Session, King's Head Theatre July 2022. Designer: Brad Caleb Lee

It's England on the day that World War II will be declared, and Freud (Julian Bird) has invited Oxford Professor CS Lewis (Séan Browne) to see him at his London home. The founder of psychoanalysis is in the later stages of painful mouth cancer, while Lewis is yet to become a famous writer.

Freud, an atheist, is fascinated with Lewis's sudden re-adoption of Christianity, having lost his faith as a teenager. With the threat of war looming, the two debate the existence of God, religion, sex and relationships.

St Germain's tight script allows the interrogation of both men's arguments, yet the conversations' seriousness also has flashes of wit and humour. It is not so much a case of one winning over the other but what they discover about themselves during the conversation.

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Review: The Fever Syndrome, Hampstead Theatre - witty remarks amid a cacophony of themes

Modern families, money and the morals of genetics are just a few of the narrative tensions in Alexis Zegerman's play The Fever Syndrome at Hampstead Theatre.

The Fever Syndrome Image 1 Ensemble Photo © Ellie Kurttz
The Fever Syndrome, Hampstead Theatre April 2022. Photo © Ellie Kurttz

The family at the centre of the story is that of Richard Myers (Robert Lindsay), an eminent geneticist who now has Parkinson's Disease. He lives in a brownstone in Manhatten with his third wife, Megan (Alexandra Gilbreath), who does her best to care for him.

His grown-up children have returned home to see him presented with a prestigious science award.

His eldest child by his first wife is Dot (Lisa Dillon), who has her husband and 12-year daughter in tow. She is sharp, driven and highly protective of her daughter, who has a rare auto-inflammatory condition called the Fever Syndrome.

Then there are the twins Anthony (Sam Marks) and Thomas (Alex Waldmann) by his second wife. Anthony is charismatic, charming, and an opportunistic investor in Silicon Valley - his latest venture is cryptocurrencies. He's the favourite despite his rare appearances at family gatherings.

Thomas is an artist and has his boyfriend with him. He's the odd one out, not being adept at science and desperately wants approval.

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Review: On Bear Ridge, Royal Court - heart-wrenching, tense and laugh out loud funny

There is a vulnerability in the ordinariness and something epic in its simplicity. 

On Bear Ridge by the NTW and Royal Court Theatre Photo by Mark Douet I80A8399
Rhys Ifans and Rakie Ayola in On Bear Ridge by the NTW and Royal Court Theatre. Photo by Mark Douet

Warplanes occasionally roar across the sky above John Daniel (Rhys Ifans) and Noni's (Rakie Ayola) grocery store and butchers on Bear Ridge.

They wave knives and shout at them because it makes them feel better. Then the quiet of the falling snow returns.

It is reflective of the tone of Ed Thomas' play On Bear Ridge, emotions that momentarily crack and shatter before a jagged peace returns.

Up in the mountain, in an unidentified country - although it is easy to imagine it is Wales - Bear Ridge store has long ceased trading.

Customers and community have left

It's shelves empty, the fridge is quiet, John Daniel and Noni are down to their last bag of potatoes but they won't leave like the people who were once their customers have.

Grief and loss keep them on the desolate Bear Ridge. Loss of their son, loss of the community in which they were a part and loss of a language - a culture and identity.

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Review: Summit, Shoreditch Town Hall - a disappointing view from the top

Repeated phrases become vacuous in their repetition suggesting that the political narrative has similarly become empty.

Fuel Theatre's Summit in rehearsal

Ten minutes into Summit and I'm irritated.

It's not the woman loudly crunching on her supper next to me although that is annoying, rather the fact that on stage the same point is being made over and over again.

'Fast forward' my brain screams as the setting for the story is described with pleasant customer service smiles for the umpteenth time.

Standing in front of a music stand with a copy of the script, the pages of which are turned with great drama, three performers outline the structure of the play and ask us to imagine three scenarios in the past, present and future.

Repetition but to what effect?

All revolve around an important summit where the lights inexplicably went out. Just to emphasise the point the lights of the auditorium are turned out.

Several times.

Repetition is Summit's main performance tool, sometimes the same piece of narrative is delivered in three different languages by the performers: Alesha Chaunte, Nadia Anim and Jamie Rea - the latter performs with exceptional expression in sign language.

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Review: Teenage suicide told through the eyes of teenagers in Breathe, Bunker Theatre

Despite the continual presence of others, the feelings of isolation and vulnerability remain.

Breathe is a play about teen suicide told through the eyes of teenagers.

Breathe  The Bunker - courtesy of DF Photography (1)
Breathe at The Bunker - courtesy of DF Photography

In fact, it's produced by youth theatre company Athenaeum which gives it an interesting and insightful lens through which to explore the topic.

We know right from the start how this play is going to end, the story is the journey: What leads three teens to step over the edge?

Jack (Byron Easmon) displays symptoms of manic depression and is obsessed with how he looks, Sam (Martha Hay) has got herself into an inappropriate relationship with an authority figure and Leo (George Jaques - also the writer of Breathe) is struggling with his sexuality - and grief.

Overwhelming turmoil

Each story is told via a relationship to a significant person in their life: Girlfriend (Elizabeth Brierley), boyfriend (Douglas Clarke-Wood) and older brother (Gus Flind-Henry) and the narratives interweave with sometimes two or three playing out simultaneously.

It has the effect of giving the play spikes of an almost overwhelming turmoil. Frustrations are not just expressed verbally but also in action, often repetitive behaviour such as hammering on a laptop keyboard.

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Review: Some lovely lighter moments but something didn't gel - Reared, Theatre503

While there are some excellent individual scenes as a whole Reared just doesn't quite gel. I found myself wanting it to delve further.

There is a moment in Reared which reminded me of Jez Butterworth's The Ferryman when Aunt Maggie Far Away is having one of her lucid moments and telling the children stories.

Reared  Theatre503 - courtesy of The Other Richard (9) Paddy Glynn and Danielle Phillips
Paddy Glynn and Danielle Phillips in Reared, Theatre503. Photo: The Other Richard

In John Fitzpatrick's new play, it's the same scenario; Nora (Paddy Glyn) is telling her granddaughter Caitlin (Danielle Phillips) an old family story about the Irish potato famine but on finishing it she slips back into a confusion of memories.

It's a touching moment in a play about mounting family tensions as Caitlin's mother, Eileen (Shelley Atkinson), tries to persuade her husband Stuart (Daniel Crossley) that there is more to his mother's memory loss than simple old age. 

There is additional family drama as 15-year-old Caitlin is pregnant and doesn't want her parents to know who the father is. Caitlin's hapless friend Colin (Rohan Nedd) is the source of much humour as he tries to be supportive.

These lighter moments work really well but there aren't enough to make Reared a full-blown comedy but then neither does the play properly explore either dementia or teenage pregnancy/underage sex and, as a result, it lacks punch.


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

Considering this is a scratch performance it is only the scripts in hands 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 storytelling 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.

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