10th birthday list: My favourite comedy plays and a few I didn't like so much

Humour is personal, what one person finds hilarious might fall flat for someone else. And it is really difficult to get right, comic timing is a great skill.

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Now I love dark comedy, the uncomfortable laugh that makes you think but I'm also partial to the silliness of a good farce.

Here are my favourite comedies from the past 10 years of writing this blog and I would love to know what your favourites are - tell me in the comments.

Upstart Crow, Gielgud Theatre

A clever and funny play that twists and weaves Shakespeare's plots - often exposing their ridiculousness and prejudices - with modern references.

Teenage Dick, Donmar Theatre

Based loosely on Shakespeare's Richard III the setting is an American high school and the machiavellian protagonist is a hemiplegic student Richard who is fed up of being bullied and teased about his disability.

It was a great combination of fun and dark comedy - and had a brilliant dance sequence.

Emilia, Vaudeville

A potent mix of humour, fun and feminism. It had a powerful message delivered in a deliciously entertaining and clever way.

Present Laughter, Old Vic

Director Matthew Warchus put a fresh spin on the well-trodden Noel Coward play which, coupled with Andrew Scott's performance, made this a sublime comedy.

I reviewed it alongside Noises Off at the Lyric Hammersmith, in a compare and contrast of the two comedies which you can read here.

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Review: We R Not Virus - powerful exploration of Covid-19 and racism (streaming via Omnibus Theatre)

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, hate crime targeted at East and South-East Asians has tripled and We R Not Virus is a series of monologues, films and poetry responding to that.

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Kirsty Rider in We R Not Virus

Over the course of an hour, you see a selection of the 10 specially commissioned pieces by East and South-East Asian artists exploring racism and prejudice within Western cultures and outside it.

The complexity and rootedness of racism are evident, often spurred by a heavy dose of ignorance and cultural stereotypes.

One piece explores the double threat facing the Chinese community in the UK: the virus, coupled with the increasing risk of being the target of verbal abuse and violence purely because of ethnicity or looks.  

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Is the Old Vic's choice of ticketing for Lungs reinforcing what is bad about theatre?

Anyone else wondering why the Old Vic has decided to sell tickets for the live-streamed performances of Lungs in the way it has?
 
Old Vic We'll be back soon sign
 
And by that, I mean pricing tickets and limiting the numbers as if people are actually coming to watch it in the theatre.
 
You don't get a better seat for £65 but you might have to pay that when the cheaper seats sell out.
 
Actors Matt Smith and Claire Foy who star are a big draw and the queues to get on the website have been in the thousands (I joined at 8,000+ and 7 hours later haven't made it onto the site).
 
Surely, given the demand, they could have sold unlimited tickets at a fixed price - say £20 - and made more money on an extremely limited number of performances.
 
It would open up theatre to a broader audience, not just those for whom the ticket prices are mostly prohibitive but also those who live too far away.
 
By adopting this conventional form of ticketing at such an unconventional time it feels like it is just reinforcing theatre's image of being an exclusive pass time for the affluent.
 
Or am I missing something?
 

Interview: Brixton House's Owen Calvert-Lyons on the future of fringe theatre post lockdown

Head of theatre and artist development at Brixton House (formally Ovalhouse*) Owen Calvert-Lyons talks about life during the lockdown, the post-Covid future for fringe theatre and exciting streaming plans.

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Owen Calvert-Lyons Head of Theatre and Artist Development at Ovalhouse/Brixton House. Photo: Ludovic Des Cognets.

How are you doing during lockdown?

Lockdown has been a very strange experience so far. Of course, it has lots of negatives, but I’ve been surprised by the number of positives too.

Working in theatre can be all-consuming and this has given me an opportunity to redress the work/life balance and spend more time doing things I love other than theatre.

What does the future look like for fringe theatres post-lockdown?

While things look pretty bleak right now, I think it’s important to remain positive. Theatre is not just about entertainment, it plays a really vital role in many people’s lives, so it will certainly survive this crisis.

I think the most important thing is not to feel that we have to return to the status quo.

There are many things which need to change about our industry and this hiatus should give us an opportunity to imagine what theatre could look like in the future.

One of the most pressing needs is to solve the inequalities in arts funding which leave so many freelance artists struggling to earn a living.

If we can use this moment to fix that, then theatre post-lockdown could be better than ever before.

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Review: The Machine Stops - Big Telly Theatre draws on prescient EM Forster story for latest live stream

Following on from two fun-filled, family-focused, live-streamed shows, Big Telly Theatre, in collaboration with Riverside Theatre, has chosen a seemingly prescient EM Forster story for its latest piece.

The Machine Stops

The story, The Machine Stops, was written in 1909 and sees people living underground in individual cells, communicating via telephone.

An early speech - the cast all perform via Zoom from home - beautifully sums up our current predicament, how being connected via phone and video doesn't quite satisfy in making you feel connected in the same way as being with each other.

Life underground is governed by rules set out by the machine. You have to get permission to go to the apparently uninhabitable surface and reproduction is carefully managed.

The latter point is particularly pertinent to our situation given UK Government recent guidance and rules on social distancing.

If you've seen any of Big Telly's previous shows the format will be familiar, green screens enable the actors to be transported to different locations using projections and props, costumes and makeup are all what the actors have to hand or have made themselves.

Given the theme of the piece the interactive elements, getting the audience involved in the story doesn't feel necessary or as relevant as it did for the more family-focused pieces. 

The dialogue - influenced by EM Forster's text - is weighty and sometimes the lighter more humorous moments serve to detract from the themes of the piece rather than add to it.

As a result, I'd have perhaps preferred more time given to exploring the experience of living isolated from others and the break down of blind obedience - this is where the play worked best for me. The parallels between what EM Forster wrote and expressed through his characters and our own experiences in lockdown are spookily similar. 

The Machine Stops is a different beast to the previous shows and shows Big Telly going in a slightly different direction and just about getting away with it.

It is 60 minutes long and there are two more shows today (7 June) at 3 pm and 7.30 pm - visit Big Telly's website for more details.

You might also like to read:

Matt Smith and Claire Foy to perform a socially-distanced version of Lungs and 5 other plays that could have the same treatment.

My 11 favourite actresses.

From the archive: Review of the first James Graham play I saw and still a favourite - The Man, Finborough Theatre.

 

 

 


Coming soon: Isolation story The Machine Stops becomes the latest live Zoom production by Big Telly Theatre

A short story written by E. M. Forster in 1909 about people living in isolation will get the Big Telly Theatre live performance in lockdown treatment next month.

The Machine Stops

Eerily pertinent to now, the story is about people living underground on their own in cells and illustrates the Victorian era's culture, thinking and fears just as the western world was beginning its accelerated journey into modernity.

Big Telly describes the piece as an escapist adventure into a steampunk world of curious Victoriana - flowers with secret messages, dining in the dark, tea-duelling, crystal gazing, parlour games and more and that audiences should expect to be surprised, charmed and possibly slightly unnerved.

“A story written over 100 years ago about lockdown about the impact of isolation, what we stand to gain from technology and what we stand to lose from the absence of human contact.

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Matt Smith and Claire Foy to perform Lungs (plus 5 plays that could have the same social distance treatment)

The Old Vic has announced that Matt Smith and Claire Foy will be doing a socially distanced version of the play Lungs which will be filmed at the theatre and live-streamed.

Old Vic We'll be back soon sign
Photo: Rev Stan

It will be ticketed and numbers limited to 1,000 per performance so there is an element of exclusivity to it.

Dates have yet to be announced but check out the Old Vic website for more details and how to sign up for email updates. I missed it the first time around so I'll certainly be trying to grab a ticket.  

Lungs will kick off what the Old Vic is calling In Camera, a series of rehearsed readings shot at the theatre against the empty auditorium and streamed online.

It is a fantastic way of bringing live performance to theatre lovers but also raising much-needed funds.

And while streaming archive productions has been brilliant - and will continue to be so, I'm sure this will just be the start of similar innovations to keep theatres going with fresh performances.

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10th Birthday list: My 10 (ok it's 11) favourite stage actresses plus who I'd really like to see on stage more

While there might not be quite as many meaty stage roles for actresses as there are actors (is that changing?) the plethora of acting talent I've seen over the past 10 years made this quite tricky to narrow down. Hence the list of 11 rather than a neat 10 (and presented in no particular order).

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Patsy Ferran in My Mum's a Twat, Royal Court Theatre. Photo by Helen Murray.

I've also added a few names I've only seen once or twice but really want to see do more stage work.

Who would you add, let me know in the comments?

1. Imelda Staunton

Who can forget Margaret in Good People or Martha in Who's Afraid Of Virginia Wolf? It's always a treat when she treads the boards.

2. Jade Anouka

She was the best Hotspur I've seen when Phyllida Law did her all-female Henry IV at the Donmar Warehouse. She also did a fantastic one-woman show at the fringe (Chef) and I still remember the bit of subtlety she brought to Jamie Lloyd's lively production of Dr Faustus.

3. Patsy Ferran

Patsy, Patsy, Patsy. Have seen her in fringe productions, small studio theatres, one-women shows and taking lead roles in classics which have ended up in the West End (and winning her awards). So pleased to see her career taking off and can't wait to see what she does next.

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Theatre creatives respond to rise in Covid-related anti-Asian hate crime with We R Not Virus event

Since the start of the Covid-19 crisis, reports of anti-Asian hate crime have tripled, in response, a collective of UK creatives of East and South East Asian heritage have put together an online event We R Not Virus.

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Live-streamed on two days - 13 & 14 June - via Zoom the free event will feature 10 newly commissioned monologues delivered using a variety of art forms including film, poetry, dance and song.

The themes explore race, identity, representation, perspective and economics through the lens of East and South East Asian artists and their communities.

Directed by award-winning Young Vic New Genesis fellow and associate director Jennifer Tang (Young Vic, RSC, The Royal Exchange, Hampstead Theatre) and Anthony Lau (National Theatre, Royal Court, Nuffield Southampton, Ink - West End, Almeida), each day will conclude with a panel discussion.

The line-up of writers includes award-winning writer, actor and film-maker Daniel York Loh (The Good Immigrant, Royal Court, National Theatre, RSC), poet Will Harris (ES magazine’s 'new guard’ of London poets, poetry fellowship - Arts Foundation 2019) and Amber Hsu currently working with the RSC (BBC, Royal CourtOrange TreeNational Theatre Studio).

We R Not Virus is on 13 June at 7pm and 14 June at 3pm and the running time is 65 minutes (5 monologues each day) plus the panel discussion.

For more details and to book a place head to: www.omnibus-clapham.org

If you are looking for more theatre and performance to watch during lockdown check out my list of what is on.


Review: The treat that is Barber Shop Chronicles, streaming from the National Theatre archive

You can't beat the experience of sitting in a theatre watching a live performance but one of the lockdown-positives is a chance to watch stuff I sadly missed and Barber Shop Chronicles is one of those.

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It feels particularly fortuitous to see it because what is being streamed isn't an NT Live recording rather it was filmed for the archive* and these generally aren't for public consumption.

Despite watching Barber Shop Chronicles in isolation on my laptop you still get a sense of its vibrancy and its pulse.

Set in six different barber shops - London, Lagos, Johannesburg, Accra, Kampala and Harare - Inua Ellams' play showcases the similarities of human experience, desires and dreams across different cultures while simultaneously demonstrating what makes them unique and individual.

Over the course of a day, the barber shop-setting, combined with a big football match between Chelsea and Barcelona is a connecting thread on one level, the desire to belong and be seen is another.

The setting is clever, the barber shop functioning not merely as a place for haircuts and shaves but also a place of  (male) community where opinions are aired, arguments worked through and jokes swapped.

We hear differing opinions on parenting, masculinity, the post-colonialism landscape and immigration, which paints a vivid kaleidoscope of culture and thinking.

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