Twelfth Night by Original Impact at the Blue Elephant Theatre

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The Blue Elephant Theatre is a venue I’ve been meaning to tick off my list for quite a while now, admittedly because I am a huge elephant fanatic and what could be better than a theatre that shares the name with my favourite mammal? It was even more fitting that my favourite Shakespeare play, the tremendous, plot-twisting Twelfth Night was to be brought to the ever-so-slightly-hidden Camberwell venue.

Set in the mystical land of Illyria, the play follows twins Viola and Sebastian, who have been separated in a shipwreck. Viola, believing her brother has been lost at sea, disguises herself as a boy and is taken under the wing of Count Orsino, who is in love with the woeful Lady Olivia. Swearing not to look upon a man until she is over the deaths of her late brother and father, she unexpectedly falls for the disguised Viola, who in turn falls in love with Orsino. Filled with trickery, foolery and plenty of laugh out loud twists, this feast of farce really is one of Shakespeare’s most brilliant comedies.

Original Impact Theatre Company’s version of Twelfth Night has been carried into modern day by director Sam Dunstan and includes vest tops and Bacardi, Beyoncé and beatboxing – the latter of which I wouldn’t ordinarily say I am a fan of, nor did I necessarily think it was appropriate for the play but weirdly found myself being quite impressed with Andi Jashari’s skill. Despite the play’s main plot being the Viola, Orsino and Olivia love triangle, this production chooses to focus more heavily on the sub-plot of Sir Toby Belch and his rabble of drunken friends as they conspire to cause havoc among the island. As riotously funny as Belch is, it did feel as though he was played slightly too drunk at times, causing him to have little substance – the play is about love and gender and asks us to consider who we fall in love with. That said, Belch, Sir Andrew (Dinos Psychogios) and Feste (Sian Eleanor Green) do throw tonnes of energy into their threesome performance and are certainly the glue that holds this play together. The performance of the night, however must go to the lovely-locked Eve Niker who does an excellent job as Olivia. She is particularly funny as she flirtatiously advances on the mortified Viola (Katie Turner).

The musical input of modern pop songs, talentedly sang by the cast, is warmly welcomed, though I couldn’t help but wish they had continued this into the second act. The use of the trombone played by James Morley was particularly pleasing but disappointingly underused. The element of design was also sparingly used, leaving us with an empty stage but for a message of “To beer or not to beer (that is the question)” graffitied onto the back wall. With such a bright script and beachwear for costume, the bear black wall felt too cold for this production and didn’t help in placing the action. The taped-together chairs to create the effect of a sofa also felt somewhat lazy.

This is certainly a “slightly mad production” with some very random moments thrown in for good measure. The cast work well to hold the energy and keep the pace but this doesn’t always work in the play’s favour. The focus on the bawdy behaviour of the drunkards means the story feels incomplete and doesn’t encourage any deep thinking or room for feelings of empathy, making it quite a shallow interpretation. But the words are still there, and even if I didn’t love every decision made, it still succeeds in reminding me of what a truly amazing play this is and how many different things can be done with it.

WIGS 3/5

By Grace Ward

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2 Become 1 by Swipe Right Theatre at the Kings Head

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In my other life I put on 70’s and 80’s nights, and up till now I hadn’t seen the appeal of a 90’s night. But I had such a good time at 2 Become 1 by Swipe Right Theatre company that it has now gone right to the top of the list.

You first have to leave any desire for a plot at the door of the King’s Head Theatre. There is the beginning of one but it peters out without you even realising it, as you are having so much fun. Jess (Natasha Granger) has been dumped and left heartbroken by a boyfriend and her three best friends think the solution is to go out speed dating. The next hour follows them in a dating scenario, which basically means they tell us their views on men, sing a lot of songs and do a lot of indecent thrusting and wiggling, I mean dancing.

A big spotlight shines on each one of them in turn as they talk about themselves to the unheard person on the other side of the table – which allows us to find out about the characters of the girls. They are quite stereotypical – for instance, Charlie (Eliza Hewitt-Jones) is sex-mad, Amanda (Jessica Brady) just wants a long-term commitment – but still the characters are done well and they positively reek of the 90’s in their platform wedges and tiny dresses. My personal favourite is Molly (Kerrie Thomason, one of the founding members of Swipe Right Theatre company, along with Granger). She says she’s the dim one but in fact she comes up with some of the truest lines in the whole play. Thomason is very funny and the expressions on her face tell a million stories.

The dating chats are interspersed with some short scenes and some very funny songs which, depending on your age, you might well remember (I sang along to practically every one). Between scenes we also hear a voiceover of some dubious men and their chauvinist opinions about what they are looking for in their perfect woman. This is perfect for getting the audience to scream at the stage, but otherwise I didn’t really understand why all the men were such idiots with such sexist views. Moreover, I wanted our girls to realise they could have a good time without worrying about where to snag a man or what a man might think of them. Maybe heterosexual dating really was like this in 1997.

The absolute highlight is the musical aspect of 2 Become 1. Despite assumptions from the title and the fashion in the marketing of the show, this is not all about the Spice Girls. We do have excerpts from 2 Become 1 and Wannabe, but also the girls perform a whole load of hits from the 90’s which take you right back there and some of them have a whole new spin on them. We hear from girl bands from All Saints to Destiny’s Child, there’s a hilarious imitation of Britney Spears and a couple of hits from Shania Twain (there’s a classic scene where Molly interacts with the audience for That don’t impress me much), along with other massive tunes from Cher, Christina Aguilera and so many more. You have never seen a version of No Scrubs like this one, sat on the loo and singing into toilet brushes, and you will laugh your head off at the Celine Dion take off from Titanic, tin whistle accompaniment and all.

This latter scene is so funny. It involves Amanda and the crush she has only seen on the bus before. She picks on a man in the front row of the theatre who is obviously there with his male partner. They are both such good sports that neither of them mind when Brady sits right on his lap, facing him, and sharing his drink, and when she invites him on stage for the crowning glory of My Heart Will Go On, his boyfriend stands up too to capture the whole thing on his phone. In fact both of them end up on stage for the medley finale!

If you were the ‘right age’ during the 90’s, even if you don’t think you enjoyed the music at the time, 2 Becomes 1 looks back on this period with such gentle comedy that you will find yourself having a lot of fun. The references of Justin and Britney, Cosmo magazine, Blockbusters and Buffy the Vampire Slayer make you realise quite how long ago the 90’s really were. Don’t go and see this for a complicated plot or a deep character analysis, but get a bunch of friends together, and enjoy it for what it is – a feel-good trip back in time to the pop music and dating mores of the 1990’s. And support the King’s Head Theatre while you are at it!

WIGS 4/5

By Hatty Uwanogho

Joan by Lucy J Skilbeck at the Ovalhouse

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I doubt you have seen a depiction of Joan of Arc before like the one currently performed at the Ovalhouse by Lucy Jane Parkinson, aka professional drag king LoUis CYfer. She appears in solo show Joan, a Milk Presents production, written and directed by Lucy J Skilbeck.

The Ovalhouse is set out in the round, with cabaret seating in the front rows. This gives ample opportunity for Joan to interact with the audience, which she does to great effect. At first, she is disarming when she asks for somebody’s seat and makes them move, to make way for Catherine (Saint Catherine, who appeared to Joan in visions and whose guiding voice Joan heard throughout her life). Then she is funny as she asks to borrow somebody’s phone to phone Catherine to find out where she is. Later still, she asks more and more of us – one man is asked to walk like a man so she can copy his walk; another has to act like a potential mate when her father is trying to marry her off. The whole audience has to get involved in a battle scene: Joan quite naturally gets a crowd of people bellowing like horses, shooting crossbows, stamping their feet, one woman even has to be a canon exploding. I think my section really wowed her with our men’s chanting choir.

The play deals with the question of identity, and gender identity at that, with Joan playing not only the famous ‘Maid of Orléans’ herself, but also three of the men in her life. The first is her father; we see her quick transformation before our very eyes, using one of four full-length mirrors at each corner of the performance space to don cap, jacket and beard. The next male she becomes is the Dauphin Charles, who Joan has gone to meet ready with her big speech. This is the funniest moment in the play, as a discoball appears overhead, and Parkinson as the moustachioed Dauphin delivers a hilarious song whilst gyrating in golden jacket and shorts. ‘Je m’appelle Charles’, he sings, and then gives Joan an army.

This would not work without Parkinson. She is a natural and engaging performer who you can’t take your eyes off. One minute she is describing Catherine’s voice, ‘as if sunrise had a sound’, and Joan’s face lifts up as if in a trance; the next she is talking conspiratorially with the audience whilst fixing a fake beard onto her face, and turning her bra into a bulge in her shorts. At one point I could see that, as she was delivering one of her rousing speeches about not fitting in, an audience member near to her was visibly nodding, identifying with her words.

Joan is an entertaining, accessible way to meet France’s famous female warrior which had me wiping my eyes from both laughter and tears. But more than that, Lucy Jane Parkinson and the skilful writing by Lucy J Skilbeck turns Joan’s herstory into a moving drama of a brave woman whose cross dressing (probably for quite practical reasons) leads her to be burnt at the stake for heresy. For both queer and heterosexual audiences, this is a must-see.

WIGS 4/5

By Hatty Uwanogho

The Plague by Albert Camus at the Arcola

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Albert Camus wrote La Peste in 1947, likening the rise of Nazism in Europe to a plague, and the novel became a classic almost immediately. Today in 1917, director Neil Bartlett has adapted the novel for our times at a moment when the global landscape is shifting in alarming ways.

The Plague at the Arcola Theatre begins with two tables on stage set out as if at a public enquiry, with some desk lamps and chairs but nothing else on stage. The characters appear one at a time, some with papers in hand, the woman Dr Rieux (Sara Powell) the main focus, referring back to her notes and reporting as clinically as possible what has happened. At certain moments somebody might take a microphone as if to emphasise a point, but the lighting and the set remain minimal and this was the director’s intention, in order to emphasise Camus’s words (none of the words deviate from Camus’s original).

Dr Rieux stands to address us all in the audience and starts to describe what happened at first, how seeing one dead rat one day turns into seeing many rats falling over and dying, choking blood, in the street and how the disease spreads to humans, soon hundreds a day. As well as the doctor, who is given much humanity and strength by Sara Powell, we meet amongst others Mr Grand (Burt Caesar), who is attempting in vain to write his estranged wife a letter, and the journalist Raymond Rambert (Billy Postlethwaite) who becomes trapped within the city walls once they are closed to prevent further spreading of the plague.

With the terrifying velocity of the disease, we are swept along with the need to know what ultimately happens. The sound (by Dinah Mullen) gives a background of sirens, the frantic atmosphere of chaos, the squeaking of rats and then people as they are asphyxiated by the disease. A piano chord is played out at intervals which measures out the passing time. As things worsen, and the disease moves from the poor to the more affluent areas, the dead are lying in the streets, nameless, and then instead of proper burials they are burnt in ovens. We watch throughout the night as a serum is given to a dying child, which only serves to make him die more slowly, and we are there when Mr Grand finally starts to lose it. It paints a dark picture of how people survived during this time, and how the collective consciousness changed. “It made us forget what we knew.”

Then, as suddenly as it takes hold, the plague starts to lessen.   “Hope is so cruel”, says the doctor, but hope never dies, even at times of such fear and, despite the fact that loved ones have died, people must survive, they must carry on. As the gates to the city are re-opened and our characters hear celebrations, Dr Rieux explains that that was the moment she decided to write everything down, to bear witness to what had happened during this time: “There is more to admire about one’s fellow citizens than to despise or despair of”.

Neil Bartlett’s adaptation of Camus’s allegory is chillingly relevant today, and it is disturbing to witness how quickly the situation gets out of control, and normal behaviours are forgotten. The Plague works on its audience in many different, personal ways however I believe Bartlett is really asking us to beware, to speak out against injustices and cruelties as we see them. After all, in Rieux’s closing speech, the plague is only lying dormant, until it once more “rouses its rats and sends them forth to die in some unsuspecting city”.

WIGS 3/5

By Hatty Uwanogho

Theatre! £15 and Under!

Yes yes yes, even more great affordable theatre for you to take your pick from.

Out Now

Between A Man And A Woman – Etcetera Theatre £10 (10-13 April)

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To the outside world, Polly and Tom seem to represent the normal married couple; successful, loving and happy. But behind closed doors, not all is what it seems. Polly’s family and friends are constantly worried for her wellbeing and safety; claiming she has changed from the person she once was.

The Plague – Arcola from £12 (Until 6 May)

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The Plague is Albert Camus’ electrifying story about living through a time of crisis and fighting back against despair. Written in the aftermath of the Nazis’ march across Europe, it struck a powerful chord with millions struggling to understand the fascist ‘plague’ that had just overwhelmed them.

Coming Soon

Rabbit – The Horn The Barn £10/7 (13-14 April)

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It’s Bella’s 25th birthday. Friends and former lovers will meet for a drink to celebrate. Drinks will low and secrets will spill. But in the uncivil war between the sexes, what happens when it’s your own gender you can’t stand? When you’re forced to face where your own views come from?

Pluto – Barons Court Theatre £12/10 (18-23 April)

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Pluto is going through a crisis. No one had turned up to his party, his best friend Charon has hired a stripper for the evening and a probe from Earth has arrived baring some terrible, terrible news.

On The Horizon

Twelfth Night – Blue Elephant Theatre £12/10 (26 April – 6 May)

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Bubbling with energy and youthfulness, this actor-muso production of Twelfth Night is a playful take on the cross-dressing comedy.

Care – The Courtyard £14/11 (9-14 May)

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The Angus Mackay Foundation is proud to present the revival of Care by Roy Mitchell (co-creator of New Tricks), originally presented at the Royal Court Upstairs, which has been revived with an ethnically diverse cast.

Sublime by Sarah Thomas at the Tristan Bates Theatre

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Sublime is a new play by Sarah Thomas, directed by Ben SantaMaria, which has had its first run at the Tristan Bates Theatre. It is a story about two siblings who carry out heists together.

Sam and Sophie are brother and sister and have grown up in a criminal lifestyle, mentored by their uncle Vic after their mother died. Sophie has been away for 2 years, latterly in Corsica, and Sam hardly seems to be over the moon to see her again. Sam makes out as if he has settled down to an office job and a girlfriend who is ignorant of his previous life, however we find out later on that he has continued to dabble in crime. Sophie reveals that she has reappeared due to some bad business in Corsica, which requires her to find a great deal of money by the end of the week. Sam is lured back to working on three jobs with her, culminating in a very big trick which involves stealing some of the jewellery from the Hatton Garden heist (the real one which happened in 2015) from a club in South London called Sublime.

There are a lot of good things to say about Sublime. Sophie is played by Adele Oni and holds your attention throughout. She is seductive and sexy and moves around the stage confidently (no doubt due in part to her training as a dancer). I also enjoyed the laughs given by Sam’s straight-laced, paleo-dieting girlfriend Clara (Suzy Gill), who is also quite a poignant character: Sam is not exactly being honest with her, and when we meet her father (Declan Cooke) we see that he hardly treats her nicely either.

There is great potential in the writing, however there are holes in the plot and I would have preferred a shorter, snappier version of the two acts and over two hours that we have here. For instance, without giving away too much, Sophie is supposed to be on a deadline to get thousands of pounds together by Sunday and, when this doesn’t quite happen, there do not seem to be any repercussions or fear of repercussions. Without this fear or some pretty bad consequences, the whole drive of the play doesn’t work. There is also the sub-plot about the relationship between the brother and sister. It is clear that it is not a usual relationship, and the hints about the incestuous love are not subtle, but it seems to overpower the plot about the heist. Sarah Thomas is so keen to avoid an expected ending that, after it is all over, I find myself wondering what actually happened in the end with the Hatton Garden jewels, why was there a sub-plot about the platinum ring, and what was the point about the wine deal and Clara’s father?

I understand there are limitations in a theatre, with a cast of four, but you never see any details of what goes on in a heist. It sometimes feels a bit like the two main characters can talk the talk, but you also want to see them walk the walk.

I am full of admiration for any young playwright and with just a bit more editing I think Sublime will improve yet. Its cast does a good job, particularly Adele Oni. I hear that Thomas is writing the screenplay for Sublime the film. Watch out for it!

WIGS 3/5

By Hatty Uwanogho

The Mutant Man by Christopher Bryant at The Space Arts Centre

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The Mutant Man is a play that has taken playwright Christopher Bryant years of research to write, and a crowdfunding project to make it to the stage. The Space Arts Centre, housed in a converted church in the Isle of Dogs, has made a bold choice to present it. It tells the true story of a female-to-male transgender man (before the term transgender existed) in Australia who was convicted of the murder of his wife. This is not what makes it bold, but rather the fact that one man and one woman play her/him at different points in her/his story, as well as other characters; also the timeline skips back into flashback mode.

The story itself is fascinating, that is for sure, but due to the way it is presented, and the difficulty of the props and the methods, it was not clear to me what was happening and who was who. I have had to read up about the actual story since I came away. The actors are talented, that is not the problem, but with a story that is not naturally clear, and which is trying to make interesting points about gender identification and dysphoria, taking off a jacket did not mean I understood who the next character was. This might mean that I am not very gifted at following a plot, but it is also unlikely to mean that I would be the only one in this position.

The presentation is attractive and interesting to watch in the former church. The two actors stand before us and at times mirror each other, delivering some rather poetic lines; at other times we see video projections on the large back wall, or magnified film of something happening live on the desks before them. However the actors, Clementine Mills and Matthew Coulton, seem uncomfortable at times with the angles of their microphones, and having to keep moving and positioning standard lamps and cameras themselves.

In actuality, Eugene Falleni (born Eugenia and also known as Harry Crawford) married a woman named Annie Birkett, who did not realise that her husband was not cisgender male until close to her death. When she was told the truth by a neighbour, it seemed that she intended to end the marriage, but during the argument with Falleni about it, she slipped and hit her head on a rock. This is the murder trial which is at the centre of the play and which shoots Falleni into the public spotlight which he is not prepared for.

The play is not afraid to be candid about the issue that the couple made love without one of them realising the true gender of the other. There is obviously a prosthetic phallus involved, as well as frustration on Falleni’s part that his wife could not feel ‘the real me’.

The Mutant Man is described as LGBT theatre and, although the phrase does not ring quite true as the era pre-dates the term (Falleni was born in 1875 and died in 1938), it definitely belongs to the movement of genderqueer, non-binary theatre which has recently gained momentum. In this respect it is important that it should be seen and performed, and to present it in such a challenging way is a brave move. However the complexity of the subject maybe requires a less abstract re-enactment, otherwise the likes of me just can’t keep up.

WIGS 2/5

By Hatty Uwanogho