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Theatre reviews (off West End) - John C. Kirk

Apr. 18th, 2014

09:39 pm - Theatre reviews (off West End)

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Catching up on my theatre reviews, I've been moving away from the big West End shows in favour of smaller performances. One benefit is that they're cheaper, so you can see a live performance for roughly the same price as going to the cinema. However, you also need to grab the opportunity when you see it, because these have much shorter runs than the West End; typically only a week or so, whereas Mamma Mia has been going for 15 years, and The Mousetrap is in its 62nd year!

I'm using cut tags for length, but I've tried to keep spoilers to a minimum.

"GOD/HEAD"



(Ovalhouse, 01-Mar-2012, ticket price £14.00)

This took place in the upstairs theatre, which they describe as an intimate space: it's certainly the smallest theatre I've been to. There were 2 rows of seats around the stage, arranged as flip-up benches (double width). There were fewer than 20 people in the room, which included the 2 cast members on stage and a few theatre staff.

Basically, this is a autobiographical piece about someone who has a crisis of faith, except that he's an atheist who is starting to think that God is real after all. The structure is quite clever: he started by telling the story, then went back and did it again with extra information that cast the first version in a different light. As I mentioned, there were 2 people on stage: the writer was always there, but the 2nd person changed every day, as he brought in his friends. That meant that it was only semi-scripted, and each performance would be a bit different.

I went along because I knew that evening's guest star, so I wanted to support her. That means I'm not exactly impartial, but I thought it was interesting. What's On The Fringe and The Guardian have also reviewed it.

"Ursula Martinez: My Stories, Your Emails"



(Soho Theatre, 09-Mar-2012, ticket price £17.50)

Back in 2006, Ursula Martinez did a performance called "Hanky Panky"; this is basically a conjuring trick (making a handkerchief disappear) combined with a strip tease. The idea is that she can't be hiding anything up her sleeve if she isn't wearing sleeves, and so on. It's clever: I've watched it several times, and I still can't figure out how she does it. (If you know, please don't tell me!)

The reason I've been able to re-watch it is that it's online. However, this wasn't intentional (at least on her part); someone leaked it without her permission. The video quality was very good, including multiple cameras and reactions from the audience, so this wasn't just a case of someone holding up their phone to record it. My guess is that there were cameras set up to record the rest of the show (some kind of comedy festival with each performer doing a few minutes) and they were only supposed to use the footage for other parts of the show.

This show ("My Stories, Your Emails") is based on what happened next, when a lot of men sent her pervy emails. She took part in a radio interview to promote the show; that's definitely worth watching, because she makes some very insightful points. In particular, this reminded me of one of the issues surrounding the World Naked Bike Ride: some cyclists are happy to be naked in public, but don't want to be photographed.

In the interview, she talks about context: the difference between being in the audience (with a friendly atmosphere) vs. sitting at home on your own. Also, if someone watches her on stage then they'll see her naked but then it's over and she moves onto something else. If that person watches the video at home then they could keep hitting "replay". In the WNBR context, I've seen videos of the ride going past a particular location, and you can tell that everyone's naked but you can't really see any details unless you stare at a particular person as they move across your field of vision. With photos, someone could zoom in and spend all day drooling over a particular rider.

When I went along to the theatre, it didn't have assigned seating or even separate seats. Instead, there are long benches, and the ushers encouraged us to budge up so that they could fit more people in.

The format was more like a university lecture than a play: she stood up at the front and talked directly to the audience. The first half was various stories from her life, eg growing up in Croydon. It's the equivalent of me putting on a performance where I read out a selection of my blog posts. Some of these stories were funnier than others, and I did feel that I was a bit out of step with a lot of other people in the audience, i.e. they laughed when I didn't. At one point she told a story about getting racial abuse from a stranger in the street when she was out with her boyfriend: lots of people laughed, and she paused to say "That's not funny." So, I don't think this was intended as continuous comedy.

At the end of the first half, she left the stage and then they showed the video that got leaked. So, she didn't perform it live, but it gave context to the second half. This literally involved her reading out emails, impersonating the men's voices (or at least her idea of how they might sound) and then her responses. I gather that women on online dating sites often have similar conversations. Some of the men also emailed her with (unsolicited) photos of them, in varying states of undress. This is a bit of a moral grey area; should she be making it all public without their permission? (The Guardian go into more detail about that.)

Overall, I thought that the radio interview was a lot better than the show itself. However, this is effectively a way for me to pay her for the free videos I watched, so it evens out. She's now posted a copy of Hanky Panky (from a different venue) on her own YouTube channel, so you can watch it with a clear conscience. I think she is talented, so I'm keeping an eye out for any of her future shows.

(If you'd prefer to see male performers doing something similar, I recommend "Serviette" by Les Beaux Freres.)

"Knightmare Live"



(Bloomsbury Theatre, 27-Sep-2013, ticket price £17.50)

If you are a certain age then you probably remember watching Knightmare on TV; arguably my first exposure to LARP. (As I mentioned a few years ago, the commentary track for Dungeons & Dragons goes off on a tangent when they discover that one of the commenters had been on Knightmare.) In case you haven't seen it, I recommend Spoony's review: he gets a couple of points wrong, but it's a good summary.

More recently, people have been revisiting it. Owyn & Co. did a brilliant parody; I particularly liked Troguard's bulging eyes when the team give the amazingly unhelpful description that "You're in a room." In August 2013, some of the original cast and crew took part in a remake for Geek Week: this was a new episode with an adult team. Each of the team members has their own YouTube channel, so they have a bit more stage presence than a lot of the kids who used to do it, although they do better in the unscripted bits (after the first 5 minutes).

Meanwhile, Knightmare Live started at the Edinburgh Fringe (see BBC article) and then proved popular enough to go on tour around the country. They're touring again this year, and I highly recommend it. Technically, it's an impressive achievement, because they've had to make physical props to replace CGI. The basic idea is that it's plotted rather than scripted, much like the original series. They pick someone from the audience to be the Dungeoneer (wearing the helmet), then they bring in a comedy duo to guide the Dungeoneer around. So, the team is different at each performance, even though the rooms will be the same.

Paraphrasing from memory, Treguard started out by saying "You will face danger, powerful magic, and ... anagrams!" That's pretty representative of the show as a whole: it's not a parody, but they do acknowledge the absurdities of the original series. There's nothing mean-spirited about it, so there was a very friendly atmosphere. At the same time, there is actually a story there. It edges into pantomime territory, but doesn't quite go that far, e.g. the audience booed when Lord Fear came on stage.

Unlike the Geek Week episode, this has a completely new cast. However, Hugo Myatt was in the audience, and I got to meet the old/new Treguard actors after the show.

Me wearing the Helmet of Justice with new Treguard Me with Hugo Myatt

(Despite the look on his face, I promise that I wasn't doing anything dodgy with my hidden hand!)

As for the venue, this was quite a big room (at least 1 balcony as well as the stalls). There was plenty of legroom, which I always appreciate. The bar was a bit pricey (£4 for 330ml of cider) but then again it is central London. There was a huge queue for the toilets during the interval, stretching out the door, along the corridor, and down the stairs. So, my advice is that you either sprint there to be at the front of the queue or hold on until later.

"Oedipussy"



(Rose Theatre, 19-Oct-2013, ticket price £25.00)

This was the most expensive ticket I bought, for a front-row seat. However, the theatre has an interesting option of "pit cushions": basically, you sit on the floor between the front row of seats and the stage, above where the orchestra pit would be. You need to bring your own cushion with you, but you get a good view at a very cheap price; it varies between shows, but typically it's £6.00. It reminded me of an outdoor theatre that I went to on a school trip, to see a Greek play: it was a stone amphitheatre, so we had to take our own cushions/pillows to sit on there too. Aside from the pit, I'd guess that the room had enough seating for about 100 people.

This production came from Spymonkey. As the name suggests, it's based on the story of Oedipus, as originally told by Sophocles. I studied ancient Greek at school up to GCSE level; I didn't look at this play in particular, but I'm familiar with the basic story.

The name is also similar to the James Bond film Octopussy, which hints that this isn't an entirely faithful interpretation. When I saw the Reduced Shakepeare Company perform, they whizzed through the comedies as quickly as possible because they felt that "the tragedies are funnier". It's billed as a comedy, so I was expecting some kind of parody. There are some funny bits in it that really did make me laugh; there are also anachronistic elements, including a unicycle. On the whole, though, it's still quite a bleak story. It had very little to do with James Bond; the only real connection was the opening song. That's not necessarily a bad thing, because I think the original story is worth hearing/watching on its own merits as a tragedy, it's just not quite what I was expecting.

There's a very small cast (only 4 people) and minimal props. There are a few bits where the cast step out of character to address the audience directly, sharing personal anecdotes. As with Ursula Martinez' show, there were some of these that I couldn't really laugh at. However, I eventually realised that the cast were still in character at that point, essentially playing themselves, so a particular character's interludes then became funnier. Sorry to sound so cryptic there! I'm not sure whether this was more obvious to the rest of the audience (who were laughing when I wasn't) or whether they just have a different sense of humour.

The advert for the show included a warning: "Contains incest, violence, mutilation, strobes, nudity and chorus-work." They were correct about the nudity, and that was actually quite funny, but I do wonder whether they only included it so that they could mention it in the advert. (In a similar way, I've heard rumours that some films will deliberately include swearing to move from a U to a PG rating in the hope of attracting a wider audience.)

The Telegraph and The Guardian have also reviewed this.

"Never Try This At Home"



(Soho Theatre, 02-Apr-2014, ticket price £10.00)

This comes from Told By An Idiot. It's another small cast, including Petra Massey from Spymonkey. This is also the same room in the Soho Theatre where I saw Ursula Martinez. (Clearly I've been planning this blog post for years to have these connections, and I've not just been procrastinating...)

The story is based around a fictional Saturday morning kids' TV program from the 1970s; it's clearly inspired by ITV's Tiswas, and they refer to a rival program which is obviously supposed to represent the BBC's Saturday Swap Shop. If you're too young to remember either program then you may not be the target audience for this.

Most people will immediately associate Tiswas with custard pies (flans), i.e. shaving foam on paper plates. However, I think that's really just selective memory at work, because they had a lot of normal stuff too, e.g. cartoons and performances by pop stars in the charts. Looking at the publicity for this play, they've also emphasised custard pies; that's certainly part of it, and something that sets it apart from other shows, but that's not what it's really about.

I have "The Best of Tiswas" on DVD, and some parts of it are a bit inappropriate by modern standards. E.g.
"What does crick mean?" "It's the sound of a Japanese camera."
This play goes much more into that side of it, looking at sexism and racism. I know that some people appreciate trigger warnings before certain content; I won't itemise everything here, but if you would avoid certain stories because of subject matter then this probably isn't the show for you.

I went along on opening night in London. The blurb from the website said: "Raucous energy, a live band, playful nostalgia, unbelievable characters… and a free protective plastic mac if you dare to sit in the front row." So, it sounds similar to something like SeaWorld, where people at the front will get wet. To me, that sounds like the most fun place to be; since the seats are first-come first-served, I made an effort to get there early so that I could be at the front of the queue. When the doors opened, the usher directed me to sit near the front, so I went to the front row and slid along to the far end of the bench. As other people came in behind me, I noticed that they were all sitting further back. In fact, it got to a point where I was the only person in either of the front 2 rows and all the other rows were crammed full. However, the performance was sold out, so people who came later had to sit at the front. When the staff came along handing out ponchos, a couple of people tried to swap seats, then realised that they were stuck there. So, while I'd encourage people to be brave, I'll also recommend arriving early if you want to guarantee a safe distance from the stage.

The live band was a nice touch: they've specifically been offering slots to youngsters, to give them exposure, and there have been different groups at the various performances. On the night I went, they did a cover version of "Happy" (Pharrell Williams): that doesn't quite fit the time period, but I'll overlook that.

The story was split between the original TV series in the 70s and a present day retrospective show. The theatre audience doubled up as the TV studio audience for both, which meant that the cast could explicitly react to us without breaking the 4th wall, so I think there was a bit of improvisation and ad-libbing.

Before I went in, I chatted to someone (staff) who'd seen it before, and she said that she'd laughed from start to finish. As with "My Stories, Your Emails" and "Oedipussy", I didn't have that reaction. So, this is where the interaction gets tricky: if the cast are trying to be funny and I sit there at the front looking grim, that's going to be demotivating for them. On the other hand, I don't really take pleasure in other people suffering, and even if I did think it was funny then I'd try to be tactful rather than laughing in their face. The grey area here is when the characters are miserable but the actors are presumably quite happy with it (and may even have written the scene themselves), e.g. someone being groped: IC there's no consent, but OC there is. So, I found that it was a relief to get to the simpler bits, e.g. a pie in the face after a silly pun, because I could laugh at that with a clear conscience.

Near the start of the show, a actor went around introducing himself to a few members of the audience at random: that included me, so we shook hands. Later on, in one of the scenes where I wasn't laughing but lots of people were, he made eye contact and referred to me by name. ("It's [blank] isn't it, John?") That startled me! I think I just nodded and smiled.

Overall, I didn't enjoy it as much as I thought I would, but that's because the cast did a good job of making me empathise with their characters. I definitely think that it's worth watching, but just be aware that it's not (necessarily) a laugh-a-minute comedy. Maybe there's a gap in the market for something equivalent to Knightmare Live, ie a recreation of the fun elements of Saturday morning TV without the drama. I think the closest thing to that is Circus Hilarious, which I reviewed in 2010.

The very end of the show acted as an interesting social experiment, but I can't write about it without huge spoilers, so I'm using ROT13 encryption. Copy/paste the next 2 paragraphs into http://rot13.com/ to read them, but I really advise against that unless you've already seen the show (or don't intend to see it).

Gurer jnf n cvr svtug ba fgntr, gura gur znva (70f) pnfg nyy nqinaprq gbjneqf gur nhqvrapr, n syna va rnpu unaq. Rirelbar va gur sebag ebj jnf nyernql jrnevat gurve cbapub: zbfg crbcyr gura chyyrq hc gurve ubbqf naq gevrq gb qhpx gurve urnqf, yvxr n gbegbvfr tbvat vagb vgf furyy. Fvapr V jnf ba gur raq bs gur ebj, V jnf bhg bs enatr, naq V gbbx n zber erynkrq ivrj bs cebprrqvatf. Nf vg ghearq bhg, gur pnfg whfg unaqrq gur synaf bire gb gur nhqvrapr, gura ergerngrq gb gur fgntr. Fb, gung cerfragrq gur eryrinag nhqvrapr zrzoref jvgu n dhnaqnel: jung fubhyq gurl qb jvgu gur harkcrpgrq tvsg?

Zbfg crbcyr whfg guerj gur synaf onpx gbjneqf gur npgbef ba fgntr (jub jrer nyernql zrffl). Bar crefba synaarq gur pyrna zrzore bs gur pnfg (zbqrea qnl cerfragre), juvpu tbg n ovt ynhtu: ur rapbhentrq ure gb gnxr n obj, naq gevrq gb trg ure onpx, ohg fur chyyrq ure cbapub pbzcyrgryl hc bire ure urnq gb fgnl pyrna. Ybbxvat ba Gjvggre, n srj nhqvrapr zrzoref unir zragvbarq orvat cvrq, fb V'z thrffvat gung crbcyr gbbx gur bccbeghavgl gb syna gurve sevraqf. V jbaqre jul gung qvqa'g unccra ng zl cresbeznapr. Cnegyl, V guvax vg jnf orpnhfr abobql jnagrq gb or gur svefg gb fgneg gung. Nyfb, vg znl qrcraq ba ubj jvyyvat crbcyr jrer gb fvg ng gur sebag va gur svefg cynpr; vs gurl jrer bayl gurer orpnhfr nyy gur bgure frngf jrer shyy, naq gurl qvq gurve orfg gb uvqr oruvaq gur cbapub, vg znxrf frafr gung gurl jbhyqa'g jnag gb trg nal zrffvre. V'z tynq gung gurl qvqa'g tvir zr n syna, orpnhfr V jnf gurer ba zl bja naq V jbhyqa'g unir jnagrq gb hfr vg ba gur fgenatref fvggvat arneol. Nf vg ghearq bhg, V qvqa'g trg nalguvat ba zr ng nyy, fb V guvax lbh'er zber "ng evfx" va gur zvqqyr bs gur ebj.

Most of these shows have now finished (at least in London), but Never Try This At Home is still running until Sunday 27th April. Tomorrow (Sat 19th April) they have accessible performances: audio described and touch tour in the afternoon, and captioned performance in the evening. The only time I've noticed that before was when I saw Peter Pan performed in Spanish with English subtitles above the stage. I think it's a good idea, though.

I also have to mention #reachforthepie. Basically, various people who are associated with Told By An Idiot or the Soho Theatre have been recording short videos where they get a pie in the face. (These are office staff or backstage crew rather than the cast.) It has also spread to RADA, and this playlist has all the videos so far. Everyone involved is clearly having fun, so there aren't any of the uncomfortable aspects from the play. I'm also impressed that everyone is wearing normal clothing: no plastic macs or goggles.

Anyway, they've challenged other people to make their own videos (with the same theme). If you do that this weekend and send them the link on Twitter/Facebook, they'll give you 2 free tickets to watch the show. That's a very generous offer, and I recommend it to any Londoners on a tight budget who want an evening out.