Review – The Powers That Be, Tangled Spines Theatre Company, University of Northampton Flash Festival, St Peter’s Church, Northampton, 25th May 2017

Tangled SpinesI’d never heard of Luke Rhinehart’s best-selling book The Dice Man – so I came to Tangled Spines’ homage to the story without any preconceptions. To live one’s life purely by chance is a most terrifying thing, as Rhinehart’s self-named lead character does; and creates some appalling outcomes that make your flesh crawl. After an initial (and highly entertaining) dance/movement sequence that previews the first part of the story, one of the first things we see Steven Croydon’s Luke Rhinehart do is his to throw the dice to determine whether he will rape his mistress. The die is cast; he notes the result (he doesn’t tell the audience); and the next thing you know he’s calmly and coolly admitting to his victim that he’s going to rape her. She doesn’t appear to object. In real life, this would all be unspeakably appalling; in the context of a theatrical presentation, it’s chillingly fascinating.

As the story develops, you realise Rhinehart is up to his neck in it – and he always seeks the solution by rolling the dice. He ruins his marriage, he endangers his son, he destroys relationships and he commits a helluva lot of crime. Rhinehart’s addiction to the dice becomes his own religious mania, and also shown to be the complete opposite of faith; and I enjoyed the symbolism of Mr Croydon adopting a crucifixion pose lying on the ground. However, I confess I didn’t The Powers That Beunderstand the relevance of the quotes at the beginning of the show from T S Eliot’s Burnt Norton – maybe that’s in Rhinehart’s original.

Mr Croydon’s subtle and rather subversive performance gives you a fascinating insight into Rhinehart’s soul and how black it looks there, sneakily checking the dice in his hand behind his wife’s back, always having the aces up his sleeve; quietly but firmly refusing to give a damn for anyone, including himself. Jack James gives a dynamic performance as his hearty friend and colleague (without a programme I can’t remember the characters’ names, sorry!) and he also transformed brilliantly into his mischievous but very trusting son. Jennifer Wyndham was excellent as the two abused women in Rhinehart’s life – his wife and his mistress – coping admirably with the physicality of the performance whilst being on crutches “in real life” – a great advertisement for The Show Must Go On.

Tangled spines castFast paced, exciting to watch, and compellingly staged in traverse to heighten our involvement; three excellent performances and an intriguing play to keep us enthralled throughout the whole hour. One of the highlights of this year’s Flash Festival.

Review – La Strada, Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield, 27th May 2017

La StradaHow come I’d never heard of Fellini’s film La Strada? According to Wikipedia, so it must be true, it has become “one of the most influential films ever made”, according to the American Film Institute. It won the inaugural Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1957 and it was placed fourth in the 1992 British Film Institute directors’ list of cinema’s top 10 films. And I’ve never heard of it.

Audrey BrissonI’m wondering if I’m not alone in this ignorance, because I understand this touring production has been blighted by very poor audiences wherever it goes, and for last Saturday’s matinee at the vast Lyceum theatre in Sheffield, we were two among – I would guess – about 60 people? At least it meant no queue at the bar. I’m also guessing that the majority of that 60 were definitely fans of the film as they had no hesitation in giving it a standing ovation come curtain call time, so the production is definitely doing something right.

La Strada castBut I confess, I had no real interest in seeing it beyond mild curiosity, apart from the fact that I wanted to go to Sheffield to see Julius Caesar (of which, more soon) and I always like to pack two shows into a Sheffield Saturday if possible. I had, however, seen that it had received some good reviews; so, we defaulted into seeing La Strada.

Bart Soroczynski and castIt’s a simple story. A gullible girl is sold by her impoverished mother to a circus strongman named Zampano for 10,000 lire, and she goes on the road with him as his personal assitant, ostensibly to help him with his act. But he is a bully, is well known for getting into scrapes wherever he goes, and frequently will inflict corporal punishment on the girl for not obeying or supporting him. Along the way they meet another street entertainer/circus type Il Matto (the Fool). He’s kind to the girl, but obviously has some unfinished history with Zampano, and he does whatever he can to ridicule or discredit the old beast. Can the three of them all get along together, or will one of them crack under the pressure?

Its in the airIt’s a smart looking production, with a busy set and effective costumes by Katie Sykes; it also sounds great, with the musical instruments being played by the majority of the on-stage performers; and there are even some circus tricks to appreciate. Whilst cradling our interval Sauvignon Blancs, Bart Soroczynski (playing Il Matto) nipped into the bar with his accordion and had a chat to everyone, which was a nice touch. Mr Soroczynski cuts a very good fool; one of those very sorrowful looking clowns for whom life never seems to have much going for it – nevertheless they struggle on. He blends very well into the stylised background for this show – which is an overwhelming air of sadness, of resignation, of expectation of doom. In the other major roles, Stuart Goodwin certainly looks the part as the bully strongman Zampano, and Audrey Brisson is charmingly naïve as Gelsomina the girl, and she plays a mean trumpet.

Audrey Brisson and Stuart GoodwinBut right from the start it all felt very introverted, almost as though one were stumbling upon someone else’s private grief, and you were just an intruding onlooker and not a participant. One of the problems with the show that we found was that neither Mrs Chrisparkle nor I cared two hoots about what would happen to the protagonists. And I think that’s at least in part because, for whatever reason, we did not get under the characters’ skins. If Miss Brisson was meant to tear at our heartstrings with her vulnerability and purity, it didn’t happen; if Mr Goodwin was meant to menace us with his swagger and intimidation, that didn’t happen either. And I certainly didn’t believe any sense of regret from Mr Goodwin at the end, despite his wailings.

Bart SoroczynskiIn short, it was all just a bit bland; generally well performed but not exactly interesting. The second half is massively more entertaining than the first, so if you make it to the interval, do stay till the end. The show left us totally unmoved and totally unrewarded; but I can imagine if you’re a fan of the film, it will be a whole lot more fascinating to you than it was to us. It’s now finished its UK tour but is playing at the new Other Palace Theatre in Victoria until 8th July.

Stuart GoodwinP. S. The programme advises that the show’s running time is 2 hrs 15 minutes. However, our show came in at a much niftier 1 hr 50 minutes. I can only assume that they’ve excised a big chunk out of it during the course of the run; to which I say, very good call.

Production photos by Robert Day

Review – A Guide to Perfection, Sample Theatre Company, University of Northampton Flash Festival, Hazelrigg House, Northampton, 24th May 2017

Sample TheatreThere’s no end to the money that can be made from making people feel worthless about their appearance. Too fat? Too skinny? Too wrinkly? No style? Perfection is the goal, as you can see from countless magazines, TV programmes and advertisements. It’s no surprise, therefore, that an enterprising company would put together A Guide to Perfection, a residential course where people go to learn how to be more perfect in every aspect of their life. Selling us this dream, (and upselling the more expensive rooms) are two examples of perfection in the forms of April Lissimore and Samuel Littlewood; but, deep down, are they that perfect? Is perfection even possible?

Guide to PerfectionHe’s obsessed with his looks and the number of his Instagram likes. She’s obsessed with her weight and her daily calorie intake, so that she spends ages agonising over a muffin. It’s a spiral of vanity that can draw you in and drag you down. Inside, aren’t we much more like their tech operator, Kate, played by Florence Waite, who’s self-deprecating because of her low self-esteem, and knows there’s no point competing in this world of perfection. I know I gave up years ago. The characters gradually upset and disappoint themselves as they realise the distance they are from their dreams; nevertheless, with a big dollop of irony, they try to sell us the dream at the final sales pitch. My advice: don’t bother. We’re not buying.

April LissimoreIt’s a very clever idea for a performance piece and I liked how the set-up surprised us all on arriving in the studio, to discover it had been laid out cabaret-table style. It meant the audience could get a bit more up close and personal with the performers – maybe so we could see just how perfect they are – or not, Samuel Littlewoodwith the stained shirt, and the need for more make-up? In part, the action also takes place around you, which is more interesting than simply in front of you. Maybe the actors could have taken even better advantage of this layout and moved around us even more; but it’s still a relatively small room so I accept there are limits!

Florence Rees-WaiteThe production boasted three very good performances, with very believable vanity coming from the two “perfectionists” and very believable hopelessness coming from the realist. There were a couple of minor timing/memory hiccups in the final scene but nothing to worry about. Inventive, enjoyable, and a light-hearted way of making some serious points. Good work!

Review – Push and Shove, Crisis Point Theatre Company, University of Northampton Flash Festival, Hazelrigg House, Northampton, 24th May 2017

Push and ShoveI’ve tried to get into the world of vlogging. Not as a vlogger, I hasten to add – no one would want to watch and listen to me spout forth drivel – but as a viewer; I’ve subscribed to a few people over the years, watched a few, but then they always seem to fade away into nothing much-ness. So this one man show, Push and Shove, by Crisis Point Theatre offers up a very interesting and believable scenario, where our hero vlogger, Jared Howell, is setting up his system to perform and record his latest livestream video, to be viewed by who knows how many thousands of people around the world. This broadcast, however, is going to contain something special, something different; a surprise for his fans, and an insight into his state of mind.

To be honest, I guessed from very early on what the nature of the surprise would be; it wasn’t difficult, given his sad reminiscences of the people behind the faces in his photo gallery that he has assembled around him, and the very ominous cardboard box that he has placed on the table in front of him. However, his descent towards suicide oddly drives the action forward; very disturbingly, but with a kind of hypnotic inevitability – Olly Manningalthough the only member of the audience not to see it coming let out of a scream of terror when the offstage gunshot was heard; people will always react unexpectedly to the sound of a gun!

This was a very well put together, thoughtful piece; not without humour, as Olly Manning, performing the role of Jared, absolutely nailed the character’s hollow mask of brightness and optimism, still putting on a brave and jolly show for his subscribers, whilst letting us see his tragedy when his adoring public were not looking. It’s a very appropriate piece for our time, not only with the whole vlogging phenomenon, but the growing awareness of mental health and the rate of male suicide. This show starkly revealed the uselessness – indeed cruelty – of telling someone to man up. As part of this “final show” Jared performs a poignant song – accompanied by Luke Mortimore on the guitar – which Mr Manning sings with great purity and heart.

YoutubeMy only criticism relates to the staging of the show; as Jared is performing to the camera for so much of the time, he isn’t actually performing to us, his live theatre audience watching this show. As a result, you get a slight feeling of being an outsider at the event, almost of being ignored, rather than feeling fully involved in his performing directly to you. Not sure how you could get around that, but it did have a slight distancing effect to our relationship with the character and his crisis. Nevertheless, it was a strong and authoritative performance that told its story clearly and with emotion, and, despite the subject matter, was strangely enjoyable. Congratulations!

Review – Being a Man, Lotus Theatre Company, University of Northampton Flash Festival, Hazelrigg House, Northampton, 23rd May 2017

Lotus theatre company Being a manThere is a bizarre group of people who believe that male rape doesn’t exist. One victim of such a crime, who has now founded his own charity, reported that he telephoned a rape crisis line in desperation only to be told by the volunteer on the other end of the line that “men are the abusers, women are the victims”. True, male rape was only identified on the English and Welsh statute books as recently as 1994. Estimates suggest that as many as 15% of men are victims of sexual violence; and of those, less than 20% come forward and report it. For any ignorant, heartless and bigoted people who think men can’t be raped, I prescribe a dose of watching Lotus Theatre Company’s Being A Man, a one-man play performed by Javier Melhado.

Being a ManIn a performance of immaculate control, Mr Melhado explains the thoughts, the fears, the anxieties, the agonies of men who have been raped. He explains how easily it can happen; how a moment of defencelessness can lead to a lifetime of regret. He shows how victims blame themselves, how it must indicate that they are gay otherwise they would have fought to prevent it, how once they are raped they fear they can no longer be defined as a man. How it takes away their self-esteem, their ability to form relationships, maybe their desire to continue living.

Javier MelhadoIn the tiny, harsh acting space of the basement at Hazelrigg House, Mr Melhado bravely examines and exposes the intimacy of these agonies, whether partially concealed behind a confidence-boosting gauze screen, or suspended abattoir-like in front of us with no hiding place, or thrown semi-naked onto the stone floor at our feet. This is a performance of rare honesty and extraordinary power. Technically, I loved how he enunciated every word with perfect delicacy, so that it all hit home with absolute accuracy, allowing you paint pictures with your imagination of the experiences he was describing. It was a shame that the light in the basement meant that the video wall was difficult to see (and I had to bob down to prevent my fat head from obstructing most of the screen). But this is a minor quibble that in no way impacted negatively on a great and important performance. Huge congratulations!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 26th May 2017

Screaming Blue MurderI’ve seen a full house for a Screaming Blue Murder before but this was as full as the legendary pack of sardines! Extra rows and not a spare seat to be had for love nor money. This was the last of this season’s Screaming Blues so everyone obviously needed to be supercharged with comedy to keep us healthy for the dry months ahead.

Dan EvansOur host was Dan Evans, as usual, who had a job keeping certain members of the audience in hand, including the rather posh sounding Charlotte and her husband Richard who came in with some killer blow punchlines that even Dan had to admire. I think as it was the last show of the season, Dan decided to abandon all suggestion of new material and spoil us all with his Greatest Hits – I even got an apology for his doing so! Rest assured, they worked perfectly on the night.

Otiz CannelloniWe’d seen all three acts before but that wasn’t a problem with a line-up of this calibre. First up was Otiz Cannelloni; I’m surprised he doesn’t say he’s full of beans, so I’ll say it for him. (Or is that cannellini?) He’s a naturally hilarious guy – starting with nonsensical one-liners to get you going, then moving into interactions with the audience: “I don’t believe in first impressions… you sir, you might not be a twat”. He’s great at dishing out the general wisecracks, never going too deep into an observation because he’s funniest at the shallow end, if you get my swimming pool analogy. And I loved the idea of milfos. This is all blended in with some cunning magic; Simon, the front row lifeguard, had to choose a card and, although he came too soon with the fact that it was the Queen of Hearts, Mr Cannelloni had already secreted it separately about his person. A brilliant way to start the show.

Amy HowerskaNext was Amy Howerska, whom we’d seen here a year ago but who also co-hosted Spank! in Edinburgh the first time we went. She’s a brilliant blend of Polish, Irish and Jewish, with a mission to make everyone laugh – she finally cracked the miserable guy on the front row in the last few minutes. She’s happy to get down and dirty – with her material at least – and I enjoyed her advice on Brazilians, her impersonation of her Auntie Babs and what it’s like to be an Irish sperm. Great attack, constantly spinning off the audience – which she does so well, and she went down a storm.

Pierre HollinsOur final act of the night was Pierre Hollins; if you looked at a police identity parade and were asked which one’s called Pierre, he’d be the last you’d pick; and if you were asked which one was guilty, he’d probably be the first. He has a larger than life blokey personality, full of great comic observations and ending his act with a couple of comedy songs. Had everyone in hysterics from the start to the finish. Always a winner, always one to look forward to again.

Alas, no more Screaming Blue Murders until the autumn! What will we do?

Review – Can’t Stop Theatre Company, University of Northampton Flash Festival, St Peter’s Church, Northampton, 24th May 2017

Benjamin SullivanIt’s a little odd to be reviewing a piece that doesn’t actually have a name (although this isn’t the only Flash Festival show this year to be nameless!) so I can only refer to it as the one-man-show by Can’t Stop Theatre Company, also known as Ben Sullivan. Alcoholism is both a social problem and an illness that can have far-reaching consequences not only on the alcoholic themselves, but their family and friends too. This simply structured, elegantly written piece introduces us to three men, each of whom is suffering as a result of alcoholism. The first is the distraught and broken son of alcoholic parents; the second an affable posh guy who can’t perform the simplest tasks without being fully topped up; the third an Irish lad who’s tried to give up and failed, and is losing everything as a consequence.

BeerThese three monologues from the heart really moved me. Ben Sullivan made a strong connection with the audience – he made you feel as though he was confiding directly in you and only in you. His three characterisations were all excellent; his Irish accent for the third character was constant and convincing, as was the deceptive brightness of the posh guy, humorously nipping on and off the stage as he retraces his steps to the off-licence. The utter sadness of the son character was harrowing. Terrific clarity of delivery too; I heard and could appreciate every word, and the three stories were all told at an excellent pace, fluidly, and I believed each one of the characters. Despite the obvious sadness of the subject, I really enjoyed this performance; it’s one of those experiences that linger on in your mind for days afterwards. Very impressed indeed, and I’d now say that Mr Sullivan is One To Watch!

Review – Erased, Afterlight Theatre Company, University of Northampton Flash Festival, Hazelrigg House, Northampton, 23rd May 2017

AfterlightIn the year 2020 – that’s only three years’ time so they’re obviously predicting a rush in scientific research – Clear Laboratories are the go-to supplier of the innovative new technique for depression, anxiety and a whole host of Mental Health issues. Their solution is to implant a “null cell” to prevent a painful memory from recurring. I guess it could work; and I’m sure there would be many customers.

ErasedWe see three such customers in “Erased” – the sullen, withdrawn kleptomaniac, the recidivist return customer and the girl who lied about her age to get on the programme; and the play is about the interaction between them, trying to find out more about their pasts and why they are here. The scene is broken by one gameshow style interruption – a juxtaposition of lightness and humour with the darkness and seriousness of the main theme.

Afterlight castThis performance featured a large amount of video content, perhaps a little out of balance in comparison with the live performance. And, I’m sorry to say it, but I found the play itself rather dull. There was a lot of deep self-examination but not a lot of drama. The characters performed by Helena Fenton and Joseph T Callaghan were very downbeat and didn’t seem to have much variety in them; and it was only the presence of Luke Mortimore that gave the play any real sense of life or movement. The play accentuated the lack of connect between the characters and unfortunately presented the same disconnect to the audience. It’s a shame because all three actors have proven themselves first rate in previous productions, but I’m afraid this really didn’t do it for me.

Review – Like Toy Soldiers, Chineke Theatre Company, University of Northampton Flash Festival, Hazelrigg House, Northampton, 23rd May 2017

Like Toy SoldiersIt doesn’t take much imagination to see how children can get swept up in the carnage of war. Their houses destroyed, their parents killed, their schools bombed; without their own assets or influence they are by nature among the most vulnerable sections of society. LiKE ToY SOLDiERS drives home the awful truth of children caught up in war in Africa; not only becoming the victims of the tools of war, but being forced to become child soldiers themselves. The attractions to manipulative war barons are obvious – they are fit and energetic, they won’t demand payment, their underdeveloped sense of personal assertiveness in an adult’s world and fear of reprisal will make them naturally compliant to the wishes of their superiors.

Kundai KanyamaThis short but hard-hitting play takes one such African child. We see her at home, with strict but loving parents. She panics about forgetting to do the errand for her mother because she will get into trouble and she’s the quintessential good girl. We quickly see her become a victim of war, as her family security is destroyed and she is forced into combats. We see her, armed and terrified, running alarmed at every unexpected sound. We see her forcibly raped, because children are easy meat to the vicious and the vile. And, somehow, we see her survive.

It’s a strong, clear, moving and elegant performance by Kundai Kanyama; not only telling a sad but important story but also acting as a showcase for her talents – I particularly enjoyed the lively but harrowing scene she played in a mask, for example. This is the kind of performance that lingers in your mind for a long time afterwards, as one by one so many emotions are played out, so many ghastly experiences have to be endured before our child can have a future again. Very effective, very impressive. Great work!

Review – The Time Travel Tour, Just This Guy Theatre Company, University of Northampton Flash Festival, Hazelrigg House, Northampton, 23rd May 2017

The Time Travel TourThe Time Travel Tour advertises itself as one part fast paced, historical sketch comedy, one part love letter to science fiction. Our intrepid hero takes us, Doctor Who-like, to various times in history to shed an oblique light on what was going on, and in so doing involves us in a sci-fi excursion, a day trip of potential disaster. Have you been on the Star Tours ride at Disneyland Paris? This show brought that to mind somewhat – an audience shown into a small and rather claustrophobic environment and then told to watch out for what’s about to happen – oh and this is your operator’s first day in the job. Things go wrong, we’re in for a bumpy ride – and that’s all part of the fun.

I really admire Jay Andrews’ vision for this show, and what he has created is extremely demanding on the performer, rushing on and off-stage, lots of costume changes, countless audio cues, and trying to make the content on the video wall synchronise with what’s happening on stage. He clearly put in loads of research to create an original blend of sci-fi and history; two, I must confess, of my least favourite things on this earth! Nevertheless, that was his challenge to me – to make me more interested in them. Unfortunately, I can’t say he succeeded at that, but he’s certainly not the first to fail at it either. However, even for a non-sci-fi-kinda-guy like myself, I did enjoy trying to spot a few of his references – Also sprach Zarathustra, Max Headroom, Tardis and Back to the Future.

Jay AndrewsThis is a very ambitious show that relies on split-second accuracy between the performer and his tech support. Any fractional delay between the conversational flow or the relationship between him and any sound or video effects only emphasises the artificiality of the show and stops you believing in it. In the performance I saw, the sound level of the video footage was way too quiet. You had to really concentrate hard in order to hear what was being said, and, sadly, that hard work detracted from enjoying the humour and relaxing into the show. It would also have worked better if it had been even funnier – if the punchlines had really hit home, and if the scenes from history could have been snappier and even more intriguing.

Jay is clearly a likeable guy with an engaging personality and natural comic ability. Unfortunately, I think he deserved material with more bite; perhaps fewer scenes would help him to build on his relationship with his audience and develop the ideas more. Nevertheless, congratulations on devising one of the more inventive shows of the festival; with more work and tighter tech this could grow into a very successful one-man-show.