The Manchester based Box of Tricks Company has, thankfully, brought this admirable show to London again. Director Adam Quayle’s finely honed production of this short, tightly written two-hander is the moving story of Rose and her autistic brother Michael, who deal with their mother’s illness and death while struggling to cope with their life together.
The performances are first class. Vanessa Schofield plays a young woman with the responsibility of caring for a sibling thrust upon her. There’s a terrific balance of “sad and scared”, alongside sincere affection for the boy. As Rose tries to deal with her own grief, Schofield’s performance becomes increasingly impressive. Jamie Samuel’s Michael is a close study: his reaction to physical contact or dirt treads a fine line between being moving and distressing. And his obsession with the toys that give the play its title is thoroughly observed.
Playwright Ella Carmen Greenhill isn’t shy of sentimental touches. The subject matter calls for emotional catches, of course – poignant moments that stop you in your tracks – but any predictable touches, a letter to be read after their mother’s death or an uncharacteristic moment of emotion on Michael’s part, are justified by results. This is an affecting text that shows great potential. Good writing, great performances, a show to see.
Part of this great venue’s emerging company showcase, a debut play from writer and director Simon Paris shows that Fictive Theatre is a talent to watch.
Lottery’s laughter starts straight away with an awkward meeting between two youngsters doing jury service. This leads us (a little too) neatly to the main event – the idea that the Prime Minister is chosen at random.
The scenario might benefit from more elaboration. How far in the future are we and did people vote not to vote? In a further twist, it’s a popularity contest for the winner – maybe more explanation might make the satire fuller.
The jokes are plentiful, with a keen eye on social anxiety and sexual tension, well delivered by Ava Pickett and Elliot Bornemann, with some nicely choreographed touches from Paris. The simple set by Magdalena Iwanska works hard, too, with shredded paper appearing continually. It’s economical, imaginative and effective.
As it happens, selecting the PM isn’t random but the decision of a mandarin in the Yes Minister tradition. Making Sir Humphrey look benign, Paris’ crazed creation isn’t even helpful enough to “foresee all sorts of unforeseen problems”. It’s a role Rhys Tees gets a lot from. Making the whole play less mad might make the satire sharper, but the surreal touches here are satisfying in their own right. Why our particular ingénue was chosen is yet another rich vein that could be explored.
Sadly, Lottery was on for one night only, but the potential here is clear, and it would be exciting to see this play refined and expanded.
In 90 minutes of theatre that packs a punch, David Byrne brings George Orwell’s titular memoir, about living in poverty in Paris, to the stage with energy and invention. And there’s more. Updating the issues and action, the down and out in London comes from investigative journalist Polly Toynbee’s recent book, Hard Work. The two are interwoven with skill and the rewards are plentiful.
There’s a literary and biographical journey here that proves fascinating in its own right. Headed by an excellent performance from Richard Delaney, who we see develop from Eric Blair into Orwell through his time abroad. The degree of sympathy between Orwell and fellow residents in a flea-bitten hotel, or his exhausted kitchen co-workers, shines through. Karen Ascoe, who plays Toynbee, shares the ability to engender a sense of outrage as both retell the depressing consequences of penury. The writers also share a sense of guilt about their time as ‘tourists’ in the different world that the poor inhabit, with a sincerity that is essential to the success of the show.
A respectful tone is adopted when representing those the writers met, although it seems fair to say that Orwell’s encounters are more richly painted, especially in his friend Boris, a role embraced by Andy McLeod. With imaginative touches, Byrne, who also directs, has three performers (Mike Aherne, Andrew Stafford-Baker and Stella Taylor) flitting seamlessly from the 1920s to the present day, playing both the rich and the poor. The parallels drawn bring home the hopelessness of poverty and how little has changed for those at the bottom of society, making this an appropriately frustrating piece of theatre that everyone should see.
This fun show brings film noir vigorously to the stage. It’s a detective adventure story that combines the gumshoe genre’s humour and sentimentality, updates the sexual politics and finds time for a conspiratorial twist. As the power goes out in Los Angeles, the theatre fills with atmospheric shadows. But what exactly is going on at Addison Electric to make all the filaments flicker?
This is a production with plenty of light-bulb moments. The staging, devised by the Rhum and Clay Theatre Company with director Beth Flintoff, sparks with invention. A case of smoke and sliding doors, props are used perfectly, including e-cigarettes. And as you’d expect, Nick Flintoff’s lighting design is essential. The dialogue might disappoint, given the show’s antecedents, but the focus is on movement, with long stretches that show the cast’s prowess and an impressive soundtrack.
There’s some fantastic talent here. In the title role Julian Spooner manages to convey a surprisingly complex hero. Inheriting the job from his father, this little-guy P.I. becomes his own man with satisfying subtlety. Christopher Harrisson and Matthew Wells take on numerous roles faultlessly, as well as gracefully moving around the props on wheels. Showing the mechanics of the staging, down to carrying around the smoke machines and filters for the lights, isn’t new but it’s seldom done with such understated charm.
Stealing the show is Jess Mabel Jones, who plays all the female parts, including Shadow’s secretary and the obligatory femme fatale, using tiny costume changes and great vocal skills. Even a ditzy secretary is given her due, showing a knowing nod to the role of women in film noir. All indicative of a fresh eye on a beloved style, performed with care and creativity.
Another admirable production from The Faction company, Mark Leipacher’s rendering of Shakespeare’s villainous king is full of bold moments. There are flaws, but the show’s scale and ambition impress.
Leipacher uses his cast of 19 with careful restraint and an emphasis on physical theatre. His vision of Richard’s nightmare before battle, with his victims crawling towards him, is startling. No props are used and powerful tableaux result: Hastings’ head on the battlements or the ensemble creating a horse for the king to ride. It’s a shame some of the miming is sub-standard and the accompanying sound effects overblown.
With a cast this large in a fringe show, perhaps it’s not surprising there are some weak links. It’s not a question of commitment – this is a tight crew – but some roles lack polish. There are fine performances from Gary Richards as Hastings, Carmen Munroe as Richard’s mother and Anna Maria Nabirye as an Amazonian Buckingham (a gender swap that really adds tension). Kate Sawyer gets a great deal from the role of Elizabeth, all the more impressive since she is hampered by some God-awful head gear. These performers are the ones whose lines you hear most clearly – too much dialogue is lost, sacrificed to action or poorly delivered.
Thankfully, there are few instances when you can’t hear Richard’s lines. Taking the title role, Christopher York excels, presenting an intimidating figure with a conscious lack of humour. The cleverest stroke is that his disability comes and goes. York becomes contorted or straightens himself out at chosen moments – such a brilliantly simple idea that I’m surprised I haven’t seen it before.
While there are strong scenes, Leipacher doesn’t draw the production together – it’s linked by style rather than an overriding idea. Especially disappointing is a messy final battle scene – a low note on which to end an interesting evening.
Inspired by The Faction’s The Talented Mr Ripley, also playing as part of its 2015 season, I was drawn to the company’s next show Joan of Arc. Mark Leipacher’s adaptation of Friedrich Schiller’s play, co-directed with Rachel Valentine-Smith, is another strong piece that I urge you to see.
Joan of Arc isn’t an easy play. A highly fictionalised version of the French heroine, who fought the English in the Hundred Years’ War, the production embraces the different opinions of a peasant girl who comes to lead armies. A fascinating figure, who is by turn inspirational and loathed, Joan never questions her mission from God and is no fraud – a fact that doesn’t make her easy to portray or relate to.
The direction is bold. A minimal stage is enlivened by Chris Withers’ lighting design, while the ensemble create tableaux, using their bodies to stand in for trees or thrones, for a couple of visionary scenes. Battles are choreographed adventurously, instilling a mythical feeling best summarised by Joan’s plastering her hair with clay slip to create her own helmet, engendering an earthiness and a sense of the supernatural at the same time.
Anchoring the ethereal proceedings are fine performances. Kate Sawyer takes the title role admirably; convincingly abstracted, using what little vulnerability her character has to great effect and even, I’d swear, blushing on cue. Christopher Tester plays Joan’s father and the invading Talbot superbly. Best of all is Natasha Rickman who doubles as the Dauphin and his mother, the violent Isabel, with breathtaking skill.
This innovative show about a warrior inspired by religion feels hauntingly topical. The Faction has certainly found a convert to its work in me.
The Talented Mr. Ripley is 60 years old. Continually popular, Patricia Highsmith’s superb novel has now been brought to the stage by The Faction Company. The work of director Mark Leipacher, this is a sterling adaptation, focused on Tom Ripley’s inner life, exploring his murderous adoption of Dickie Greenleaf’s identity, and dramatising his spiraling actions in thrilling fashion. It’s a respectful affair, arguably slightly too long, but eminently theatrical. Ripley wanted to be an actor after all and he’s a consummate performer – continually adapting roles and using fantasy to project himself into other lives – it makes sense to see him on stage.
Leipacher’s direction is bold and inventive. A bare, square, raised platform with a pit at its centre is superbly lit by Chris Withers and serves as a base for the cast to perform on, around and under. Scenes are ‘cut’ and restaged, a neat disorientation device taking us inside Ripley’s fraught imagination and adding tension. The Faction make for a strong ensemble with Adam Howden suitably charismatic as the wealthy Greenleaf heir and Christopher Tester sternly convincing as his father (in spite of being too young for the role). There’s also a subtle performance from Natasha Rickman as Dickie’s girlfriend, Marge.
The script emphasizes Ripley’s insecurities. A fair choice: Ripley is one of those fictional characters complex enough to merit varied interpretations. Like Matt Damon in Anthony Minghella’s 1999 film, this Tom feels inferior, “incompetent” even, far from Highsmith’s accomplished anti-hero. And in this demanding title role, Christopher Hughes is fantastic, delivering the complex plot and emotions with dynamism and a fitting shrillness. He is particularly strong when evoking Ripley’s paranoia, making the most of the venue’s intimacy. One of the joys of a fringe show is seeing an actor destined for big success: I have no doubt we will see a lot more of the talented Mr. Hughes.
A strong revival of Amy Rosenthal’s Henna Night has just opened at the New Diorama Theatre. The scenario is a meeting between the jilted Judith and her ex-boyfriend’s new partner Ros, who responds to a desperate drunken phone call. The play focuses on women in love and packs plenty of observations into its less than an hour duration.
From a comically frosty reception, the women bond over hair tips and henna. It’s hardly a subtle conceit but it’s effective. This is an early work by Rosenthal and is perhaps too angsty and lacking in real drama: Judith’s heartache seems a touch juvenile and you never really doubt she’ll get over it soon. But, admirably, the play isn’t sentimental and rings endearingly true.
Henna Night benefits from the experienced direction of Peter James. The characterisation is fine and, working with two talented young actors, James does justice to this tight two-hander. Hatty Preston plays the “adorably flawed” Judith with sympathetic realism, and Nicola Daley accompanies her as the “dull, dependable” Ros, winning us over with her determined common sense. Both women have fine comic skills and hold the stage with ease.
Rosenthal is sensibly even handed, showing the love affair from both women’s perspectives and dissecting their relationship with the offstage Jack in a way we can connect with. We’ve all done the first love thing, so it’s interesting…if light. It’s a bit like that moment at the end of having a trim when the hairdresser holds up a mirror to show their work and everyone nods and smiles – in short, a stylish job that you should book in for.