Tag Archives: Site-specific Theatre

“Macbeth” at St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden

Iris Theatre is celebrating its ten year anniversary, at the so-called ‘Actors’ Church’, with a production of Shakespeare’s Scottish play that is ambitious, adventurous and immersive. Director Daniel Winder shows an energetic appetite for the play that is infectious and gets the most out of his talented team.

The production goes all out for the supernatural, with creepy costumes by Anna Sances and a satanic angle that gains potency from being performed in a church. And there’s no shortage of gore either: the Macduff family massacre comes with a PG warning. Having Macbeth attend is a great idea and his frenzied attack a shocker.

David Hywel Baynes, making a welcome return to both the company and the UK, takes the title role and is joined by Iris Theatre stalwart Nick Howard-Brown as Banquo. The two command the various spaces, of church and gardens, that the audience travel around scene by scene.

As well as displaying technical prowess, Hywel Baynes’ interpretation of the murdering monarch is also strong. Joined by Mogali Masuku as his wife – making a professional debut that’s a resounding success – we see Macbeth manipulated, then degenerate into a man drunk and dribbling with blood lust. Masuku’s Lady Macbeth is frightening and sexy (look out for Stephen Boyce’s roving eye when playing Duncan) but then scared by her spouse. It’s an emotional journey from both performers that is well delivered.

There’s good supporting work from the whole cast, but sometimes a danger of distraction in how many roles just six performers tackle. Matt Stubbs is a convincingly virile Macduff and transforms into a hired assassin superbly, and some of the doubling is interesting (Masuku also plays ones of the witches), but focus can be lost with all the changes – the production feels trapped by its small headcount.

The biggest commendation goes to set designer Alice Channon – despite the fact that her ideas cause problems. The outdoor spaces are strictly sectioned off – a bold move with a promenade performance since an audience is seldom as nimble as hoped. The start of too many scenes might be missed. But the idea is great: slowly filing past a tableau of the Macbeths’ bedroom on the way to the interval and the audience rushing into the church for the finale are electric moments.

Taking Hieronymus Bosch as inspiration is a brilliant move – providing an intelligent period aura and surreal chills. The subsequent Bosch-Banquo-banquet makes less sense than it should (more a psychological crisis than a point about Macbeth’s leadership) but it looks stunning. Amorphous sculptures, with a touch of Eva Hesse, contain loud speakers playing composer Filipe Gomes’ impressive contribution to the evening – indicative of designers taking any opportunity to make a mark. There are flaws, yes, but also exciting work.

Until 29 July 2017

www.iristheatre.com

Photo by Nick Rutter

“Killer” at Shoreditch Town Hall

Here’s a combination to die for: a favourite writer, Philip Ridley, with one of the most exciting directors around, Jamie Lloyd. It’s a team that makes sense, full of irreverence and a keen intelligence. I’m guessing Lloyd is a long-term fan, excited by the chance to direct a revival of Ridley’s first hit, The Pitchfork Disney, alongside this latest piece. Killer is a short work, with a touch more whimsy than we might expect, but Ridley’s brilliant lyricism and imagination are in full flow. Using clever ‘binaural’ headphones, worn by the audience throughout, adds an immersive angle that should increase the show’s appeal even further.

The piece is a trilogy of tales of the unexpected; the theme of killing is loosely applied – metamorphosis just as much a focus, with people changing both consciously and miraculously. From gangland initiations, mass murderers and a man on the run from a psychopath, it’s Ridley’s inimitable humour that excites. The way he plays with genres shows a skill that many aspire to. Making the most basic stuff of fiction original again, the insane sounds sensible and nightmares funny. The voices we hear in all three monologues are from John MacMillan. We only get to see him twice, crouched over as we enter the first basement space, and a glimpse of him as a desperate man in the finale, but the voices he creates in our head complement the vivid imagery of the text. Technology aside, Macmillan’s performance is astonishing.

With a script this strong and this well delivered you might question the need for the headphones and a damp basement location that smells a bit. Yet the technology works well and is well used, with admirable restraint. Combined with pitch-black darkness and spooky lighting (Azusa Ono), there are genuinely scary moments – it’s good to have someone to hold hands with. Even odder is half hearing, over your headphones, a room full of people laughing like drains at some very funny lines as our author applies the admirable art of allusive alliteration. Ridley’s writing is strong enough to immerse us all by itself.

Until 8 April 2017

www.shoreditchtownhall.com

Photo by Matt Humphrey

“dreamplay” at The Vaults

August Strindberg’s 1901 play is widely regarded as being impossible to stage. Of course, that’s never stopped people from trying. The latest effort comes from BAZ Productions, headed by director Sarah Bedi. Crammed with memorable snippets, this ambitious adaptation is free enough to pin down themes precisely. And if it’s deep and meaningful questions you like, these are packed in with forceful proficiency.

From the grunts and screams that open the show – with a character from heaven visiting Earth to observe mankind’s suffering – it’s obvious that audience members need an open mind. A committed cast (Colin Hurley, Michelle Luther, Jade Ogugua and Jack Wilkinson) are sure to win respect. Each of the disconnected scenes is entered at full pitch, slipping speedily into the surreal. It must be exhausting to perform. It’s pretty tough to watch.

There are fine touches here, including great work from Luther, whose movement is controlled by the playing of a cello, and a gorgeous scene of couples proposing marriage that really nails the fluidity of dreams. And a visit to a classroom (get ready to sing along) is the best of the production’s comic touches, sliding effectively into a claustrophobic nightmare. Unfortunately, each scene is just a little too long. Although dreams do, after all, recur, there’s a great deal of repetition. And while it makes sense to break down that fourth wall, the technique is overplayed.

It is sound that holds the show together. The music of super talented cellist Laura Moody, along with a variety of noises made by the cast (appropriate to situations, from the mundane to the supernatural), create an aural landscape that uses the venue perfectly. While expertise in the use of sound is the show’s triumph, navigating the promenade audience through the same space is its biggest failing. Even with an intimate 70-strong audience, too much time is taken moving between scenes, breaking the spell and waking you from the dream. This may be very practical criticism for a play that is so boldly abstract, but the impact is significant.

Until 1 October 2016

www.thevaults.london/dream-play

Photo by Cesare De Giglio

“The Comedy of Errors” at Gray’s Inn Hall

Antic Disposition’s coup, of staging its new piece in this historic banqueting space, is just one good reason to see this show. This is the very venue Shakespeare’s lightest comedy – with its two set of twins causing havoc through repeatedly mistaken identities – is first recorded as having been performed in (check out the Tudor portraits on the back wall). But the production has further merits. A spin is provided by Some Like It Hot, Billy Wilder’s film, with action set in a hotel. The Dromio characters don bellboy outfits, the Duke is a gangster and there’s a band thrown in. You certainly get your money’s worth.

It’s a cast of actor musicians led by a Marilyn Monroesque courtesan (Susie Broadbent), which adds immeasurably to the show. I’d happily have heard the numbers for longer. Delivery of the lines is a touch slow on the part of joint directors Ben Horslen and John Risebero. Maybe there are too many ideas crammed in? The action is speedy, though, with lots of madcap running around. And there’s a nun with a ukulele – never a bad thing. Smaller roles blossom: Doctor Pinch becomes a magician performing at the hotel (Philip Mansfield is the beneficiary of this role) while the merchant (that bit with the gold chain that can drag on) is rendered gloriously shrill by Paul Sloss – the character is described as a “shrew” so why not.

William de Coverly and Paul Sloss
William de Coverly and Paul Sloss

The leads are athletic, with both Antipholus roles even looking alike: William de Coverly and Alex Hooper dash about full of righteous indignation and further impress by hinting how their characters’ different life stories would have made them very different men. In the servant roles of Dromio, Keith Higinbotham and Andrew Venning get even more laughs, vying with one another for the comedy edge. I’d suggest Higinbotham wins – by a chin strap – if only because Venning labours his funniest scene (although his trumpet playing is superb).

Andrew Venning and Keith Higinbotham
Andrew Venning and Keith Higinbotham

Ellie Anne Lowe holds her own against this male quartet, amiably aided by Giovanna Ryan. There’s less attempt to adapt these ladies of Syracuse, but the roles are well thought out. Love is the theme, after all there are three married couples at the end, and Lowe makes her marriage convincing. If the whole production is more romantic than raucous, it’s a fair price for such charm.

Until 1 September 2016

www.anticdisposition.co.uk

Photos by Scott Rylander

“Much Ado About Nothing” at St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden

Damp weather did nothing to deter the Iris Theatre Company last night at the opening of its summer season. Comfortably resident at ‘The Actors’ Church’, it always expertly navigates the grounds and building for its promenade performances. Director Amy Draper’s production of Shakespeare’s romantic comedy is no exception, and proves funny and heart-warming, whatever the weather.

The best thing about Iris Theatre’s shows sounds boring – that you can hear every word. This is no small achievement when actors are unmiked, outdoors and competing with all and sundry in the Piazza. While the declamatory acting style can be off-putting, Draper’s performers make exaggeration work for them, emphasising the tricks and tales, including nasty plots, our four lovers have to endure.

This is a stripped-back show, with only seven in the cast, and you might wish for more, even though the ensemble delivers. Jennifer Clement is particularly hard working: despite plenty of costume changes, she’s never breathless and has terrific comedy skills. Emma McDonald benefits from the economy, performing as a sweet Hero, and then ordering the audience about as a belligerent Dogberry, the “ass” heading up the Prince’s Watch. Abbreviating this sometimes-tiresome bunch into a Keystone Cops couple really works, and their marshalling the audience around the grounds is clever stuff.

Anne-Marie Piazza is a brilliant police officer alongside McDonald, climbing lampposts and stealing snacks from the crowd. Yet this isn’t her main achievement – her Beatrice is top notch. Funny, bike riding, accordion playing… is there nothing the woman cannot do? Joined by Nick Howard-Brown (another natural comedian) as a charming Benedick, the querulous couple’s bickering and courtship is the highlight of this speedy, accomplished and appealing show.

Until 22 July 2016

www.iristheatre.com

Photo by Hannah Barton

“Barbarians” at the former Central Saint Martins College

The Tooting Arts Club, a company that revels in having no permanent home, had enormous success last year with its staging of Sweeney Todd, first in a pie-and-mash shop and then next door to the Queen’s Theatre. Back in town, with Bill Buckhurst’s accomplished revival of Barrie Keeffe’s trilogy of short plays, it has now taken over a former art school. It’s fair to say that the work – dealing with youth unemployment, football hooliganism and racial violence – hits harder than most West End fare.

Following Paul, Jan and Louis as they dabble in petty crime, before finding factory jobs and then going their separate ways, is pretty depressing. Keeffe injects a lot of humour, which the performers respond to eagerly, but the frustration and fear that fill their adolescence doesn’t make for comfortable viewing. The plays may be 40 years old but, apart from some fun with a themed bar, they are sadly still relevant. These three may seem a little more naïve than teenagers today, but they’re probably just less well connected – the absence of mobile phones is noticeable.

Killing Time is the first one-act play. We get to know the boys in a relatively light-hearted way as they make trouble while on the dole. There’s a great use of the space as they sit with the audience and scamper around tables, along with some extremely offensive language. Josh Williams’ Louis engenders most sympathy. Having completed a course, he may be an expert on refrigeration, but he can master little else. Abide With Me is set outside the FA cup final, as the trio wait for tickets, predictably let down by an adult in their lives. Their search for belonging is palpable, whether as military cadets or football fans: “the best army there is,” says Thomas Coombes’ Paul in a performance that brims with aggression.

For the finale, In The City, we’ve moved from Lewisham, via Wembley to the Notting Hill Carnival. The boys are older, although I hesitate to use the word grown up. Jan (Jake Davies) has become a soldier, whose terror at his imminent departure to Northern Ireland informs an impressive monologue. A chance encounter with Louis results in a senseless and disturbing attack – the threat of violence hangs over all three plays, and when it arrives it shocks to the core. There’s a lot to praise about Barbarians, not least three excellent performances, but this powerful and insightful show comes with a warning.

Until 7 November 2015

www.sohotheatre.com

Photo by Cesare De Giglio

Henry V at Temple Church

Benefitting from a fantastic location, the show that marks theatre company Antic Disposition’s tenth birthday serves to commemorate World War I as well as the 600th anniversary of the battle of Agincourt. If that sounds like a lot for even Henry V to take on, rest assured that the play is neatly manipulated and finely produced.

Joint directors Ben Horslen and Jon Risebero have a group of convalescing British and French soldiers putting on the play during a break from the trenches. You might question the efficacy of this as a therapy – it’s hardly It Ain’t Half Hot Mum material – but impressive gains result. Poignancy comes from the prologue’s excuse for a “crooked figure” performing – these men are injured. And there’s a lovely sense of complicity, with pretend fumbling at the start and lots of addresses to the audience. The play’s female roles benefit from the backdrop, especially the courtship scene with Floriane Andersen, whose character we also see as a nurse. Henry V Temple Church 4 Andrew Hodges, Alex Hooper, Freddie Stewart (Henry V) James Murfitt Photo- Scott RylanderAnother particularly strong moment (pictured above) has the soldier playing the role of Bardolph breaking down as he faces his execution, performed painfully well by James Murfitt.

Freddie Stewart shows exciting promise in the title role. His youth is a slight barrier when it comes to Prince Hal’s transformation into a responsible royal; it’s difficult to imagine him having time for “greener days”. But this plotline is downplayed and we enjoy a virile and appealing King under pressure, juggling bluster and humanity, while examining his duties.

The play is presented in traverse, with an accomplished mobility that shows this is a team used to touring. With the church’s acoustics, the whole production sounds sublime – it’s a genuine aural treat. And it’s easy to understand the addition of well-performed songs by George Butterworth to poems by A E Housman, although this extra layer to the show brings it close to overload. There’s a surfeit of ideas here – and all credit to the ambition of Horslen and Risebero. But the show – well worth seeing – aims for more bite and emotional impact than it has time to deliver.

Until 5 September 2015

www.anticdisposition.co.uk

Photos by Scott Rylander

“Twelfth Night” at St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden

Now in its seventh year at ‘The Actors Church’, Iris Theatre has struck gold with Vik Sivalingam’s Twelfth Night. Using the gardens, making the church itself look divine and including the audience in a good-natured fashion, this show is promenade performance at its best. Crammed with comedy, the play’s contrivances, of separated twins and cross-dressed courtship, are funnier than ever.

Sivalingam’s aim is to entertain – such clarity imbues the cast with purpose. Pepter Lunkuse is a believable Viola – it’s easy to predict she’s an actress with a bright future. Nick Howard-Brown’s Feste and Julian Moore-Cook’s Orsino are commanding presences. Tony Bell and Robert Maskell, both experienced performers, play a dour Malvolio and carousing Sir Toby with vigour. Act two, scene five, with the fantasising Malvolio duped by Anne-Marie Piazza’s delicious Maria, is the best I’ve seen performed.

A wonderful sense of intimacy is created in the flower-filled gardens. Entreated to follow the actors to different scenes becomes a playful treat – it’s a great game to go wooing Olivia with Viola. And Olivia’s pursuit, when she falls for the twin dressed as a man, is full of complicit cheekiness, embodied by Olivia Onyehara. A duel between characters is conducted with an umbrella and a mop. Even the shrubbery is used as a prop.

The production’s small cast impresses, performing Harry Blake’s music, which subtly infuses the show, as well as by taking on multiple roles. None more so than Henry Wyrley-Birch, whose Sebastian is heroic, while his Andrew Aguecheek elevates a sometimes tiresome role into a central figure – seldom has so much comedy come from a cape. The brief moment when Sebastian and Aguecheek meet is something to look forward to – it’s handled with an endearing humour that’s indicative of how light, lithe and easy to love this show is.

Until 24 July 2015

www.iristheatre.com

Photo by Hannah Barton

“Heartbreak Hotel” at The Jetty

A stay at the Heartbreak Hotel will be a disappointment for those who love the current trend for immersive theatre. The show is really only immersive if your definition of such is shuffling around a pre-fab cluttered with bric-a-brac. And flagging the play as ‘unique’ only serves to highlight that other theatre companies have used real hotels far more effectively. The performers’ valiant attempts at interaction simply feel like fillers between sketches.

There’s nothing wrong with Sam Curtis-Lindsay’s direction of the actual scenes, which are neatly presented and well acted, especially by Will Harrison-Wallace, as the hotel’s owner, and Natalia Campbell as an “open and honest” dominatrix who uses one of the rooms. But there’s a frustrating lack of coherence. Is this a conventional domestic drama, albeit one that is a little dull? Or are there pretentions to make it some kind of memory play? Neither element is explored and the inspiration for a lot of the staging isn’t that original.

Something, too, has gone awry with the play’s script, possibly edited into incomprehension, with established characters disappearing and mooted ideas quickly abandoned. The weakest element is a feeble satire based on a twisted self-help programme called A.C.H.E. – Achieving Creative Heartfelt Experience. The idea is thin enough to be insulting but hasn’t got off the ground before everyone is traipsed up to the roof (which admittedly has a lovely view) for a “keynote speech” from its charisma-less developer. We have been given only a “glimpse” of the project, we didn’t need telling that, but this is a recruitment drive that I don’t think anyone should check-in for.

Until 30 August 2015

www.heartbreakhoteljetty.com

Photo by Ben Hughes

 

“Grimm Tales” at the Bargehouse, Oxo Tower Wharf

The first incarnation of director Philip Wilson’s Grimm Tales, in Shoreditch, now seems like a trial run for this – a bigger and better version of the show – at the Oxo Tower Bargehouse. Six different stories, adapted from Philip Pullman’s retelling of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, are presented with enchanting insight, using every inch of the huge building as a remarkable canvas.

Grimm Tales is the best kind of immersive theatre. The location is transformed to add to the telling, but Wilson’s strong vision never loses sight of the simple power the stories have. It’s like Punchdrunk without the puzzle – challenging yet satisfying. The tales chosen are relatively obscure. Hansel and Gretel make an appearance but their story is more complex than the one we’re all familiar with. Each tale is wonderfully weird and scarily dark.

Groups of performers share the words between them, mixing dialogue and narration, creating an engaging, forceful style. The actors do a superb job conveying an underlying excitement about the stories and the telling of them, as they guide you onto the next suitably grim spectacle. James Byng stands out as the Frog King and Megan Salter is wonderful as the princess who runs away from an incestuous father to become Thousandfurs.

Pullman and Wilson bring out a great deal of humour in telling the tales and never shy away from their appalling content. Even Hollywood presents us with different sides to fairy stories nowadays, but Grimm Tales is a long way from Disney. I’d be a little wary about the eight and above age guide, the show is two and three quarter hours long for a start, but that’s probably because I don’t have children myself – I’ve heard kids can be pretty bloodthirsty.

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Most thrilling of all is the detail that’s gone into creating a unique world to tell these stories. The costumes and sets by Tom Rogers are astounding: everyday props and lo-fi puppetry belie an exciting inventiveness and a huge technical achievement. With 2,000 light bulbs above and nine tonnes of rubber crumb underfoot the scale is impressive. Yet the stripped-back bricolage aesthetic works brilliantly to focus attention and captivate the imagination.

As the stories end, the audience is free to explore other rooms; further fantastic spaces to imagine other stories in are revealed. These sets are like something from an art gallery – maybe installation theatre would be a better term for this immersive experience? One thing is for sure; once upon a time doesn’t feel anywhere near long enough to explore this magical space.

Until 11 April 2015

www.grimm-tales.co.uk