‘The Weir’ review

Decadent

Lyric Theatre, Belfast

5th-30th September, 2017

 

Playwright Conor McPherson made his first foray into television thrillers with BBC Two’s ‘Paula’ earlier this year.  Although packed with haunting, eerie imagery, intriguing characters, and a gorgeously off-kilter feel to the whole thing, at the time this reviewer felt that the project ultimately, and frustratingly, failed to come together as a whole, falling short of a sense of dramatic satisfaction, or of things making proper sense in the end.  The same idea of not reaching a neat resolution can be said for the conclusion of ‘The Weir’, but, in this case, it absolutely, and brilliantly, works.

First performed in 1997, ‘The Weir’ sees a country pub in the middle of a winter gale invaded by five patrons- the barman, two regulars, one returnee, and a stranger.  Publican Brendan and customers Jack and Jim find themselves inevitably gripped by curiosity at the impending arrival of former resident-made-good Finbar, and a young Dublin woman, Valerie, who has just rented an old house in the town.  When the pair arrive, stories ensue around the fire as the winter wind howls outside, all with a ghostly or unnerving edge to them.  But one story proves to be far more chilling than the rest.

The first thing that must be praised by this reviewer is the set design.  It’s magnificent.  Designer Owen MacCarthaigh has crafted a pub interior that feels like it could be the local of any drinker around the country.  Proudly on display from the moment the audience enters the theatre, well before the lights go down, the detail is exquisite, from the photographs and memorabilia dotted around the walls, to the beer pumps, to the bag of sticks lying beside the fire, ready to fuel it later in the play.  Part of this reviewer’s anticipation for ‘The Weir’ was the knowledge that it was being produced by Decadent, having only fond memories of their superb staging work on ‘The Pillowman’ in 2015, and although there are none of the surprises or visual tricks that made that performance such an enthralling night of theatre, the sheer look of the set here is beautiful.  Any playwright seeking to have an authentic interior in their work would be lucky to have MacCarthaigh on board.  I really can’t say enough good things about it.

It’s just as well, because ‘The Weir’ is, visually, a very static play, with, as already suggested, none of the showy surprises of Decadent’s other work.  The only action onstage involves the coming and going of characters into and out of the pub, or to the bathroom, or gently moving about the room as they relay their stories.  If this sounds potentially mundane to watch, the sheer quality and power of the writing keeps it from ever becoming an issue.  As good as director Andrew Flynn is at keeping just enough movement going as to stop the eye from ever becoming lazy, this is a play that is all about the writing.  And what writing.

One of the best sequences in ‘Paula’ (and an example of the frustrating lack of further development rife in many aspects of that series) is a scene where the titular heroine recounts an eerie story to detective/love interest Mac about strange dreams she had when she was younger, of another life away from her real one, where another, much kinder and loving family raised her.  When she woke up, she would be utterly convinced that her other life was completely true, and that it had gone on for years, later discovering that sex is something that would bring her back to that surreal state.  ‘It gets me into trouble, Mac,’ she freely admits.  It’s a haunting, shiver-inducing scene.

Here, the audience gets to enjoy a succession of similarly unearthly stories, but without the same sense of dissatisfaction.  Each of the characters, joker Jack, flash Finbar, meek Jim and mysterious Valerie, all relay their strange tales in the presence of their barman-cum-counsellor Brendan, from eerie tales of knocking at the doors of a childhood house said to be situated on the ‘Fairy Road’, to a neighbour’s terror at the apparition of a woman on the stairs, to a deeply unsettling encounter at a graveside.  Nothing physically changes about the set during these tales, not even a shift in lighting.  All that occurs is the characters sitting or standing, and telling their fables.  And yet the audience is completely transported, there at the scene of each of the stories as we listen to them.  McPherson’s skillful, immersive writing draws us into these other worlds through a series of incredible monologues, all of which would be worthy of short plays in their own right (another similarity between this and ‘The Pillowman’).  Both Jack and Finbar’s tales are ghostly affairs with strong hints of the supernatural, quickly raising the hairs on one’s neck (a level of attention humourously exploited by Jack at one point), and leaving the viewer in a state of unease.  Jim’s too is an eerie tale, but one that takes on a more unusual quality than the others, the particular punchline sending a chill down the spine as we realise its implications.  You’ll crave the comfort of a warm bath afterwards.

And then we get to Valerie.  To anyone still unfamiliar with the play, it would be too much of a spoiler to go into the content of her tale, but within moments, the audience becomes aware that this a very different story to the rest, one that almost makes the ghost stories of the men start to feel silly and indulgent.  It’s a complete rug-pull, totally subverting what we think the play is before this point, and draws us into far more poignant, frightening and heartfelt territory.  The other characters are left in stunned silence by its conclusion.  Audiences will be too.

As good as the writing is, these excellent monologues would only be blueprints without such a high-quality cast to take them on.  The five characters complement one another beautifully, Patrick Ryan’s shy Brendan, the most ‘neutral’ of the group, simply listening, rather than contributing to, the stories, is the glue that holds everyone together, a quiet, unassuming, observant presence, endearingly trying to mask his attraction to Valerie early on, and mournfully looking on as he eventually realises her reasons for coming to town.  Marty Maguire’s jester Jack puts up a front of composure and joie-de-vivre as the local bachelor, making it all the more rewarding when we finally start to glimpse the insecurity underneath, resulting in one final, quietly heartbreaking story towards play’s end, very different from, and far more human than, the ones that have come before.  Garrett Keogh’s brash, confident businessman Finbar presents an air of superiority just about kept in check by an enduring fondness for his old haunt, and the faces that still reside there, clearly in his element showing an attractive young woman around town, but it’s this cocksure behaviour that makes his vulnerability in the midst of his own ghost story all the more affecting.  We’re taken back to his time as a young man, scared out of his wits on one dark night of the soul, and it’s a far cry from the older version we’ve been spending time with until now.

Frankie McCafferty brings an appropriate introverted personality to enduring mummy’s boy Jim, the best character to give his particular story to because of that very meekness.  McCafferty, during his tale, gives us a sense of Jim’s having been quietly traumatised by the particular phenomena his character may have come face to face with in a graveyard, and this reviewer was almost squirming in his seat as a result.  Kerri Quinn’s Valerie, meanwhile, is perhaps the most fascinating of all, Quinn bringing a slightly neurotic quality to her tale, all the more impressive for its having been well-hidden early on, and leaving the audience torn between viewing her as grieving or delusional by the end- most likely both.

This an altogether quieter, subtler affair than Decadent’s previous triumph at the Lyric, but no less powerful for it.  Blessed with a small but beautifully balanced ensemble cast, often sublime writing from a master playwright, gorgeous set design, and understated, pitch-perfect direction, ‘The Weir’, through the relaying of a not-entirely-harmonised set of stories by a group of lonely people, captures the simultaneous sense of isolation and community spirit of much of Ireland, and, as an example of the rich literary canon we enjoy here, makes this reviewer proud to come from that country.

 

Script ****

Performances ****

Production *****

 

Christopher Moore

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‘Sarah, Sky and Seven Other Guys’ review

Liver and Lung Productions

C royale, Edinburgh

 

At the heart of ‘Sarah, Sky and Seven Other Guys’ is the story of a friendship that gradually starts to go sour.  We’ve all had them.  Whether as the result of malice by one or both parties, or simply beginning to drift away from or outgrow one another, we’ve all had friendships we once thought would last forever, but which ultimately come to a close.  And it’s that relatability that makes this play such a poignant, sad hour of theatre.

Housemates Sarah and Sky struggle to find a love interest that will last beyond the thrill of a one-night stand.  Whether it’s the tendency of men to play games with women’s feelings to get what they want in the short term, or the challenges faced by LGBT people of colour in finding a partner interested in more than app-facilitated no-strings fun, the two friends just can’t seem to acquire something more meaningful from the male sex, and the passing of a succession of men through their lives over the course of the play serves to demonstrate the truth of this struggle.

‘Sarah, Sky and Seven Other Guys’ was something of a unique theatrical experience for this reviewer.  In a festival whose trademark is small, intimate venues, this piece, in the basement Studio 2 of C royale, took the idea of close quarters to an extreme.  Essentially, the audience is in a bedroom with the characters, a seating capacity of about sixteen, with a huge, squeaky double bed yards away from the viewer no matter where they’re sitting lending an obvious sense of voyeurism to the point of almost feeling part of the action.  It certainly wouldn’t be for everyone.  But its intimacy is definitely a factor in the play having stood out in this reviewer’s mind.  Over the course of 50 minutes, we see a close friendship fracture and crack and, ultimately, break apart, and it’s difficult not to almost feel like an intruder watching these people’s lives play out.

Colourful Sky is an outwardly vibrant individual, bursting with life, and confidently attracting often attractive men into bed, yet, with the audience looking on at such close proximity, the mask quickly and easily slips in front of us, revealing the real, much less secure persona beneath.  Shafeeq Shajahan crafts a flawed, vulnerable, stubborn, emotionally wary protagonist, his Sky often clearly compensating for earlier mistreatment, prejudice (most explicitly suggested in the form of one posh upper class suitor, energetically played by Duncan Hendry, getting off on fantasies of colonial subjugation), and, at the very least, emotional abuse, by projecting an air of invincibility, and attempting to convince Sarah that he’s perfectly happy enjoying a life of partying and hedonism.  By play’s end, however, it becomes evident that much of his bravado has been a coping mechanism to get over one particular man, and, in one of the most pleasing aspects of the play, a near-moment of cliched passionate reunion with this ‘one that got away’ ultimately falls away, and the character fails to escape the repetitive cycle of sleeping around he obviously desperately wants to.

If there’s a criticism to be had, it’s that Shajahan’s performance is so effective, it arguably overshadows his co-star’s.  Sarah certainly starts the play in no better a position romantically than her best friend, yet her predicament never quite feels as pronounced as his.  There’s a sense that it wouldn’t be terribly hard for her to escape the rut she’s in if she put her mind to it, and it’s hard to tell whether this is more a result of the writing, or Hannah Shields’ performance- this reviewer would generously assume the former.  That being said, there’s great fun to be had in the character’s various dating blunders and faux pas, one slippery, fickle early conquest making us cringe as he makes a quick escape after the deed is done.  Later, in one of the best sequences of the play, one of her suitors, played enjoyably by actor Hraban Luyat, takes his passion for her to comical levels, leading to excruciatingly awkward attempts at sex.  The sequence would be toe-curling enough in its own right, but, in this reviewer’s showing, took on an even more surreal quality.  Luyat is, let’s say, a pleasant individual to look at in a state of undress, and one audience member sitting in front of me took this appreciation to frankly embarrassing extremes.  A protracted moment of Luyat’s character trying to put on a condom underneath the covers saw this eager viewer, aided by the intimacy of the space, actively and repeatedly rise out of his seat and crane for a better view, clearly hoping Luyat was method acting.  As one might guess, it was simultaneously mortifying and hilarious, producing much laughter from the rest of the audience.  To their credit, Luyat and Shields continued the scene visibly unfazed, when it would have been all too easy to have been put off their stride.  It inevitably brought the viewer out of  the story for a few moments, and yet, on a certain level, made for a more memorable theatrical experience than might otherwise have been the case, and so this reviewer can’t entirely bring himself to regret that it took place.  I can’t say I’d be in a particular hurry to share an audience space with that same gentleman again, though.

As previously suggested, ‘Sarah, Sky and Seven Other Guys’ ends on a downbeat note, as Sarah finally enters a more substantial relationship, and a wary Sky, clearly sensing she’ll soon want to move on, preemptively pushes her away, leaving the friends with little way back as they realise one is much more ready to settle down than the other.  I’m not entirely sure it’s the best conclusion the play could have had, the playfulness of the characters early on such that you feel more could have been done by both parties to rescue their closeness.  It’s almost like a beat is missed somewhere, the ending just a little too low-key.  Perhaps a revision to the closing moments of the script might be something for the team to think about for future runs.

On the whole, though, ‘Sarah, Sky and Seven Other Guys’ is a fun, funny, topical piece of theatre, with an affecting underlying sadness beneath the comedy.  This reviewer would be keen to see further productions by this energetic young company, and looks forward to seeing them return to the Fringe in future.

 

Script ***

Performances ****

Production ****

 

Christopher Moore

‘Monster’ review

Worklight Theatre

Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh

 

‘Monster’ was on this reviewer’s list of priority shows to try and see during this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, intrigued as I was by its promise to explore the topic of masculinity, the title alone suggesting the play would examine the subject’s more toxic qualities.  It certainly does, and one startling scene in particular late into the piece will catch audiences completely off-guard.

In a climate where views and outlooks that we thought were rightly being confined to the dustbin of history are depressingly being given greater legitimacy again by the painful need to project a macho image of one Donald J Trump (and not forgetting the regressive societal views of his Russian counterpart), and in a world where mental health issues and rates of suicide among young men who don’t feel able to ‘man up’, the idea of masculinity, its nature, and its role in society, feels like a more urgent discussion to have than ever before.  Writer and actor Joe Sellman-Leava takes this on with gusto, channeling an edgy, uncertain, often dangerous energy into an hour of theatre, and crafting a character (or, more accurately, a series of characters) that we are never quite sure how safe we ought to feel around.

The central character, a young actor living with his girlfriend, and cast in a Shakespeare play, at first seems amiable enough, friendly, unassuming, even a bit shy, as he displays evident discomfort at the prospect of portraying some of the darker moments of the piece, which require him to physically intimidate and, within the play, eventually assault his female co-star.  He crafts a portrait of a well-meaning young man suddenly out of his depth trying to inhabit a vicious character, and being put under increasing pressure by his director to lose his inhibitions.  Meanwhile, Sellman-Leava slips with almost chilling ease into the mindset of the in-story role, speaking of women with utter dismissiveness and disdain, leaving us in no doubt that the character views the female sex as men’s playthings, and lesser beings.  ‘Monster’ divides much of its time between this dark in-story part, and the actor’s growing trouble connecting with his partner, whose feminist views begin to challenge him almost to the point of provocation.  As the play progresses, the worry grows in the audience’s mind that she will ultimately push him too far, and sure enough, events eventually come to a head- but with what results will be left unspoiled by this reviewer.

Elsewhere, to further explore the idea of masculinity and what it entails, Sellman-Leava gives us recurring mini-monologues in the style of the sources the actor is looking to for inspiration on YouTube, and rather brilliantly goes into the characters of Patrick Stewart and Mike Tyson, the former relaying his experiences of trying not to let his father, who badly mistreated his mother, serve as an example of a male role model, and the latter trying to justify his all-too-well-known view of women.  Sellman-Leava’s portrait of these two personalities is uncanny, easily one of the best things about the piece.  His Stewart accent is superb, and his Tyson leaves you feeling the infamous sportsman is in the room.  It’s brilliant stuff.

One arguable downside to slipping between these different personas, however, as good as they are individually, is that the play can sometimes take on a disjointed feel- something that may well also be the result of its having undergone numerous rewrites whilst in development, having originally begun life as a much shorter piece in 2009.  At times, particularly if an audience isn’t paying absolute attention, it’s possible to get a little lost as to who we’re currently with, the shifts, in particular, between the actor and his in-story role occasionally taking a moment to properly follow.  It might be worth finding a way to signal these switches in character a little more seamlessly in any future rewrites.  Generally, the story-within-a-story approach works in the piece’s favour.  From time to time, though, this reviewer would argue, it doesn’t quite work.  None of this, it should be noted, is the fault of Sellman-Leava as an actor.  He’s excellent, a force of nature at times, and a performer this reviewer is keen to see more of in future productions.

The piece enjoys some great direction by Yaz Al-Shaater, Sellman-Leava’s character managing to draw us into the different worlds of theatre studios, Shakespearean castles, and boxing rings with the support of some great lighting work by Sam Hollis-Pack, and well-placed props- one use of a glass of water makes for an extraordinary moment of acting.  Meanwhile, the moment alluded to at the start of this review, involving a chair, is a simultaneously startling, compelling and horrifying moment of theatre, and likely to be the image that most stays with audiences long after the final bow.

I suggested in my previous review that one-man shows aren’t usually my theatre of choice.  Following on the heels of ‘Venus and Adonis’, this further example of its genre as part of this reviewer’s 2017 Fringe, has done a substantial amount to make me re-evaluate things.  It’s raw, energetic, passionate stuff, and worth seeing not just by men, but audiences of all kinds.

 

Script ***

Performances ****

Production ****

 

Christopher Moore

‘Venus and Adonis’ review

Moontide Sun & Close Quarter Productions

C primo, Edinburgh

 

‘Venus and Adonis’ is possibly the most uncomfortable theatrical experience I’ve ever had.  And that is its brilliance.

A one-man performance of Shakespeare’s narrative poem by veteran theatre, Film and TV actor Christopher Hunter, ‘Venus and Adonis’ takes the familiar story of the goddess of love Venus’ amorous pursuit of handsome but disinterested youth Adonis, and transforms it into a chilling, disturbing, unsettling, queasy tale of sexual abuse, Hunter taking Venus’ romantic overtures and turning them into predatory demands, while the haughtily dismissive Adonis of the poem becomes a traumatised victim of assault.

Adapting a work first published in 1593, written during the closure of London’s theatres due to a plague outbreak, and the chief source of Shakespeare’s fame during his lifetime, this production faithfully sticks to the sixteenth-century text, and yet utterly subverts its meaning and content.  This is all down to Hunter’s spellbinding, mesmerising, pitch-dark performance.  From the moment he steps on stage to his final bow, this reviewer was hooked for every second.  The intimacy of the venue lending a sense of sometimes uncomfortable closeness to the action, Hunter draws the audience into both the lustful scheming of a corruptive older woman, and the frightened naivety of a young, inexperienced man, powerfully overturning the more conventional narrative of a male abuser and female victim.  It challenges all our expectations and assumptions about what we imagine when we think of sexual assault, and Hunter and his company Noontide Sun, in collaboration with Close Quarter Productions and Survivors UK, are to be lauded for embarking on this project.  If this isn’t a thought-provoking piece of theatre, I really don’t know what is.

Hunter’s Venus is terrifying.  A by turns greedy, manipulative, spoilt, childish and petulant individual, she preys on Adonis as a spider might on a fly, relentlessly pursuing him for her pleasure, and refusing to take No for an answer.  Hunter crafts something alternately pitiable and evil with just his eyes, something cruel and cold appearing in them the second he goes into her character.  This is a being fixated on only one thing: gratification.  And she will stop at nothing to get it.  At many, many moments throughout this hour of theatre, I was simultaneously yearning for escape, and not wanting to lift my eyes from the performance before me.  Hunter’s disquieting, unpredictable take on the supposed goddess of love results in one of the most unsettling stage villains I’m likely to ever see.

Hunter’s theatricality contributes in no small part to all of this.  Whether slowly, suggestively applying lipstick, or lying back in inviting positions, gradually loosening his tie and unbuttoning his shirt, or pouring water over himself, he draws us into the mindset of this character consumed with dark desire with almost every on-stage movement, inhabiting the role with an effortlessness I sincerely doubt many other actors would be able to match.  It really is flesh-crawling.

If his take on the victimised Adonis stands out less clearly in the memory, this is no slight on Hunter other than that his portrayal of Venus is so utterly impossible to forget, it all but eclipses everything else.  What this reviewer does recall, however, is the sense of a heartbreakingly out of his depth youth, desperate to be left in peace to hunt with companions, and yet unable to escape the affections of a much cleverer, much shrewder, much more calculating individual.  Hunter really creates the sense, at times, of a literal child eager to be let go to play, a male in no way ready to become a ‘man’ in the way that Venus wants him to.  It’s, as one might imagine, highly uncomfortable to watch, and yet riveting.  By the time the character meets his tragic end, the audience is left with the unmistakable sense that Venus is as much to blame for his untimely demise as the wild boar of the poem.

The language, of course, is as rich and immersive as it has always been, this reviewer’s study of Shakespeare for university modules happily having left enough retention to understand everything being said and performed on stage- something, unfortunately, that couldn’t be said for my friend joining me for the afternoon, having not realised the play would be in the original Shakespearean.  Even he, however, conceded the power of Hunter’s performance as enough to keep him interested.  This reviewer would venture that even audiences who have never read a word of the Bard would find themselves compelled by this piece.  In Hunter’s hands, the debate, in particular, towards play’s end between Venus and Adonis over the difference between love and lust becomes stunning, Adonis’ righteous fury over people being all too quick to corrupt the former with the latter, and Venus’ petulant defensiveness in response surely ringing true for anyone who has ever lamented the seeming obsession of the world with sex over deeper, genuine affection.

This reviewer isn’t always the biggest fan of one-man productions, generally preferring the back-and-forth dynamics and interactions of multiple performers on stage, but this play is beyond measure one of the best of its genre.  It simply begs to be seen, and, uncomfortable, and at times frankly bleak as it was, this reviewer is extremely glad to have done so.

 

Script ***** (it’s Shakespeare!)

Performances *****

Production ****

 

Christopher Moore

‘A Level Playing Field’ review

45 Degrees

Greenside & Infirmary Street, Edinburgh

 

This reviewer saw ‘A Level Playing Field’, late into the Fringe, amidst much talk of the pros and cons of the current schools system as this year’s exam results came out (boys have apparently overtaken girls for the first time in years; we’ll see how long that one holds out).  Against this backdrop, the play felt like a very timely piece, and, at a moment where the politics and the direction of the world feels so up in the air, it seems more important than ever to listen to what the young have to say, and to hear their voice.

45 Degrees theatre company have taken this task on with admirable energy and enthusiasm.  An edited adaptation of Jonathan Guy Lewis’ 2015 play, ‘A Level Playing Field’ finds a group of ten sixth formers ‘caged’ (an excellent visual pun sees the walls of the room covered in manic, grinning photographs of actor Nicholas Cage) in isolation, trapped there between exams, and slowly going stir-crazy at the sense of being cut off from the outside world.  Over the course of 50 minutes, banter and pranks gradually give way to secrets and resentment, the boiling pot of a classroom full of stressed, hormonal teenagers inevitably spilling over.

It’s an engaging concept.  Ten people, who may not particularly like one another deep down, trapped together in a confined space- it’s perfect material for theatre.  The play is at its best when the students all interact and fire barbs at one another, their varying personalities clashing and vying for dominance as they lament their situation.  This reviewer was certainly brought in mind of old memories of being stuck in ‘free periods’ with the rest of my year group, generally bored rigid and yearning to escape, if not highly uncomfortable at the increasing restlessness and misbehaviour that would start going on around me.  There’s a brilliant sense of continual low-level discomfort at watching the action unfold, the intimacy of the venue lending a feeling of almost being trapped with the pupils, and perhaps not all that far away from being drawn into their antics (I suspect I’d have felt more anxious sitting in one of the front rows).  The audience feels that events could spiral out of control without too much provocation- and this helps to keep our attention fully alert at all times.

Director Jessica Walker draws a real energy and passion from the actors on stage, almost all of them given plenty to do throughout.  As one would expect from a group of 17-18-year-old characters, no-one sits still for very long, the guys in particular highly restless throughout the piece, continually coming and going and, in the case of neurotic Hook (one of the two standout performers of the play, Daniel Durkin), frequently pacing about in a panic over an exam blunder, at risk of doing damage to himself in his self flagellation.  Things kick up a further gear with the arrival of Ed Lees’ teacher Patrick, a particular plot point in the story giving rise to confrontation between him and the male students, and lending some great energy to the final third of the play.

At the heart of this piece is the inherent inadequacies of the British school system, from the sense of sixth form turning into an exam factory, to the potentially problematic age similarities between students and teachers, to the idea that cramming knowledge for a memory test ultimately does little to prepare young people for the real world.  But among the best concepts explored by the piece for this reviewer are the impending sense of loss in leaving a familiar setting and group of people for the unknown (something I didn’t feel until after the event, but no less authentic for being feared in advance by these characters), as well as the necessity of putting on a ‘front’ for pupils in top-end schools.  This is brilliantly explored by the other standout performer of the play, Maximillian King as Zachi, a boy from a less privileged background than some of his peers.  There are some great disputes between him and the normally-sympathetic Hook, the latter’s snobbery and sense of entitlement showing through as he bleats about ideas of ‘birthright’ and the horror of possibly not getting into his higher institution of choice.  It’s important, highly relevant stuff, and some of the best material in the piece.

Other enjoyable performances come in the form of Amelia Hunt’s ditzy Eleanor, Maya Burnand’s haughty Twink, and Fred Light’s smarmy Cal, but if there is one criticism to be had of the play, it’s that (perhaps inevitably for such a large cast) some of the characters fail to be quite as memorable, their personalities getting lost in the fray.  But this reviewer would nonetheless venture that a solid two thirds of the cast get a chance to shine at some point, and this still feels like an achievement for a group of eleven across less than an hour.  Having not seen the original 2015 production, it would be interesting to gauge how much the edit affected this relative drowning out of some voices.

Young people have suffered patronising disdain in much of the political discourse of the UK in recent times (something, happily, that seems to be beginning to change after the the consequences of an ill-judged walking holiday earlier this year).  Based on this production, however, and the talent on display from a clearly dedicated and passionate team of actors enthused by their material, this reviewer would sooner see those said young people at work than many of their elders.  All too often, modern fiction can leave a bitter aftertaste of cynicism and nihilism in the mouth.  I came away from this play with, instead, a real hope for change.

 

Script ****

Performances ****

Production ***

 

Christopher Moore

SECRET LIFE OF HUMANS Review

New Diorama Theatre

Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh

 

Of the five shows this reviewer has seen in the last 24 hours, four have been devised, co-created or multi-authored. Secret Life of Humans takes this to the next level, being an adaptation of a book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (but not really an adaptation, more of a staged presentation of its ideas) with elements devised by the cast, written by co-director David Byrne, and also a reimagining of some historically real events in the life of scientist and TV presenter Jacob Bronowski. There is no shortage of material to muse on in this cerebral, metaphysically profound show.

 

And it is really a very well crafted piece of theatre. Andrew Strafford-Baker plays Jamie, grandson of the TV scientist who, pressed by the curiosity of his Tinder date Ava (Stella Blue Taylor), is encouraged to investigate the locked and alarmed room where his grandfather kept his papers and archives.

 

What follows is a dramatised discourse between Ava, arguing for the essentially destructive nature of homo sapiens, and Jamie, acting as advocate for his dead grandfather, and promoting his stated beliefs: that the march of mankind is essentially progressive and, by implication, benign.

 

In flashbacks we see Bronowski (played by Richard Delaney) interacting with his wife and his wartime colleague George (Olivia Hirst and Andy McLeod) and slowly, as the young couple in the present excavate Bronowski’s hidden past as they explore his archives, we realise the values of Bronowski’s TV show, The Ascent of Man is uncomfortably compromised by the truth of his past: though arguing for a beneficent mankind, he spent the war years working to ensure the optimum destructive power of the incendiary bombs the British used on German towns and cities, contributing to the deaths of many thousands of innocent people. Unbeknownst to his adoring TV audience in the seventies, Bronowski was something of a British Alfred Nobel – espousing high moral values while facilitating mass destruction.

 

As the horror of this sinks in, the play becomes more about the moral stance we, here and now (and represented by Jamie and Ava) take on our own past as a species. And by degrees it feels like the whole history of human kind will come down to the resolution that will take place between these two people. Everything seems to devolve on to their relationship – and it almost works. But there is just too much weight in the metaphysical considerations to be supported by the relationship that has evolved between these characters.

 

Perhaps it comes down to the setup – the fact that they have just met and haven’t anything much invested in each other might be what robs the piece of that vital sense of jeopardy. Perhaps they aren’t quite sympathetic enough for us to care: while Jamie is a likeable slacker, Ava is driven by self-interest, and as such her behaviour is always morally questionable.

 

There is no doubt that this is an artistic choice – the idealist Jamie is ultimately very sweet and rather noble, where the pragmatist Ava is absolutely prepared to act selfishly in pursuit of goals that are to her benefit. But in the final analysis the play is compromised by choice.

 

That said, this is a really enjoyable show. There are plenty of laughs, lots of big ideas, and some first class stagecraft, solidly directed by Byrne with Kate Stanley. At various points we are put in the position of an all-seeing god as the actors work on wires against the back wall of the stage, to give us a top down view. Sliding bookcases and shifting furniture masterfully accomplish transitions between scenes. The movement is all smartly accomplished and slick.

 

The show is beautifully designed by Jen McGinley: projections onto the black back wall create constellations in the night sky or a massive blackboard full of equations. The stage furniture is styled in a palette of browns that satisfyingly calls to mind the war years where much of the action takes place, the nineteen seventies, when Bruno Bronowski was at his most famous, and the present fad for mid-century modern furniture.

 

As a show, it frustratingly teeters on the brink of being something utterly ingenious, a play that tackles the big ideas and manages to satisfy us with conclusive answers. But in the end, perhaps inevitably, it cannot answer our biggest questions, and can only offer us a very enjoyable and intellectually engaging theatre experience.

 

Script ***

Performances ****

Production ****

 

Peter McCall

 

 

 

 

 

TESTOSTERONE review

Rhum and Clay / Kit Redstone

Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh

 

A man going to the locker room of his local gym. It hardly sounds like a dramatic premise, much less the premise of one of the buzz shows of this year’s Edinburgh Festival. But there it is. Kit Redstone’s collaborative piece about the nature of masculinity works from that simple premise, and it packs a knockout punch.

 

Devised/ co-created with Lecoq graduates Rhum and Clay, the cast of four is all male, and over an hour it explores the pitfalls and privileges of masculinity through the prism of the rituals of a gym. Using movement sequences to play out expanded and sometimes surreal fugues, the show looks at the markers that line the road to manhood. The unique perspective we get here though is that Kit Redstone has, by his own estimation, only been a man since 2014 when he got his first shot of testosterone. It’s a simple premise, true enough, but this is a vital and important piece of theatre. This is something we need to know about as an audience, and that is one reason why this is a must see show.

 

The story opens with Kit’s visit to the gym, and the excitement and terror this involves, and then backtracks to bring us through the complex passages that have led him to this point. Some of it is side splittingly funny – the swaggering self-importance of the boys in the locker room is beautifully undercut by the wry bemusement of Redstone, engaging with them as an equal, but as someone differently male. Above all Kit Redstone is a very gifted actor, with an acute sense of comic timing and a very charismatic presence. The ensemble actors, Matthew Wells, Julian Spooner and Daniel Jacob play it straight for the most part, which ramps up the comedy to absurd levels.

 

At points, the piece is both harrowingly grim and hilariously funny. The flashback to a school disco sees Kit forcibly dressed in a pink frock, and for a moment, when the bigger men in the gym force it onto him, it feels like an assault and is almost unwatchable – and then the awkward pubescent slow dancing and snogging starts and the audience erupts with relieved laughter. Moments like this are beautifully judged.

 

However things turn gradually darker and get much more serious. Stripped for his shower, Kit is relieved to have gotten wrapped in his towel without having had to expose himself – and then one of the guys points out that it isn’t his towel. And he asks for it back.

 

This crisis moment is one of the most unbearably tense things I’ve seen in a theatre. We dread Kit’s having to give the towel back, and yet, with an awful certainty, we know it is coming. The fear in the audience is palpable: a mix of conflicting emotions, dread and horror, empathy, excitement, prurient curiosity. You could have heard a pin drop.

 

Finally, after much painful prevarication, Kit takes off the towel. There are suppressed gasps. But this literal dénouement enacts a very powerful and emotional moment on the audience, and as a piece of theatre it is unarguably ingenious. At first we are shocked, and maybe impressed with the bravery of the performer, and then by degrees we get used to the fact of his nudity, as one always does with nakedness on stage. And within a few beats, we as an audience are emotionally aligned with the character of Kit. Before us is not a naked man, nor a naked woman, but a human, and it takes no great effort to see a human body as just a body. This is the point that our hero arrives at in the narrative too – he gives up caring what the guys in the gym think. His body is his body – what anyone thinks about it is neither here nor there.

 

One can only have respect for an actor prepared to put himself on the line like this, and it is undeniably brave. The level of commitment to the performance, and to the material, is a lesson for many of the lesser theatre makers in town this week.

 

That said, there were details about the show that were less than satisfying. For a piece of work made by actors with movement-based theatre training, this is not a great showcase for École Jacques Lecoq. While the switches and interchanges in the locker room work well, some of the dance sequences lack original choreography. This might be a strategy, presented as they are as representations of crass masculinity. But unfortunately they often also lack snap and sharpness.

 

A few of the structural elements of the script too were somewhat indulgent: the Marlon Brando segment felt overlong, and didn’t really add substantial value to the piece. This was true also of the Diva, played by Daniel Jacob, a highly regarded drag performer as well as an actor. For much of the play he was sidelined, reduced to looking on at the action and nodding his head ruefully as the Alpha male gym guys act like alpha male gym guys do. His significance as a representative of gay male / non-dominator values is understood, but his role in the action was peripheral for much of the show.

 

These are in a sense quibbles though. The show is all about the journey of the lead character, and in this it is both quality entertainment, with laughs and tears and suspense and surprise, and an ideologically heavyweight piece of theatre.

 

At the curtain the audience demonstrated how moved they were with roars of approval and ecstatic applause. They loved this show, not just for the sheer enjoyment to be had in it, but also for the gutsiness of its performers. And one could tell that in large measure they were roaring their approval for Kit Redstone. This is a writer-performer of unique ability, and we can expect great things from him in future.

 

Script *****

Performances*****

Production ***

 

Kath McKilliop