How My Light Is Spent- Wardrobe Theatre ☆☆☆☆

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The Bruntwood Prize is arguably British Theatre’s most essential prize (and not just because last time out Brizz fave Timothy X Attack won with Sharon Clarke receiving a judge’s recommendation). It’s premise that any unperformed script can be submitted by a writer at any point in their careers means that the quality is sky high. Anna Jordan, Simon Fritz and Alistair McDowell have been discovered from it. Yet ultimately what stands out is the range of stories told, free of a commission that sends writers down avenues they may not wish to explore. A rom-com, magical realist, storytelling indie set in Newport, Alan Harris’ How My Light Is Spent is certainly an original.

Jimmy is 34, works at the only drive-through doughnut shop in Wales, still lives at home and calls a sex line for exactly nine minutes every Wednesday night when his Mum heads out to the Salvation Army. Kitty lives with her older landlord, has a passion for snooker and aims to save the money she makes talking dirty to study psychology at University. Jimmy usually takes exactly three minutes to hit a climax on the phone. Kitty finds out more about her client in the other six prescribed minutes he has to pay for. Jimmy takes orders from the Autocom at work until he hears a voice he has heard before. Kitty altruistically leaves money for the car behind to make their own doughnut order.

It’s a small piece designed as a real crowd pleaser. It occasionally lacks in sophistication, it’s metaphor that Jimmy is literally disappearing after he loses his drive-thru job to a machine is perhaps a little too on the nose and some of the lines have that same thudding feeling, but it is rare to see a play prove so hopeful and determined to give a happy ending whatever the cost.

What Nikhil Vyas’ production brings out is the power of two performers totally in sync with each other. It is hard not to fall in love with Jonathan Oldfield’s ruffled Jimmy and Eva O’Hara’s sex line worker Kitty. The two possess such an easy-going charm with each other, whether shifting from chorus playfully teasing the odd stumble to the rounded valley cadences of these two lost souls that you are rooting for them from lights up.

The piece may eventually end up focusing more on Oldfield’s Jimmy then O’Hara’s Kitty who can feel a little like a Newport version of a manic pixie dream girl, but O’Hara brings her vividly to life as well as the other women (mother, daughter, job coach) that swarm around Jimmy’s life. Both of them may be too attractive and vivacious to really convince as weathered, forgotten ‘been around the block a few times’ souls but the moment they dance together in the space, joy flooding every pore, it’s clear these two are meant to be.

There are a number of striking moments like this in Vyas’ production that pushes its theatrical effects to the max. When the two speak on the phone, they talk through microphones, a distancing effect that separates the easy-going patter of their speech, with the physical tension that befalls them when they first come face to face. He understands that this is a work for voices, and stages the last scene in the fading light as the two decide their future in a car park. As space bleeds to black, the voices grow softer and more hypnotic through the mics. It’s a beautifully realised piece of direction that helps turn a scene that feels a bit tacked on (there is an argument the play could have finished 20 minutes earlier with a tighter, though less feel-good ending) into something beautiful.

It’s a fitting end to another fascinating director’s cuts season. For some of the smartest work, created by some of the industry players of the future, the Wardrobe Theatre is the place to be every May.

How My Light Is Spent is at Wardrobe Theatre until 25 May

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Poison- Wardrobe Theatre ☆☆☆☆

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This Bristol Old Vic Theatre School’s Directors Cuts season has started with big, knotty works that have tackled and explored complex ideas around the eradication of porn and the taking down of the ‘great’ male ego in art. The third work of the season, Poison by Dutch dramatist Lot Vekemans, is infinitely more stripped-back and provides the strongest work so far.

Vekeman’s subject, in a sensitive English language translation by Rina Vergano, is grief and how it unspools over the years. He (Will Fletcher) and She (Darby Hannon) are reunited close to a decade after he walked out on her, as the cemetery their young son is buried in is closing and his grave needs to be relocated. She is still trapped in perpetual grief, going about day to day life as an empty shell, trapped in routines that don’t begin to replace the empty void at her heart; He has ostensibly moved on, a new wife and soon to be family, a planned book about his experiences at losing a child. Yet though Vekemans originally seems to cast the characters in the same primary colours as the archetypal names she has given them, it gradually unfolds that there is more lying behind the surface.

Fletcher’s He may at first come across as a bumbling public-school boy, stumbling through life and generally hitting oil, but his decision to walk away and start again, to meet her misery with distant philosophical abstraction, comes not from a place of callow heartlessness but from an inability to face up fully to the tragedy that has engulfed him. The moment where he opens up, his voice catching and pitching up an octave is heart-breaking, a man ten years on finally beginning to come to terms with some of the pain that has come to define him.

Hannon, one of the MFA International Acting Students, is a tour-de-force as ‘She’, starting as a bottled-up husk, her arms stiffly by her side, and her shoulders constantly slumped in exhausted wretchedness, over the course of the 80 minutes she slowly begins to find hints of the women she used to be. The moment when she removes her boots and playfully spars with her ex-husband shows us that intimacy isn’t necessarily removed even after many years. In the last moments, she begins to take agency of her life again, it’s not a blossoming exactly, but a sign that life can now find some meaning again.

Sara Aniquah Malik’s production carefully modulates the minor shifts in key, the playing out of the conversation as coffee turns to wine and cheese. Oscar Selfridge’s set plays up the lifelessness of a waiting room that is used to grief while a clock counts down the long day’s journey into night. At the end, the couple were given nine minutes to say goodbye to their son. The clock counts it down. Nine minutes pass in the blink of an eye. Nine minutes stretch for an eternity. Beautifully etched work all round.

Poison plays at the Wardrobe Theatre until the 18 May.

The Greatest of The Greatest- Wardrobe Theatre ☆☆☆

We’re saturated with the idea of the great male artist; the kind who sit on a higher pantheon, can make the impossible possible before they’ve had their morning coffee and count the notches on their bedpost as a form of valediction. For centuries their apparent ‘greatness’ was seen as more interesting as the work they made, biographies covering their complicated love lives and temper tantrums in much more forensic detail than the work which always ended up a distant second. But in the wake of #MeToo, things have begun to change. Rather than be applauded, the whole thing now has that slightly whiffy smell of the ridiculous. It’s time for these statues to be shot down.

Which is what Eva Johansson and Louise Löwenberg’s satire has done so well. Basing their work on the true-life tale of two powerhouses of Swedish Theatre, actor Mikael Persbrandt and director Thommy Berggrrenn- who in 2010 announced their intention of staging ‘a masterpiece’ based on Persbrandt’s life, before dropping it without explanation- it explores what happens when two massive egos collide.

Yet, like all satire, it only works on a surface level. Though it’s very good at unpicking the common quirks of these ego driven men; the boorish self-centredness, the competitive friendship, the wary side-eyeing of success; over the course of an hour, it doesn’t delve deep enough to explore where this comes from. They’re caricatures, funny ones, and crafted to give a cold shiver of recognition to all who have found ourselves falling into some of these tropes at times, but not fully explored beyond their surface appearance. Over the course of an hour, you long to discover more.

Rosie Taylor-Ritson and Sophie Walter are however both thrillingly good at bringing these two egos to life. They bring to the table two sides of the alpha-male, Taylor-Ritson all coiled stillness and sudden violent explosiveness, Walter long angular movements and using language as a means to control a room. It’s a public dick swinging competition writ large, sometimes literally so as both performers take to pivoting their hips when it’s time to one-up their opponent.

Director Charissa Martinkauppi keeps the tension up, each shrill ring of a mobile from a frantic producer building the pressure cooker. It is no coincidence that this producer is female, nor that the stage management team that both dismiss are also so. It makes a point that while men are engaged in pointless points scoring, it’s the women with their hands on the tiller, ensuring we get to the destination. It’s a centuries-old game that’s got boring. As Walter lets her hair down and removes her padded paunch at the end, the sense of relief that she’s moved from a tired old man to confident, vibrant young woman is palpable. It’s a different world now and it’s about time.

The Greatest of The Greatest plays at the Wardrobe Theatre until the 11 May

We Want You To Watch- Wardrobe Theatre ☆☆☆

Originally published in Bristol Post.

We Want You To Watch begins with a bang. Pulling back two plastic sheets that resemble a butcher’s shop we are thrust headfirst into an interrogation of a man, by Pig (Holly Carpenter) and Sissy (Anna-Kate Golding) accused of mutilating and murdering a young dental student. The list of atrocities he has been alleged to committed veer worryingly close to the violent porn videos that he frequently observes. Yet as he ruefully observes, millions of people watch violent porn, then ‘go and do a fun run for Cancer Research’ or give up their spot on the bus for an old man. Fantasy does not always bleed into reality. We seem to be set for an evening of nuanced debate about the role of pornography in the 21st century. Yet the piece, disappointingly, takes an absolutist turn, one that is admirable in its revulsion for many of the ills the proliferation of violent online material has created, but one that seems unwilling or unable to confront the difficult questions.

Originally created by rising stars Alice Birch and RashDash the work veers dangerously close to a polemic, an all-bells-and-whistles one admittedly, but a piece that doesn’t have space or will other than pitching its original thesis, that all porn should be eradicated. Discussion about female gaze work or the feminist movement to reclaim at least part of the industry are shifted away into blunt scenic metaphors, each individually entertaining but all adding up to being smacked around the head.

So, we see a Victorian Queen hymning to the joy of consensual frolicking; an internet entrepreneur asking the girls to do ever degrading things in order to get the internet switched off and Hugh Hefner throwing copies of the Marilyn Monroe Playboy across the stage. It’s only in the scene where the girls narrate the growing up of baby into father that the hairs begin to rise.

For all the problems with the work though it is admirably staged by director Claire O’Reilly, and given heft by the four well-drilled performers. Carpenter and Golding have been stand-out performers of the 2019 BOVTS alma to date and are both thrillingly committed again here, you really can’t take your eyes off them whether they are performing burpees or writhing around on the floor. There is something fascinating about the way Pig and Sissy move, a curving of a hip or a crawl across the floor that suggests that the material they have been subjected to has bled into their psyches more than they think.

We Want You To Watch certainly has a powerfully potent point to make but only illuminates it fitfully.

We Want You To Watch plays at The Wardrobe Theatre until the 4th May

Kiss Me- Bristol Old Vic Directors Cuts at Wardrobe Theatre ☆☆☆☆

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A woman lies on a single bed, reading; the lights fade; the sound of the trenches pound through the speakers; and the women slowly arches her back, sensuous and aching. It’s a bravura start to Richard Bean’s two-hander play Kiss Me, cleverly summing up the pieces main themes of loss and desire in an aural/visual shorthand. It rather sums up the strengths of Katharine Farmer’s production, whip smart and guided by a steady hand allowing its hold gradually tightens. It’s a small piece of work in many ways; keeping its focus tight on its two protagonists and its ideas confined to its small bedsit; but is given a supremely sure staging. If a director’s main job is to ensure the work on the page gets the best possible realisation on a stage than you couldn’t ask for better than Farmer provides.

The women who we see arched on the bed is ‘Stephanie’, a First World War widow nervously awaiting her first encounter with ‘Dennis’ a man who has come to her small room for a pre-arranged assignation. Stephanie, alone and already assigned to the shelf in her mid-twenties is ready for a child. Dennis is doing his bit to repopulate a nation decimated at the trenches of Ypres and the Somme. How many children has he created Stephanie queries early on? ‘202 through 711 meetings’ is the answer. These are women whose lives stopped the moment their own men fell on the Western Front. This man potentially their only chance of having a family that war has denied them.

Bean started off as a miniaturist before the mainstream delights of One Man Two Guvnors sent him stratospheric, and before his work as a playwright, he did the rounds on the comedy circuit. His past is at the forefront of this play. His humour keeps the play, whose premise sounds leavening, spritely and sprung. ‘Where’s the weirdest place you’ve had sex?’ ‘Stoke Newington’. It’s the little one liners, the moments of humour between the pair that keeps it motoring. Both have secrets, aliases, things locked up inside. Stephanie never even had time to discover if she loved her husband, two innocents with a two-week honeymoon in dank, damp Wales, a little unsatisfactory ‘wham bam thank you mam’ and then a lifetime of being a widow. Dennis, a quintessential English gent in bowler and cut-glass vowels, is ashamed that he never went to the Front, never fought, his family’s business keeping him wealthy and safe.

These two souls, both broken and lost, form an attachment, the business arrangement soon making way, the mechanical dissection of what must occur ‘no kissing’, soon makes way for passionate clinches and talks of the future. Bean keeps one final rug pull behind though, one that hits hard when it arrives. Farmer layers it up, keeping the action brisk (it runs at a very commendable 60 minutes) and allowing the two to escape their reserve and find something more. Its last moments, as backs stiffen and upper lips applied are painfully realised.

Stephanie Booth and George Readshaw chart the rise and fall of this relationship beautifully. Booth tumbles out words as if to stop and contemplate will kill her, a woman with plenty to say and no one to say it to. War has turned her modern, hardened and open in her desires. She drives a truck. She makes jokes about fucking. The demure Catholic schoolgirl pre-war has evolved into the kind of women we see today. Booth allows us to see both sides of this women, the blowsy exterior hiding the women lost beneath. Readshaw’s Dennis meanwhile uses class as his disguise. His accent and manners suggest breeding but his eyes give nothing away. His motives are never fully clear, is he genuinely in love with this woman or is it all an extended seduction technique. What motivates a man to bed 700 women, patriotism or sex addiction. Bean never answers. It should cause debate in the bar after.

The works restraint is quintessentially British, repressed emotions bubbling to the surface but never being released. Farmer and her cast help release its cumulative power. It ends up bruising. A fascinating play with Britain on a cusp of change is pitched beautifully. Recommended.

Kiss Me plays at Wardrobe Theatre until 19 May

Four Play- BOVTS Directors Cuts at Wardrobe Theatre ☆☆☆☆

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Rafe and Pete have been together since university, before either was officially out and have spent the preceding seven and a half years together. It’s time for a change. It’s time to ask their friend Michael a question. For a night (or two?) which will change everything. Jake Brunger’s 2016 debut play (he has a sideline contributing books for musicals such as Adrian Mole at the Menier) is a laugh a minute exploration of modern relationships, monogamy, friendships and sexual mores in the era of Grindr. Director Liam Blain’s production pitches the humour front and centre, gags dropping with regular fizz, it’s probably the funniest play about millennials I’ve seen since Fleabag hit the stage.

Brunger’s writing is scalpel sharp on relationships, gay or straight, one that will surely get any couple in the middle stretch itch questioning all their assumptions about the solid foundation of their relationships. A simple question soon spirals off into paranoia, recrimination and heart break.  Brunger structures his play in traditional sitcom style, scenes build and tensions ratchet until the thermostat with increasing inevitably explodes.

It’s a safer play than its synopsis and early scenes suggests, traditionally styled and with a surprisingly conservative ending. For anyone who has seen a rom-com you can guess where it is all going. Yet this may be the intention. For Brunger has written a mainstream play about gay men and their relationships, without any of the coded messages (The Deep Blue Sea) recriminations (Boys From The Band) bruising punishment (Bent) or tragic illness (Angels In America) that so much of the gay canon incorporate in their USP’s. Four Plays uniqueness to those titles, is in how little the characters sexuality defines them or goes about actioning their motivations.

Blain’s production is played fast and clean on Stavri Papadopoulou’s clever minimalist set that fills in for homes, bars and parks and is ably supported by a quartet of strong performances from the graduating class from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. As Rafe and Pete, Marco Young and Max Dinnen bring out the two sides to the couple with a proposition to make. Young pitches nervously, words cascading out of him in torrents as he eventually stumbles to his offer. Dinnen is slyer, his tongue suggestively rolling around his lips as he seizes up his options, seven years of monogamy making him hungry for a poke. As Michael first year FDA actor Cudjoe Asare nobly steps into the breach at short notice and gives his gym Adonis a bewildered bemused expression, as the dawning realisation of what his friends are asking of him becomes clear.

Yet the standout is James Schofield’s Andrew, partner to Michael, uni chum to Rafe and Pete and the fourth wheel in this illicit equation. Schofield was a strong centre in How to Disappear Completely and provides something similar here. A role with less stage time than the other three begins to feel its main protagonist. Schofield is blisteringly good as the partner unable to believe his luck in snaring ‘a 10 to his 6’ and holding onto this fortune with a deliberately blind eye. The pain and anger builds until it explodes out of him in the focal dinner party scene where secrets are revealed and decisions made. Its to Blain and Bruger’s credit that the laughter that has rocked the Wardrobe Theatre quietens down as its audience begin to be gripped by its machinations. Get them laughing, get them listening, get them feeling, the scripture for all good theatre. By the end it is doing all three. Four Play is a little gem.

Four Play plays at the Wardrobe Theatre until 12 May as part of BOVTS Directors Cuts season.

Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons- Directors Cuts at Wardrobe Theatre ☆☆☆

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Words. They come cascading out of us, on average 123,205,750 words during a lifetime. They help define us; the gift of the gab finds us jobs and a way with words helps find a way into beds. Without them, who are we? In Sam Steiner’s clever work, written, debuted and becoming toast of the town while still a student at Warwick University, a limit is placed on how many words a day can be used. No more than 140 a day can be uttered. What does this do for a couple who are still getting to know each other? Can a relationship survive when one of the sole means of communication is cut off?

On a second viewings of Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons it reveals itself to be a scalpel sharp and highly entertaining hour of theatre, though one whose issues rise further to the surface. In its favour; the issues it tackles (surveillance states, battle of the sexes in the workplace and the importance of language in a modern culture that is gradually eroding it) feel somehow even more essential now than they did a couple of years ago. The central relationship between trainee lawyer Bernadette and musician Oliver feels honest and true, tentative first steps, turning into blazing rows, sweet make ups and agonised silences reveal guilty secrets. Ok, so it sometimes appears quirky for its own sake, as student work is sometimes wont to do, their initial meeting and early dates at a pet cemetery seem one step too left-field, but its premise is sharp and its sci-fi predictions grounded in just enough truth to feel terrifyingly palpable. You could easily imagine it as an episode of Charlie Booker’s Black Mirror.

Yet once you know where it’s going, its blueprint feels a little shaky. Although running just a little over an hour it doesn’t quite give enough to justify its run time, all Steiner’s ideas are shot by its half and the rest just beats the same point’s home to ever decreasing effect. Its text always fizzes enough not to cause boredom but by its end, it is hard to shake off the soapy relationship drama that has taken over with a climax, that however well-acted does not bruise the heart as it should. If Pirandello cast some characters in search of an author here he would be in need of an ending.

BOVTS graduating director Caroline Lang and her designer Emily Leonard play up the horrific dystopian present more than in the original production. As we encounter a world where the characters find words capped, the stage is lit alone by a couple of naked lightbulbs, pre-bill passing the stage is flooded with light. It’s an effective visual motif, the light stripped from the world as language is removed. At one point Oliver accuses Bernadette of being like an Internet browser, countless tabs open at once, concentration split between sites, but Steiner is aware that this is modern culture, our focus split many ways. Scenes cross cut in a blink and this production, more than the original, ensures clear delineation between the scenes, blissful past making way for terrifying present.

Lang ensures strong performances from her two actors Kate Reid and Alex Wilson. Reid in particular catches Bernadette’s strong work ethic and need to succeed in life, as well as the crushing reality she faces when she realises a bill she never believed would pass comes into effect. Since the last time I saw this work Brexit and Trump has left me and many others in the same wide mouthed shock, this feeling of complete disbelief conveyed of a world changing for the worst seems much more believable than when I saw it in the early days of 2016. Wilson is saddled with the more unlikeable role, the social crusader with the swaggering superiority of an idealist and the one who ultimately causes splinters in the relationship. The text doesn’t exactly paint him as the villain but Reid is so charming and open and true that, in this production at least, Oliver can’t help but come across as a bit of a prick.

Both performances- as would be expected from graduating actors of the school- are technically assured yet don’t have the lived in feel with the text that the original cast from Warwick brought to it. These feel like performances, good ones, but performances nevertheless. The Fresh Prince of Bel Air intro rap, a moment that sees them lose word count in one exhilarating protest is less a showpiece here, taken at a slower lick and with less apocalyptical energy. In the original it was the works defining moment, here it blends more seamlessly into the whole.

Opening the Director Cuts season 2018 it is good to get reacquainted with Lemons again, without doubt the most successful student show of the 21st century. If the production backs up a hunch that it is not quite a modern classic it’s still a highly enjoyable take on a play that shows language is a right that shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons plays at the Wardrobe Theatre until 5 May