Looking Back on Network at the National

Bryan Cranston, star of Netflix show Breaking Bad, is the big draw for this 2018 offering from the National Theatre, and he doesn’t disappoint. Fully deserving of the Olivier Award for Best Actor, he powers this performance as news presenter Howard Beale, bringing the audience along from intended suicide declared live on air to entirely unexpected TV stardom.

Network is definitely a novel and innovative experience. Foodwork sees theatre-goers dining on-stage for £95 each and watching the show from their tables. It’s worth taking your regular seat in the audience early too in order to observe the stars of the show being primped in the on-stage dressing room, as well as people wandering the stage taking selfies with the audience. The screen counts down the minutes to the beginning of the performance, just as during the play the timer repeatedly counts down to going live for the news shows (something I find weirdly stressful to watch as last minute tweaks to Howard’s tie occur seconds before going live).

The use of technology is inspired. Film in the performance is both pre-recorded and live. When Howard and Max Schumacher (Douglas Henshall) are drinking at the bar to the far right of the stage with their backs to the audience, a camera brings up their faces on a central stage screen. It is also ominous – Howard is being watched and followed from the very beginning with a lens, his private moments with a colleague also a performance. Later on a scene is shot by the Southbank, live, as Max and Diana Christensen (Michelle Dockery) walk by the Thames in the evening air before hopping straight back on stage. It is cool to get a behind the scenes glimpse of this once actors only route. Although Michelle Dockery is great I’m not a big fan of the ‘romantic’ subplot between Max and Diana. Perhaps though the very point of it is to be boring, frustrating and meaningless – the stereotype of young, ambitious, work-focused woman at office has relationship with married man. We’re playing it out exactly how she is directing, Max says in a conversation with his wife, in the ‘scene where the man leaves his wife’. This part of the play is cliche, deliberately so, although the sex scene which happens on a neighbouring table in the midst of the on stage audience is certainly a surprise for the diners!

Although Network is based on a 1970s film by Paddy Chayefsky it feels incredibly contemporary and scary relevant, poking the power of populism. American presidents’ faces show up on screen as the play finishes, predictably Obama meets with applause and cheers and Trump with boos.

Audience interaction is encouraged. As Howard’s TV audience we are told to shout “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore”, with a warm up guy giving it an American reality TV show feel. The power  this opens up is ripe for manipulation…

In a network we are all connected, but this seems no good thing. It makes me think of the negatives of constant on-screen attempts at communication, engagement and entertainment and the sometimes detrimental effect this has on real world relationships and interactions.

Ivo Van Hove returns as director to the National Theatre. Whilst his Hedda Gabler with Ruth Wilson wins for me personally over Network, it’s great to see theatre kept exciting and experimental, and is very much recommended for those interested in tech as well as theatre (my partner loved it). Whilst Network sold out completely we managed to get tickets through the National Theatre’s Friday Rush scheme – always worth trying out if there’s a sold out show you want to try and see.

 

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Be Darling and Edge’s guest at Beauty and the Feast

Beauty and the Feast played at The Vaults in Waterloo until January 2018.

The little girl in me who loved to dress up as a princess with sparkly tiara and glittery wand, and who gaped at the magic of dining in Cinderella’s castle whilst proudly wearing a paper crown when holidaying in Orlando at eight years old, is still not-so-secretly going strong with Disney dreams. Beauty and the Beast has always been my favourite Disney Princess story. I watched the video repeatedly growing up and loved the recent film adaptation with Emma Watson and the yellow Dior dress of dreams, and of course Emma Thompson as Mrs Potts.

I loved Belle because yes although like all princesses seemed to have to (until Princess Fiona in Dreamworks’ Shrek at least) she had a pretty face, what was important was her bookish inclination and desire to learn and grow. She turns down handsome with extraordinarily ugly personality, man-of-the-town Gaston, and she cares deeply about her father and about her own dreams. Putting all of this romanticism aside, bring in Beauty and the Feast.

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This is very much a panto take on the story. Beauty and the Feast takes the match-making element of the story, combines it with the French dining experience in forgotten glamour from a bygone age and makes something weird but fun out of it. The humour of Mrs Potts, Chip, and Lumiere and Cogsworth’s double act is retained in the spirit of the show. The Vaults saw Alice Underground play out in its space and is a great venue for these immersive magical sorts of experiences, brought to us again by the talent of Darling and Edge. Plus I always like arriving through the Graffiti Tunnel. I tried a ‘Fairy Liquid’ cocktail (basically liquid Parma Violets) perched in the themed bar and enjoyed meeting the roaming cast taking selfies and exclaiming they haven’t had guests in years. Before long Belle’s godmother Fairy Liquid (Chloe Doherty) is enlisting our help to break the spell of the beast’s palace and get Belle and the Beast together. We discover Belle is in drag, coy and with a huge height of hair.

As the audience we are invited to be Belle’s guest, dining at three beautifully decorated tables beneath chandelier-adorned ceilings. The food surpasses my expectations and is delicious. It is all gluten-free and incredibly generous amounts – think whole roasted pumpkins stuffed with hot bean stew, giant cheese soufflés beautifully presented like cakes on glass stands, plates of sausages for those meat eaters, and finally dessert in china cups with rabbit-shaped ice-cream surprisingly challenging to divide (cue icy mess all over the table). I wasn’t expecting to have to communally dig in to the food (a little awkward with strangers) but it worked because of the plentiful nature of the food and really created the banqueting atmosphere. No drinks were included in the ticket so these needed to be purchased separately from the small bar, taking into account a fair waiting time as three tables worth of guests descended for refreshment. The characters are around helping serve but the performance, having started off in the bar downstairs, only returns a little after dessert. At this point drag princess Belle transforms into daring beastly queen, stalking down the tables sparking universal dancing to ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’. I do see rather more of Belle than I was prepared for (hello black underwear one-piece!)

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This is more of a highly interactive and entertaining dinner experience for those unafraid to share their food and lose their inhibitions than a theatrical performance – there is a brilliantly immersive atmosphere but no real plot to follow and the story seems to trail off all together once dinner is served. Aesthetic and fun levels scored very high, but this is not for those expecting a tightly sewn together fairy tale with beginning, middle and end. There is of course a happily ever after, providing the audience plays their part.

The latest deliciously horrible storytelling from Les Enfants Terribles

The Terrible Infants played Wiltons Music Hall September to October 2017.

The Wiltons is my new favourite venue. It reminds me of the Clärchens Ballhaus in Berlin, without quite the same immersive feel of stepping completely back in time that you get from dining, drinking and dancing in the partially renovated Spiegelsaal there. There are no bullet holes or precariously hung chandeliers for one thing. Outside of Wilton’s performance hall the interior has a contemporary rustic feel, exposed brick walls dotted with nuggets of performance knowledge and framed pictures. In fact though, the Wilton’s is the oldest grand music hall in the world, presenting live music and plays, dance and magic shows today. Originally built as five individual houses in the 1690s, one became an ale house The Mahogany Bar, with a music hall added from the 19th century. Later transfiguring into a soup kitchen in the east end, it was left derelict after World War Two before slowly being brought back into use with renovations beginning in the 1980s. A performance of The Waste Land in 1997 encouraged theatregoers to dress warmly and consider hard hats, with Wilton’s opening fully to the public in 2004. Admittedly it’s still not the most comfortable of venues! – the bench seats in the circle priced at £20 are bearable once you’d found an angle to curl into. We were fortunate to have an arm rest though, whilst most of the bench seats did not.

There’s a good amount of space for pre-theatre nibbles and drinks, with a small area downstairs and a larger space upstairs with cute nooks like the fairy-lit Champagne Charlies area and well-spaced tables. We took one tucked by the window and tried a couple of  the pizzas (pepperoni with fennel seed and slow roast pork with pumpkin and cheese) I had read positive things in advance, knowing my boyfriend having grown up on summers in Italy and life in the Mediterranean is a fan of a good pizza, as am I. They were delicious. The wines I tried weren’t the best but with plenty of choice it’s easy to make another drinks selection. All in all great for a pre-theatre meal.

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The theatre itself is beautifully atmospheric and perfectly suited for Les Enfants Terribles’ latest theatrical offering. Following Alice’s Adventures Underground, this is presented in the shape of a string of gothically gruesome tales called The Terrible Infants, first performed as Les Enfants Terribles’ debut 10 years ago. Whilst marketed as a children’s show for kids big and small in the spirit of Roald Dahl and Tim Burton, I saw mostly unashamed adults there on the Friday evening performance I attended, with just a smattering of kids. The props and puppets were magically brilliant: from Finbar the little boy (creatively reused for Thingummyboy with a hooded coat), to Thumb the greedy boy’s continually munching head and the material girl’s patchwork of cloths.

The two musicians in the small cast are wonderfully talented, throwing their skills from piano to an impressive drum solo performance, Skilfully increasing and slowing the pace with the temp of the story, the movement from story to story keeps engagement strong and the couple of hours flew by.

The plight of stinky little Mingus who innocently napped in a dustbin and met an unfortunate end, made the saddest impression on my boyfriend. For me it was Finbar the little boy who longed to be other than what he was, offering a mischievous lesson in wish-making (where mermaids are involved at least). Or Thingummyboy, the child so quiet and unremarkable that he is slowly erased away from others’ memory. There are sensible lessons from the silly for young and old – talking constantly about yourself without listening to others leads to a sticky end, whilst telling tall tales can grow you an unexpected kind of tail. Dame Judi Dench narrates one of the tales in her unmistakeable tones, adding an extra glow to the story.

The gothic dream aesthetics are courtesy of  costume designers, Laura Drake Chambers and Rosie Elliott-Dancs  and designer Sam Wyer who has worked extensively with Les Enfants Terribles (also responsible for Alice’s Adventures Underground and Dinner at the Twits). Each collaboration of props, puppets and costumes is tailored uniquely and cleverly to each story, creating a truly immersive shifting atmosphere which is sewn tightly together by the talented players.

The skill and energy of the storytellers combined with the atmosphere of the venue, exuding faded glamour as the perfect foil to the wonderful aesthetics, all makes truly marvellous magic.

Come and see The Grinning Man

Performing until April at Trafalgar Studios

The Grinning Man. If you haven’t seen him you will never understand. This is the final song in this macabre musical masterpiece and it captures the unique unmissability of this show. Its strong captivating story and enchanting staging, weaving puppetry and a haunting score has you sitting forward in your seat throughout, straining to catch every last drop. A dark circus fairy tale, this adaptation from Victor Hugo’s classic transferred from Bristol’s Old Vic and has been suitably updated with London geography – the palace is in Catford and the lordships on offer are of south London boroughs.

The Grinning Man is gloriously comically self-critical and self-conscious. The prince starts to excitedly tell his sister of the tale he has seen at Trafalgar fair (the same we the audience are watching) – “It starts with a child puppet” he begins- “F**k offf” the lascivious princess Josiana (Amanda Wilkin) returns, immediately disinterested. She is searching for feeling in a Lon-Don of dull misery where the king has died choked on a pig’s trotter and her sister Angelica (Julie Atherton), previously silent for a stretch of 10 years, has trumpeted her  crown with curiously-voiced shouts to make the “country great again”. Where have we heard that before?

The structure is tight and neat, a performance within a performance which is turned inside out and merged together. The audience aren’t left out of it – as the prince brings Josiana to see the Grinning Man at Trafalgar fair they move through the front row of the audience to take their seats, Josiana exclaiming “God they really are freaks here.” At the close the helping hands of the audience steady the two climbing towards the finale.

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the wonderful gaping mouth stage

From the same director as War Horse Tom Morris is teamed again with Gyre & Gimble (the original War Horse puppeteers). You see the same familiar brilliance in the shadowy realism of the dog Mojo, which seems real in its movements, first appearing as a set of eyes in the darkness.

The Grinning Man has moments of child-like magic, the young Grinpayne (Louis Maskell) and Dea (Sanne Den Besten) playing out the tale of Beauty and the Beast with puppets mirroring their own tale of falling in love. Later on the lines “That moment when you realise you are him and he is you and that everyone around you sees it too” adorably and perfectly captures the essence of the relationship with the person you love. The score by Tim Philips and Marc Teitler is one that creeps into your heart and by the end you want to hear it all again.

As well as magic and romance there is chuckling comedy, mostly served up by the Clown Barkilphedro (Julian Bleach) – particularly in the scene with princess Josiana where he politely enquires “How was the orgy ma’am” and obligingly performs a suitably terrible “erotic breakfast dance” on demand. Not forgetting too more than a dash of grim pain, from Grinpayne’s mysterious injury to loss and seeming betrayal.  Ursus (Sean Kingsley)’s lines strike notes which linger: “I thought dreams were places to hide, but you should build your life on your pain.” The play does promise at the beginning that pain and pleasure are closely intertwined, so it should be no surprise that this is a story which leaves you with a happy sort of tears. Does the greatest freak in all the land have the power to completely transform the kingdom into something loveable? You’ll need to pop along to Trafalgar fair yourself to find out.

King Lear, but not as you’ve seen it before

running until Saturday 28th October

King Lear seems to be the Shakespearean tragedy in favour across stages this past year. Out of 5 or 6 productions I’ve seen King Lear performed 3 times now, including earlier this year at the Barbican, the disintegrating luxury and ostentation of Antony Sher’s Lear directed by Gregory Doran. Amidst this continual rebirthing of Lear’s famous falling is this Jonathan Munby directed production at Chichester’s Minerva theatre, with Sir Ian McKellen as the jewel in the crown as Lear.

At over 3 hours long the prospect of watching King Lear can require some stamina. A man speaking to a Minerva theatre employee jokingly complained before the start as to why the show was starting at 7.45pm as it meant it wouldn’t finish until after 11pm, then bracingly reminded himself, “well if Ian can do it, then we should be able to!” The role is old hat to McKellen, having played Lear before 10 years ago for an RSC production by Trevor Nunn in 2007. McKellen has spoken of wanting to speak “the lines again, at times as conversation”.  The smaller setting of the Minerva Theatre is sympathetic to this desire, whereas the RSC Trevor Nunn version was performed in large theatres, requiring lines to be emphasised that could otherwise have been more softly spoken. In the relative intimacy of the Minerva theatre McKellen’s uses the smaller space to his advantage “not to act Lear, but to be Lear” (BBC interview). McKellen’s Lear is exceptionally powerful, brought to life with those all important natural whisperings, mumblings, stumblings and meaningful facial expressions (most poignantly McKellen’s eye roll upwards at the bloody close). McKellen is extraordinary then not just in the strength of crumbling into madness and loss night after night, but in the way his lines are delivered,  as if Shakespearean is a first language for him to be muttered and trailed off over yet still entirely sparkled with inventive interpretation born afresh.  If this is “probably” McKellen’s last big Shakespeare role as the BBC suggests then what a way to bid farewell to the Bard.

This is much more than a one man show though. Munby has cast loyal courtier Kent as a woman, brilliantly played by Sinéad Cusack, having reportedly stated “there aren’t enough female roles in the classical repertoire”. Regan and Goneril are given so much more than the usual evil ugly sister treatment. Kirsty Bushell is touchy-feely flirty as Regan, blowing air kisses and childishly jittery on glossy high heels. She strips down to change in one scene in front of the butler who is reminiscent in his slightly huffy attitude of the clock in Beauty and the Beast. Goneril (Dervla Kirwan) is calmer, quieter, more relatable in her grief as she watches Edmund (Damien Molony) duel. Fresh from the National Theatre’s Twelfth Night Tamara Lawrance plays a military Cordelia.

Being so close to a master in action was magic. We were a few rows back, enough to avoid being splashed by pouring rain (soon to be mixed with blood pooling on the red carpet circular stage) or clipped with a pig’s head tossed off stage, whilst being close enough to observe the storm of changing facial expressions and tiny movements. The intimacy is almost too much during the intensity of the Duke of Gloucester’s blinding scene, Regan flicking the radio on to Beggin’ by Madcon which blasts out in grim energetic satisfaction as Gloucester (Danny Webb) is held down on his chair, surrounded by hanging animal innards, and Regan dances in crazed glee, patent heels glinting. The stage is fascinating, the heavy rain fading to subsequent mist in the storm scene, players squelching across the carpet, the red carpet having been ripped open as Edgar (Jonathan Bailey) smears himself with dirt. The attention to detail keeps my interest keen. In the first scene McKellen is equipped with scissors and a paper map which he carelessly snips up, tossing pieces of Scotland and Ireland between his offspring’s husbands in a not so united misogynist kingdom, complete with a giant kingly portrait as backdrop. It is thrilling that a play as often performed as King Lear can still keep that element of reinvention and fresh meaning. There are rumours of a cinema screening, which I would very much recommend if it comes about.

 

 

 

Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?

At Vaults theatre until 23rd September

I’ve been wanting to experience Alice’s Adventures Underground since it came to the Vaults in London Waterloo two years ago in 2015. Upon (repeatedly) browsing the website what held me back was the ‘pricy’ nature of the tickets, used as I was to £5 16-25 National Theatre steals and £15 West End seats.  This summer the time for my Alice inspired adventure finally arrived, and I would love to go back underground again.

Alice’s Adventures Underground is Les Enfants Terribles’ immersive theatrical experience. It is without a doubt the most interesting and exciting theatrical experience I have had to date.

Along with 30 or so other Wonderlanders we gathered in a room full of curious odds and ends. Book cases with books suspended half falling from their shelves, typewriters, photographs mid process pegged above our heads, letters, secret curtain covered hideaways, fascinations numerous to keep us occupied until an Alice hologram appeared, flitting from one gilt mirror to the next around the room and leading us through to fall down to Wonderland..

Upon entering Wonderland we chose Eat me or Drink me, chewing pastilles or sipping medicine bottles then edging enlarged to the Eat me door or shrinking down to the Drink me door. This splits the group in half by each person’s choice. Once through to Wonderland border control the group is split by randomly assigned playing cards. There are consequently 4 routes through Wonderland meaning each time you go an entirely new experience awaits.

My boyfriend Edward and I chose Eat me and by chance were then both placed in the same suit, Diamonds.  Edward was assigned as the Ace, because the Diamond card declared his “mother always told him he could trust people wearing glasses”. The Ace was responsible for checking all cards made it through to each room with no dawdling which would doubtless lead to execution.  So Edward was transformed by Wonderland magic into Bob the Ace, helping out Humpty Dumpty and supplying evidence in court to the Red King with a “face you can trust”, and if all went well on our mission, one we would see on a Wonderland stamp in the near future. I meanwhile was “not to be trusted”, my claim to fame being used repeatedly as a body shield by the Red Queen against the Jabberwocky.

My highlights were many, and included wandering through a tunnel made entirely of open books (magical), and the room of doors which opened in turn to shower snow, or take a playing card (aka member of the audience) through only to become a brick wall. Memorable too was the scene with the Mock turtle, stranded with a piano and pitiful sign “will play for soup” amidst fairy lit umbrellas floating in a giant pool of underground water. And of course the chaotic tea party, the Mad Hatter dancing across the huge table with the audience sat all round, the Dormouse snug in a bucket right under my nose, repeatedly reaching out with the pot to try and catch tea sporadically spurting down the table in fountains. There were even cocktails to sip yourself in tea cups if you purchased in advance. I met Humpty Dumpty, Tweedledee and Tweedledum (in a crazed gymnast show) the Cheshire Cat, and of course the White Rabbit. You are entirely a part of Alice’s world. In one scene when making jam tarts one fellow Diamond was passed the baby (a plastic pig wrapped in a blanket) and rocked it seriously, another was ordered to peel a potato with a spoon (then told, no, use a knife).

This is theatre at its very best, an experience to make you laugh and feel excited, nervous, surprised, and utterly immersed in another world to the extent that I forgot where I was and what day it was. It is a completely unique event, perfect for an occasion (there were people there celebrating birthdays, and a hen do), or even any old unbirthday. To complete or indeed begin the experience there is a themed Wonderland bar at the close, beautifully designed by Darling and Edge, with flamingo croquet, Alice inspired drinks and a photo booth. I can’t wait to see what they do next.

 

Technology in theatre – such stuff as dreams are made on

At the Barbican theatre until Friday 18 August 2017

As Shakespeare’s last play and one of my favourites, I was excited to see The Tempest staged with Intel’s technological genius sparking from the RSC’s magical fingertips. There has often been a parallel drawn between Prospero’s sorcery and Shakespeare’s own wordsmith wizardry, with Prospero’s abandonment of magic as a signal of Shakespeare’s impending departure from the stage. Tangled in the romance of the creativity-fuelled island where The Tempest plays out feels like very suitable territory to try out this fusion of the latest technology with theatrical performance. With such enriching potential to truly immerse audiences in modern day magic it can only be hoped that this is the first of many such collaborations.

This version of The Tempest was first seen in Stratford-Upon-Avon almost 2 years ago. It is directed by Gregory Doran and Simon Russell Beale plays Prospero. The stage is designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis and shows a wrecked ship (or just over half a wrecked ship if you sit in the very reasonably priced restricted view tickets on the left side of the stage, the first few minutes of the first scene the only moments you miss). We all know the magic of the stage is not without its hiccups, and this is endearingly evident in the performance I saw where at the point of Caliban’s (Joe Dixon’s) dramatic emergence on stage the trapdoor refused to open, causing a brief unplanned interval where black t-shirted techies ran on and off stage unable to solve the mystery. The whole thing was treated with laughter and welcome back applause by the patient audience when Caliban instead ran on from the side. Luckily the trapdoor was back up and running for standout scene with the flowery spirit’s ascension, flower projections everywhere in a floral dream of a pre-wedding scene for Miranda (Jenny Rainsford) and Ferdinand (Daniel Easton).Miranda is pleasingly androgynous sweet and comical in her amazed greeting of more men than she has ever seen before at the close of the play, with Ferdinand quickly taking her hand possessively.

The CGI is well-used, particularly in the presentation of Ariel (Mark Quartley) who is conjured on stage both in human form and as a projection, whilst in the shipwreck scene projections show bodies of men slowly sinking into the ocean. I thought it was a visually impressive and effective way of representing Ariel’s ethereal sprite form, giving him more power and stage presence than merely a bodily servant fairy doing Prospero’s bidding, and lending visual clarity to Ariel’s otherworldly association which Prospero communicates with but does not himself embody. This magical representation is reinforced as CGI reappears for the flower adorned fairies.

At the close of the play Ariel and his CGI effect magic are granted freedom and Prospero breaks his staff – he is throughout the traditional storybook picture of a wizard. We are presented with the simple power of Prospero on stage alone, no tricks but words, which after all are the heart and fabric of the play’s true magic.