Category: Theatre

Edinburgh Fringe Preview Part I: Dystopian nightmare in The Project


It was clear from the beginning that The Project was going to be a disconcerting piece of theatre. Produced by members of the Nottingham New Theatre ahead of their stint at next month’s Edinburgh Fringe, this dystopian nightmare pushes the boundaries of conventional theatre and subverts the idea that we can sink back in the darkness and let it all wash over us.

As I took my seat I noticed that the cast members were sitting amongst us writing notes. A woman who resembled a mannequin stared straight ahead of us in the middle of the stage. She was wearing a jaundiced-yellow lipstick and it soon emerged that she was the subject of some kind of bizarre, quasi-medical experiment. The director – played by an actor – addressed the audience directly, telling us that the play would depend on our reactions to it. At various points the performance is deconstructed, forcing us to challenge our preconceptions of what a piece of theatre should be.

The experiment itself was extremely sinister. The woman is forced to do things against her will as the other characters continue on their quest to ‘cure’ her. Meanwhile, the director looks on, taking a perverse pleasure in his experiment, blind to the fact that he may be hurting someone in the name of art.

In many ways, The Project reminded me of  Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, an allegorical play which shows how people’s passivity allowed Hitler to rise to power. Like Brecht’s masterpiece, The Project makes good use of Verfremdungseffekt – or alienation technique – to remind the audience that like all art theatre is artificially conceived. By not getting too comfortable, we are able to consider some of the ethical challenges a performance can pose.

Overall, this was a fascinating piece of physical theatre and the actors made good use of the performance space. The dialogue was elegant and the narrative purposefully draws the audience in before reminding them that this was indeed a performance rather than real-life. A bold experiment – and one which paid off.

You can see The Project at Zoo Monkey House at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe.

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Review: No errors but plenty of comedy in New Theatre and Fine Frenzy production


In Shakespeare’s time, actors normally had 48 to rehearse a play which would no doubt have given it a raw energy and fearlessness that is sometimes lacking in modern productions.

It’s something that many performers may be reluctant to try but in a new interpretation of The Comedy of Errors, members of Nottingham University’s New Theatre and Fine Frenzy Theatre have created a pared down performance which captures the ‘anything could happen’ element that would have been familiar in Shakespeare’s day.

As we enter the theatre, we are greeted by the narrator, Ben Williamson, who is dressed as a baby (in a onesie) in a nursery full of toys – not very Shakesperean I hear you say. He explains that the actors had just 48 hours to put the play together and that a prompt would be helping if anyone couldn’t remember their lines (he wasn’t needed).

The play tells the story of two twins, Antipholus of Syracuse and Antipholus of Ephesus, and their slaves, Dromio of Syracuse and Dromio of Ephesus, who are separated in a shipwreck. What follows is a glorious tale of mistaken identities full of bawdy characters, such as the courtesan played by Emma McDonald with her brilliant West Country accent.

All the lines were delivered superbly with an immediacy and raucousness; when Dromio of Syracuse (played by Aaron Tej) describes the maid who has fallen in love with him as being so fat that ‘she is spherical. I could find out countries in her’ the audience roared with laughter.

The toys made frequent appearances throughout the play. Ben Williamson, in his other role as the strong arm of the law, donned a police officer’s hat and as tempers fray a fight breaks out involving water pistols and glittter.

This wasn’t a clipped and polished performance and it was all the better for it. The actors weren’t simply reciting their lines –  they were really living them which was really refreshing to see and it created a fantastic carnival-like atmosphere.

This production of The Comedy of Errors will be performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival later this summer.

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Review: Serenade at Antalya Turkish restaurant

There was a feeling of excitement in the air at Nottingham’s Antayla Turkish restaurant as the diners chatted over drinks. It was the first performance of Serenade, a production by the newly-formed 2Magpies Theatre company.

I had previously interviewed Tom Barnes and Matt Wilks – the company’s artistic directors – about their short play which encourages us to eavesdrop on the conversation of a young couple called James Pardon and Ginny Lee who are meeting up following his trip to the Far East. Over the course (excuse the pun) of the meal, we are given a glimpse into their relationship; there’s the awkwardness that comes after not seeing each other for such a long time, the humour of a shared life and also the cracks that have started to appear.

After speaking to Matt and Tom, I couldn’t help but wonder how they would create this piece of theatre in a restaurant. How would the actors be able to project their voices in a setting that was not designed for performance? Would the audience be engaged by the narrative? After all, when we eavesdrop, we only listen to snippets of conversation rather than a lengthy dialogue.

When we had finished our appetisers, James and Ginny entered the room. The chatter of the diners slowly died down when everyone realised that the actors had arrived. It was slightly strange at first – and you did feel a bit embarrassed gawping at these two people – but you soon relaxed and began to immerse yourself in the story.

That’s not to say you are encouraged to be passive. One of the best parts of the play is when Ginny turns our gaze back on ourselves by trying to guess what the relationship is between two members of the audience is.

It must have been nerve-wracking for James and Ginny. This was an improvised play and sitting right in the middle of the restaurant meant they were utterly exposed to the gaze of the audience. There’s no lighting, no microphones, no script and no curtains. But they both rose to the occasion and brought the subtle nuances of their fictional relationship to life.

Matt and Tom took a risk in putting together a production like this and while it was a fascinating and thought-provoking production, I did think it was a little raw in places. The fact that the dialogue was improvised meant that it wasn’t always tight enough and there was a tendency for it to wander somewhat. Of course, real-life conversation does deviate – but if it is going to sustain our interest for a longer period of time it needs to flow a bit more neatly.

That said there is huge potential for theatre such as this and it is refreshing to see something different rather than a safe rendition of a classic play. I can see similar pieces working in coffee shops or perhaps as a  fringe show to a production at an established theatre.

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Private lives in public: An interview with 2Magpies Theatre

serenade flyer front

Walking past a restaurant on Valentine’s Day gazing in at the number of couples sat there awkwardly can make you feel like something of a voyeur. Eavesdropping on a conversation in a café, imagining back stories and making judgements is something we all do but perhaps don’t like to admit.

But in Serenade, a play by the newly formed company 2Magpies Theatre, we are actively encouraged to lurk in the shadows as we watch a young couple having dinner. It’s the idea of ‘legitimising our voyeurism’ the show’s director Matt Wilks tells me.

“The audience are going to sit there, they are going to eat a meal and they are going to watch the actor and actress eating as well,” he said.

Serenade is the Nottingham-based company’s first production: it is a piece of site-responsive theatre which takes place at Antalya Turkish restaurant on 3rd and 4th April.

2Magpies Theatre is the brainchild of Matt and Tom Barnes, who are the company’s artistic directors. They have previously enjoyed success with New Theatre’s production Porphyria, which was performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last year.

Serenade stars Ginny Lee and James Pardon as the young couple. There is no script and the actors play themselves (though it should be pointed out that they are not a real couple). The story is based on the actors’ own life stories and they will also react to the real-life situation of being in a restaurant.

Matt says: “The actors play versions of themselves. They know they have got to get from A to B to C and they know the sort of stories they are going to tell to get there but they are encouraged to improvise. When you go to the theatre, you sit down and you know it’s very safe. But there’s an element of danger here and the audience don’t know how much it is improvised.”

Ginny and James did not audition for their roles in the conventional way – in fact, the process sounds like a secret mission devised by Tom and Matt to see whether they would be able to cut it in a play of this kind.

Tom said: “For the first rehearsal we got them to meet at the restaurant. We told James to get there at about ten past seven and Ginny to get there at about half past. We got them to meet at the Corner House and we were sat in the Theatre Royal bar watching them – it was all very manipulative. James turned up and we gave him an envelope – they had no idea what they were going to do. We told him we’d got a table booked for them, here’s some money, go and sit there and wait. People were watching him and he was getting very self-conscious.”

The idea of site-responsive theatre is something that Matt and Tom have already experimented with. In February, they both worked on New Theatre’s production of Paradise, which has also secured a slot at this year’s Fringe.

Tom says: “We did it in a secret location near Queen’s Drive. Under the flyover there are some tunnels. It’s a long, dark tunnel like on the tube – people had no idea where they were going but it went down well. It is the story of a group of strangers on the tube and somebody ends up getting hit by a train. All their stories weave together – their emotions range from being annoyed that their train is delayed to having the responsibility of it happening.”

Sadly, all the tickets for Serenade have now sold out – but Matt and Tom say the launch is only the beginning and they are planning to take the show to other venues and cities in the near future.

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Review: New Theatre’s Posh is a riotously funny production


With reports that some of our senior politicians were members of the Bullingden Club  – the notorious student club which had a reputation for drunken room trashing – it’s not surprising that Laura Wade’s 2010 play Posh has struck a chord with many.

The play, which is being performed by members of Nottingham University’s New Theatre this week, is a searing satire about those who belong to such clubs – in this case the Riot Club – and the consequences of power without responsibility.

Inside the private dining room of a gastro pub, members of the Riot Club have gathered for their annual dinner. They are all wealthy students from Oxford University who are looking forward to a night of drinking and debauchery.

Despite their obnoxiousness the antics of the young men are very funny indeed. They are highly intelligent people and the dialogue is sharp and witty. They poke fun at each other and the quick-fire jokes are endless.

But lurking beneath the surface is something much darker. As the conversation becomes political, Alistair exclaims that he is ‘fed up of poor people’. The boys even feel that they are hard done by because the middle classes supposedly hold all the power and they bemoan the fact that they have to open up their mansions for visitors to look round. Meanwhile, their solution, if they get into trouble, is to throw money at the problem and hope that it goes away. As the night wears on a sort of tribal misogynism is revealed in their dealings with the prostitute and Rachel, who is the daughter of the pub landlord.

Eventually the inevitable happens and the members of the Riot Club trash the dining room – and I mean really trash it. Glasses fly, champagne fizzes, books are ripped and tables are overturned in this spectacular piece of theatre.

A tragic twist causes them to crash back down to reality but despite the ghastly incident there is a feeling that because of their status and who they know, they won’t have to suffer the consequences of their actions.

Overall, this is a fine production by some exceptionally talented students. The actors captured the bullish arrogance of the characters perfectly and managed to provide much hilarity, while also giving us something to think about.

Posh is on until Saturday. For tickets visit the New Theatre website.

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Abigail’s Party: More than just kitsch comedy

Mike Leigh’s 1977 play Abigail’s Party is one that is so ingrained in modern culture that it could potentially be reduced to clichés – cheese and pineapple sticks, garish décor and Donna Summer.

But although these may have raised a few wry smiles from members of the audience at Nottingham’s Theatre Royal, there is something about this suffocating suburban world that still resonates today.

Of course, we do not actually see Abigail. She is the teenage daughter of middle-aged divorcee Susan who is a guest at Beverley’s party across the road. So while we might wish we were at Abigail’s party, we instead find ourselves in the company of Beverley, her estate agent husband Laurence, their neighbours Tony and Angela and Susan.

The main characters are all ghastly in their own ways. Beverley flirts disgracefully with Tony and criticises Laurence even as he lays dying at the end. Laurence thinks of himself as an expert on art and says he likes olives but admits he has not read the Dickens on his shelves. Meanwhile, the quiet, sullen Tony is about as cultured as a broom; not only that but we also see that he is racist and emotionally abusive he is towards his wife.

What makes this production so successful are the subtle – and sometimes not so subtle – facial expressions, the sidelong glances and the excruciating awkwardness of the situation. Tony looks bored with the conversations about how wonderful Beverley’s kitchen is, while Susan clearly feels uneasy throughout the whole dismal event. There are moments of pure hilarity, such as when the two couples dance with each other’s partners: while Beverley and Tony dance in a passionate embrace, a very awkward Laurence and Angela do a strange, non-contact jive before Laurence formally shakes her hand.

During the course of the play we see the nuances of British middle class played out in the harshest of environments. The characters compete with each other and are often downright rude, while the fraught marriages of Tony and Angela and Beverley and Laurence unravel before our eyes as the alcohol strips away the social niceties.

This production, which is directed by Lindsay Posner, is made all the more convincing by the wonderfully retro set design which includes clashing brown patterned wallpaper, huge house plants and cut glass ashtrays.

Abigail’s Party is on until Saturday. For tickets see the Theatre Royal website.

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Review: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

The riots that swept through London, Nottingham and other cities in the summer of 2011 left many questioning what had happened to the next generation.

Some said that the rioters were criminals who had taken the opportunity to grab material possessions while others pointed to communities full of young people from chaotic homes without any hope for the future. It is against this modern backdrop that a new stage version of Alan Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is set.

In this production, brought to Nottingham Playhouse by Pilot Theatre in association with York Theatre Royal, we hear Prime Minister David Cameron say that the acts committed by the rioters is ‘criminality pure and simple’ – and the play’s antihero, the defiant Colin Smith would no doubt agree with him.

Although Colin did not take part in the riots himself, he is later sent to a young offenders’ institute for stealing a cash box from Greggs in a playful nod to the Silliitoe’s novella which was published in 1959. Inside the institute Colin’s talent for running means he is soon noticed by a well-meaning official from the Home Office, who encourages him to take part in the upcoming cross-country race against boys from a public school. He is even allowed to leave the institution to go on long, unsupervised runs in the surrounding countryside. The race an opportunity for Colin to make a success of his life, find favour with the prison governor or even, as the Home Office official suggests, stick two fingers up to those public school boys.

But Colin is not interested in other people’s agendas. He doesn’t even run because he wants to win a race: he runs because this is the only time he is free from the heavy burdens he carries on his shoulders. The questions about Colin’s future are never resolved and there are no obvious solutions. It is only when he is running that he is able to live in the present and enjoy some kind of clarity.

In the play, the internal monologue of Sillitoe’s text was brought to life with an imaginative set design. Each scene was projected onto a 3D backdrop which enabled scenes to be transformed in quick succession, mirroring the protagonist’s fleeting thoughts. We also see Elliot Barnes-Worrell, who excels in the role of Colin, running on a treadmill,which gives the narrative a driving energy. His running and his thought patterns are intersected by scenes from his troubled background – but there is also an unadulterated joy in the physical sensation of running: the ‘Flip-flap, flip-flap, jog-trot, jog-trot, crunch-slap, crunch-slap’.

My only slight disappointment was that the play did not appear to be set in Sillitoe’s native Nottingham but instead in an unnamed London borough. While many young people in Nottingham emulate the slang of their London counterparts, it would have been great to hear some local dialect – and possibly a reference to the Broadmarsh Centre rather than the Westfield.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is on at the Playhouse until Saturday. For tickets visit the website.

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Review: Bones at Nottingham Playhouse

“I had this pet rabbit once. I used to hold it tight ‘til my knuckles went white. I held it tight so it couldn’t run. But it did. It dug itself out of the mud round the yard. I would have dug my way out and never come back if it wasn’t for her.”

Anyone who has spent time in Nottingham will no doubt recognise the central character of Jane Upton’s play Bones which was shown at Nottingham Playhouse last weekend ahead on its nationwide tour.

Inside a shabby house, nineteen-year-old Mark (played by Joe Doherty) delivers a terse, dramatic and engaging monologue which left the audience at Nottingham Playhouse on Friday night feeling liked they had been punched in the guts.

Produced by Fifth Word, this is a play in which the sense of deprivation hangs heavy in the air; at the beginning Mark tells us how much he wants to murder his baby sister, referring to her as ‘it’. His mum is a drug-addled prostitute and he has little escape from the claustrophobic world of living on an estate.

The only possible respite comes from Mark’s memory of a holiday in Skegness with his beloved grandfather and mum. He remembers going to the beach and drinking bottle after bottle of Panda Pop; but even as he reminisces about this time the reality of his mum’s addiction becomes heartbreakingly apparent.

Upton is a Nottingham native and her experience of growing up in the city shines through in the street names and references to Nottingham Forest. But the nihilism of poverty gives it a universality, underpinned by Doherty’s compelling performance.

Bones was a sell-out at last year’s Ednburgh Fringe Festival. It will be performed at Create at West Notts College in Mansfield on 10th October.

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Review: Sparkling wit and sadness in The Hand-Me-Down People

Anyone who discarded an old toy when they were younger, or perhaps neglected to visit an elderly relative, may feel a pang of guilt watching The Hand-Me-Down People, a piece of drama which Nottingham University’s New Theatre will be taking up to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this week.

The play, written by Adam H. Wells, gives literal meaning to the term ‘on the shelf’. On this dusty shelf is a group of toys which have been discarded by the children in favour of something more exciting. There’s the grotesque-looking but benign Witch and Monster, the slightly spoilt Princess and Doll and the Prince who has had half of his face and arm chewed off by the dog.

For all its sparkling wit, a sadness hangs heavy in the air. Some of the toys are desperate to escape the nothingness of living on the shelf and want to jump down in the hope that the children will start to play with them again. Others are resigned to their fate observing that while their lives are not getting any better, at least they are not getting any worse.

Here are a group of disparate individuals who don’t have anything in common with each other apart from the fact that no-one wants them. There is a real sense of neglect and soul-sapping boredom alluding perhaps to life in a care home. Perhaps most poignantly, the characters all long to be part of stories again. They look to the outside but can’t reach it so instead they have to create their own narratives within the confines of the shelf.

The play, which previewed at Nottingham University on Thursday, is elevated further by the vibrant costumes and the attention to detail in the set design. It is sound tracked by the dainty sound of a music box which plays throughout and which the characters find at once comforting and frustrating. Like Porphyria, this production showcases the talents of everyone involved and I wish everyone all the best for the Fringe.

You can see The Hand-Me-Down People at C Nova, India Buildings, Victoria Street, Edinburgh between 2nd and 27th August. For details see the website.

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Review: From the mundane to the poetic in Porphyria

Suffocating domesticity turns into something altogether more macabre in Porphyria, a new play written by emerging talent Craig Wilmann and performed by members of Nottingham University’s New Theatre.

Robert Browning’s 1836 poem Porphyria’s Lover forms the basis of this gripping psychological drama which previewed at the university on Wednesday ahead its run at next month’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

The play opens with Reginald Blake and his wife, who incidentally has no name, squabbling over a game of Scrabble. It is a petty argument but one that belies deeper problems in their relationship. Despite this, Reginald assures the audience that he would never be unfaithful to his wife – except that is in his dreams when he dances with a beautiful blonde-haired woman.

But Reginald was not expecting this woman to emerge from his fantasies and be sitting at the breakfast table in the form of his son’s au pair.

What follows is a darkly comic and surreal tale of infidelity, madness and murder. The play moves deftly from the mundane to poetic, perhaps seen most poignantly in Reginald’s estrangement from his son Nicholas. We see love at its most selfish and destructive and by using a range of neat dramatic devices – such as the two women speaking over the top of each other – the distinction between past and present breaks down. There is also a sense in which dreams and reality become indistinguishable, trapping our protagonist in his own perpetual torment.

The three cast members, Nick Jeffrey (Reginald), Liz Stevens (Wife) and Genevieve Cunnell (Dream Woman) played their parts brilliantly. Jeffrey was wholly believable in his role of the beleaguered everyman. He comes across as wide-eyed and innocent, almost child-like, but at the same time, he is also obsessive, selfish and menacing. Meanwhile, the fact that the two women are not given names does not detract from the complexity of their characters and the rich emotions they convey.

New Theatre will be representing the university and the city of Nottingham at this year’s Fringe – it thoroughly deserves to be a success. You can see Porphyria at Zoo Southside, 117 Nicolson Street, Edinburgh between 6th and 20th August. For details click here.

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