Heroine – Traverse Theatre

Writer: Mary Jane Wells

Director: Susan Worsfold

At the heart of this production, a prime example of raw, honest theatre, is the life story of Danna Davis. Adapted in a brutal, purposeful way, Heroine hasn’t been crafted by writer and performer Mary Jane Wells as a sob story, nor a hate piece – it’s a profound amalgam of anger, outrage, fragility and survival.

Five stools, five spotlights – one story. Danna Davis, a woman serving in the United States military who must work, live and survive among those who have sexually assaulted her; those who threaten her life, and the lives of those she loves every day. More than this, it’s a story for anyone in the room, those at home and both Wells and Davis, ensuring silence is no longer an associate of perpetrators.

Written in a variety of fashions, Well’s production combines metaphorical lyricism with gritty, literal expression to demonstrate both the innate power of the human condition, as well as the fragility we all share. Rather than an extensive discussion of the sexual assault Davis experienced, a contained segment is all which is required, a lacerating depiction of the event, hushing what feels like the world for a few minutes as Well’s dedication and respect for the role speaks volumes. Cast in George Tarbuck’s lighting design, it’s a harrowing piece of beautiful theatre design, even as it uncovers the degeneracy and retaliation within our armed forces.

An assault on the senses, Matt Padden’s effective sound design is disorientating at times, though this is inherently the idea behind such design. Loud, invasive and immediate, the stark change of everyday noises into PTSD situations triggers the transformation which pushes Heroine beyond observational. It’s sensory theatre, quite possibly one of the few shows which would work equally as a radio or audio drama.

Remarkably personal, Well’s writing captures (we suspect) as close an account of Davis’ experience as possible. In a haunting way, it’s a beautifully written production – distressingly lyrical, wrapping such vile, grim reality in a vexing garb which, despite its subject matter, is funny, touching, engaging and in some morbid sense – comforting. Well’s performance conveys the process of grief, just as equally as the process of aggression and forgiveness, and in tandem with Susan Worsfold’s wonderfully simplistic, yet effective direction builds rapport with the audience quickly.

Perhaps a result of the heightened emotional nexus, Heroine finds itself an overflow of intense moments. Never detracting from the message, structurally it causes halts and wobbles in a production which otherwise is a pinnacle of honesty. With how rooted Well’s writing is in the life of another, and the experiences of so many, there’s little wonder that emotion bubbles over, occasionally taking Wells out of her role as Davis, throwing her off.

The fact we sit in 2020, with powerful productions such as Well’s still a necessity to offer a release, opening dialogue for those experiencing sexual assault and retaliation while serving in the armed forces, is beyond explanation, but it’s a story we need to hear. A story we must preserve, ensuring that for as long as sexual assaults within any workplace, especially those who defend our nations, continues, that there remain a stark reminder and avenue of exploration for all.

Review originally published for Reviewshub: https://www.thereviewshub.com/heroine-traverse-theatre-edinburgh/

Photo Credit: Greg Macvean

SIX – Festival Theatre

Written by Toby Marlow & Lucy Moss

Directed by Lucy Moss & Jamie Armitage

History is widely written by men; no wonder we didn’t pay attention in school. Unless you have had the misfortune of a beheading or being pushed into a nunnery by your gout-suffering brut of a husband, Six is the concert musical sensation which rules the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, stormed the Westend and conquered Broadway. They may have been divorced, beheaded and died, but on stage, they thrive. 

A testament to the colossal power of a lucrative, stimulating idea and the influence of the Festival Fringe, Six descends on high to mingle with the common folk. This regal return for the wives of Henry VIII reminds us all that behind the man were six efficacious, prominent and notably individual women. All of whom deserve a damn-site more praise and attention than their historical footnotes.

Of course, the real question is: “who’s your favourite”? Which Queen deserves to lead the band, own her crown and step out from Henry’s broad shadow? Should it be the seductress Anne Boleyn; the woman who would give birth to Queen Elizabeth I? Or maybe, the Spanish mother, the O.G, Catherine of Aragon is the royal of your heart? Or could it just be those other women, the ones whose names sit on the edge of your tongue? Six has a primary concert premise, a seventy-five-minute run-time, but vivacious talent, legions of fans and a cast of undeniably skilled women befitting their crowns.  

So, roll up your Green Sleeves lords and ladies of the court, it’s a right royal rumble, for now at least. From the scintillating imagination of Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, Six pounds with a heart of musical theatre, but with the blood and teeth of a gig. Both Marlow and Mosses’ lyrical ability gifts the audience with ten unique numbers full of a rainbow of hilarity, affection, cattiness and fury. The vocals of the team, consisting of Lauren Drew, Maddison Bulleyment, Lauren Byrne, Shekinah McFarlane, Jodie Steele and Athena Collins has an intense, diverse range of tone, purpose and delivery.

There are raps, power ballads and break-out those glowsticks folks – we have club-house beats. It is though, Steele’s number ‘All You Wanna Do’ which has a lyricism and choreography that delves swiftly from raunchy into depraved, tormenting and a piece of artistic expression which holds context across centuries. In reverse, Haus of Holbein and Get Down shatter the glass ceiling, shake the Festival theatre and propel the audience into bursts of energetic movements, courtesy of McFarlane who channels enviable energy, a lust for life and pizazz which carries us into the shows second half.

In transitioning to the stage, minor adjustments have been taken to provide a sense of theatricality for the touring production. For those familiar with the Queen’s Fringe performances, the changes make a welcome addition, though in moments the crowns need a little polish. Chiefly, communicating pathos to the audience, emotion ramped up from a natural state, where the lyrics and vocals are equally capable of conveying the destructive abuse of histories obsession with sexualising these women.

Blasting concerns of the production occupying the venue space, Emma Bailey’s set design maintains its structure from previous years – evidence to how well-thought the original construction was. Playfully, the lighting design transforms concert dynamics, spotlights make the obvious appearance, but it is the neon, the bulb-lights and manner in which Tim Deiling’s lighting design knows precisely what temperature and shading will contrast, or indeed complement each number which heightens the show.

Before we go, before you even think we’re done; let’s mention Gabriella Slade’s costumes. Sharp stitching houses the essence of characterisation in glorious shades of attitude. It wouldn’t be a show about Queen’s, had their gowns not slain quite as mercilessly as their husband. Nor would they be anywhere without their ladies in waiting; Arlene McNaught, Vanessa Domonique, Frankie South and Kat Bax on instrumentals, McNaught also providing musical direction.

Lucy Moss & Toby Marlow have given a voice to the past, a voice which in-turn speaks for the future. Placing these icons of history in the spotlight, Six is more than a concert history lesson, it has a vaster depth than a feminist musical; Six is an example of the trials of passion, a coming together in the name of rejoice, not revenge and vitally, is a show worth losing your head over.

SIX runs at teh Festival theatre until February 9th. Tickets available from: https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/six-the-musical

Photo Credit: Johan Persson

Ten Times Table – King's Theatre

Written by Alan Ayckbourn

Directed by Robin Herford

If the authenticity of the dreariness of a committee meeting seems spot-on, it will come as no shock to hear of writer Alan Ayckbourn’s endless experiences with councils and organisations as he too attempted to secure funding for theatre projects. A herald of British comedic writing, Ayckbourn is renowned for an astute dissection for the notorious thirst and depravities of commonplace relationships, staging them in remarkably familiar surroundings. Then, there is Ten Times Table.

Ayckbourn’s position as playwright should, inherently, place his writing squarely in the ability to take all sides, weigh them accordingly and balance the reality of the situation with the comedy elements. Instead, Ayckbourn seems to find himself stagnant on the same table the committee seems intent on never leaving. Ten Times Table is neither a full-fledged farce nor capitalising on more than pleasant Sunday afternoon chuckle.

Heading this committee is Ray, who naively attempts to find harmony with other representatives of the town, including his wife Helen, rallying them behind a historical re-enactment. Of course, history has an uncanny ability to repeat itself, often with disastrous consequences. Slowly (very slowly) the committee drag themselves up and out of the bar long enough to hold their first meeting. As Helen finds a nemesis in self-proclaimed Marxist Eric, a state-comprehensive teacher, the remaining members find themselves drawn into an impending breakdown between the two. Battle lines are drawn, war is about to break, but the tension is as taut as a well-worn slipper.

Robert Daws’ Ray is a remarkably upbeat character, with an approachability entirely unexpected from the role. There’s principally nothing offensive to the character, perfectly pleasant (if a little dull), Daws brings likeability and interest where other performers may have lost our attention. His ability to curve the tone of his annunciation to coax out a laugh from the audience offers a little more depth to the character, and he works well with Deborah Grant playing Helen – who herself injects a tremendous weight of rural-town, middle-class venom into the part.

The stage never feels large enough for the cast, incorporating a few extra players on the board as we introduce characters Tim (Harry Gostelow) and timid-sounding Philippa (Rhiannon Handy). Robin Herford’s direction helps promote the small-town feel of standing on top of one another, no secrets to hide but plenty of noses about, but there’s only so much he and the cast can work with. Both Mark Curry and Robert Duncan have the potential for rich development which never strays far into the narrative, Duncan’s role as Laurence; a man going through a marital breakdown seems more a nuisance to the committee rather than a genuine area to build relationships on.

Michael Holt’s design work is quaint, refusing to commit to unnecessary set-work when the minimum will do – opting for a had-its-best-days look of a hotel conference room, complete with table and piano. If anything, the scale of this table, dominating the stage, is too accurate in depiction. The production’s first half is largely spoken wordplay in its comedy, with the occasional facial expression. It looms, overbearing the cast who have little room for manoeuvring, limiting their range of reactions and interactions with one another.

In stark contrast, the second half-strips away the table to the morning of the gala, chaos bubbling beyond the doors. Here, Ayckbourn’s play takes a steady leap towards the shaping of a farce, which is carried off by all performers well. Notably short, the second halves’ 30-minute run time makes for a brief punch of comedy, but only offers a sliver of what the cast is capable of, notably Gostelow’s physicality.

Further distorting the script, Craig Gazey delivers a perfect comedic narcissism to the Marxist character which the Daily Mail would gleefully write about. He and Deborah Grant’s characterisation exhibit a wealth of passionate exposition at loggerheads, but they’re written as such one-note caricatures that quickly the joke ebbs. In no fault of the performers, it limits how we connect with the characters on-stage, distancing us from a fully dimensional performance. The animosity the two shares isn’t unfounded, but it feels far less like biting social commentary and far more similar to a plot-thread you might bump into on re-runs.

Technology and politics may change, but people do not; Ten Times Table reflects the culture it imitates, mimicking the irritation of a committee meeting while capturing the lengths petty squabbles and small-town mindsets can grow. It fails to develop any sense of relationship for the characters, instead, allowing itself to lapse into a meander of paint-by-numbers sitcom structure. No sense of urgency or genuine threat is felt for character relationships or outcomes. It’s by far one of Ayckbourn’s weaker plays, a product of the time but the Classic Comedy Theatre Companie’s tour fails to find any relevance with a modern audience outside of a few cheap gags, niggling chuckles but does profit from an accomplished cast who are attempting their best with a limp script.

Ten Times Table runs at The King’s Theatre until February 8th. Tickets available from: https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/ten-times-table

Photo Credit: Pamela Raith