Bare E-ssentials 3: with a Vengeance – Encompass Productions

Produced by Liam Fleming, Rachael Owens & Jonathon Woodhouse

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Who says the sequels are never as good as the original? Back with a vengeance, Bare Essentials, one of London’s leading new creative writing evenings returns for their monthly reminder of the talent out there in the world. The now award evening 17th edition (third virtual), is as strong as ever and ready to grab life by the unmentionables and explore unique stories, original creators and some fresh takes.

This evening we’re treated to a quartet of fresh innovative writing, all helmed under the watchful eye of the charming host Liam Fleming. Each comprises different genres, styles and aesthetics, as these four pieces make up a cluster of imaginative premises, exceptionally prepared and thought-out through lockdown and isolation – many incorporating the now normal struggles, working with the limitations of COVID rather than actively struggling against.

Despite what pretences may come with new writings, nothing about Bare E-ssentials is scratch media or a melting pot, these are fully-fledged concepts with finished productions. Evident in the direction and writing, the online format opens up the conceptual dynamics of the shorts, where inspirations from cinema and theatre are seeded into original concepts.

First up, there’s a set of Rules which must always be adhered to in life, especially those concerning sex and friends. Lucy Jamieson’s short production takes two friends stuck at home, Jess and Alex, as they lament the struggles of life, and the difficulties of balancing relationships, friendships, and syphilis. Together the pair have terrific energy and chemistry, and the jarring sense of the comedy settles quickly, with Rachael Owens direction coming over as a Channel 4 pilot episode. It’s the richest laugh of the evening, and the finest way to start.

It isn’t all giggles and comradery, however, as both Emma Dawson’s Stones Around My Neck and Jacquie Penrose’s Listen take a substantially darker turn, well – it wouldn’t be a new writing night without this turn. Sat alone, Deborah Garvey effortlessly holds attention in Dawson’s piece as she reflects on the relationship (or lack of) with her youngest daughter, and the influence she has had weighing down aspects of her life – sombre, it’s an investable performance. Equally, a combination of Fleming’s direction with Amelia Parillon’s performance in Penrose’s chilling Listen, which perhaps adheres to the idea of a shot in lockdown the quickest.

Throughout are reminders as to why the recent session of Bare E-ssentials was the honourable winner of an Oncomm Award. The creativity practicality behind scripts, particularly James C Ferguson’s The Chair, where Jonathon Woodhouse’s direction shows how Encompass Productions takes steps beyond the traditional shot-at-home premise, elevating the pieces and working some of the stretched writing mechanics.

An essential lifeblood for the arts community across the nation, Bare E-ssentials is a brief monthly reminder of the exceptional community we’re at risk of losing. Episode 4 of the online series is due to release on August 26th, and couldn’t be recommended enough with a small glass of your favourite and some solid company. And while there’s no possible way to know what spectacles, wonders and oddities may emerge from that evening, it’s safe to say there will be a tremendous showcase of emerging and undervalued talent.

Further information about Bare E-ssentials can be found at Encompass Productions: http://www.encompassproductions.co.uk

You can catch the third installment, and catch up on the rest, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=amwtba7YPN0

Jury Duty – Electric Dreams Online

Created by Joe Ball and Tom Black

Rating: 5 out of 5.

As ‘fake news’ sweeps the globe, a triumphantly manipulative tool prioritised by ad-agencies, social media and (distressingly) politicians, more and more the dangers of this digital age manipulation grow. Toying with this concept, highlighting its intrusions in more than the public sphere, into the private, political, and judicial, Exit Productions have crafted a spectacularly innovative, wily, and layered experience of live theatre with Jury Duty.

Everyone has an opinion, now more so than ever, but just how valuable is your judgement? Are barristers and law degrees worth their salt when Mitchell from Sunderland has seen every episode of The Good Wife? If people think they know better than the professionals, well, this is the opportunity to put those binged hours of Making A Murderer to the test. Jury Duty places you and several others in a virtual court, led by the Ministry of Justice themselves. So how will you find the accused?

A fire, a corpse, and a conspiracy which could sweep the news world and send the country into rebellion, Jury Duty focuses on a new fictitious style of court proceedings being trialled across the UK. A virtual jury will question, deduce, and pass judgement on the defence as part of the recently formed Justice Act (2020). The defendant, Harry Briggs, is accused of arson, manslaughter and murder, and as the jury splits themselves to dive through mountains of evidence, question the defendant and come together to forge a verdict, oddities emerge, stories fail to line up and maybe, just maybe, the experience will ripple from the screen and into your real life.

The intricate level of balancing a story, where multiple players can throw a spanner into the works, elevates Jury Duty from a simplistic narrative into a complex production involving masterfully adept improvisation from Tom Black. Able to interact with the defendant is, of course, unusual for the jury, but the layout of Zoom and incorporation of liveness produces a diverse range from Black, who can respond to the good cops, the bad cops and the sympathetic cops with equal ability.

And while it may solely be Black onscreen, a more sinister presence is felt from The Coordinator, Joe Ball, who by the end of the session seems less orchestrator and more problematic. Involving multiple media, Jury Duty leeches itself into other avenues to force Jurors into their own espionage antics and trust exercises. Daring not to spoil an ounce, don’t be surprised if you begin to question everyone and everything. The intertextual play at work is extraordinary, and though it may panic you at first viewing, the series of documents, audio files, riddles and… well, that’s for the jury to discover…are easy to follow.

Then again, spoilers needn’t worry readers, as each session is unique given the dexterity in the team’s manipulation of events, and of course the refresh of jurors between sessions. Gradually these strangers will form a unit, as the case becomes more investible, reinforced by Black’s emotional performance. The incorporation of Zoom enables groups to banter, divulge and share screens to build upon the mystery. Fear not plunging down the rabbit hole, as Exit Productions maintains a guiding hand, and a friendly steer for key moments.

Calculative, Jury Duty builds on a world it carefully stitches, gradually morphing an engaging piece into an in-depth explosion of drama, intrigue, and beguiling storytelling. If there was a crime for innovation, Exit Productions is unquestionably guilty.

Review originally published for The Reviews Hub: https://www.thereviewshub.com/jury-duty-electric-dreams-online-festival/

Continues until 13 August 2020. Tickets and information available from Electric Dreams Festival website.  

Selah and the Spades – Amazon Prime

Written & Directed by Tayarisha Poe

USA/ 2019/ 97 mins

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Whether you’re a prefect, a drama bobby, or a ‘skin’, everyone struggles to find a place at school and, if cinema is to be believed, especially in America. Set against the soft, rolling green mounds of a Pennsylvania boarding school, Selah and the Spades attempts to decipher the inner workings of student hierarchy through Selah, a graduating seventeen-year-old, under her mother’s scorn and the weight of the school’s underground activities as the leader of the Spades. Could someone maintain the Spades’ influence after she leaves, or will one faction or another assert dominance?

Things don’t start well, with shoddy camera work attempting to emulate intricate angles, resulting in awkward shots cutting off characters and leaving vast empty frames. Cliques within the school dynamic is an age-old trope. Utilising this correctly can result in culturally significant movies. Do it wrong, and you end up with tepid, unfocused, and pale imitations of those movies. Selah and The Spades itself falls into the latter category.

Leader of the Spades and de facto controller of the student body, Selah is thoroughly unlikeable – still not a great start. Tayarisha Poe’s script talks of the importance of passing the torch, and the weight placed on Selah’s shoulders, but we don’t experience this gravity. Her ‘pushy’ mother is a one-note role from Gina Torres, with a monotone delivery; but this is likely out of directional choice and not performance. In only one direct instance, where Selah speaks directly to the audience (in another of Jomo Fray‘s peculiar designs in the cinematography), are the expectations placed on young women addressed. How men want them to look ‘impossible’, and how the faculty wish to control their bodies. A sensational, true, and persistent issue, but this isn’t demonstrated in the film. Lovie Simone and others are capable performers, but the characters have zero accountability or problems with authority, regularly wearing whatever they please, doing whatever they want, and suffering zero consequences, causing a detachment from the audience to these characters.

The exception is Celeste O’Connor. While performances range from deadpan to noticeably lacking and seldom engaging, O’Connor’s place as the new blood, the potential successor, and Selah’s new plaything is the audience’s way into the story. Unsure of what precisely is going on, but with chemistry with Simone, O’Connor has an authentic presence, a likeability, and tenderness which, when pushed, makes for the only significantly genuine arc across the film.

Complaining of a lack in control, but seemingly answering to no one regarding Selah’s extensive drug trafficking and manipulation, Poe’s script is a hot mess of ideas that smash into one another. Had the narrative attempted to expand this psychological power play to maintain the only control Selah possesses, Selah and the Spades may have stepped forward as an exceptionally detailed account of a young woman projecting her lack of control onto the outside world. Instead, with the peculiar choices to downplay violent or potentially gritty aspects in catering to a teen-drama, Poe waters down her script to an unengaging level.

This lack of direction skewers the film at various intervals, entirely uncomfortable with sticking to the confines of one or two storytelling mechanics. The cinematography is uncomfortable, unable to settle on a shop, focusing attention away from point of action. Aesthetically, the film has some design, but poor lighting casts characters in blocking shadows, which removes the ability to gauge expression. Poe’s writing has nuances of an adroit script, weaving sexuality and even aspects of asexual nature surprisingly delicately into the backgrounds. These aspects mean Selah and the Spades has wasted potential; a coming-of-age narrative with no one at the helm to charter the course, causing the focus to drift all over the place. 

Available to stream on Amazon Prime now

Review originally published for The Wee Review: https://theweereview.com/review/selah-and-the-spades/