Toast – Assembly Roxy

Written by Benjamin Storey

Directed by Ryan Alexander Dewar

Here’s a fun game to play: If you had to choose, which would you rather? Eat nothing but pizza forever, or never have a slice again? How about condiments? Ketchup or Mayo? What’s your favourite utensil? How about choosing between 18 months to live or five years. Appears quite a simple choice, right? Written by Benjamin Storey, who also portrays Joe, Toast features the C-word: Cancer. In their second appearance at Assembly Roxy’s Formation Festival, Interabang Productions examines the stress, anguish and yes, even laughs, a young couple face when one faces the reality of terminal cancer.

In an age of scaremongering headlines, genuine medical advice is overwhelmed by clickbait articles. It’s laced throughout the production through the tubs of ‘pro-life’ butter, Facebook articles and even the title – because burnt toast (as we all know) causes cancer. That’s how Joe likes his toast, feeling that you can’t micro-manage everything, to just chase your dreams. Living with his partner Mel (Rachel Flynn), the two of them share a life we can relate to: soon graduating, arguing over TV and coming to grips with life’s shitty curveballs.

Storey’s performance, as well as his writing, is mortal in composition. There is no place here for melodrama. The points of hyper-reaction are the moments in which we would respond this way. It’s an incredibly subtle performance, channelling the stages of anger, depression and denial we all find in grief. Yet, it’s also strikingly funny; you’ll never find yourself laughing so much at mortality again. The production takes around ten minutes to get into its rhythm, but from this point it’s a powerful piece of turmoil, love and – above all – humanity.

Framed against multiple projected backdrops, the lighting does an enormous job in setting the tone. The clean set design too complements Ryan Dewar‘s straight-forward direction. The use of multimedia adds to the drama’s impact; one critical scene where the narrative moves to a live video-feed, where Flynn and Storey share a tender 3am moment, is as compassionate as it is gut-wrenching.

Following on from her creative and performing role in Interabang’s other production, Being Liza, Rachel Flynn is laying all her talents bare. Toast would simply not work without capable leads. The emotional dexterity demanded by Toast is tough, as both leads not only have to convey cancer’s destructive path but the love these two share. In such a short space of time, Flynn bounces off of Storey, heightening his performance while driving her own. Her natural charm effortlessly conveys to the audience why this relationship works. Getting away with the cheesiest of routines, lifting them into reality, both Flynn and Storey have an uncannily rare ability to capture those genuine moments of realness.

It is in the final moments of the production – in a promise made by Mel to Joe – that Flynn’s ability is evident. Albeit a brief and perhaps predictable scene, the direction, the pain and the connection Flynn achieves with the audience is more transparent than any forced moment of empathy. It’s beautiful in how haunting the ending manages to be.

Toast carries weight to it, which isn’t grotesque enough to put people off but maintains a dignity to be proud of. So what would you do, given the choice? It’s one we would never wish to make, especially so young. Interabang Productions seem to be taking bold steps in their outing productions, not shying away from the raw emotion underneath. Given the evident and commendable talent demonstrated by their performers, writers and creatives, there’s surely a promising future ahead for all involved.

Review Originally published for Wee Review:

Dr. Moreau Explains – Assembly Roxy

Original Novel by H.G. Wells

Adapted by Michael Daviot

Directed by Emily Ingram

For the many that are familiar with the monstrous creations found within H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau then Dr Moreau ExplainsMichael Daviot’s part-adaptation of the 1896 novel, will not disappoint. Dr Moreau, an expert vivisectionist, finds himself answering the questions of biologist Edie Prendick. In a twist from the source, the action does not take place during the book, instead we see beyond the covers. Building upon the notion of Prendick’s account of the brutality she (in a gender-swapped role) bore witness too, and seeking answers from Dr Moreau via video link. As Moreau is trapped by the very Beast Folk he creates, he offers a final explanation of his deeds and a ‘lesson’ to Prendick.

Fresh off the coattails of a rather spiffing run as Sherlock Holmes, Twisted Thistle are continuing a trend involved in much of Daviot’s career. He refuses to allow the pages of a story to go untouched, seeking a way to reignite, revitalise and re-imagine its contents. His previous works contain an intense adoration for Gothic horror, narrative, and elements of sci-fi or fantasy and this all works in tremendous favour for Dr Moreau Explains, especially Daviot’s uncanny ability to take a preexisting tale and somehow spin it into an entirely distinct form.

Well’s original novel is far from a perfectly pleasant experience, though what else would you expect? A sublime piece of early science-fiction, it is one of the first instances of ‘uplifting’ – drawing animal companions onto the same evolutionary lineage as humans. It deals with human identity, pain, scientific suffering and moral responsibilities. Dr Moreau Explains, knowing full well to respect the source material, remains unchanged. That said, Daviot’s clever scripting includes the odd choice phrase or propaganda satire which hints at the passing time since the novel’s first publication.

Aesthetically Dr Moreau Explains is able to pull the story into a contemporary setting however its hints at a steampunk aesthetic are only present in the cogs and windings of the buffering ‘live broadcast’. Roddy Simpson’s design for the video operation is remarkable in terms of quality for the scale and time to accomplish.

Daviot’s performance, under Emily Ingram’s direction, is the highlight of the production. The sheer ferocity in delivery showcases an entire spectrum of emotion that thunders out into the audience. That is not to say we do not have the stillness of emotional weight. One smarter aspect of the ‘live video’ aesthetic is that it ingeniously sets up some of the quieter moments. Frozen frames and buffering video means the audience shift their entire focus to Daviot – and it is here where he capitalises on the break in momentum, holding us on his every word.

Similarly to Moreau’s infamous ‘Puma-Woman’, this production has elements requiring completion. The components are there, some deftly incorporated, others require a tight pull on the stitching. The concept is sound, but it needs more fleshy sinew. Daviot and Ingram are compelling in their performance, but there is less of an association between Ingram and Daviot’s characters as we would hope for. With the use of video footage, Ingram is unable to stand against the torrent of Dr Moreau’s confessions. While she has tremendous expression, delivery, and her epilogue closing out the piece is fitting for the original novel; there’s also a restriction in what emotions can be on the show. She cannot interrupt Moreau, nor can she directly engage. While it makes for a commanding stage presence for Daviot, it regrettably means Ingram plays second-fiddle.

In its closing moments, the realisation of what Dr Moreau Explains has the potential to evolve into is inspiring. The regenerative powers Twisted Thistle are capable of, inherently down to the talents of Daviot, to showcase the wealth of literature for new audiences.

Review originally published for Wee Review:

Downs With Love – Assembly Roxy

Written by Suzanne Loftus

Photo Credit to Alan Peebles

Downs With Love is a frank, open conversation about the way we look at the capabilities, emotions and safeguarding of those with Down’s Syndrome; specifically, in the contexts of relationships. Abi Brydon plays a young woman named Beth. Beth is vivacious, independent and has intense happiness for life most of us would envy. Yet, she cannot even make a cup of tea without being asked: “Can you do that yourself?”

Her new support worker Tracy (Katy Milne) encourages Beth to venture outside more. Though fully capable of catering to her own day-to-day needs, Beth finds it challenging to engage in a world which has previously shown nothing but bullying and ridicule. On an outing to the pub, Beth makes a passing comment of a ‘special someone’ – a musician called Mark. She has a crush, yet so do Mark and Tracy. The two begin a relationship – hiding it from Beth – stating that while uncomfortable, it’s the best thing for her.

Following their successful Fringe run in 2017, Cutting Edge Theatre was awarded a People’s Project grant.This not only allowed for a touring production, but has also given then the opportunity of a wider audience and the chance to connect further with those living with learning disabilities. Suzanne Lofthus’s script is less designed to push the audience’s acceptance of Down’s and more concerned about questions of love, relationships and what we consider ‘acceptable’.

Brydon holds her own while onstage, with her performance given the respect deserving of a passionate performer. She captures the frustrations we all feel when we’re doubted, made to feel we aren’t capable of achieving anything. Working with writer and director Lofthus, she and Brydon base the character of Beth on many of Brydon’s own experiences growing up with Down’s Syndrome. Downs With Love documents the bullying, disappointments and fight to be acknowledged that Brydon herself has faced. Her closing monologue, which the entire production has been building towards, is a sublime, hard-hitting speech that encourages the audience to confront their own apprehensions around people like her.

Brydon wants to communicate her tires and frustrations with the odd glances and cruel words. More though, she addresses the issue of love and disability, an issue which causes unease in people. That there is no reason for her not to seek love and connection. One question she challenges us with is whether would we feel uncomfortable if someone with Down’s was to date someone without the condition? It’s a question Stephen Arthur’s character Mark has put to him, handling the subject in an admirable, if glossed over, manner.

Serving as the audience’s representative, so to speak, Milne and Arthur together offer natural and realistic individuals. Their decisions to not speak with Beth upfront, to pander to her emotions and frequently question Beth’s capabilities feel uncomfortably familiar. It’s an entirely human response to act overbearing when we don’t fully understand someone.

The choreography, while not entirely necessary, serves a clear theme of repetition and schedule. Scenes are dedicated to Beth’s insistence on routine; bathing, brushing her teeth, going to college, which all indicate a passage of time in the production. Gradually, the group movements evolve as Katie and Mark begin to grow closer, flirting and touching. Here movement plays a role, communicating the isolation Beth is reliving as the pair focus on themselves and not her.

Anyone with relatives or friends who have Down’s Syndrome will recognise the creativity in Downs With Love. A tremendous amount of feeling has been put into this production, by Brydon herself more than anyone. It wears its heart on its sleeve, taking chances but refraining from pushing its audience too far into uneasiness. An emotional piece, Downs With Love rightfully deserves its funding to reach a wider audience

Review originally published for Wee Review

Production touring: