The Poltergeist – Southwark Playhouse

Written by  Philip Ridley

Directed by  Wiebke Green

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The level of dedication and pressure placed onto a “child prodigy” is a notoriously gruesome affair. And all too often this expectation snaps, and we find those of immeasurable talent searching out humble jobs with “normal” lives. Sasha is one such star who has dipped. From a young age, his was path set,; Sasha’s first installation planned for 15, already stamped him as an emerging artist. Following an undisclosed incident, Sasha’s life as an artist ends, finding himself working in stationers in a small flat with his boyfriend.

It’s easy to understand the bitterness, but snippets of an event, which crashed his life expectations onto a different path, are alluded to in conversations, but are never fully divulged. Philip Ridley’s script allows enough audience imagination to stitch together an idea, even one they can sympathise with, as Sasha and his ever-patient boyfriend endure the last thing we ever want. A family barbeque.

Ridley captures the intensity and flippant emotions found at a family gathering, to the extent that you’ll find yourself opening a bottle in solidarity with Sasha. It’s a compelling script, which finds roots in an authentic setting and never strays from a believable path; too easy would it be to lean on the crutch of comedy, and too troublesome to pour lighter fuel onto the turbulent relationships. Wiebke Green’s direction complements Ridley’s script, which is mostly seamless and able to reign in the undoubted bursting energy of actor Joseph Potter. Together, the trio stage Poltergeist as a warning of the toxic nature of sipping poison and awaiting someone else to die. Holding onto things is never the answer, and, often, nefarious secrets have their reasons for remaining in shadows.

The outstanding capabilities of Joseph Potter in commanding, not only a solitary stage but a stage with the distractions of home life is exceptional. There’s an understanding in Potter’s performance, coupled with Green’s direction that, in honesty, Sasha is a bit of an arse. Dismissive, snippy and unable to remember the names of relatives (though this is forgivable), Potter embodies someone vulnerable, with an obvious but icy exterior to combat this.

As the sole performer, Potter has the duty of carrying Ridley’s fast-paced script, and it’s a dangerous one to perform solo. There’re slipups at every corner, multiple characterisations to falter over and even the occasional breakneck back and forth. Potter matches each step splendidly. Despite the premise of a monologue, these ‘dialogue’ sequences build a dimension to the production and expand on the expectations we have for the story.

But perhaps most elegantly, if painful in moments, is how much this production shrieks for a destined physical performance. The world of online theatre has catapulted the medium into the homes and minds of people who would never have considered it viable. And every production, good, bad or terrible, has at one point reached to someone who perhaps thought theatre was exclusive or inaccessible through financial means. The Poltergeist is a triumph online, but one cannot help but know how much more mesmerically captivating this obnoxious aggression and angst would feel in a live theatre. Perhaps that, in essence, is the highest compliment that could be paid to Potter.

Review pulished for The Reviews Hub

Shrapnel – Production Lines

Written by Claire Wood

Directed by Alan Patterson & Claire Wood

Rating: 3 out of 5.

It hasn’t been an easy time for anyone. In particular health workers, the vulnerable and those who have tragically lost loved ones and financial security. Life, however, endeavours no matter how different it may feel.

One person’s ups and downs correlate to the shrapnel effect across those they love, know, and interact with – initially entrusting her neighbour with the duty of witnessing her will, Martha is otherwise housebound, only interacting over zoom or the telephone. Meanwhile, her daughter Helen struggles with the endless hours as a care worker, mother and supporter for her mum with four hour-round shopping trips for her.

The reasonings of writer and director Claire Wood’s decisions at the foundations of shrapnel is to draw inspiration from the how of utilising a digital medium for a piece of theatre. To incorporate the setting of Zoom, rather than merely using it as an extension of the camera. Opposed to just filming a staged production, shrapnel uses the online platform as the stage, and though we may find ourselves far from the stalls, and ice cream vendors – Production line’s show has all the trimmings of authentic live performance.

But more, shrapnel demonstrates the shortfalls we’ve identified over the year and the vulnerabilities we have taken for granted. Not only in the elderly or perceived vulnerable, but the young who find themselves without stimulus or families, and a generation of young adults out of work, out of cash and with crippling anxiety feeding into the hands of isolation.

Connections are everything, particularly these days. And the ability to forge these across screens has become something we’ve had to grow comfortable with, and though the entire cast demonstrates a natural affinity with one another, there’s a particular sincerity captured in the pairing of Martha and Rick – an aspect which could easily have been played for laughs. Building, rolling and cascading into anxious, there’s a myriad of ages and groups who will recognise anxiety in Richard Lydecker’s frantic descriptions as Rick’s bubbling stresses and difficulties with sleeping impact his life. So too is Lydecker’s comedic timing, trickling out at precisely the keenest moment of impact or diffusion of a potentially awkward situation.

Despite being the centre-point which our characters congregate around, Alma Forsyth’s Martha isn’t robbing the attention away from her co-stars. Her control is deft, and the charm she exudes is infectious as the production grows following a slower start. The back and forth she shares with best friend Viv (the vivacious Beverley Wright) and neighbour Rick make for shrapnel’s naturally flowing sequences, and often the stronger points of comedy.

That is, save for Brian Neill’s late introduction to the story as the bonza mucker himself Frank. A surefire hit with the ladies (he thinks), Neill conjures a real sense of those family members we haven’t seen for years, but beam with joy when we see their mischievous faces pop up. A notorious influence on his grandchildren Emily and Anna, it’s clear to see where the young stars Rowan and Heidi Fieldhouse’s evident enjoyment comes from in the production.

Slightly disconnected to the primary story, but threaded in neatly, is Jay. The authenticity which Ellis Tullis brings to her delivery is (to be frank), for a performer of her age remarkably impressive in delivery and natural ability to refrain from making aspects of the script feel stilted. Jay is a girl coming to the age of both independence and a recognition of the value of family, and of course, potential love interests. The writing, seamless inclusivity, and performance here is both Wood’s and Tullis at their best, and in no small part a mark of credit to Alan Patterson and Wood’s direction of the piece, particularly in Tullis’ monologues.

Thanking Wood’s writing and Patterson’s direction is unafraid to find the light in the misery and puncture the script’s more serious tones with levity, sarcasm and some cracking line deliver from ‘down unda’. It demonstrates an understanding of offsetting intense subject material, whilst also paying tribute to the severity of the narrative.

By the wrap-up performance from Wright to play us out, similar to this second lockdown which looms across the nation, shrapnel loses a little steam. It follows a few motions which have become rhythmic, and the ending isn’t as neatly tied together as the precursor scenes. Nothing ends poorly, but character reactions and choices feel frayed from the performances which have been leading up to this point.

Without question though, shrapnel may well have been conceived to exist on a digital platform, but it is undeniably live theatre at it’s absolute. Shrapnel emerged as the secondary thoughts resulting from a foiled Festival Fringe appearance, but it never sits as something which hasn’t had tremendous care placed into it. 

Production Lines have not only captured the difficulties of isolation across different generations but found enjoyment in re-connecting with people over digital means, and successfully tying their method of performance into a coherent story. Set against the soft melodies and an original composition of Wright, shrapnel is an autumn showcase you’ll not want to miss out on as we draw closer into what is likely a less social Christmas.

Tickets for shrapnel are free, and we would encourage those able to offer a donation for the event to donate to Acting for OthersAge UK or Scottish charity Tiny Changes.

Tickets are available through EventBrite

15 Heroines: The Desert – The Jermyn Street Theatre

Written by April De Angelis, Stella Duffy, Isley Lynn, Chinonyerem Odimba and Lorna French

Directed by Adjoa Andoh, Tom Littler, and Cat Robey

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Completing the trifecta of a grander project, 15 Heroines, The Jermyn Street Theatre’s revived performance of Roman poet Ovid’s The Heroides collects fifteen letters and explores the spurned and thwarted lives of women and re-shapes them for a contemporary era, written, performed, and directed by female or non-binary theatre-makers. The Desert sees these final letters, capturing the lowest points in these women’s lives as husks of their once opulent lives, having come cascading downward – feelings of insecurity, regret, and blazing thirst for retribution fuel their desire to share their stories.

Sweeping in to tie together the remaining five stories from Ovid’s collection, The Desert rewrites the original series of letters into a sequence of monologues, each differing in purpose but linked by the thing which separates The Desert from its sister productions The War and The LabyrinthThe Desert takes its key strength from its dissociation; here the five tales share a motif of abandonment, isolation or an unparalleled rage, but they don’t adhere to a connected narrative where the others tie to the Grecian tales of the Trojan War or Theseus and Jason.

The initial concerns of stereotyping and hammy casting die out rather quickly, as April De Angelis’ Deianaria takes a stark turn into unexpected avenues, and demonstrates a brazen ability and ambition to not skirt around subjects and instead plunge readily into contemporary atrocities which tragically keep their roots in classical history. A woman, replaced by a younger model, begins as a rather run-of-mill magazine cover until we realise that youth and ‘stardom’ have grimmer connotations.

Paedophilia, incest, and abuse are the repugnantly earthy sins The Desert uncovers, and the most robust in their execution. The dynamic shift alters the perception of stories, as Indra Ové’s wannabe WAG Deianaria snaps attention to the tabloid nature of sexual assault with minors, and the protections the rich, famous and ‘sporting’ men surround themselves with as the young they abuse are abandoned, shamed.

It isn’t all forthcoming or well carried, as even the most steadfast of performances cannot save a dreary script. An affliction Stella Duffy’s Dido suffers. The division of the production offers roughly the same running time for each story, but Dido draws itself out at the tail-end. The writing bogs itself in attempted character creation, sacrificing much of the tension or narrative complexity in an attempt to forge a relationship which isn’t latching on.

The particular highlight, where the fusion of the contemporary veils itself over revised source material, is with the gradual maddening presence of Eleanor Tomlinson as her appearance on a ‘reality show’ draws Grecian tragedy into a modern, recognisable setting. And while the subject of incest isn’t one to draw debate over here, the parallels of the ravenous information and gossip mongers clambering onto Canace makes Isley Lynn’s the most well-developed of the stories for The Desert.

Deviating, Hypermestra dips its toe into a firmer root of which Ovid would find familiarity, garbed primarily in rhyme and poetry. Due to this, one would expect a tougher sell, but Nicholle Cherrie’s control of the stage is mesmeric as her diction expands on Chinonyerem Odimba’s reworking of Hypermestra. It’s a multi-layered performance which leads into Martina Laird’s performance of Sappho closing out the production in a powerful statement on conformity and nonsensical systemic racism. Coming to a poignant conclusion which makes its stance, not with force, but with a broken cry into the night.

On occasion The Desert harps itself too much on the men who surround these stories, forgetting to place faith and triumph in the creators, performers and women who associate themselves with the production. And while the winds of despair continue to blow against the efforts of women, individual characters grasp at autonomy as they emerge from the dusted tomes of their precursors, only to find themselves still shackled to patriarchal grievances.

Available here until 14 November 2020

Review published for The Reviews Hub

Photo credit – Shonay Shote