Out of darkness comes Light

Light – Theatre Ad Infinitum @ The Pit, Barbican Centre (Touring until 16 February 2015)

Performed as part of the London International Mime Festival

Light is proof, as if any were needed by now, that Theatre Ad Infinitum are staggeringly good. Just staggeringly, staggeringly good. They are a theatre company that completely and utterly Theatre-Ad-Infinitum-Light-c-Alex-Brenner-photoconfound expectations, and produce plays make you leave the auditorium wanting to tell everyone you know that the absolutely most important thing they could be doing is going to see one of their productions.

Hence the gushing opening paragraph.

Slowly but surely people are waking up to their talents. Light, performed as part of the London International Mime Festival, sold out months ago. They clearly have a devoted fan base and have won a number of fringe awards but it feels like they are currently on the cusp, like 1927 with Golem, of producing a show that takes them out of the Barbican’s rather tiny Pit theatre and onto the main stages.

Theatre Ad Infinitum are not a company that like to sit still. They came to my attention at the London International Mime Festival in 2012 with Translunar Paradise – a work of quiet, tragic brilliance. It demonstrated in its simple, understated way the art of puppetry and despite the alienating effects of the mime it felt more human than any other play produced that year.

Theatre-Ad-Infinitum-Light-c-Alex-Brenner-please-credit-_DSC4592-dimmer-dressesThey followed it up with something completely different; the hyper-verbal, bundle of energy that was Ballad of the Burning Star. If not as technically refined as Translunar Paradise, it was a fabulously entertaining take on the most contentious issue in world politics. It was a forceful piece of theatre that refused to allow itself to be pigeonholed and gave very few easy answers.

And now they are back with Light. This time we are in genre sci-fi territory with a dystopian piece of futurism, imagining what might be as twin developments in technology and neuroscience allow for an ever greater entwining of individual and social consciousness.

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Dante: Re-Brand-ed

Dante’s Inferno: A Modern Telling – Craft Theatre @ The Rag Factory, until 01 February (Tickets)

On sitting down to enjoy a post-show drink the friend I invited to this intense interpretation of the first part of Dante Aligherei’s Divine Comedy, the dante 114th century epic allegory of a man’s descent through the nine circles of hell, sheepishly admitted they may have told colleagues they were going to see Dante’s Peak.

Well, one can but try.

Full disclosure leads me to sadly announce that at The Rag Factory there was little sign of either active volcanoes or renowned vulcanologist Pierce Brosnan.

Instead audiences had better buckle up and prepare themselves for 80 minutes of earnestly performed theatre that attempts to blend the meditations of an early renaissance literary masterpiece with the post-1970’s politico-spiritual philosophies recently given a new lease of life through the ever enthusiastic talking head that has become Russell the Brand.

luke eyeThere is something thrilling about watching a young company work through the process of creating a form of confrontational theatre of their own.

And Craft Theatre certainly know how to talk a good game. Their website is full of intriguing statements about how they have “a practice that allows the actor to understand and become master of their body, emotional reservoirs, and internal mechanism. Our unique way of working keeps the actor present, authentic, grounded, and always searching for development”. And some of the rest is perhaps best left to Private Eye’s Pseuds Corner.

The working techniques reference the incorporation of physical exhaustion and identity deconstruction, which on the surface doesn’t seem entirely pleasant but at least sounds more appropriate for Dante’s Inferno than for, say, The Importance of Being Earnest.

It contains several lovely moments that suggest a level of trust between performers not always evident on stage. In particular the bedroom scenes between Dante (Lucas John Mahoney) and his partner (Maria Swisher) display a naturalistic intimacy more often associated with US indie filmmaking, and it provides a realism that grounds Mahoney’s Dante in the world we recognise.

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Annie (played by Esme Appleton), Robert (Shamira Turner), Golem and Granny (Rose Robinson) Photo Will Sanders

Challenging uniformity in life and on stage.

Golem1927 @ Young Vic Theatre, until 31 January (Tickets)

At its heart 1927’s Golem is a modern reworking of Gustav Meyrink’s 1914 novel, Der Golem, which itself was a retelling of the Prague Golem stories. The legend is a classic piece of Jewish folklore and the oldest narratives date to the Talmud and the very beginnings of Judaism. It is a story that has always held an instinctive appeal. In its most basic form it is about creating life out of golem_new_326x326inanimate matter something that can be identified in most of mankind’s origin myths but as society advanced something about the golem has meant the stories have retained their relevance. Golem’s stories became intertwined with its purpose as he unstoppable, implacable slave of its instruction. It can be seen in the mechanisation of the modern army and again in the prism of the Industrial Revolution that saw the skilled worker become expendable in the face of technological improvements.

The golem, in its nether-changing silence, seems always to reflect the images that a new generation projects upon it. 1927 are just the latest company to breathe life into the clay man and they do so with an extraordinary visual flair and breath-taking inventiveness. Whilst their central conceit, that modern society is a troublingly homogenous mass of cultural identity and branding, is not particularly original and also rather debatable, what cannot be denied is the originality Esme.Appleton.in_.1927.s.Golem_.at_.the_.Young_.Vic_.9.Dec_.2014..17.Jan_.2015..Photo_.by_.Bernhard.M.ller_.2of the company themselves and that they have, with Golem enjoying a sold-out residency at the Young Vic, announced their arrival as a major player on the UK theatre scene.

So what makes 1927 so impressive? Simply put they are leading the vanguard of companies that are using visual effects to question the limitations of the traditional theatrical space. VFX have been a game changer in challenging assumptions about what stories can and can’t be told on stage, and with Golem we are seeing theory turned into practice. Whilst it is not the perfect production – the quality of design, costume and musicianship does outweigh the quality of acting and writing – as a statement of intent it certainly leaves its mark.

VFX are used throughout the West End to provide the ‘value added’ – that extra little bit that makes you feel you haven’t wasted your money and time on a show. However if it is seen in these terms then it is little surprise that VFX rarely do more than add pizazz, it is far rarer to see VFX used to deepen the narrative or to have been carefully considered for its use in producing more complex sets.

The first time I was really aware of the power of VFX was in 2005 with the Menier Chocolate Factory’s wonderful production of Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George. It used technology to move the audience between the Art Institute of Chicago and the banks of the Seine. Watching Daniel Evan’s Seurat ‘paint’ the pointillist masterpiece onto a virtual backdrop was to see for the first time the possibilities that VFX brings to the theatre, and to see a narrative that was immeasurably strengthened by being integrated with the technology.

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2014: A Year in Facts and Figures

A very quick snapshot of Civilian Theatre’s year theatre, as captured by WordPress.

73: Plays Seen  (36% up on 2013)    

69: Plays Reviewed

This includes:
8 Shakespeare Plays (11%)
10 Musicals / Operas (14%) 
37 were new works (50%), of which 22 were not based in existing literature or historical events (30%)
6 were in a foreign language (8%)


Most popular posts of 2014

1. The Crucible

I am sure it was the popularity of Arthur Miller’s classic play and not the appearance of chisel-jawed Thorin Oakenshield in the cast that propelled this to the top of my most read articles of 2014.

2. A Dream Turned Sour

Anything that increases the popularity of The Tiger Lillies is fine by me. This production, orchestrating World War One poetry, was all the things that they do well. Bringing a new and revealing power to well known works by filtering it through their atmospheric baroque soundscapes.

3. The Nether

So it appears I am the only one who thought this play was entirely average and not nearly as interesting as it seemed to think it was. Other bloggers appeared to have loved it and it has got a West End transfer, so it shows how little I know about such things.


Top 10 Countries by Visitors (thanks guys!)

  1. United Kingdom
  2. United States
  3. Brazil
  4. Germany
  5. Australia
  6. France
  7. Canada
  8. Italy
  9. Spain
  10. Russia Federation
  • Civilian Theatre was visited by people from 112 countries in 2013. Up from 83 last year. This represents 58% of all countries recognised by the United Nations.
  • However I hope the one person from Nepal will visit again next year. A lot to do in Africa with the majority of the continent not finding their way to the site. Better news in the Middle East where we even managed to get multiple views from Iraq and Syria. Clearly Civilian Theatre is part of the bumpy road to democracy.

The worldwide reach of Civilian Theatre




The Grand Tour? Oh you mean ‘Le Grand Tour’, oui?

The Grand Tour – Finborough Theatre, until 21 February (tickets)

In Hello Dolly Jerry Herman can lay claim to having created one of the most successful Broadway musicals of all time. It ran for over 2800 performance and won a staggering 10 Tony Awards. Two decades later he enjoyed another huge hit in La Cage aux Folles, which has won a major Tony in each of its Broadway runs.The Grand Tour 3 Alastair Brookshaw (Jacobowsky) photo Annabel Vere

In the decade between these two huge hits Herman wrote three less successful musicals (which include the cult classic Mack and Mabel) of which one was ‘The Grand Tour’. It has never having previously been performed in Europe and there was, despite the Finborough’s mighty reputation, a question mark in my mind over the reason why this might be so.

Well it certainly isn’t a dud. If this is not the strongest musical to hit the London stage then one only need cast a jaded eye over the offerings from ‘Theatreland’ to see that it is a long, long way from being the weakest.

However for all the spirited energy of the cast and another piece of spritely direction from Thom Southerland – who currently appears to be operating a cartel in the relatively niche field of small-scale musical direction – there are enough problems with Michael Stewart’s and Mark Bramble’s Book to suggest the work is destined to remain a curio piece for the dedicated rather than be reassessed as a missed masterpiece.

The Grand Tour 5 Natasha Karp, Nic Kyle, Vincent Pirillo, Michael Cotton, Samuel J Weir, Laurel Dooling Dougall, Alastair Brookshaw and Lizzie Wofford photo Annabel VereThe main problem is that, despite being based on a pre-existing play, the production feels more akin to fragmentary scenes forced into a thematic connection by the overarching story of Jacobowsky and the Colonel. As a result, after a strong opening, we have ‘a scene on a train’, ‘a scene at the circus’ and then, most jarringly, ‘a scene at Jewish wedding’. All of these are performed extremely well and are very enjoyable to watch, but it is hard to be convinced as to why it is all occurring.

The relationship between the three leads is rather too closely reminiscent to the dynamics between Rick, Ilsa and Laszlo in Casablanca. However the creators are too fond of Jacoboswky to allow for the depiction of humanity’s shades of grey that makes Casablanca such a masterpiece. In the end Jacoboswky is both the humane, philosophical Jewish refugee and the hero who will lay down his life for his friends.

In opposition to this Colonel Stjerbinsky really is a clunking idiot – at least Victor Laszlo got the wonderful moment of being able to singLa Marseillaise to remind the audience why Ilsa would have fallen for him in the first place. Without a similar moment we are left to wonder why on earth Marianne prefers him to our hero, Jacobokwsky, and how Stjerbinsky got even half as far as he did without someone selling him out to the Nazis.

Yet despite all of this, it still works remarkably well. There are a number of songs that show us that Herman was still in the middle of his three decade purple patch. I’ll be here tomorrow would stand
up well in any musical, and underneath the lightness of touch is a reminder of the quiet pain and necessary stoicism of anyone born into a Jewish family pretty much anywhere in central Europe in the first half of the 20th century.

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