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A lack of logic destablises the virtual world of The Nether

The Nether – Royal Court Theatre, until 09 August 2014 (tickets)

If it is not surprising that there are aspects of the modern world that barely exist on the stage – the sheer ubiquity of mobile phones, the centrality of TV and increasingly the internet to our lives – it doesn’t mean that this is a position that shouldn’t go unchallenged. It is true that traditionally these objects and our interaction with them have been seen as profoundly un-theatrical; they are products that led us to insularity and internal monologues, they are still and render us likewise. However it is up to theatre to challenge these assumptions

So to see The Nether, a play that tackles the internet – or at least a future-net – on the main stage at the Royal Court is a welcome sight. That it is supported by snazzy graphic designs (Luke Halls) which blur the transition from the real to the virtual world signals that some thought has gone into how to dramatise such a personal, internal activity – and, once again, it showcases just how far technical effects for the theatre have come.

It follows hot on the heels of Privacy at the Donmar and, whilst covering very different ground, they share an attempt to demonstrate that theatre is a medium that can not only engage with human and social issues but also has a role in challenging audiences on the technological issues that are increasingly blurring the boundaries between internal and external thought and action.

To describe the plot risks giving away rather too much of what makes the play an interesting watch. Although since the Royal Court refers to the fact that it is about a ‘virtual wonderland’ and that it covers ‘paedophilia in a digital world’ it doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to recognise that this is a play that, in the words of a BBC voiceover, ‘some viewers may find offensive’.

The Nether by Jennifer Haley, Royal Court, LondonThat said this reviewer is surprised to hear talk of walkouts from the audience; whilst the concept may be distasteful, the production itself is pretty clean-cut and there is nothing that comes close to Blasted or Ubu in terms of disturbing visual imagery. In fact if anything the casting of the child actor (Zoe Brough as Iris – and exceptionally good in the role with a stunning, and quite disturbing, maturity) has perhaps restricted how far they could push the elements that people would find most troubling.

There are a number of problems with the play. Despite the sterling work of Luke Hall’s visual imagery and the wonderful Victoriana set design by Es Devlin, the play never rids itself of very static direction. This is not helped by the writing that turns every other scene into a dialectic between two sides of the argument, and setting these conversations in an interrogation room leaves very little freedom for movement.

Jennifer Haley’s script has nice touches but is also surprisingly weak in a number of areas; the core problem is that Haley strives for balance between her characters in order to create a ‘debate’ and make the play something more than a moralising rant. However the challenge of creating balance when one character is clearly morally repugnant has been tackled by making the ‘other’ appear artificially weaker and flawed. The balance is upset because Amanda Hale’s Morris has been nobbled from the get-go and will never match the personality given to Stanley Townsend’s Sims. As a side-note, it is almost impossible to believe that these names aren’t supposed to evoke the world of Pinter but sadly the dialogue itself falls rather short of this.

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The Crucible

Ex-dwarf and witches combine to create a potent brew at a transformed Old Vic

The Crucible – The Old Vic, until 13 September

It is unclear whether London is enjoying an Arthur Miller renaissance or whether he is one of those playwrights, like Ibsen or Chekhov, who is bankable enough and with enough star roles in the canon that he will always hover on the fringes ready for a new production. Either way, David Suchet and Zoe Wanamaker combined in a pretty much perfect, highly traditional, All My Sons back in 2010, whilst earlier this year Ivo van Hove gave us a radically stripped back A View From A Bridge built around an absolutely blistering performance by Mark Strong.Richard Amitage as John Proctor

Now, just metres down the road from where Strong put in a decent early bid for performance of the year, we have Miller’s The Crucible; a play that is audacious enough to not just have one Eddie Carbone role but several. It is Richard Armitage, playing John Proctor, who dominates the posters – one presumes Hobbit-y fame and a suitably jawline is the primary reason for this but it is a rather misleading image; Proctor may be a central figure, but this is a play that revels in a large cast and in the searching light that Miller casts across the residents of Salem.

That minor quibble aside, a mark of the power of this production is that the audience sat rapt for 3½ hours on the hottest day of the year whilst being subjected to periodic blasts of burning herbs and smoke effects. As good as Miller’s writing may by, those conditions did have the potential to induce a most literal understanding of the play’s title to the poor, sweltering audience members.

It is to the full credit of Yaël Farber that the long running time rarely seems like a drain and the action, simply staged but highly evocative of the period, speeds along building an inexorable momentum through to the third act climax before the sudden transition to a final act of quiet, where the heady atmosphere that has propelled the trials disappears with the disappearance of Abigail and space is given to reflection, on both spiritual and human levels. This is the much-needed calm after the storm and the reflection is for both Miller’s characters and for the audience who are suddenly pulled back out of the manic paranoia of the town.

Farber was responsible for the wildly successful Mies Julie – a South African-set re-examining of Strindberg’s classic – and given the contemporary allegories can be seen as strong now as they were when Miller wrote the play in the long shadow of McCarthyism, it must of have been tempting to look for a way to pin The Crucible to the modern world.

However Farber plays it straight and lets the parallels speak for themselves. It is Miller’s ability to create characters that are of their time but are yet clearly visible in the 21s century that makes The Crucible such an enduring work. The manipulations of Abigail, the fallibility of John Proctor and the hypocrisy of Judge Danforth are traits that are, and will remain, commonplace for as long as there are still humans walking the earth.

The characters in The Crucible may talk in terms of the soul but Miller’s writing is concerned about the psyche. There may be much talk about God and the Devil but it is human emotion that drives much of the action and Farber conjures up periods of quiet amid the maelstrom that allows the audience a moment to glance into the hidden frailties of the characters.

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Dumbstruck 11

To keep your voice while all around you are losing theirs…

Dumbstruck – Fine Chisel @ Battersea Arts Centre, until 19 July

You really would have to be a rather hard-hearted soul to dislike Fine Chisel, the theatre company behind Dumbstruck; under Tom Spencer’s artistic directorship they create effortlessly charming work that belies the graft Robin McLoughlin as Ted, Dumbstruck at BACneeded to generate such lightness of touch. Dumbstruck may not be without flaws but it is rarely far from raising a smile when the talented cast of five – switching fluidly between roles that require them to be multi-instrumentalists, singers, dancers and actors – are in full flow.

Fine Chisel settled on an intriguing premise – that of the loneliest whale in the world – and crafted a multi-stranded story around it. It is a good starting point for such a musically-inflected company as whales are indelibly linked in the imagination with the slightly dreamy idea of the whale song. They communicate through a form of music and are a natural fit for a company like Fine Chisel, who often seem closer to integrating theatre into their music than music into their theatre.

Carolyn Goodwin in Fine Chisel's Dumbstruck 9Dumbstruck has a lovely opening, with instruments played in unexpected ways to create a sense of the oceanic wild and the strangely alien sounds of the whale. It is an engaging start and as the play widens its focus into the Alaskan wilderness and Ted’s research station it shows huge promise as an aural existential fantasy; an ode to isolation, conducted through music, seen through man and through the great unknowable, unseen presence of the whale.

However as it opens out to reveal Ted’s journey and introduces the figures of Fiona and Mal, who both wrestle with their own increasing sense of loss, it is unable to sustain its focus on this initial premise. At times the production seems to suffer from a lack of confidence in itself; it lacks stillness and has a forced busyness as it flits from idea to idea with little time to settle. The performers are talented enough, in particular Robin McLoughlin’s Ted and Holly Beasley-Garrigan’s Fiona, that you wish they would slow down and allow their presence to wash over the audience.

Underpinning it all is the music and here Fine Chisel can do no wrong. The sound is gorgeous throughout, from the lovingly created ocean-scape to the finely rendered pastiches of 1960’s pop and folk, whilst even the
transition scenes are underscored by a wonderfully jazzy sound that seems to channel the finger-snapping funk of Charlie Mingus.

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Wot No Fish 2_Credit Malwina Comoloveo

For madeleine read fishball

Wot? No Fish!! – Battersea Arts Centre, until the 19 July 2014 (Tickets)

It has taken Wot? No Fish!! a while to reach the Battersea Arts Centre. After spending two years in development, it premiered at last year’s Edinburgh Festival before working its way through the regional theatre circuit then finally arriving in London just as Edinburgh begins for this year’s crop of hopefuls.

Except this isn’t quite true. The story we are told pre-dates all of this by the best part of ninety years, and the show was already there just waiting to be found. For Danny Braverman has pieced together, drawing on his ownBattersea Arts Centre_Wot No Fish family history, a far more tender and moving story than could ever be realistically crafted in fiction: the life of an East End Jewish shoemaker and his family told through the weekly sketches he gave to his wife on the back of his wage packet.

It may be told with all the simplicity of a fairy-tale but the magic is created in the natural complexity of the lives of real people. It is a story of a family who may not have encountered witches, dragons and quests but instead must confront argumentative sisters, the threat of war and a move from the East End to Golders Green.

This is the story of Celie and Ab Soloman and we hear about their lives through Braverman whilst seeing it brought to a vivid reality through Ab’s miniaturist cartoons; it is less a play and more an illustrated aural biography. Braverman has made a wise decision to not perform the story because he has realised that all the drama exists in the pictures; he recognises his role is to explain, to be our guide through the lives of others.

Battersea Arts Centre_WNF_Ab Picture_6The production has a few touches that hint to its past life at Edinburgh, perhaps some will find the slightly whimsical delivery irritating and the attempts to engage the audience a little heavy-handed but this is just part of the charm of a production that is constantly reinforcing a sense of community and of shared stories.

As Proust starts with a madeleine so Braverman starts with fishballs. And if you didn’t already know you were entering the close knit world of east end Jewish families then the references to gefilte fish and chrain prove something of a clue. It is the memory of this snack that accompany him on a trip through hospital and it is the recurring motif that Braverman returns in order to continue unravelling the lives of Celie and Ab over time.

Braverman acts as a curator of the work. The care with which he has unpicked and ordered the events is staggering. There are over 3000 works in total and we are shown a carefully woven selection to build a richly textured picture of two lives that we never knew existed before walking into the room. By the end of the journey (inevitably it must end and like all human journeys it can only end in one final destination) we feel we know them as well we know our own relatives.

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Tiger Lillies

The war poets find their voice with The Tiger Lillies

Micro-review: A Dream Turned Sour – The Tiger Lillies @ Battersea Arts Centre

It remains questionable whether A Dream Turned Sour can be considered as theatre but since it acts as one of the closing shows of the 2014 LIFT Festival, and has otherwise been ignored by the massed ranks of music critics who are clearly more enamoured by the potential for a dream collaboration between Dolly and Metallica at Glastonbury than in writing about this warped, reimagining of the celebrated poetry of the first world war, it is up to Civilian Theatre to share its thoughts.

Tiger LilliesTo those not experienced in The Tiger Lillies it is a forbidding opening – ‘Death’ repeated over and over in a gravelly, atonal voice that oppressively (and impressively) fills the great space of the Battersea Arts Centre main hall. It is the start of a performance (and with The Tiger Lillies it most certainly is a performance) by a band at complete ease with what they do – and so they should be having successfully mined the furrow of alternative cabaret for over two decades.

Their strange mix of Kurt Weill-esque cabaret, gypsy, gothic humour, and operating in a register that veers between the rasp of Tom Waits and a startling falsetto underpinned by a ferocious operatic power is quite unlike anyone else. It is certainly hard to imagine another band undercutting the reflexive conservative styling that we tend to put on the work of the war poets with quite such vigour and zeal.

The Tiger Lillies have reclaimed the bitterness and the hatred, the terror and the contempt for the generals back home, that often gets lost amongst the plaudits and the GCSE-syllabus analysis. There is a black humour in their renderings of ‘Rendezvous With Death’ and ‘God How I Hate You’ that forces you to go back to the original readings to realise the horror that the lines contain.

Others, like Wilfred Owen’s ‘Nothing Ever Happens’, sound so at ease in their new home it is hard to imagine them in any other way. However the disgust never goes away and the venom builds to such a furious, glorious crescendo of disgust at those most famous lines ‘Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori’ that the audience must nearly cower at the assault.

Despite the most curious style of delivery, there is great articulacy in the delivery by frontman, Martyn Jacques. Each poem has been carefully thought through to maximise the impact through presentation and the words are never lost despite the cacophony of noise coming from the three piece.

Fans of The Tiger Lillies can be assured they have not dampened their natural tendencies as a sop to the serious subject matter, and fans of the war poets can be assured that the poems have been treated with the care and intelligence the power of the writing deserves.

Listen to Dulce et Decorum Est by The Tiger Lillies

More about The Tiger Lillies

More about Lift Festival 2014

Adler and Gibb

Bafflingly brilliant Adler & Gibb presents a conceptual challenge

Adler & Gibb – Royal Court, until 05 July 2014 (tickets)

There is no way, easy or otherwise, to describe Tim Crouch’s latest play, Adler & Gibb, so that it makes sense to the reader. Despite seeing more than 100 plays over the last three years I cannot recall another production that feels so elusive that I am left suggesting that the only way to understand it is to experience it. As a play it is defiantly high-concept, deliberately infuriating and fully aware of the challenge it makes of its audience. Having roundly trashed Mr Burns for pretty much identical reasons it suddenly becomes apparent how fine the margins between success and failure really are.

Denise Gough and Brian Ferguson in Adler and Gibb at the Royal Court, LondonNot only is it difficult to describe, it is hard even to talk about it in a way that doesn’t make it sound like the most appallingly self-indulgent piece of pretentious, beard-stroking metropolitan claptrap. If it sounds to readers that I damning Adler & Gibb with this review then I can only echo Shakespeare’s Mark Anthony eulogy and the dubious claim that he comes ‘[… ] to bury Caesar, not to praise him’.

Tim Crouch does not tend to make plays with easy answers. In Adler & Gibb he has made a play without easy questions. Like a magician he lays subtle clues with one hand – a neat reference to the Maine lion that gives a hint to the identity of the actor – whilst at the same time misdirecting with the other – the changing story behind the napkin.

Yet the crucial factor is that despite arriving at the interval with a general sense of befuddlement and feeling close to displeasure at the opaqueness of the first half, Crouch has still built an atmosphere of trust; that this a play worth persisting with. It has an intangible quality that nags away at the back of the mind that you are on cusp of something quite special, and that if does fail then at least it will fail spectacularly.

To start with a description; Adler & Gibb is about a conceptual artist, her relationship with Gibb, their retreat from the world and what happened after. Or Adler & Gibb is about a student looking for scholarship funding through a study of Adler and Gibb. Or Adler & Gibb is about an actor who used to be a student who is making a film about Adler and Gibb. Or Adler & Gibb is about an actor playing Adler who meets Gibb, who tells us the story of Adler and Gibb. Or it is about different mediums of art, the tones they employ and how it affects the narratives they tell and the stories heard by the audience.  Or it is about all of this and none of this.

To start at the beginning; the play opens with a presentation from a student about Adler and Gibb. She is eager, passionate and delightfully gauche; instantly recognisable as someone who has been inspired but lacks the articulacy and the knowledge to present her views as we might expect. She tells us the story of Adler and Gibb but through it is digressive, fractured and jarringly myopic.

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