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Entering The Aztec Zone

Las Maravillas – Rose Lipman Building, until 01 November 2014

The last time I was at the Rose Lipman Building was to watch Toby Jones and Imelda Staunton in Circle.Mirror.Transformation. I didn’t investigate the basement at the time but I am pretty sure it didn’t act as a portal to the Aztec underworld. Naturally I could be wrong; I hadn’t expected to see Toby Jones in the building either.WZD-2332

The Dreamery call themselves a ‘horror and fantasy art experience production company conjuring magical and mysterious performance art and installations’. That is a hugely ambitious remit, particularly for a fledgling company still looking to establish themselves. Genre fans of any ilk are a pernickety bunch and are notoriously quick to point out any perceived flaws – often volubly and with extreme irritation.

Still, the transformation of the Rose Lipman basement was an impressive achievement. Despite clearly operating with a tight budget the space had been neatly compartmentalised to form a number of small rooms, each with its own clear sense of space and purpose. The overall effect was to create a number of different sensory environments to unsettle the audience. Some areas had clearly suffered from financial limitations, where the money clearly hadn’t stretched as far as needed. It could be a sign of a rookie company that this was most apparent in the opening room and the transition back to reality, as what it meant was that the good bits in the middle were bookended by less impressive memories and often this can be what the audience will remember.

funhouseIn a small, merry (there were a few stifled giggles to be heard) band of companions, it appears that we are to escape Mitclan and return to the questionably more pleasant surroundings of the De Beauvoir estate. Except, like most ‘immersive’ experiences, this wasn’t really the case; the reality of the fantasy is always more prosaic than can be conceived in fevered imaginings. It is actually a linear journey through a series of classic horror scenarios. There is little in the way of interaction and a number of the scenes feel as if they have no obvious connection to the concept of the Aztec underworld. Instead the feeling was much closer to that of a journey through that icon of Americana – the local funfair’s haunted house (and anyone who spent their teenage years reading Point Horror knows exactly how scarifying that can be).

The unevenness was undeniable and, without giving away too much of the shocks, there is your classically creepy psychotic, ghostly girl and some disturbingly alluring savages but then the next room MIctlan3_pixlr3 banner#would be a new scene and you’d be presented with a half-formed idea that reminded you this a young company still learning to refine its product.

It was the lack of narrative thread that gave the production this disjointed quality. We were ushered from one frame to another, and whilst each individual experience was interesting it never really had the opportunity to come together as something greater than the sum of its parts.

However it never tries to be pretentious and there are few moments where the cast seem to be tipping the audience a knowing wink to the comical element that underlies most horror. The production demonstrates you can be committed to interactive theatre without being incredibly po-faced about it, something that both Punchdrunk and dreamthinkspeak would do well to remind themselves of occasionally.

No doubt The Dreamery will reflect on the successes (and it sounds like it has been a total sell-out) but I hope that, as a young company, they end-up taking more away from what didn’t go to plan than what did. They clearly have huge reserves of invention and are savvy enough to be working in one of theatre’s growth areas so learning to really focus on what they can deliver for the money and by spending more time building coherence into the audience’s experience then The Dreamery could find a very successful niche for themselves as purveyors of high-class interactive horror and fantasy.


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Its ‘bloody’ good

Grand Guignol – Southwark Playhouse, until 22 November 2014 (tickets)

With the arrival of Grand Guignol at the Southwark Playhouse there is finally something in south London more terrifying than the underpasses that crisscross Elephant and Castle. Well more terrifying, and more kitsch. ForGRAND GUIGNOL within Carl Grose’s knowing script is contained both a loving homage to the famous Theatre du Grand-Guignol and also a gory melodrama in which the old Parisian theatre specialised.

Grand Guignol has disappeared from the theatrical repertoire; it became a casualty of cinema’s ability to create a more naturalistic form of horror. Audiences had grown tired of the old tricks and the arrival of F.W. Murnau’s expressionist classic Nosferatu or Jacques Tourneaur’s remarkable Cat People were signs that cinema could deliver a more refined product that provided genuine psychological chills instead of cartoonish gore.

Paul-Chequer-Andy-Williams-Emily-Raymond-in-Grand-Guignol.-Credit-Steve-Tanner-13Grose’s evident love of the genre – seen through its close alignment with real characters and a smart eye for the detail – is combined with a blend of high-camp, knowing winks and straight out jokes played entirely straight. This approach is clear from the opening scene which throws the audience into the midst of the action; hearts are in mouths, not due to blood-curdling terror but rather down to the terrible dialogue, stilted delivery and risible premise. It is only when the set is rolled back and we realise that we are backstage in the theatre that we acknowledge that the scene was itself a spoof and one of many meta jokes for the theatre literate audience.

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I must thank the good people at Official Theatre for the tickets. Even without this shameless plug, please do check out their website to find out what is going on across the West End; it has links to tickets, venue contact details and bits ‘n bobs about all the theatres – the sort of thing I would do if I wasn’t so damn lazy.  (www.officialtheatre.com/fringe)

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Humanity put on display

The Wild Duck – Barbican Theatre, until 01 November (tickets)

The last time I watched an Australian theatre company was when Sydney Theatre Company, boasting the talents of Cate Blanchett, Benedict Andrews and Martin Crimp, pitched up at the Barbican with a rather underwhelming production of Boho Strauss’ Big and Small.

Two years later Benedict Andrews’ star has reached the stratosphere with a highly-lauded Three Sisters being followed by the smash-hit of the summer; the Young Vic’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Meanwhile it is time for another Australian-import, as the Belvoir Sydney take part in the International Ibsen season at the Barbican, to go alongside invited productions of Peer Gynt and An Enemy of the People. Over the course of a tumultuous ninety minutes they prove they can certainly hold their own against strong competition.

01. Belvoir Sydney, The Wild Duck, Anita Hegh credit Heidrun LöhrSimon Stone has taken scissors to Ibsen’s The Wild Duck and, in stripping out exposition and characters, has created an entirely modern, rigorously taut and emotional devastating portrait of a family in collapse. In short, tightly drawn scenes he presents with discomforting acuity the fragility that surrounds us.

Portrait is a carefully chosen word, and Stone appears to continually have in mind Hjalmar’s job as photographer. Scenes are punctuated by a sharp cut to blackout in a move that apes the flash of a photographer’s bulb, and which serves to sear images into the mind. Direction is highly stylised and all of Ibsen’s naturalism is stripped away. The play is presented within a glass box that suggests a photographic studio and also works as a specific commentary on theatre’s ability to put human beings on display for the audience’s consumption. Trapped within the glass box, the characters come to resemble animals in a zoo – living entirely in their own world but permanently open to an unseen audience.

It is only at the very end of the play that characters venture out of their glass prison, and it is this final scene that will break even the hardest of hearts. After the rapidity of scenes building up to a crescendo that it is inevitable as the gun on Hedda Gabbler’s wall, we suddenly have the quiet calm. The storm has blown itself out and the survivors slowly, quietly regroup to survey the damage and tally-up the losses. Brendan Cowell’s Hjalmar and Anita Hegh’s Gina present the raw reality of humans bereft and broken by circumstance. Here Hakon’s macular degeneration acts as both crucial plot point and metaphor for the way that Hjalmar and Gina must now grope their way blindly towards the future.

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Interview with Teatro Vivo

Back in September I had the pleasure of catching Mother Courage and Her Children –  a colloborative piece between GLYPT and Teatro Vivo. They staged Mother Courage, Brecht’s famously anti-war parable, as a promenade piece through the Royal Woolwich Dockyards. Afterwards I caught up with Kas Darley and Mark Stevenson of Teatro Vivo.

You can read my interview with them on the Everything Theatre website by clicking here.

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Not alive exactly but definitely resurrected

Jacques Brel is alive and well and living in Paris – Charing Cross Theatre, until 22 November 2014 (tickets)

Jacques Brel embodied his era; his musical style, evocative of a philosophical rat-packer, fitted perfectly with the picture of France seen through the envious eyes of those in the grey, dreary England of energy rationing and emergency IMF loans. For those with intellectual pretensions, how could the Paris of the 1968 student revolt, Godard and the new-wave and, of course, the Satre-quoting, Gauloises-smoking, coffee-shop David Burt, Eve Polycarpou, Gina Beck, Daniel Boys (1) in Jacques Brel is Alive and Living in Paris Photo Scott Rylander (1)inhabitants of the left bank, possibly be resisted?

The extent of the obsession with France shouldn’t be underestimated and Brel came to personify the music (and, yes, he was actually Belgian but no matter). This obsession may explain the staggering fact that, after being scheduled for a two-week run in Cleveland in 1973, this show ran for more than two years and over 500 performances.

However all things must pass and interests move on to the next big thing. Brel has become something of a forgotten man, and nowadays I am not sure how many people under 40 have heard of him. One might suggest that the producers have taken rather a risk on reviving this rather curious show; would people who have never heard of Brel be interested in coming to see it, and would those who like Brel want to see his songs be reinterpreted through a musical revue?

These are tough questions but one of the answers lies in the talent of the performers. This is an opportunity to see a West End cast in an atmospheric and intimate venue. Gina Beck has previous as Glinda in Wicked, Daniel Boys came to prominence in the TV talent show, Any Dream Will Do, whilst David Burt and Eve Polycarpou are veterans of stage and screen. Watching up close you are reminded of the range and subtlety that West End stars possess – items that can get lost by the demands of performing in a 1000 seat venue with full-on technical wizardry.

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Simon Stephens’ takes axe to Chekov’s orchard

The Cherry Orchard – Young Vic Theatre, Until 29 November (Tickets)

Every regular theatre goer has their blind spots, the playwrights that don’t just pass them by but they go out of their way to avoid. Civilian Theatre will happily spend an evening debating the merits of the musical or delivering a polemic against those who worship at the pedestal of Sarah Kane. However in the dark, locked away from public view, is a secret shame; a failure to comprehend, or even by interested in, the merits of turn of Kate Duchêne (Lyubov Ranevskaya) and Paul Hilton (Peter Trofimov) in The Cherry Orchard at the Young Vic Photo by Stephen Cummiskeythe century Russian naturalism.

Being aware that Chekov is, arguably, thought of as second-only to Shakespeare as a playwright and that the finest writers, dramatists and critics hold the likes of Tolstoy, Gorky and Dostoevsky in the highest regard only increases the sense of a personal failure. Add a disinterest in Dickens and Ibsen and the feeling there is a black hole in my cultural awareness grows.

This is not to deny the obvious talent on display; it is impossible, even if you don’t like them, not to respect Dickens’ sentences or Chekov’s details but appreciating the building blocks is a very different thing to admiring the final structure – take the ArelorMitttal Tower, it is certainly impressively constructed but that doesn’t stop it being a hideous eyesore that is nothing more than a well-captured Freudian representation of Boris Johnson’s ego.

YOUNG VIC THEATRE: THE CHERRY ORCHARD, 2014Sticking with Freud, I suspect the problems spring from childhood – an A-Level interrogation of A Doll’s House through the lens of Stanislavski is enough to break the spirit of anyone. Task, Objective, Super Objective; it may be true, it may be necessary, it certainly sucks the spirit of the unknown out of theatre. It went in hand-in-hand with experiencing a lifeless, long and boring production of Gorky’s Summerfolk at the National (although seeing the cast included Roger Allam, Patricia Hodge and Simon Russell-Beale, I am willing to concede the problem may have been with this particular reviewer).

Whether the production was good or not, it came at one of those moments you only later realise was ‘formative’. In the same year I saw Complicite’s Mnemonic and  a revival of Steven Berkoff’s East – how could a staid, hundred year old drama possibly compete with the vitality of Berkoff or a company showing an impressionable young mind all that theatre could be.

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