A tribute to a treasure

Looking for Lansbury – St James Street Theatre, until 17 October 2015 (Future dates click here)Looking for Lansbury 400x400

The target audience for Looking for Lansbury may be one that is already quite well-versed in the life of its subject. However if Fiona-Jane Weston’s one-woman show exploring the life of Angela Lansbury provides little in the way of revelation (even to a novice Lansburyian), it does a creditable job in avoiding falling into sugary hagiography.

Weston pitches her all-singing, some-dancing, variety show part way between biographical lecture and conversational cabaret. It starts off with a strong statement of intent as Weston sets out her case but as Lansbury’s career as a leading light of the stage begins to take off it increasingly resembles a procession of Broadway belters interspersed with conversational snippets.

The opening provides a backstory that takes in Angela’s grandfather, George Lansbury (former Labour Party leader) and his role as a social reformer. We get a potted history of her English upbringing before being whisked across the Atlantic, and into her remarkable early successes in film – two Oscar nominations in her first two roles (Gaslight and The Picture of Dorian Gray) – before charting her life on stage and screen.

A slight problem is that Lansbury is an intensely private individual; there is little in the public domain to draw on and much content is given by way of inference or supposition. The snippets we do get, such as a Hollywood magazine article on her first husband Richard Cromwell, are uncomfortably salacious for a show that seems to wish to avoid the tittle-tattle of unauthorized biography.

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Scotch & Soda leaves you in high spirits

Scotch & Soda feat. The Crusty Suitcase Band – Spiegeltent @ London Wonderground, until 02 August 2015 (tickets)

Three years after launching with their immediately identifiable brand of well-financed, 12a-rated, corporately-sponsored debauchery aimed squarely at a target market of well-heeled financiers from Clapham and people who consider reading 50 Shades of Grey on the bus the height of risqué behaviour, London Wonderground has begun to feel as much a Thames-side institution as the statue people who so bafflingly thrill tourists with the amazing ability to stand still.

Yet until now Civilian Theatre has never made the trip across the river to experience the famous Spiegeltent and its carnival of delights and vigilant readers may have noticed the faint whiff of cynicism rising from the above paragraph. I should make clear this is in no way is aimed at the performers – Scotch & Soda, or any of those taking part this summer. Having seen some of the acts perform elsewhere, the talent is not to be doubted.

Scotch and Soda. Credit Sean Young Photography (4)No, my main issue with the London Wonderground experience is struggling to avoid the chuckling charlies braying their stock portfolios at one another as they think nothing of throwing down another £7 on a glass of Pimms, or forking out £10 for a souvenir programme (7 pages of high gloss photos). This is not a show for those looking to manage their budgets. A family of four would be hard pressed to be spending less than £120 for a show that lasts 70 minutes (and that assumes calls for ice creams, cokes or glasses of wine are resisted).

All that said, Scotch & Soda is a highly entertaining show. The Australian troupe is a mixture of skilled circus performers and fantastically enjoyable horn and drum infused jazz. Their style is perhaps inspired by the idea of early 20th century touring circuses – a hipster meets hillbilly confection where moustaches meet muscles, where a jug-band meets a classically trained double-bassist.

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Watch a little video courtesy of our friends at Official Theatre


Mimetic Festival Launch Night

One of the bonuses of being a blogger is the occasional freebie. For the more successful / perky / young dynamos of the modern day vlogging world this may be tickets to the VMAs or a sample from the new Topshop-designer collection. For those of us whose age, as like a tree, can be ascertained by counting the lines carved into our forehead, are already well prepared for hip, scarily precocious twenty-something marketing --RWD13-Where-the-White-Stops-023execs to at best acknowledge our existence with the occasional eye roll, dramatic sigh and mandatory thirty seconds of feigned interest.

Which is why it was a pleasurable surprise to wander down Leak Street (home to some of London’s best graffiti) and into the Vaults; home for the next two weeks to Mimetic Festival 2014. Invited to the launch party and plied (well at least offered) something fizzy in a glass is generally a good way of getting me onside. However they really pushed my buttons by offering a cabaret bar (impressively thrown up in just over 24 hours) that could have spirited out of an art deco museum (or at least out of Poirot’s apartment).

Marion-Deprez-web1-150x150Mimetic Festival is “a celebration of the very best emerging devised, physical and visual theatre, puppetry and cabaret”. Like all the best festivals it is growing year on year, and this time it can claim to be offering up 120 shows from over 50 different countries. If slightly alternative theatre is your thing then Mimetic Festival is somewhere you ought to be over the next two weeks.

Showcased for our entertainment were snippets from the fortnight, and it really did demonstrate the range of acts vying for our attention. From the knowing beautiful clowning of Marion Deprez to the intriguing Greatest Liar in all the World there is something for everyone (even those who think that only way to improve Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights video would be to recreate it using a highly sexualised puppet).

Civilian Theatre will be reviewing a number of Mimetic Festival productions over the next year and is one of a number of Mimetic Festival Awards Partners. We will be tweeting and posting to the blog throughout, and you can find all of the latest reviews at:  https://civiliantheatre.com/mimetic-festival/


Mimetic Festival runs from 17 – 29 November 2014 at the Vaults, Leake Street, SE1 7NN.

For more information about Mimetic Festival: http://www.mimeticfest.com/

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

Life is a cabaret, old chum

Ballad of the Burning Star – Theatre Ad Infinitum @ the Battersea Arts Centre then touring (details)

Or, in homage to the style of the evening, how do you solve a problem like the occupied territories?

There is no doubt that Theatre Ad Infinitum’s new production, first seen at Edinburgh and subsequently taking the old-fashioned route of touring the country before pitching up for an extended stay at the Battersea Arts Centre, takes on contentious subject matter.

That the story is told through a drag queen and her cabaret troupe is a fun but rather unsurprising mechanism. Once a radical device, these days it does serve as a useful alienation device and, in the case of Ballad ofThe Starlets in Ballad of the Burning Starthe Burning Star, the issues remain so sensitive that it is critical for depoliticising the very act of storytelling.

The events we hear are shocking but if told as straight narrative then perspectives of the characters would be caught in the surrounding context and events discarded as being irrevocably biased. Or alternatively the play would try so hard to capture both positions that the value of the final product is fundamentally undermined.

We are told this story by MC Star and her Starlets, and through this prism the story is seen to unfold in a Brechtian manner. At no point is there any expectation that what is being seen are to be understood as real Israelis or Palestinians, the audience is reminded throughout that they are being shown representations of a family, and representations of real events.

Theatre-Ad-Infinitum-Ballad-of-the-Burning-Star-∏-Alex-Brenner-please-credit-_DSC82911-1024x763This allows certain latitude to extract humour from the story, characters are able to step outside of their roles and comment on proceedings and it allows the development of a duality and tension between the increasingly autocratic Star and the actions of Israel in the occupied lands.

That Star is played by writer and director Nir Paldi hints of a biographical nature to the story, and throughout this feels like a passion project that has developed a life of its own. It is also embeds a sense of truth that often only comes from a person with first-hand experience and, in this case, has been at the sharp-end of the consequences of forty years of regional foreign policy.

Any story must be understood within the context of its creation. The story of Israel, the lead character in the show, like so many narratives around the state of Israel, must be understood within the context and implication of the wider story of Jewish history.

Israel, the character, and Israel, the state, are separate individuals but share such a common history that the two must constantly struggle to be separated. The state and the individual share the collective memory of the Holocaust and the legacy of the historical persecution of the Jews through Europe and the Middle East is reinforced to create a state of mind of defensiveness. Both individual and state cannot be understood without understanding this context.

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