Truth and its many voices

Tonight I’m Gonna Be The New MeMade in China @ Soho Theatre, until Sat 26 September (tickets)

Following rave reviews for Made In China’s previous work, Gym Party, and having caught the scorching This is how we die by associate dramaturg, Christopher Brett Bailey, I had already mentally
clocked the company as one to keep an eye on. Their previous work had been built on a reputation for intelligently confrontational productions powered by a strong interest in purposely playful Jess Latowicki, courtesy David Monteith-Hodgenarratives, and their latest proved to be no exception.

Tonight I’m Gonna Be The New Me takes the form of a monologue by Jess (Jess Latowicki) that covers the realisation that the sun was beginning to set on her relationship with Tim (Tim Cowbury). However her performance is subject to occasional interruptions by Tim, who is described as a playwright. As the performers names suggest the meta-fictionality is taken a stage further by the fact that Jess and Tim are a real-life couple and are credited as co-authors of the production; further blurring the level to which the monologue represents a fictional truth.

Through a series of well-handled, informal interactions with the audience, Jess explicitly draws the audience into the action. Whilst a play naturally requires an audience to witness the action, the role is often a passive one. Here we are pulled closely into Jess’ character, through her direct engagement, whilst Tim remains an off-stage blank. We become increasingly complicit in the action, and begin, on request, to speak the lines of the play. Forced through the participatory nature of theatre, and through the natural instinct to follow social convention, we become Jess’ mouthpiece in the acrimonious exchanges with Tim. We become her justifier and her defender against a strangely silent, impassive character.

Except Made In China are too smart for such an obvious narrative structure. The play throws up much more interesting questions about their relationship dynamic as Tim’s role as co-author becomes clearer. Early on he comments that Jess drops a line, and later we are told that he is written his own death scene. We are forced to contend with the fact that Jess’ offhand, friendly on-stage persona may be nothing more than a construct of Tim’s writing. It as if the curtain has been pulled back to show the insides of a room only to discover on closer inspection that it is in fact a trompe l’oiel.

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Jade Anouka in Chef @ Soho Theatre

A chef with a tongue as a sharp as a knife

Chef – Soho Theatre, until 04 July 2015 (Tickets)wpid-wp-1434742428681.jpg

There are few things more satisfying to a regular theatre goer than watching an actor emerge into the spotlight. Go and see enough plays and you soon realise that the same familiar faces keep on cropping up. The personal nature of the theatre – the intimacy of the shared space giving a sense of an assumed connection between audience and actor – can lead to a greater sense of investment and emotional connectivity with the actor than you find in film. Seeing actors like Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Mydidae and Fleabag) or Rudi Dharmalingham (The Events and Oresteia) develop has been the biggest privilege of writing this theatre blog over the last 4 years.

To that list it is safe to add the considerable talents of Jade Anouka (Henry IV and The Vote); currently at Soho Theatre with Sabrina Mahfouz’s Fringe First-award winning Chef. A one-woman show, Chef gives Anouka free range to showcase the considerable skills and highly kinetic performance style that was so captivating as a completely atypical Hotspur in Phyllidia Lloyd’s radical and brilliant Henry IV.

Jade Anouka in Chef @ Soho TheatreAs a reviewer there is a lot of trepidation in viewing a one-person show. It needs an exceptionally high level of writing and acting talent in order to keep an audience from start to finish. Without any actors to bounce lines off there is a risk that the show will soon become one-note and tonally flat. A poor script can sometimes be hidden by action between characters but it dies on the mouth of even a talented actor, whilst a poor actor trying to deliver a strong script is one of the more painful theatrical experiences.

Sabrina Mahfouz is a recipient of a Sky Arts Scholarship Award for Poetry, and this background may be what grounds the play in the rhythms and structures of performance poetry. Whilst clearly a play, it feels highly sensitive to the flow of language, and is at times more interested in the beauty of language than capturing the naturalism of delivery.

It is unlikely that anyone would say “I’d never been in love / but I decided that I’d know when I was / because the man would remind of the way/ seagulls glide out of stalactite clouds, / suddenly, / smoothly, / that’s how he’d find me” but within the show – delivered after describing how she had left her estate and joined her dad on a fishing boat – it is given the dreamy lyrical wonder of someone who has just begun to realise the limitations of her world.

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A mirror reflects a man’s face but what he is really like is shown by the kind of friends he chooses

Ablutions – Fellswoop Theatre @ Soho Theare, until 22 February 2015 (Tickets)

“A mirror reflects a man’s face but what he is really like is shown by the kind of friends he chooses”

It may be unusual for Civilian Theatre to be quoting from Proverbs but the title ‘Ablutions’ has already thrown us one rather heavy-handed piece of religious symbolism, and watching the travails of Ablutions, Fellswoop Theatre, Soho Theatre, courtesy of Charley Murrellour barman/hero it is not hard to recognise that the trip he embarks upon midway through the play could have easily been towards Damascus as it was towards the Grand Canyon.

In Fellswoop’s adaptation of the debut novel from Booker Prize nominated author Patrick deWitt we are deep into the realms of the redemptive road-trip, with a side order of the cleansing power of the bottle. From what was, apparently, an already strange and lurid confection Fellswoop have given us a rather bizarre musical and mime show.

Ablutions 4, Fellswoop Theatre, Soho Theatre, courtesy of Charley MurrellIt is a play that is certainly not without its charms. The musicianship and technical ability of the cast are highly impressive. We are provided with a lovingly crafted soundscape and the cast of Eoin Slattery, Fiona Mikel and Harry Humberstone are able to recreate a complete Hollywood dive bar, with a fully stocked array of colourful regulars, through the use of physical theatre and some wonderfully grotesque characterisations.

Humberstone – perhaps given more licence than the rest to stretch his characters to the extremes – provides us with enough sleazy figures by himself to have the audience squirming in their seats. Whilst I hope that someone as disturbingly charmless as Curtis doesn’t actually exist, I have a horrible suspicion that bars around the world will prove me wrong.

The core of the story belongs to Slattery’s Barkeeper. We join him when, if he isn’t already a loser, he is fast on his way to becoming one; living a life where work, friends and drink have combined to create a spiralling descent into an alcoholic’s chaos.

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Full Cast - Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Rufus Wright and Lu Corfield

Brutal or brutally funny?

The One – Soho Theatre, until 30 March 2014

In the middle of one of the many conversations between Jo (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) and Harry (Rufus Wright) that tread an impossibly fine line between needling argument and verbal foreplay, Jo’s mobile phone goes off. The ringtone is familiar but not quite identifiable, moments later, before the chorus kicks in, Jo answers the phone with ‘Hi Mum’ and at the same moment you realise that she has set the ring tone to be I Touch Myself by the DiVinyls.

Vicky Jones’ The One is a play that is peppered with jokes that rely on an audience with an eye for high and low cultural reference points and a penchant for filthy dialogue. It is as comfortable expounding on Madame The one  Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Rufus WrightBovary as it is in displaying the realities of unengaged sex. There are some brutally funny lines in The One and there also some just plain brutal ones. It is a play that sets out to shock its audience and it more than succeeds in doing so.

DryWrite, the theatre company created by Vicky Jones and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, was the force behind two of the most unexpected treats of 2013, Mydidae and Fleabag. With The One this creative partnership have created a trio of plays that, while formally unconnected, work together to create a portrait of dysfunction within a certain strata of well-educated, middle class women in 21st century Britain. As a whole they form a serious and important contribution to the ongoing cultural debate about whether there are ways that women should live and behave in the context of feminism as being something that had been ‘won’.

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Waller-Bridge excels in each of the plays. She inhabits characters that clearly show the challenges of women who have grown up to believe in the freedoms hard won by their parents but struggle to shape an identity for themselves in a society that is still undeniably masculine.

At the heart of Mydidae and The One is the presence of a formidably intelligent woman who self-censures herself in order to maintain the fantasy of the dominant male. In both cases the self-censuring has a warping effect and the emasculating quality of the action (even as it seeks to avoid this very outcome) ultimately leads to displays of violence; physical, sexual and emotional.

The One demonstrates writing of exceptional quality and Jones’ displays a real talent for carving heightened language out of the banality of the everyday; creating prose that is grounded in reality whilst seeming disturbingly unreal. That the play is set over the course of the evening and scenes are intercut with Phantom of the Opera’s The Music of the Night adds to the sensation that is closer to nightmarish dreamscape than the real world.

Yet this is no Athenian forest and here there is no honest Puck to make amends and to ensure that Jo and Harry ‘think no more of this night’s accidents’. Rather than sleep and awake to a new dawn, they continue their conversations until sunrise when they are forced to look at each other in the harsh light of day.

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Fleabag: A very modern heroine

Fleabag – DryWrite @ Soho Theatre, until 22 September 2013

In Fleabag, Phoebe Waller-Bridge has created a terrifying portrait of a person who embodies two of the major movements in modern society; the continuing reverberations of the feminist movement running headlong into society’s obsession with individualism and self-actualisation. It is of a person whose self-involved narcissism and belief in the right to be free to control one’s life-choices blinds them to any impact their actions may have on others. Fleabag continually rejects culpability for the paths she takes and even refines poor decisions into positive self-affirming actions. Fleabag is a 21st century manifestation of the id, rampant and uncontrolled.

It is also the funniest play that has hit London this year.

Rare is the playwright that truly captures the language of real life and turns it into something dramatically interesting. I have regularly extolled the virtues of Nick Payne for his skill in crafting modern, believable dialogue for his Fleabag - our eponymous anti-heroinecharacters; Waller-Bridge shares this talent whilst going further to infuse it with a poetic, heightened language that is rooted in the everyday.

It is startling to be confronted by a modern text that so positively drips with a love for sonorous language but yet doesn’t strive to root itself in the past. Every line feels written by someone with a deep respect for classical theatre but who understands that respect is best shown by not looking backwards and instead immersing yourself in the culture that surrounds you.

Monologues are as pure a form of theatre as it gets for writers and performers; there is no hiding place, the production rests and falls on the skill of the actor and the quality of language. Waller-Bridge spent a fair proportion of her last production, Mydidae, naked on stage so is better placed than most to quibble about the nature of exposure but Fleabag contains a ruthless emotional honesty that is shockingly, brutally, exposing.

Mydidae explored how removing our physical covering makes it easier to create a passage to the emotional core, whereas Fleabag removes all pretence and from its first moments delves into the deepest crevices of the mind of an independent, assured modern woman and probes it for cracks in the surface; the vulnerabilities that face all woman in an age of supposed liberation – political, economic, social and above all else, sexual.

For this is a monologue that is steeped in the current dialogues surrounding feminism and what it means to the generation that did not have to fight for it. It is here that Fleabag demonstrates the elements that have seen it be championed as one of the picks of the Edinburgh Fringe. It studiously avoids the polemics and instead displays its arguments through subtle highlighting of how hard-won equality under the law is still being undermined by socio-cultural norms.

©Richard Davenport 2013. 2nd August 2013. Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag at the Big Belly, Underbelly. Photo Credit: Richard DavenportWaller-Bridge’s Fleabag is a monster – a ravenous sexual entity that seemingly cannot discriminate between friend and conquest, desire and lust, attraction and obsession – but constantly the audience is reminded of how this may be viewed if the person delivering the monologue was a man.

The player/slut debate that Fleabag circles has been around for years and may seem like a hoary old trope but that doesn’t make it any less valid a reference point. A generation of woman have been brought up to believe that the battle has been won but changing the law does not lead to changing lives. The Twitter trolls and the campaigns over the increased use of sexualised imagery on the front covers of lads mags has shown that skirmishes continue.

Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag uses her body as a tool for her own personal gratification and talks in the frankest terms of an obsessive relationship with pornography. Does this debase her or does it set her free? Has she been enslaved by a masculine-fantasy of feminist equality – the idea that freedom to choose means becoming a hedonist to pleasure – or is she is a liberated self-actualised feminist who has rejected the traditional gender values of chastity and purity placed on woman by a patriarchal society?

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