Review: Jellyfish, Bush

Almost impossibly tender and true, Ben Weatherill’s Jellyfish is a minor-key masterpiece at the Bush Theatre

“Do you think there will be people like us around for ever?”

I know a little something of what it is to be treated differently in this world. Whenever I took an exam at school, college, even university, I would be given extra time, usually an hour, because that was what disabled students got. Regardless of the fact that my only concern was being able to communicate effectively in big echoey halls – I’m deaf y’see – one category fit us all for the differently-abled… And that does something to you no matter how confident you are, to be shunted off to the special room even by the most well-meaning of souls and God knows I had some amazing teachers who provided invaluable help.

That feeling of being considered ‘different’ came flooding back to me while watching Ben Weatherill’s achingly beautiful play Jellyfish in the studio space at the Bush Theatre. It’s a feeling that dominates Kelly’s life. At 27, she’s convinced of her own independence and a burgeoning relationship with the slightly older Neil promises much. Kelly has Down’s Syndrome and lives with her mother Agnes though, a mother who has provided unerringly constant care for her daughter and can’t conceive that this could ever be a healthy relationship. She means well, so very well, but at what cost? Does the help she offers square with the needs of a young woman yearning for sexual maturity. Continue reading “Review: Jellyfish, Bush”

Review: Misty, Bush

“Here is the city that we live in
Notice that the city that we live in is alive
Analyse our city and you’ll find that our city even has bodily features
Our city’s organs function like any living creature
Our city is a living creature
And if you’re wise enough, you’ll know not all of us are blood cells…
Some of us are viruses.”

A quick belated note for this, which I loved, and which deservedly sold out and extended at the Bush. Written by and starring Arinzé Kene, one-man show Misty blends verse, music and video projection in a fierce interrogation of the act of telling a story on a theatre stage. Epic in scope, intimate in nature, Omar Elerian’s direction on Rajha Shakiry’s balloon-filled set made this a play I wished I caught much earlier so I could recommend it to people (who would have probably already been!).

Photo: Helen Murray
Booking until 27th April

Review: The B*easts, Bush

“Essex-y, but not from Essex”

There’s a temptation to raise an eyebrow when a well-known actor gets a writing commission. 2013’s The Herd was a perfectly decent play but would it have got the same attention were it not written by Rory Kinnear? Who knows. Also at the Bush, we now have Monica Dolan’s The B*easts but over an intense hour, there’s little doubt about the quality here.

Dolan’s monologue takes a long hard look at how the increased sexualisation that has seeped into the very marrow of Western society and how not even our children are immune from its effects. She plays Tessa, a psychotherapist who has been called in to assess a mother who has been placed under the spotlight for allowing her daughter to have breast implants. Her daughter who is eight years old. Continue reading “Review: The B*easts, Bush”

Review: Parliament Square, Bush

“No one ever changed the world alone”

With pretty much every production of hers that I see (most memorably Lela & Co. and I’d Rather Goya Robbed Me Of My Sleep Than Some Other Arsehole), Jude Christian is becoming one of those directors whose work cannot be missed. And with the 2015 Bruntwood Prize-winning Parliament Square, now opening at the Bush after an October premiere at the Royal Exchange, that reputation doesn’t look in any danger at all.
She’s helped here by a magnificently fearless piece of writing from James Fritz, split almost schizophrenically into two contrasting parts. The first presents us with Kat, a woman on the precipice of leaving her husband and their young son to commit some unspeakable act, being urged along the way by an enigmatic figure far more bluntly daring than she seems to be. The second then takes us past the act, which failed, into an uncertain world of uneasy compromise. 
It’s uneasy and uncertain because Fritz never spells out directly what it is that Kat is protesting about, what the change is that she wants to wreak on the world. And so his writing takes on an ephemeral but awesome power as it explores what it means to take direct action, the diametric opposition of self-sacrifice and familial responsibility blurred into something disturbingly compelling as Kat and her family tread their way through a world that is becoming increasingly dangerous.
That sense of ominous foreboding is inculcated brilliantly by Fritz and Christian, in a second act passage that fast-forwards through a number of years, stopping every so often for jagged shards of dialogue weighed down with peril as the cast, perched on stools, slowly draw their feet as far up from the floor as they can. It’s a chillingly beautiful image, devastatingly effective, and one which helps the play to its glitteringly explosive end.
Esther Smith (the original Delphi Diggory) is painfully excellent as Kat, whether battling internal voices (a striking Lois Chimimba) or external pain (Kelly Hotten shines as a physiotherapist with an agenda). And Christian is finely tuned to the shifting rhythms of the play, ensuring that we’re neither too at ease or too alienated by the formal adventurousness but rather, intrigued by the questions it poses – how far can you go, should you go, to fight for what you believe in? 

Running time: 100 minutes (without interval)
Photo: The Other Richard
Booking until 6th January

Review: Drip, Bush

“Dive, dive, dive right in

Dive, dive, dive, dive, dive right in…”
On the one hand, I think I’d like to see Tom Wells really surprise us with something completely different. But on the other, he does what he does so bloody well that I kinda never want him to stop. Drip sees him playing with form, as it is a one-man musical but thematically, we’re once again in the world he has explored so affectingly in plays such as Me As A Penguin, The Kitchen Sink and Jumpers for Goalposts
Our protagonist is Liam, a 15 year old from South Shields who has moved to Hull cos his mum is seeing a guy named Barry who lives there. Making fast friends with Caz, the ‘other queer student’ at school, he throws himself into helping her with the annual project prize presentation that she is so desperate to win. Only thing is, she’s planning Hull’s first synchronised swimming team and Liam can’t swim… 
Drip is presented as a musical being performed by Liam as part of a school assembly, a device which works well in stringing together short scenes that take us through his past year since moving to Hull. And these vignettes mean that there’s mahoosive room for Wells to fill his book and lyrics with the kind of wry observational humour that he does so well, particularly as it relates to the awkwardness of being an adolescent gay kid.
Working out if a crush on trainee lifeguard Josh might turn into anything, deciding whether synchronised swimming is too – well – camp even for them, figuring out how friendships can be mended even after the biggest of strains, trying to make Spiderman proud of you… At just an hour long, Drip is short and incredibly sweet, delivered perfectly by Andrew Finnigan with his guitar, full of hesitations and self-doubt that is perfectly pitched.
Matthew Robins’ songwriting is necessarily simplistic – these are songs that Liam has written in his bedroom after all – and an additional reason for that becomes apparent later on, but there’s a heartfelt tenderness to them that works. And Jane Fallowfield’s direction encourages a playful naturalism that is impossible to resist, especially in the gentle audience participation that raises a chuckle throughout. Created as a Script Club production in partnership with Boundless Theatre, Drip is another feather in the cap for Wells & co and is definitely one to look out for if and when it returns (it must return right?!). 

Review: Hir, Bush

“We don’t do cupboards anymore. 

We don’t do order”
Taylor Mac’s Hir comes loaded with worlds of contemporary resonances, particularly in its exploration of the disaffection of the American working class and its probing into multiple layers of gender politics. And in this blackest of black comedies, getting its UK premiere at the Bush, it is – initially at least – vigorously, startlingly effective as an reinvention of the archetypal dysfunctional family drama.
We open with Isaac’s return to his small-town California home having been dishonourably discharged from the Marines. Working in the mortuary during a tour of Afghanistan has shattered him but he soon finds the home comforts he’s been dreaming of remain as far away as ever. His father has had a stroke, his mother is enacting vicious revenge on him for their abusive relationship by shattering the patriarchal order in the household, and he also discovers that his sibling is transitioning. Not quite the welcome home he was expecting.
Arthur Darvill imbues the returning Isaac with an incredulous fervour that sees him determined to restore ‘order’ as he sees it and thus he locks horns with Ashley McGuire’s matriarch Paige, an impressively newly self-aware woman but one who wields her power with a cruelly vicious glee that is often hard to watch, especially where Andy Williams’ disabled Arnold is concerned. And Griffyn Gilligan offers up intriguing work to complete this transformed family, part queer theorist, part stroppy teen.
But Nadia Fall’s production can’t disguise a certain hollowness at the heart of Hir. The virulence of its arguments will catch your breath but the action feels trapped inside the confines of Ben Stones’ domestic set. Having set up this toxically vivid world, Mac doesn’t progress it dramatically and so two hours of banging your head brutally against a wall leaves us with a bloody forehead and a sense of desolation that is hard to stomach.
Running time: 2 hours (with interval)
Photo: Ellie Kurttz
Booking until 22nd July

Review: While We’re Here, Bush

“I’ve been alive for so long and I haven’t got anything to show for it”
I’m not saying I want Barney Norris to write an all-out farce but it would be fun to see him stretch his considerable literary talent beyond these tales of gentle melancholy that he does so well. While We’re Here doesn’t technically suffer for being in immediately recognisable territory but equally, it doesn’t possess the aching soul that made Visitors a spectacular success. 
The ordinary lives under the microscope here are Carol and Eddie’s, lovers from 20 years ago who reconnect when she finds him sleeping rough in their hometown of Havant. Under these strange new circumstances, Norris looks at whether relationships can ever be rekindled or is late-in-life happiness just a myth. Directed by regular collaborator Alice Hamilton, While We’re Here inaugurates the Bush’s new studio space.

Continue reading “Review: While We’re Here, Bush”

Review: Guards at the Taj, Bush

“Was it fucked up? Yes, it was. But I don’t have to feel terrible about it”

Opening up the newly-refurbished Bush Theatre is Rajiv Joseph’s 2015 play Guards at the Taj. Allocated seating and dynamic pricing have been introduced, accessibility addressed and terraces built, we’ve come a long way from the intimate room above a pub that was its original home. And it’s a fascinating piece of writing to go with, an unexpected move perhaps but enjoyable nonetheless.
Inspired by the legend, for which there is no factual basis, that seventeenth century Mughal emperor Shah Jahan ordered that the hands of all the craftsmen who were involved in the construction of the Taj Mahal should be cut off. He commissioned the mausoleum for his favourite wife and the mythos behind the story is that he wanted to ensure that they could never build anything of equal beauty.
Joseph’s play puts us in the shoes of Babur and Humayun, two old pals who have been employed to protect the building site, with their backs turned to it lest their eyes should fall on its majestic beauty natch. Their friendship means a job that could otherwise have been dull is filled with amusing banter but as their responsibilities suddenly become more gruesome, the tone darkens considerably.
You’d be hard-pressed to recognise Guards at the Taj as a Jamie Lloyd production, altogether on a different scale from the work he has been producing elsewhere recently, and it’s all the better for it. Soutra Gilmour’s design reveals its horrible depths slowly but Richard Howell’s lighting is unflashy and Lydia Crimp’s costumes unshowy, a real simplicity at work that allows the shift into traumatic gore to hit even harder.
Darren Kuppan’s Babur and Danny Ashok’s Humayan connect beautifully with an easy charm, carrying us easily through the dryer, earlier scenes and then find moments of eloquent insight as they deal with the ramifications of what they’ve been forced to do and the consequences of such power. An intriguing start to a new regime.
Running time: 80 minutes (without interval)
Photos: Marc Brenner
Booking until 20th May


Review: Boys Will Be Boys, Bush Hall

“How do you enter a man’s world when you’ve got a vagina?”

The Bush Theatre may have closed its door as it undergoes a year-long renovation project to improve its accessibility and sustainability but in the meantime, it is stretching out its branches locally. And first up is Melissa Bubnic’s Boys Will Be Boys, playing a few minutes further down the Uxbridge Road at Bush Hall, an atmospheric Edwardian dance hall which has served time as a WWII soup kitchen and a bingo hall before transforming into an established music and cabaret venue.

Such an illustrious history seems ideal for this Headlong co-production, which blends in its own elements of cabaret and choreography alongside brilliant pianist Jennifer Whyte’s musical accompaniment. Which makes for a fascinating backdrop for Bubnic’s play about women in the City in which all the roles are played by women. So there’s women playing women, women playing men, and women playing women playing men at their own game. Continue reading “Review: Boys Will Be Boys, Bush Hall”

Review: Right Now (À Présent), Bush

“It’s exactly like yours, but the other way around”
As any fule kno, purple underwear had its cultural apotheosis in Back to the Future but there’s a scene in Catherine-Anne Toupin’s Right Now (À Présent) that threatens to wrest that title from Michael J Fox and anoint the delicious Maureen Beattie in his place. But lingerie aside, there’s much more in play in this fascinatingly twisty piece of writing from this Québécois playwright, a transfer from Theatre Royal Bath’s Ustinov Studio which has already toyed extensively with our perceptions in The Father and The Mother which have also been exported down the M4 in recent months.
Here, it’s Alice who has tumbled down the theatrical rabbit-hole into a world of increasing strangeness. Installed in a swanky new apartment with doctor husband Ben, life ought to be swell but there’s clearly something awry – their physical intimacy is severely stilted, a child’s toy left on the floor provokes the tensest of exchanges, her sleeping patterns are wrecked and he’s working all the hours God sends. All the while, a baby’s cries haunt the room… So the arrival of orchid-bearing Juliette from across the hallway, along with son François and husband Gilles and their promises of drinks and dinner parties ought to release the pressure valve – after all everybody needs good neighbours.
What it actually does though, is tip Alice’s world off-kilter. Slowly at first but then wrenching it right off its axis in a storm of psychosexual intrigue, Bacchanalian excess and emotional turbulence. The dislocation that she, and we the audience, feel may be less pronounced than the aforementioned works of Zeller but that actually makes it more chilling. Toupin’s writing – expertly translated by Chris Campbell – revels in the complexity of its strangeness, its absurdity almost, as it calls into question pretty much everything that it sets before us. 
Lindsey Campbell is excellent as Alice, unnerved at first by the intrusions into her seemingly hermetic existence but then abandoning herself (or is it her self) to the attentions thrust upon her. Maureen Beattie offers up a gloriously comic creation as the domineeringly inquisitive Juliette, supported by a suavely seductive Guy Williams as Gilles who thoroughly insinuate themselves into the domestic and romantic lives of Alice and Sean Biggerstaff’s Ben. And as their man-child of a son François, Dyfan Dwyfor delivers a sensational performance in tracking his considerable evolution from the unexpected to the even more unexpected. 
Michael Boyd’s direction keeps a firm enough hand on the tiller to ensure we’re never too lost and Madeleine Girling’s set expertly evokes both the fanciness and the fluidity of the situation, aided by the intelligent undulations of Oliver Fenwick’s lighting. And as it becomes more surreal, the darkness it suggests becomes ever more disturbing, the laughter it provokes catching in the mouth as sharp as a freshly squeezed lime. Inspired, bracing stuff.
Running time: 80 minutes (without interval)
Photos: Simon Annand
Booking until 16th April