News: stars come out to support the Jermyn Street Theatre

Stars of stage and screen including Olivia Colman, Helena Bonham Carter, David Suchet, Dame Penelope Keith, Timothy West, Jamael Westman, Tobias Menzies, Aimee Lou Wood, Grace Saif, Dame Penelope Wilton, and Julie Hesmondhalgh have joined forces to perform Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets for Jermyn Street Theatre, a 70-seat studio in London’s West End.

The Sonnet Project launched on the theatre’s social media channels on 21 March, when Hannah Morrish performed Sonnet 1. One sonnet has appeared every day since then, with the cycle due to complete with Sonnet 154 in late August. David Suchet, star of Agatha Christie’s Poirot but also a veteran of numerous Royal Shakespeare Company productions, performed Sonnet 34 on Shakespeare’s birthday. Continue reading “News: stars come out to support the Jermyn Street Theatre”

Review: Open, VAULT Festival

Christopher Adams and Timothy Allsop’s Open at the VAULT Festival is exactly the kind of fresh, forward-thinking queer theatremaking we need more of

“Do I want my first kiss to be on the District Line?”

A real sense of genuine feeling ripples all the way through Open. Husbands in real life, co-stars on this stage, Christopher Adams and Timothy Allsop’s play explores their nine year relationship and the ways in which it has evolved from meeting on Guardian Soulmates through civil partnership to marriage, accompanied by their decision to be open to sleeping with other men.

Statistics are tossed out – apparently 40% of gay couples are in open relationships – but what makes Open work is the specificity of the story being told here. This is no advertorial for all gay men to sleep around, but rather Chris and Tim’s deeply personal history being laid out, a bracingly frank investigation into the reasons for their choices and exactly how it made them feel. Continue reading “Review: Open, VAULT Festival”

Review: King Lear, Holy Trinity Church, Guildford

“Hooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooowl”

In something of a coup, Guildford Shakespeare Company’s leading man for their production of King Lear is none other than Brian Blessed. And with his daughter Rosalind playing Goneril too. The play’s opening this week was a little overshadowed by the actor’s collapse during the final preview performance, but with the redoubtable resilience we have come to expect from this totemic figure (and perhaps unfairly so, he is 78 after all), he continued with the show after a 20 minute break. So three days later, it was with a little trepidation that we took our seats in the Holy Trinity Church in Guildford (cushion recommended!).

But we needn’t have worried, Brian Blessed giving his King Lear was exactly how you’d imagine Brian Blessed giving his King Lear would be. For better and for worse. There’s a real thrill in seeing him throw himself so fully into the cantankerous cruelty and wild abandon that characterises Lear’s breakdown – every howl, headshake and handwring is vastly exaggerated and is so unmistakeably him. But this comes at the loss of much subtlety, if not wailing he’s whispering with inbetween, which ultimately becomes a little exhausting whilst remaining trashily enjoyable. I mean look at the poster, what you want is Brian Blessed doing exactly what Brian Blessed does. Continue reading “Review: King Lear, Holy Trinity Church, Guildford”

Review: The Drowned Man – A Hollywood Fable, Temple Studios

“Keep your masks on and remain silent at all times”
Such is the instruction as you enter the cavernous former Royal Mail sorting office in Paddington which has been transformed by the Punchdrunk team into Temple Studios, the venue for their biggest show to date – The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable. If you’ve been to a Punchdrunk show before, then this will come as no surprise to you (the masks are just as uncomfortable for glasses-wearers); if it is your first, then you should be prepared for something completely different (the masks will still be hot and uncomfortable!) 
Co-directors Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle are genuine pioneers of the style of site-specific immersive theatre that seems almost everyday now, yet their ethos is one which still manages to surprise people. They’re in the business of theatrical experiences rather than regular plays and so one should never approach one of their shows looking for traditional presentations of conventional narrative. Instead, the onus is on the audience to locate their own journey through the world that has been created, and find their own unique adventure.
That’s not to say that it is always successful but rather to locate any critique in the relevant context. The experience of exploring around four large floors without any guarantee of coming across any ‘action’ will naturally not appeal to everyone, but to criticise a lack of story is a misjudgement as that is not what they are trying to achieve here. The Drowned Man may be inspired by Büchner’s Woyzeck but this a fractured, fragmented version of the source material: scenes or segments just appear into view in a random, unannounced fashion, scattered and refracted like pieces of a kaleidoscope and ultimately unified, if at all, only by being part of one’s own journey through the show.

From exploring the near-deserted expanse of basement dressing rooms to seedy sex cinemas, lunar landscapes to trailer parks in forest clearings, sleazy audition chambers to motel rooms stinking of desperation, the sheer variety and exquisite detail of every single nook and cranny of this substantial space is quite something to behold and offers lots of opportunity for (some possibly verboten) playing around as the picture suggests… And the sequences I happened across held some powerfully intriguing moments too – the best for me happening in Studio 5 with the filming of a perky dance routine degenerating into a violently raunchy threesome and a later return trip there also resulting in another effective scene – regular Punchdrunk artist Conor Doyle giving some excellent work here. 

But a sense of adventurous exploration – we were even clambering on our hands and knees at one point – can only take you so far, especially at the times when it seems like nothing is happening nearby. The feeling of frustration can creep in as you cycle round the same area to little effect, especially when it is as sweatily hot as it was the night we were there (the ground floor bar – pictured – offers a much welcomed cooler environment, complete with live music, if you decide to give yourself an interval), and too many of the segments we witnessed reiterated the similar theme of sexual exploitation without suggesting much more besides – one shouldn’t really be left thinking ‘not another polysexual orgy…”. 

And the dynamics of an audience let loose in this way can sometimes be as exasperating as they are often amusing to watch. For all the talk of this being an imaginative journey for the individual, the way in which the herd mentality kicks in is quite remarkable. The minute a small cluster appears, then people start running to join in, convinced there must be something there – the most amusing incident of this resulted in us breaking the Matrix as the mysterious banging on the door turned out to be someone trying to get out of one of the dressing rooms for the performers – and the determination of some people to always be at the front of what is happening is sadly predictable. 

With some tickets coming in at £50, The Drowned Man does feel ambitiously steep and as unique as the experience may be, it might be hard to justify quite so much for this show, its constituent parts may feel a little underwhelming in an instant analysis. But challenging as it is, there really is something genuinely original in its desire to push us as audience members and redefining just what is to be at the theatre. Everyone should experience at least one Punchdrunk show in their life, even if it is just to confirm that it is not the kind of thing that they like and for all its highs, lows and longueurs, it has been a production that I’ve continued to think about even now, days after I went. Sprawling, big, bold, there’s nothing else like it.

Running time: anything up to 3 hours 
Booking until 30th December 
Note: comfortable shoes are a must and check in your bag at the cloakroom, you do not want to be carrying it around with you, especially in the more crowded areas

Review: REDfest, Old Red Lion

“Drama is life with all the dull bits cut out”

REDfest is a new festival hosted at the Old Red Lion Theatre celebrating “the very best in new writing” Over 100 short plays were submitted, and they’ve been whittled down to the best 18 which are being presented here in three groups of six. Audiences have the opportunity to rank the six plays they’ve been in order of preference and the top two from each group will be invited to return for the final week, where they will play again and a winner selected. The victorious playwright will then be invited to write a full length work for the theatre next year.

Group 1 featured a slightly reduced line-up: John Grogan’s Old Street was M.I.A. but the other five more than made up for it with an eclectic mix of new writing dissecting everything from strained relationships, alien abductions and acting classes. Given that these were only short pieces, it was interesting to see the hugely different ways in which the playwrights set about their task and with a varied degree of success. The stronger ones were those that pulled us into their little worlds and gave hints about what might have happened before and hopefully leaving us wanting to find out more, but focusing on telling a strong story at the centre of it all. Continue reading “Review: REDfest, Old Red Lion”