A Talent to Look Out for: Monday at the Etcetera Theatre

Monday at the Etcetera Theatre

There are many gems to be discovered on the London fringe. Freedom Tongue presents this one-woman show in an intimate pub theatre space, and it is both mesmerising and relentless. Gloria Williams’ Monday is a harrowing tale about abuse, false messiahs and the will to survive. At the Etcetera Theatre.

There are many gems to be discovered on the London fringe. Freedom Tongue presents this one-woman show in an intimate pub theatre space, and it is both mesmerising and relentless. Gloria Williams’ Monday is a harrowing tale about abuse, false messiahs and the will to survive.

Shows with only one actor are a special kind of theatre. There has to be a magnetic performer who is a great storyteller, and gripping material to keep you interested: if one of the two elements fails, the whole show usually falls flat. Gloria Williams, who wrote and performs this piece, emerged from the Royal Courts Theatre Young Writers Group and has earned great praise in Edinburgh and America for her work.

Through the perspective of a troubled teenager were live through a Monday that will tear apart an already broken family. The question of faith is at the centre of this production. There is an African woman downstairs, and 18-year-old Neena can hear her sing her religious songs over and over again. They are songs to a god that is forgiving and serves as support during times of hardship, but it’s not the same god that is being prayed to in Neena’s house. In the typical, black North London home where she lives with a religious stepfather, an unforgiving mother who tries to blank out the obvious tragedy and an innocent half-sister, Neena whiles away her days in psychological agony.

What on the surface reads like an overdone plot about child abuse is brought to life by rippling, evocative language that sometimes rhymes but isn’t poetry, a language that twists and turns and makes the viewer shudder with its intense imagery. Trying to protect her half-sister and struggling to confront her mother, Neena is a girl who has built an overcompensating wall of anger around herself. What has happened to her has rendered her incapable of focusing on her future or exploring her own sexuality in a meaningful way.

Williams allows different characters to speak up and she makes the transition between them without overly stylised efforts, finding the right devices to illustrate the complete communication breakdown in the girl’s home. Some of the confrontations – especially between mother and daughter – last a bit too long, but they capture with a disturbing urgency the futility of trying to make her mother understand.

The ever-increasing sense of dread and threat in the piece is driven by Williams’ powerful voice and physicality. At times there is an overwhelming sense of authenticity that makes it hard to watch. But there is not much else to focus your attention on, just a chair and a crumpled up white sheet, and so as an audience you are forced to listen and forced to look at what’s playing out in front of you. Culminating not so much in a resolution but a terrifying dissolution, the question remains of how to gather up strength after traumatising events like this. Is it worth giving yourself up to protect a family that cannot prevent abuse? If God can be misused in such a way, can he ever become a source of solace and comfort again? Gloria Williams manages to ask fundamental questions like these because she knows how to create a dense linguistic landscape, and because she delivers a gut-wrenching performance without being sentimental or maudlin. She is definitely a talent to look out for in the future.

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Intelligent and Laugh Out Loud: Jumpy at the Duke of York’s Theatre

Jumpy at the Duke of York's Theatre

Jumpy is another intriguing show the Royal Court has brought to the West End. TV’s Tamsin Greig (Green Wing) shines as a woman struggling to reconcile her feminist ideals from the past with the dreary reality of family life catching up with her. At the Duke of York’s.

Jumpy is another intriguing show the Royal Court has brought to the West End. TV’s Tamsin Greig (Green Wing) shines as a woman struggling to reconcile her feminist ideals from the past with the dreary reality of family life catching up with her. In the past, with productions like Hush, Wild East or Catch, April de Angelis and the Royal Court have had a good track record of producing relevant plays about British middle-class people. And with last year’s successful run, Jumpy was a likely candidate for the Royal Court’s on-going West End transfer collaboration with the Duke of York’s.

The show opens on overworked, disillusioned Hilary coming home from work and downing a glass of wine before even having put down her coat and bags. She’s a fatigued 50-year old woman and we soon find out that, in the 1980s, she used to be involved in the feminist movement. But it seems that a loveless marriage and a pubescent daughter have drained all notions of empowerment from her.

Strong women involved in the second-wave feminist movement now having become older often feel their sense of entitlement has been betrayed. This should be their time to earn the fruits of their efforts, and the change in society they fought for so hard should be passed on to the younger generation. But instead Hilary’s daughter Tilly, failing to identify with her mother’s ideals, is a disconnected and petulant girl who is more concerned with boys and fashion. Bel Powley is convincing as the 15-year old brat, but her performance does not really reflect her growing up in the two years or so the play spans.

Tamsin Greig delivers a funny and touching performance of a woman walking the tightrope of either miserably accepting the inevitable dreariness of London middle-class life or wanting to cry out at the injustice of it all. She is too worldly and wise to really believe that an affair with the young university student Cam (Ben Lloyd-Hughes) will relieve her misery, but at the same time she seems to despise the cynicism that has crept into her perception of the world.

Opposite Hilary is her friend Frances, portrayed by the delightfully scene-chewing Doon Mackichan. She tries to embrace her age and, in an awkward attempt to reclaim her own sexuality, has the house in tears of laughter when she does a burlesque dance number under the guise of self-discovery.

Lizzie Clachan’s design is an unadorned, whitewashed space that hints cleverly at underlying and suppressed middle-class problems and allows for the character’s actions to be observed by the audience, like in an experimental arrangement. The result is a very impersonal room, reflective of the loveless marriage and the broken mother-daughter relationship inhabiting it.

The Duke of York’s theatre, however, does not quite feel like the right space for this show. On the evening I saw it, some of the performances were surprisingly unengaged and uninvolved in the action. The very personal moments get lost in the depth of the space, and it is only at the very end when Hilary steps downstage and half-addresses the audience that her desolation really comes crashing down on us.

Jumpy is a very intelligent piece that sometimes wraps what it wants to say into too many layers, and so when it comes back to a more accessible level there is the odd clunky scene or plot development. When the piece is at its best, there is laugh-out loud humour paired with poignant and accurate observations about female desires. Even though it is not a perfectly balanced piece of theatre, in general it is definitely worth seeing for Tamsin Greig’s performance alone.

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Long Live Bohemia: RENT at the Greenwich Theatre

Rent

Bohemia is dead, long live bohemia! The 90s cult musical about a group of impoverished friends and artists from New York’s Lower East Side comes back to London in a visually appealing and vocally impressive production. At the Greenwich Theatre.

For many people, especially in America, RENT is not simply a piece of light evening entertainment. It is a cult show that epitomised the struggles and confusions of a generation that tried to claim free love for themselves and consequently got hit by a wave of disease of unimaginable proportions. Loosely based on Puccini’s La Bohème and dealing with the AIDS/HIV problem it had a huge impact when it came to Broadway in 1996. RENT’s world is gritty and yet life-affirming in spite of disease. Without being overly sentimental or pretentious, it deals with characters that try to make sense of their relationships and careers in the little time they have got left.

This seems to be a high season for fans of RENT or “Rentheads”, as they call themselves: Anthony Rapp (who played Mark Cohen in the original Broadway production) is currently in town doing his one man show Without You at the Menier Chocolate Factory, the current New York Off-Broadway show had its last run only a couple of days ago, and now there is Paul Taylor Mills’ slick interpretation of this modern classic.

What he offers is not original or new but it is highly enjoyable, and Jonathan Larson’s music and story take care of the rest. Mark (Benjamin Stratton), the filmmaker, and his flatmate Roger (Edward Handoll) don’t have enough money to pay their rent and are threatened to be evicted by their former friend and now landlord Benjamin (David Hinton-Gale). There are drugs, sex, guitars and plenty of existential questions to be dealt with. As an artist, how do you prevent yourself from being a sell-out when you can’t pay the bills? Can you find true love when confronted by a numbing disease? And what can offer comfort in a life that seems hopeless?

This version is a bit relentless, and some of the big questions in Larson’s piece don’t get a lot of breathing space to be explored. But in the quieter numbers like “Will I?” we are allowed to sink a bit deeper into the desolation of the characters, and that’s the big strength of the original material. Among all of the outrageous and obscene moments that lend the show its roughness, it is the tenderness and sincerity that make RENT such an unforgettable experience.

The vocal performances of the cast are convincing and strong across the board. One of the stars s Zoe Birkett who, while vocally impressive and with impeccable comedy timing during the number Over The Moon, tries a bit too hard in her characterisation of the over-sexualised performance artist Maureen. It’s probably not the easiest thing to be effortlessly sexy and in with the audience at the same time. Gary Wood plays the feisty drag queen Angel as fierce and touching at the same time and Stephanie Fearon’s Mimi shines especially in quiet numbers like “Without You”.

But the one who really stands out is Jamie Birkett, who plays the lesbian lawyer Joanne as a strong no-nonsense power woman and who can speak volumes with merely the lift of an eyebrow.

Andrew Beckett’s costumes and David Shield’s set, an effective scaffolding structure dominating the stage, are both very reminiscent of the original Broadway version. If you have never seen RENT live before this is definitely the show for you. If however you have already seen your “favourite” version of the show all of this might be a bit too polished. And certainly for my taste it was all just a tad too shiny – that applies to some of the musical arrangements as well as the direction both of which seem to loose a bit of their focus towards the end at “What You Own”.

But this is just picking holes into what is overall a well-presented and round show with a very strong ensemble and generally believable main characters. Definitely watch out for Maeve Byrne and her excellent solo part in “Seasons of Love”.

Proving its enduring popularity, later this year Interval Productions will bring an amateur-licensed version of the show to The Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone, and it will be interesting to see how both productions will compare to each other.

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Psychoanalytical Birdhouse at Jacksons Lane

Birdhouse

Alfred Hitchcock is widely celebrated as the master of suspense and the performers of Jammy Voo have created a stunning interpretative homage to one of the most iconic horror films of the British director. At Jacksons Lane.

Alfred Hitchcock is widely celebrated as the master of suspense, and the performers of Jammy Voo have created a stunning interpretative homage to one of the most iconic horror films of the British director.

I have to admit, to my shame, that my memories of watching Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds are rather hazy, but it’s not essential to know all the intricacies of the film’s plot to appreciate this piece of physical theatre. What you need to know is that there is a quiet, small California town, and suddenly there are birds appearing from nowhere and they attack people seemingly at random. Oh, and maybe that the central character is a woman who gets involved with a man and struggles with his overbearing mother. Hitchcock’s horror is almost always psychological and Jammy Voo capitalises on that.

Birdhouse is, if you will, a kind of postmodern sequel, that uses the story universe and minor characters to paint an absurd picture of the life after the attacks portrayed in the film. In Jammy Voo’s narrative the survivors of the horror seem to have formed a strange, symbiotic relationship with the attacking birds. The four women that take centre stage wear feathered head-dresses and talk about their personal, rather domestic horrors – be it about supporting a family or cleverly illustrating issues about female fulfilment through giving birth with the help of eggs. It might sound a bit pretentious and abstract, but the concept is put into action very demonstratively, and so the birds in this piece serve as an intriguing metaphor for oppression. It’s not just a one-sided preachy piece about all that though; in a fascinating moment in which a woman gets seduced by bird puppet, the room for all kinds of ambivalent readings is opened up.

It has to be said that Jammy Voo’s is a very intellectual approach that might leave some people cold. There are moments of deliberate ennui, which (in a Hitchcockian manner) skilfully coax the viewer into the next visual or acoustic climax. Audiences aware of psychoanalyst theories might recognise nods to the cheeky and convoluted pop culture analysis of academia’s enfant terrible Slavoj Zîzek, but even if you’re not in the slightest interested in psychoanalyst musings about female oppression and womanhood, you will find a lot to enjoy in this piece.

The most striking quality of this piece is definitely its stylistic vigour and its nearly cinematic scope. Visually sophisticated and nuanced, the performers include convincing bird puppets and a model of a house to bring up traumata connected to issues of motherhood or society judging women by their ability to bear children. Masterfully treading the fine line between clownery and expressive physical theatre movements, the created characters, although definitely distinguishable, remain deliberately abstract. They don’t have names or a distinct back-story, and they don’t talk a lot anyway – or at least not to each other. In a somewhat alienating way, the company manage to create little moments of truth without relying heavily on an overarching story.

The live music written and performed by Greg Hall is nothing short of revelatory. The arrangements are tender and soothing harmonies, which achieve so much more than merely illustrating the performance; it becomes part of the seductive suspense. The show, incidentally, had one of the best sound performances I have heard on stage in a long time. It was crisp and clear and let the music and actor’s voices seem like a perfectly mixed film soundtrack. That is especially remarkable, seeing as touring shows like this are in a constant provisory state of having to adapt to local premises.

After seeing this intelligent reworking of the source material I will definitely watch The Birds again. If, like me, you feel the need to brush up on your knowledge on Britain’s cult filmmaker, the BFI Southbank runs an extensive retrospective of Hitchcock’s work until October. But more than that, I cannot wait to see what Jammy Voo’s next “eggsperiment” is going to be. With their distinct visual concept, this company is definitely one to look out for.

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