Review: The Writer, Almeida Theatre - an interesting and intelligent watch

There is much to wrap the grey matter around, it has a really clever structure that keeps you on your toes

Ella Hickson's new play The Writer is a powerful piece of meta-theatre, tackling gender bias in the arts head on but also opening up the debate about creativity vs commercialisation.

It has a structure which makes you work, like you are stood on sand that shifts slightly just as you think you've got a sure footing.

The Writer Almeida ticket picture rev stan instagramThe play opens with a scene in which a young writer (Lara Rossi) ends up in conversation with a man (Samuel West) from the theatre where she's just seen a play.

She is very angry, challenging him on the play, its representation of women but also on how women are perceived and treated within the industry.

He is a mix of bemused and interested but stands his ground.

Powerful exchange

It is a powerful exchange but not quite what you think it is. The sands shift and we are at a Q&A about the scene we have just seen with the nervous writer (Romola Garai) and domineering director (Michael Gould) taking questions from the audience.

You get to see some of the issues raised in action which is tactic that is repeated.

There is another shift and another, plays within plays, circles, characters and roles overlapping, transforming, developing layers of irony and sharpening the debate.

The set is also a set within a set, sometimes creating a 'box' on which to focus on only for the walls to come down to reveal something else.

Showing rather the telling

Showing can be more powerful than telling when it comes gender politics and what The Writer does is show just how deep it goes, how ingrained, how subtle it can be. 

And then there is the debate about art, creativity and commercialisation.

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Interview: Wearing two hats with her new play - acting is the dream but writing keeps Felicity Huxley-Miners sane

Felicity Huxley-Miners talks about writing and acting in her new play In The Shadow of The Mountain, juggling the two roles and what her dream theatre production would be like (hint: it would have a big cast).

Felicity Huxley-Miners
Actor/Writer Felicity Huxley-Miners

The new play (more details at the bottom) is a love story about two people with Borderline Personality Disorder inspired by her meeting a woman with BPD and the production is supported by MIND.

You’ve written the play and you are also performing in it alongside David Shears, did you always have yourself in mind when you were writing?

Yes, I knew I wanted to play Ellie when I was writing but I really had to shut off that part of my brain when I was creating the play as you can start to censor and shape it around yourself instead of being true to a character and their story.

Thinking ‘I don’t want to say that’ or worrying about your character being likeable can be quite limiting so I really had to shut off that side of my brain.

I’ve found being an actor does help me write, as both are all about getting into different people’s heads and working out what makes them tick.

Which do you prefer - writing or acting - and which do you find the most challenging?

Acting has always been the dream and what I’ve funnelled most of my energy into over the years.

I’ve only started writing in the last few years and have been lucky enough to be a part of the Soho Theatre’s Writers Lab this year. I’ve found writing incredibly cathartic.

Acting can be a very perilous career and a lot of time the control is taken out of the actor’s hands.

Being proactive and creating my own work has really kept me sane in the leaner times and means that I always have a creative outlet even if it's just me sitting in a café having vivid hallucinations about my own fantasy world.

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Review: Perfection that is robotic in Instructions For Correct Assembly, Royal Court

Clever staging and some memorable moments but the play, like the robot at the centre of the story, lacks soul.

What if you could build your own robot child and programme it, a chance to correct past mistakes and produce the perfect off-spring?

Instructions-for-correct-assemblyThis is the premise of Thomas Eccleshare’s new play Instructions for Correct Assembly at the Royal Court.

Parents Max (Jane Horrocks) and Harry (Mark Bonnar) are surrounded by friends with over-achieving sons and daughters unfortunately, as we discover, their own son Nick (Brian Vernel) wasn't quite as perfect.

The staging utilises two conveyor belts on which props, bits of set and actors slide into view.

At first, we see the action through a window-shaped space as if it is taking place inside its own box of parts; watching Max and Harry build their new 'son' Jån (also Brian Vernel) who comes complete with Ikea style instruction booklet.

Once Jån is ‘out of the box’ the window screen lifts and we see them tinkering with him, getting him ‘just right’ for the big unveil to their friends.

In an interview with What’s On Stage (see related content below) Thomas Eccleshare says the play is about perfection and what that looks like.

The perfection as presented in the play is a world of high-flying careers, a benign world of politeness but it is also soulless and colourless.

Max and Harry themselves are quite mechanical and surface, there are too few chinks in their polite and friendly armour.

Their friends are also nice and polite, full of humble-brags and it's all a bit Stepford wives (and husbands) except that there isn't even anything sinister about it.

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Review: an effervescent story of love and self discovery in Coconut, Ovalhouse

Coconut bubbles with wit and laughs, it is illuminating, heart-warming and affecting.

Rumi (Kuran Dohil) is a bit tipsy when she meets Simon (Jimmy Carter). She's drowning her sorrows having had a disastrous night Halal Speed Dating, more of which we learn of later in the play.

Coconut  Ovalhouse - Courtesy of Greg Goodale (8) Kuran Dohil
Kuran Dohil in Coconut, Ovalhouse. Photo: Greg Goodale

Something clicks and the two start dating, the problem is that drinking and eating pork aside, Rumi comes from a Muslim family. Simon was raised Catholic.

Well, it is the germ of the problem.

This isn't a traditional tale of star-crossed lovers kept apart by external voices, by different cultural and religious backgrounds, any family resistance towards the match is in the background.

Simon decides to convert to Islam so that he can marry Rumi. It's just a short ceremony, repeating some vows Rumi assures Simon and then it's done with.

But it isn't done with and that is the primary source of tension as it forces the couple to question who they are, who they want to be and where they fit in.

Kuran Dohil's Rumi is funny, effervescent, relatable - one of those characters that are a delight to spend time with.

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Review: Some lovely lighter moments but something didn't gel - Reared, Theatre503

While there are some excellent individual scenes as a whole Reared just doesn't quite gel. I found myself wanting it to delve further.

There is a moment in Reared which reminded me of Jez Butterworth's The Ferryman when Aunt Maggie Far Away is having one of her lucid moments and telling the children stories.

Reared  Theatre503 - courtesy of The Other Richard (9) Paddy Glynn and Danielle Phillips
Paddy Glynn and Danielle Phillips in Reared, Theatre503. Photo: The Other Richard

In John Fitzpatrick's new play, it's the same scenario; Nora (Paddy Glyn) is telling her granddaughter Caitlin (Danielle Phillips) an old family story about the Irish potato famine but on finishing it she slips back into a confusion of memories.

It's a touching moment in a play about mounting family tensions as Caitlin's mother, Eileen (Shelley Atkinson), tries to persuade her husband Stuart (Daniel Crossley) that there is more to his mother's memory loss than simple old age. 

There is additional family drama as 15-year-old Caitlin is pregnant and doesn't want her parents to know who the father is. Caitlin's hapless friend Colin (Rohan Nedd) is the source of much humour as he tries to be supportive.

These lighter moments work really well but there aren't enough to make Reared a full-blown comedy but then neither does the play properly explore either dementia or teenage pregnancy/underage sex and, as a result, it lacks punch.

 

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Review: Powerful, haunting and gripping Plastic, Old Red Lion Theatre

There is a defined and painful tragedy in how a moment of lost control can have fundamental consequences but what haunted me most was that for some of the characters their school days were as good as it was ever going to get.

A piece of classical music is playing. It’s one of those evocative pieces that has mournful, tragic undertones, the sort that is used in war films.

A mirrorball rotates sending disco sparkles of light across a couple dancing slowly.

Plastic  Old Red Lion Theatre (Mark Weinman  Louis Greatorex  Thomas Coombes and Madison Clare) - courtesy of Mathew Foster
Mark Weinman, Louis Greatorex, Thomas Coombes and Madison Clare in Plastic, Old Red Lion Theatre. Photo: Mathew Foster

The music combined with the mirror ball perfectly set the scene for what is to come in Kenneth Emson’s new play Plastic.

Set in an Essex secondary school this is part reminiscence part flit back in time to a day when life was different.

Lisa (Madison Clare) - bright, sassy, popular - has decided that ‘tonight is the night’ with Kev (Mark Weinman), the former school football team captain who now has a car and a mundane job.

She wants the day to go as quickly as possible but the gossip machine is whirring.

Best friends Jack (Louis Greatorex) and Ben (Thomas Coombes) are the outsiders, the 'weirdos' who want to get through the day unnoticed, unmolested from verbal or physical abuse.

As the day crawls by, tension is mounting. Ben might be about to snap; he is a ball of broiling anger, frustration and resentment, sensitive to every perceived slight and constantly rising to the bait.

Looking to escape the stares, the gossip, the threats, the steaming brew of hormones and hierarchy Jack, Ben and Lisa bunk off, a decision that will change all their lives.

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Review: Grace rather than gasps in Pirates of The Carabina's: Relentless Unstoppable Human Machine, Roundhouse

...it is in many ways an entertaining show but it is also a show that feels more about grace than gasps and I missed those nerve-jangling, pulse-raising moments you normally get with acrobatics.

Relentless Unstoppable Human Machine - Photographs by Ollie Millington - 159
Relentless Unstoppable Human Machine. Photograph by Ollie Millington

Pirates of the Carabina are more than acrobats they are also clowns, singers and musicians.

So while one of them is hanging spectacularly by their feet from a hoop that is being spun above the stage another is singing or playing guitar in the onstage band.

As well as the band the lights sometimes fall on a group of singers up in the balcony.

The rhythm and tone of the music and singing introduce the pace and style of each sequence of acrobatics and clowning.

There are graceful pieces, that are almost balletic when combined with the music where artists are swinging in circles from ropes or bolts of fabric - or hoops - while creating amazing shapes or performing incredible holds.

More uptempo music denotes a faster pace to the acrobatics or some clowning around.

And there is some great clowning around with chase sequences on roller skates and a 'novice' attempting a wobbly walk along a tightrope - I'm sure it is more difficult to look bad when you are actually really good.

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Q&A Guleraana Mir on challenging cultural and gender stereotypes in 'irrerevant, dark comedy' Coconut, Ovalhouse

Writer Guleraana Mir talks about her new play Coconut, in which she wants to show that there is far more to British Asian women than is commonly portrayed.

22 - Guleraana Mir
Guleraana Mir

What is Coconut about and what inspired you to write it?

The term Coconut refers to someone who is brown on the outside and white on the inside. It is mostly used as a derogatory term, but that is how the protagonist Rumi, a British Pakistani woman self-identifies.

The play charts the course of the relationship between Rumi and Simon, a white man who converts to Islam to marry her.

It’s a story of two people trying to navigate what being in an intercultural and interracial marriage looks like when they’re not even sure where they fit in society individually.

Back in 2015 when I was asked to write the original 15-minute one-woman piece for Ladylogue! (an evening of one-woman shorts) I was given the extra caveat to consider what I wasn’t writing about: My heritage.

Of course, I wanted to meet the challenge but I was also inspired by the fact that I’ve never seen a character like Rumi on stage before.

We don’t have much range in our British Asian representation on stage, or screen. It’s all Bollywood-inspired wedding-based drama, colonialism, terrorists or doctors.

Some of us don’t fit into any of those boxes as people, so why should our characters?

It’s your first full-length production, what has the journey been like?

Long. No one ever tells you that theatre takes time, especially if you’re producing.

The Thelmas are co-producing Coconut with Ovalhouse and we’ve known for over a year that this production would happen, it’s just been a case of getting everything in place so that we’re ready to pack the theatre with an exciting and diverse audience once we open.

Before that we spent over a year developing the play with support from Park Theatre’s Script Accelerator and New Diorama’s BAMER program, so a lot of work has gone into this.

I’m really excited to show off the play in its final form as it’s undergone some serious rewrites since our last industry reading.

How involved are you in the rehearsal process?

Not very. Since the last rewrite, I’m comfortable with where the script is at, and I trust the creative team with it.

If they need clarification on something I know they will reach out, otherwise director Madelaine [Moore] has a strong vision for the piece and I trust her completely.

In fact, I’m pretty sure that once it’s all put together it’s going to look better than I could have ever imagined.

What I am doing is admin - helping organize the pick-up and drop-off of set, source props etc. all much less glamorous than sitting in a rehearsal room chewing the end of a pen, but ultimately much more useful.

Coconut is a described as ‘an irreverent, dark comedy', what role does humour play in the telling of this story?

Humour is essential otherwise when the play takes a dark turn the audience would just feel battered.

Most of the humour comes from the character of Rumi and her outlook on life.

She’s the kind of person that approaches everything lightheartedly with a smile and a one-liner.

In the play humour is what lulls Rumi (and the audience) into a false sense of security, as she’s constantly brushing everything off with a joke and so doesn’t realise what is going on until it’s too late.

 

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That was March in London theatre-land with Hamlet actor spots but a Shakespeare theatre low

Theatre news highlights from March

* Mark Bonnar and Jane Horrocks have been cast in Instructions for Correct Assembly at the Royal Court which opens for preview on April 7.

Cw-24829-660x375* Samuel West joins the previously announced Romola Garai in Ella Hickson's The Writer, Almeida, which opens for preview on April 16.

* Not only is the Donmar staging a new adaptation of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, directed by Polly Findlay, but Lia Williams and Angus Wright are starring. Be lovely to see those two on stage together again.

* Stan-fav Jade Anouka has been cast in The Phlebotamist, the debut play by Ella Road at Hampstead Theatre Downstairs.

* It's bye bye to the Lyric Hammersmith for a little while (June to October) as it undergoes a refurbishment.

* Orlando Bloom has been cast in Killer Joe at Trafalgar Studios which opens for previews on May 18. I admit my interest in seeing this is more out of curiosity rather than being a fan.

* Another Stan-fav, Jonjo O’Neill, has been cast in The Prudes at the Royal Court Theatre which opens for preview on April 18.

Celebrity spots

There's a bit of a Hamlet theme to the spots in March. Game of Thrones's Joe Dempsie was watching the RSC's Hamlet at Hackney Empire and then he 'stalked' @PolyG and I nearly all the way home on the tube.

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Agreeing with Exeunt magazine's (irrational) theatre dislikes and adding one of my own

Exeunt magazine (@theatremagazine) asked its reviewers what their (irrational) dislikes at the theatre were and compiled them into this great list.

ColdThere are many I agree with (ovations, actors on stage as the audience arrive, real food...) but I have my own addition: Snotty noses.

Well, not so much snotty noses, there's (s)not much you can do about that, but the fact that actors never have a hanky or tissue.

Instead, they wipe their nose on their hand or sleeve...or on the shoulder of the fellow actor, their character is hugging, if they are lucky.

It's what seven-year-olds do. It's revolting. 

Only once have I seen an actor on stage with a hanky. Zoe Wanamaker obviously had a cold during when I saw her in The Rose Tattoo at the National Theatre but she made blowing her nose part of the performance.

An actor blowing their nose isn't going to break some magical spell, in fact watching them wipe snot on their sleeve or hand breaks the spell, grown-ups (mostly) don't do that.

They must know they are going to get snotty why not be like Zoe, make it part of the performance?

Photo by William Brawley on Flickr and used under a creative commons license.