The State vs John Hayes @ King’s Head Theatre

A part of King’s Head Theatre’s upcoming #Festival45, which showcases new writing, The State vs John Hayes is a brilliant one-act piece written and performed by Lucy Roslyn. The show explores identity and insanity in a disturbingly spectacular way.

We are introduced to Elyese Dukie, who is alone in her prison cell on death row. She tells us about her husband, and her girlfriend, and her relationships with other women in the prison. She also tells us about John Hayes, her other, more violent persona. It seems that Elyese finds it easier to accept the murders when she feels like John has committed them.

Roslyn has written a great piece of work. The dark and poetic language is made even more appealing by her fantastic performance as Elyese. She effortlessly draws people in, talking directly to the audience, listening to everyone’s reactions. Especially as her persona changes to the very charismatic John, we hang onto his every word, eager for him to like us too. But Roslyn is quick to remind us that Elyese is still there. There is a beautiful moment when she remembers her child and giving him up for adoption, and the we see a glimpse of the real Elyese hidden behind her conflicting personas.

The State vs John Hayes is tremendous from start to finish. Roslyn is extremely engaging and delivers a captivating performance. She has created a psychological roller coaster headed by a charismatic murderer who easily manipulates the audience. 60 minutes is not long enough for this show. It left me wanting more.

Titus Andronicus @ New Wimbledon Studio

The Shakespeare adaptations of the theatre company Arrows & Traps have always been very enjoyable. Director Ross McGregor is very good at producing great pieces of work of which the components are thought out well, and fit comfortably around certain themes. This process allows him to successfully present interesting adaptations. On this occasion however, Titus Andronicus falls short of what I have been used to with the company’s work.

General Titus Andronicus has defeated the Goths and captured their Queen Tamora, returning to Rome with her and her sons as prisoners. As a sacrifice to the Gods, Tamora’s eldest son is killed. While this is happening, Rome is to decide who will be their leader, and they are forced to choose between brothers Saturninus and Bassianus. When the choice falls down to Titus, he picks Saturninus, who asks Tamora to rule Rome with him as his Queen. She agrees, and so begins Tamora’s revenge for her murdered son.

Samuel Morgan Grahame (Lucius), Matthew Ward (Titus) & Remy Moynes (Lavinia), Titus Andronicus, New Wimbledon Studio (c) Zoltan Almasi

McGregor has modernised the play’s setting, which works well most of the time. I especially liked the way the play begins with projections of news reports, where the audience are given an insight into the characters of Saturninus and Bassianus. Twitter is also used in the play, helping alert the Romans of Saturninus’ crimes, and speeches are spread with the help of phones. I think this aspect of the play was very well executed. McGregor does well in commenting on how the government is presented in the media, and how social media especially can manipulate circumstance. However, this choice in setting feels odd at times. For example. the Clown (a hilarious performance by Annie McKenzie) is told to physically deliver a written message to Saturninus, which seems out of place around the Wii controllers and the MacBook.

The play is known for its overt violence and blood, which makes it so spectacular when staged. This is what is missing in this adaptation. Lavinia’s (portrayed by Remy Moynes) face and body is covered in blood, but the reveal of her cut tongue was not very eye-catching. Also the cutting of Titus’ hand was not bloody enough, and the prop hand was comical, which is not the desired effect of bloody limbs in the context of the play. Sadly, these aspects take away from the good elements of this adaptation.

Matthew Ward (Titus) and Members of the Company, Titus Andronicus, New Wimbledon Studio (c) Zoltan Almasi

Elizabeth Appleby is equal amounts scary and powerful as Tamora, manipulating her way through the play. Opposite her, Spencer Lee Osborne is great as Aaron, funny at times but also very sinister. He is very Iago-esque in the way he manipulates the audience into liking him, something I was sucked into very easily. Matthew Ward as the title character is powerful, though seems too gentle at times, and almost fragile, appearing with a cane at first. Ward picks up this power, and in the brilliant banquet scene he is just the right amount of comedic and sinister. My favourite choice of casting is Cornelia Baumann as Marcia Andronicus. I admire McGregor’s choice of presenting a female Marcus. In a play where a Queen approves of a young girl being raped and dismembered, it is nice to see a female character resented in a powerful and positive way. Baumann was spectacular, and her passion for her country and her family was truly believable.

Titus Andronicus is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. The blood and gore, the violence, the overtly sexual characters are some aspects of this play which makes it appealing. The story is exciting, and if presented in a certain way, it can reflect modern politics, which will make it topical and therefore an interesting choice of play to adapt. But in this instance, the lack of violence and gore is disappointing for me. I am a big fan of Arrows & Traps, and they usually deliver outstanding Shakespeare, but this time their Titus Andronicus was just not as impressive.

Playground @ Old Red Lion Theatre

Enid Blyton’s books may have been the inspiration for Playground, but luckily knowledge of the Famous Five is not necessary for enjoying this play. The underlying mystery is really just a way for writer Peter Hamilton to use a set of characters to explore social problems. The play discusses mental health, perceptions of individuals in society, and the idea of community. This does sound too heavy for a night out at the pub, but the dark comedy employed by the writer allows these subjects to be looked at successfully.

Christopher James Barley as DC Birch

Christopher James Barley as DC Birch

Playground is set in Victoria Park, where murders have taken place. The victims, all children, have been decapitated, and the murderer has left a Famous Five book on each of the bodies. Detectives Mitchell and Birch (played by Dan MacLane and Christopher James Barley respectively) are in charge of solving the case, and in this process, the audience meets five characters who could potentially have carried out the killings. Walthamstow lad Stuart (Simon Every), and posh communist Tamsin (Laura Garnier) know each other from Bow Road Psychiatric Unit, and visit the park frequently. So does Danny (Richard Fish), a former psychiatric patient and current night cleaner at Canary Wharf, and Carolyn (Josie Ayers), who he saves from an attempted suicide. Then there’s Bella (Sarah Quist), who runs the cafe at the park, and is dishonest about her past. When Danny decides to form a book club inviting everyone to join, his choice of books to read might hold a clue to who amongst the group is the murderer.

Josie Ayres and Richard Fish, Playground, Old Red Lion Theatre (c) Cameron S Harle

Josie Ayres as Carolyn and Richard Fish as Danny

Fish is brilliant as Danny and presents his strangeness with likeability, making him an eerie yet endearing character. Barkey’s cross-dressing Birch is hilarious, and the relationship between him and MacLane’s Mitchell is never really fully disclosed, which I really liked. It allows for the audience to make up their own mind about what they are seeing. Garnier’s character Tamsin became quite grating after a while, and I found myself rolling my eyes every time she spoke in the second half of the play. I could have done with less talk of “revolution”, and more talk of racial tensions, which Hamilton very briefly touches on with the character Stuart, who we find out was amongst an EDL protest once. There was scope to expand on this I think, especially as the play is set in East London, but fails to include more than one BAME actor on stage.

Laura Garnier as Tamsin

The set is interesting on first observation. Director and designer Ken McClymont has used scaffolding to create a climbing frame, complete with an old tyre swig. The structure forefronts the large Enid Blyton book covers surrounding it, so the audience are constantly reminded of the mystery unfolding. Juxtaposing the darkness of the content with the brightly coloured covers does highlight the grossness of the murdered children, which is also emphasised by Quist’s Bella repeatedly singing the nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons. She has a beautiful voice so I loved every time she appeared in the shadows.

The characters are interesting, and the play is dark and hilarious, which is what makes it so entertaining. In terms of a conclusion? I have no idea, but what I do know is it was an enjoyable evening of theatre which I would recommend.