Napoleon Disrobed @ Arcola Theatre

Based on Simon Leys’ novella The Death of Napoleon, Told By An Idiot’s new show Napoleon Disrobed is a comical and absurd adaptation that imagines the life of Napoleon leading up to his death. With mistaken identity, contemporary gags and delightfully clumsy physicality, the performance brings to life a Leys’ story in an energetic, fun and funny way.

The banished Napoleon (Paul Hunter) is escaping St. Helena disguised as a cabin hand named Eugène Lenormand, leaving the man behind in his place. He is on his way back to Europe with the help of a secret organisation who he believes will help him regain his power as Emperor. In a series of funny events and misunderstanding, he ends up in Paris, where he meets a widower who takes him in. The unlikely pair become close, but when Eugene dies in St. Helena, Napoleon struggles to keep his real identity a secret and is devastated by everyone’s reaction.

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The story has been very well adapted for the stage, with witty language that’s amplified by the physical comedy, and an absurd chain of events. The comedy is interpreted and performed well by Hunter, who is hilarious both as Napoleon and as the various other characters he takes on – a ridiculous caricature of Jeremy Paxman with a wig that resembles anyone but him was a particular highlight. Opposite him, Ayesha Antoine’s characterisation is on point, and she moves from one character to another seamlessly, which is glorious to watch. Her energy fills up the whole room. The two have a great chemistry together on stage, and I would happily watch them again.

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Kathryn Hunter’s direction allows the performers to be playful with the audience, encouraging viewers to interact with them and the show, which is fun to be a part of. Michael Vale’s set design is imaginative and allows the actors to be very active. A big, raised wooden platform in the centre of the space serves as a versatile stage, changing from a television studio to a ship to a Eurostar carriage. The way the performers use this set piece heightens their physicality and the humour of the show. It’s just extremely entertaining, especially during the scene on the ship – it made me want to give it a go myself.

Overall the humour in Napoleon Disrobed is clever, witty and completely absurd. With great writing and exceptional performances from both Antoine and Hunter, the show is a hilarious staging of Leys’ novella.

Napoleon Disrobed is at the Arcola Theatre until 10th March.

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The B*easts @ Bush Theatre

The Bush Theatre’s new season has started off with a blast – Javaad Alipoor’s The Believers Are But Brothers was a brilliant and totally unique piece, and now their current show The B*easts is a compelling exploration of modern-day parenting and the sexualisation of children. Written and brilliantly performed by Monica Dolan, it is engaging and uncomfortably relevant to contemporary culture.

Therapist Tessa (Dolan) is working on a case about Karen, a mother who allowed her daughter Leila to have breast implants at aged 8. Tessa explains that the girl showed an interest in wanting breasts from 3 years old, constantly clutching at her mum’s fashion magazines, pointing at the women. As Leila grew up, her wish grew stronger, and finally, her mum decided to give her daughter what she wanted. When people found out, Leila was taken into care and her mother was arrested. Now it’s up to Tessa to asses Karen, but trying to figure out who is to blame for the sequence of events is not very black and white.

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Photo: Alan Harris

The story is captivating, and with every dark new detail, you yearn for more, which Dolan delivers perfectly. Her performance is mesmerising, keeping the audience hooked on her every word. James Button’s design keeps her at the centre of the stage, the perfect position for the storyteller to maintain attention easily throughout the monologue, which feels completely effortless for Dolan.

There is no clear conclusion in the end, just the disturbing fact that even though the details in Dolan’s story are very extreme and heightened, we are heading towards a society where the extreme is becoming normal. The B*easts makes you question society’s obsession with policing women’s bodies, overly sexualising women, and how this actually affects children and young people. With a fantastic story full of sinister truths and dark humour, and an exceptional performance from Dolan, The B*easts is unmissable.

The B*easts is at the Bush Theatre until 3rd March.

Untold Stories @ Arcola Theatre

Part of the SLAM season at the Arcola Theatre, Untold Stories is a collection of new short plays featuring work from new and established artists. Including subjects from race to old age to suicide, each of the seven stories brings something different to the stage, but some stand out more than others.

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Bakersfield | photo: Nathalie St Clair

One of those is Bakersfield, a coming of age story set in 1950s Memphis about eighteen-year-old Tommy who wants to play pro baseball, but whose father thinks the army is better suited for him. Written and directed by Chris Udoh and starring Kingsley Amadi as Tommy, it tackles racism, friendship and the idea of duty. Udoh is a brilliant storyteller, who has managed to create complicated characters and weave them into an engrossing play. Amadi’s performance is commendable, bringing to life the text with superb energy, completely engaging the audience. I didn’t want it to end.

Emma Zadow’s A Tune of Two Muses is a dialogue between Lizzie Siddal (Amy Alan) and Jane Morris (Rachel August), the wives of Dante Rossetti and William Morris respectively. Much is speculated about the relationship between the two women, so Zadow’s idea to highlight the artists themselves, is a creative one. While both Alan and August perform the two women well, it’s Lysanne Van Overbeek’s direction that makes the piece feel flat. The energy stays on one level throughout, so after the first few minutes, it’s easy to get distracted and lose interest in an otherwise interesting concept.

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London-Damascus | Laura Henry

It’s also worth mentioning London-Damascus – another stand-out short of the collection. Written and directed by Nick Moyles, the story follows an internet relationship that crosses two countries. Syrian Ahmed (Reece Matthews) and Englishman Adam (Freddie Wintrip) meet online and fall in love. Moyles’ story is well written, full of humour and emotion, with solid performances by both Matthews and Wintrip. While the ending feels like it goes on for a bit longer than necessary, it doesn’t detract from the strength of the story. The tragic conclusion is heartbreaking.

Untold Stories contains some well-formed and presented short plays, as well as some that have compelling subjects that may need work in their execution. Although there are stories that are more engaging than others, overall as a collective, they are funny, touching and complicated pieces of work that entertain and engage an audience.