Hir @ Bush Theatre

Taylor Mac’s satire Hir focuses on a typical American family that at one point in time might have been the perfect representation of the American Dream, but now this family has abandoned any form of order or convention. While some may see this as a cause for celebration, it’s met with disgust by others. Directed by Nadia Fall, and performed by a terrific cast, Hir is an exciting timely addition to the Bush Theatre’s reopening season.

Isaac (Arthur Darvill) has just returned from serving in the war to find his home unrecognizable. His dad Arnold (Andy Williams), once the head of the household and the breadwinner, is now a “vegetable” dressed up in a clown wig. His mum Paige (Ashley McGuire) has stopped cleaning the house and refuses to take care of Arnold. And his sister Max (Griffyn Gilligan) no longer accepts the pronouns she or her, but prefers ze or hir. All Isaac wants to do is get back to normal, but that’s hard when normal doesn’t exist anymore.

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Photo: Ellie Kurttz

The cast is terrific and really do justice to Mac’s text, and with Fall’s direction, the writer’s language is made prominent in this energetic staging. With long speeches, Paige takes her time explaining her new found knowledge of the LGBTQ+ community and queer politics. It’s during these speeches that McGuire’s excitable Paige really commands the stage, like her character has taken charge of her life, bringing to life Mac’s comedy brilliantly. Equally, Gillian deliver’s Max’s monologues with compassion – in particular, hir speech about Leonardo da Vinci being a trans woman is entertaining to watch and is a demonstration of Mac’s creative imagination.

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Photo: Ellie Kurttz

Darvill portrays the bewildered Isaac well, his physical comedy is especially gross and funny – although it is difficult to get used to his American accent at first. But its Williams that slyly steals the show in his own way – you won’t be able to stop watching him, even though his presence can make you feel uncomfortable. Arnold is pitiful at the start, covered in make-up by his wife and forced to wear a dress – the ultimate humiliation for a man who used to epitomise masculinity. His stroke has made him unable to do things for himself so it’s tough to watch Paige degrade him. But as the play goes on and Arnold’s true abusive nature is revealed, it’s hard to feel sorry for how he is treated by his wife and Max.

Finally, Ben Stones’ chaotic set also deserves a mention too as it fully captures the breakdown of this small town family, and the attention to detail is immaculate – there is method to its madness. Hir is packed full of concepts that can be quite baffling for some people, and it is obvious that the show is not everyone’s cup of tea. But it’s full of energy, laughs and themes that get darker as the play goes on, so you can’t really pull yourself away from it.

Hir is at the Bush Theatre until 22nd July.

The Happy Theory @ The Yard Theatre

Another cohort of Generation Arts’ talented performers come together for their end of year gala performance to showcase their abilities, and as usual, it’s a delight. The company aims to train aspiring actors from marginalised backgrounds for free, and the majority of these performers go on to drama schools. This year’s performance The Happy Theory is devised by the young company themselves, directed by Ali Godfrey, and is a massive burst of energy that has you laughing all the way through.

As school comes to an end, a class of students is debating a question put forward to them by their teacher: can money buy happiness? For some, the answer to this is straightforward, but to others it’s complicated, and for all of them it’s a way to consider their next steps in life. They just need to learn to accept their difference, but that’s easier said than done.

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The piece weaves the stories of each of the characters together neatly, holding your attention throughout. The ensemble is terrific and mesh well together, and in true Generation Arts style, everyone is encouraged to play to their strengths. This allows gems like Helder Fernandes and Robert O’Reilly to shine with their over-the-top comedy that leaves the audience roaring with laughter. The perfectly timed subtle humour of Elena Burciu, who plays the lovable and bumbling teaching assistant Ms Simmons, is also a brilliant addition to the piece.

The most touching relationship is the one between teacher Jada – a strong performance by Tania Nwachukwu – and her younger sister Denise who is scared to leave her house. Adrienne Bailey gives a nuanced performance as Denise, capturing the character’s fears well. The two have a powerful bond on stage that adds warmth to the play. Jay Martin as Ethan, a young student struggling to cope with his mother’s terminal cancer, is also deserving of a mention. His performance is touching and heartfelt, and the final speech he delivers is deeply moving.

Overall Generation Arts have created a piece full of laugh-out-loud humour and emotional scenes, that showcases the talent of their students while celebrating difference. This year’s ensemble is destined to go on and do great things.

Find out more about Genertion Arts. The Happy Theory is at The Yard Theatre until 24th June.

Aisha @ Hen and Chickens Theatre

Child marriage is still prevalent in the UK, putting thousands of young people at risk every year, so it is not surprising to see the subject explored on the stage. In his debut Aisha, writer and director AJ fuses spoken word influenced text with the difficult discussion of this practice to portray affects it can have on victims. The text is brutal and evocative, but at times the title character’s voice is drowned out, making the story hard to follow.

At 14, Aisha was forced to marry a man three times her age, fulfilling her parents’ wishes and their Muslim-Nigerian traditions. Now she’s 17, tortured daily by her “husband”, locked in her home, and made to cater to his every wish. She’s stopped caring about her life and is more concerned about her unborn baby’s, who gives her a glimmer of hope and the strength she needs to survive.

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The style in which AJ pens Aisha’s speech is poignant. His use of poetic language, a reference to the character’s childhood dream of becoming a writer, is Shakespeare-esque, setting her apart from the other characters. She quotes from her mini Oxford dictionary, rhythmically, like taking part in a spelling bee contest, another nod to her juvenile state. The opening is harrowing and will cause discomfort for anyone watching, as will some of the scenes involving Aisha’s physical torture. Performed by Laura Adebisi as Aisha – her stage debut – the opening speech gives a horrifyingly descriptive account of her rape. You will struggle to take your eyes off Adebisi’s strong performance. It’s apparent from the onset that this is about Aisha, and she will be telling her own story without others diluting her account.

As the play goes on, we are introduced to other characters: her stern and traditional mother (Sabrina Richmond); her husband and torturer (Ayo Oyelakin); his friend Mr White (Lloyd Morris); a blabbering doctor (Alexander Lincoln) who also functions as a some comedic relief. Yet as each character appears, the timeline of the play becomes confusing, altering the piece from being Aisha’s own linear story, to one about those around her. This removes her voice from the discussion, and consequently it is hard to continue to concentrate on what is happening.

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The most frustrating moment comes in the form of a dialogue between Mr White and Aisha’s husband during a poker game. Mr White goes on a racist rant complaining about Muslims and praising Brexit, to which Aisha’s husband shrugs and agrees. AJ weaves religion and cultural traditions into the piece through Aisha’s parents’s background, and uses it as a way for their justification of her marriage, but even so, this short scene feels like an outlier within the play. The writer does not expand on the theme of religion, but only refers to it on occasion. AJ tries to draw parallels between religions by including the support worker’s background (a small role and composed performance by Olivia Valler-Feltham), who was groomed and raped by a priest when she was a child, but this comes across as a throwaway comment. It seems as though this is supposed to be an unexpected twist in the story, but its execution is underwhelming and flat. More could have been done to discuss abuses of power, whether in the hands of religion or tradition, which feels like it’s missing from this play, instead of leaving them in the background without expanding.

Aisha begins with an undeniably moving and strong performance by Adebisi, and stirring poetry by AJ. But over the course of an hour and a half, the point of the story is lost as the playwright desperately tries to create a profound comment on child abuse, instead of sharing the story of the incredible young survivor.

Aisha is at the Hen and Chicken’s Theatre until 24th June.

Living a Little @ King’s Head Theatre

Produced by Riot House Theatre, and In Your Face Theatre – the same guys who staged the ridiculously enjoyable Trainspotting Living a Little is a show about zombies, friendship and love. Full of brilliant comedy, as well as some heartbreaking scenes, writer Finlay Bain (who also performs) and director Jordan Murphy have created an entertaining piece of work.

Paul (Paul Thirkel) and Rob (Bain) are two flatmates stuck amidst a zombie apocalypse. It’s not clear how long they have lived under these conditions or how the human population even started turning into zombies, but the two have a comfortable arrangement in the flat. That’s until Penelope (Pearl Appleby) bursts in through their door – the duo’s first ever contact with another person. She’s clearly been through some tough stuff, and Rob’s “live a little” attitude isn’t helping. But when the three let loose in a drug fuelled evening, true emotions are revealed, and they’re forced to deal with the consequences.

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The cast is absolutely terrific. Thirkel is instantly likeable as Paul. His physical comedy is on point, and each of his movements is calculated to hit a punchline perfectly. Opposite him, Bain’s Rob is obnoxious with his misogynistic and laddish behaviour. But the character’s brashness is balanced well by the writer’s ability to still make him sympathetic with the love he shows for his friend. Appleby’s performance is strong, and a particular highlight is Penelope’s hilariously extreme and completely valid opinion of the X Factor, which understandably received a round of approving applause from the audience.

The show is very fast-paced, and the back and forths between the actors are almost constant, but never tiring to watch. This tempo emphasises the emotions present in the more touching and intimate scenes, which are neatly and rhythmically placed into the piece. There is a lot of information to digest in 60 minutes, but Bain has successfully managed to create a story that’s easy to follow. The ambiguity surrounding the conditions in which the zombies have appeared is intriguing, and allows for some grotesque speculation by the characters (which is great), but also doesn’t fully remove the fictitious aspect of the situation – by that I mean there could very well be a zombie apocalypse one day, you just can’t ever know.

This is an energetic and funny show from beginning to end. With its pop-culture quips, impressive set, and a cast who genuinely look like they’re enjoying themselves on stage, Living a Little is a zombie apocalypse you’re definitely going to want to be a part of.

Living a Little is at the King’s Head Theatre until 14th May.

Guards at the Taj @ Bush Theatre

The newly re-developed Bush Theatre building boasts a more sustainable and a completely accessible space. The revamped theatre now has an additional studio space and an attic rehearsal room, allowing for more work to be produced. Rajiv Joseph’s Guards at the Taj is the new building’s first show, and a great choice to open the renovated space. With brilliant humour, dark themes and two strong performers, the play is a superb imagining of the myths surrounding Shah Jahan and the Taj Mahal, and a wonderful performance.

Best friends Humayun (Danny Ashok) and Babur (Darren Kuppan) are guarding the Taj Mahal. It’s been 16 years in the making, and finally, it’s almost complete. But the emperor has declared that no one, apart from those in charge of building it, shall look at the Taj until it is finished. Babur desperately wants to sneak a glance of the most beautiful monument in the world, but Humayun is apprehensive. After all, going against the emperor has terrible consequences, which the guards soon find out.

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Photo: Marc Brenner

Soutra Gilmour’s dark and ominous bare set serves as a perfect canvas to Ashok and Kuppan’s performances, who deliver the task of bringing to life Joseph’s India extremely well. Kuppan is loveable as Babur, constantly making fun of Humayun’s seriousness with admiration and love. He performs Babur’s humour with delight and equally presents the character’s guilty turmoil with great sympathy. Opposite him, Ashok’s caring and concerned Humayun is powerful, and the two have incredible chemistry. The friendship projected onto the stage is moving, and there is a particularly touching moment where Ashok meticulously washes blood off Kuppan’s body, taking care to remove every last bit. This gentle action beautifully captures the deep love the two characters have for each other, and a scene that has the potential to be funny or awkward becomes tender with Jamie Lloyd expert direction.

Joseph’s text is a striking exploration of duty and friendship that weaves folklore and fact into an energetic 80 minutes. The characters are empathetic and complex, so there is never a dull moment, especially as both actors do well in engaging the audience and animating the minimal stage. Guards at the Taj is a great piece of work, and an excellent way to open the new and improved Bush Theatre.

Guards at the Taj is at the Bush Theatre until 20th May.

Threads @ The Hope Theatre

Written by David Lane, Threads is a story about the pressures and expectations of moving on from a break-up and the struggles that come with it. Lane weaves supernatural concepts into the this  kitchen sink drama to look at the characters’ relationship breakdown. And while, at times, the snippets of comedy and individual performances are engaging, the use of metaphor becomes very hard to make sense of, convoluting the piece as a whole.

Vic (Katharine Davenport) arrives to see Charlie (Samuel Lawrence). It’s been 5 years since they broke up, and she’s moved on and made herself a new life. Charlie, on the other hand, has stayed put, unable to leave “their” flat, almost becoming a part of the building itself. He hasn’t eaten or had anything to drink since Vic left, and doesn’t feel pain anymore. As the two talk, their surroundings strangely change, while they reveal things that are unknown to one another.

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Photo: Lidia Crisafulli

The play starts off with intrigue. Charlie is pacing, looking out of the window, and Vic’s appearance is shocking and unexpected for him. Their dialogue is engaging from the start. Yet once Lane introduces the fantastical elements to the piece, it’s difficult to keep up with them. It appears that the house the two characters once shared wants them back together, but this theme does not fully carry all the way through. On top of this, Lane adds more layers of metaphor which is hard to keep track of.

Lawrence’s performance as Charlie is one of the more enjoyable aspects of the piece. His lengthy speeches are fully engaging, and he presents Charlie’s sense of vulnerability well. Davenport’s performance is mild, until the very end when her over the top acting is, unfortunately, funny instead of emotional in any way. While Lawrence does give a good performance, as a pair the two lack chemistry.

Rachel Sampley’s lighting design is intriguing and elevates the paranormal additions to the piece, which is balanced nicely with Jo Jones’ set of old technological objects. But Lane’s writing makes the story hard to follow, and overall, Threads is just not a very memorable piece.

Threads is at The Hope Theatre until 29th April.

Miss Nightingale @ The Vaults

Set in 1942 London, Miss Nightingale is a saucy musical that chronicles a cabaret singer’s rise to fame, to the backdrop of the Blitz. Full of spectacular numbers and excellent performances, the show is hilarious and ridiculously fun, while also detailing quite a touching storyline.

In the middle of war-torn London, Sir Frank (Nicholas Coutu-Langmead), the wealthy owner of a cabaret club is looking for a new act to be a regular on his stage. Enter Maggie (Tamar Broadbent) – a nurse with a great voice and stage presence, and George (Conor O’Kane), a Jewish composer. Together the trio set out to bring entertainment to the London nightlife. But when Frank and George fall in love, Maggie’s ex Tom (Niall Kerrigan) does all he can to exploit the couple’s secret at a time when society forces them to hide it.

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Photo: Robert Workman

Matthew Bugg has created an excellent piece of musical theatre. The moving love story and World War Two setting add emotion to the piece, which is balanced by the upbeat songs full of raunchy innuendos, creating an uplifting atmosphere. The ensemble work well together on stage, and as the whole cast is made up of actor-musicians, their talent is endless. Broadbent is a delight as the title character, perfectly performing each bawdy number with energy and spot-on comic timing. Coutu-Langmead and O’Kane capture Frank and George’s love completely, presenting their relationship with affection. Frank’s conflicting emotions are pushed to the surface by Coutu-Langmead’s passionate performance, while O’Kane presentation of George’s witty language is charming.

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Photo: Robert Workman

Aside from the performances, the show itself feels more like an experience as The Vaults are completely transformed into a 1940s cabaret space. Designer Carla Goodman’s attention to detail is immaculate, with vintage trinkets and objects laid out even before you enter the auditorium. This theme continues onto the stage, where the cleverly thought-out costumes and props enrich each song.

Miss Nightingale is a funny and well-written musical that brings to life the 1940s cabaret scene, expertly performed by a terrific cast. The whole show is just superb.

Miss Nightingale is at The Vaults until 20th May.