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.

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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.

Sublime @ Tristan Bates Theatre

Focussing on the relationship between a brother and sister and their shady pasts as grifters, Sublime is a play about heists, shared history, and the strong bond between siblings. Writer Sarah Thomas starts off with an intriguing concept that explores the complicated partnership between the two main characters, but by the end the story creates more questions than answers, consequently producing an unsatisfying ending.

Sophie (Adele Oni) bursts back into her brother Sam’s (Michael Fatogun) life after disappearing for 2 years. Sam seems to be living a “normal” life – he has a steady job and a long-term girlfriend (Clara, played by Suzy Gill). But when Sophie says she needs his help to cover some debts she owes, Sam can’t say no, and is soon back to his old ways. As they carry out burglary jobs together, old feelings begin to appear, and the siblings are forced to confront questionable emotions.

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Although performed by a cast of four, the play feels like a two-hander, especially in the first half as Sam and Sophie have very intimate scenes. Thomas’ intricate and evocative dialogue is engaging, and has a captivating rhythm that’s perfectly performed by Fatogun and Oni. Even though Fatogun is the stronger of the two performers, their immense chemistry on stage is undeniable, and an absolute delight to watch. Gill is a great Clara, whose middle-class antics provides laughs, and a very a stark character contrast to the siblings’ backgrounds. Sam and Sophie’s complicated relationship leaves so much intrigue and question that you’re desperate for the second half to begin to find more about them and their past.

Yet the second half lets the strong beginning down. When trying to conclude the play it feels as though Thomas struggles to fit all the information about the brilliant characters into a short space of time. Too much of the story is left unfinished for it to be a cohesive ending. Declan Cooke – who doubles as Clara’s dad and the owner of the bar Sublime, which Sam and Sophie plan to rob – is used as a devise to help tie loose ends, which feels like a bit of a cop-out. Thomas is a terrific writer, and the first half of the play shows this, yet the second part feels rushed and haphazard, which isn’t helped by some very gimmicky set-pieces – think Pulp Fiction briefcase-like elements – which look and feel awkward.

Thomas has created a group of interesting characters. A pair of siblings brought up by a man they call uncle who taught them to steal, and a father-daughter duo who don’t know much about each other. It’s a sad and fun story that looks at relationships and love. It explores how people cope with hard times and how some bonds can’t be broken, but also how some kinds of love can be destroying and fundamentally wrong. It’s just unfortunate that Sublime is let down by its second half. Throughout, Sam and Sophie’s characters allude to a big final heist, so naturally one is expected to appear at some point, but it just never comes, leaving you desperately yearning for one. A lack of an elaborate heist wouldn’t be so disappointing if the story provided satisfying a conclusion, but sadly it doesn’t.

Sublime is at the Tristan Bates Theatre until 8th April.

The Significant Other Festival @ The Vaults

Made up of a series of 10 short plays, each also 10 minutes long, The Significant Other Festival by The Pensive Federation is a collection of work celebrating relationships. From couples to friends, to family and acquaintances, the mini-festival is an eclectic mix of stories created in just 10 days. Though some do stand out more than others for their stronger stories, overall it is a pleasant experience.

In Flurry, written by Olu Alakija, three old friends meet in a forest, looking for the spot they buried a corpse. Alakija’s language explores actions of violence and remorsefulness well, neatly fitting a lot of information compactly into a short period of time. The direction by Sophie Flack instantly creates an eerie and cold atmosphere befitting it’s subject, making Flurry stick out from the rest with its dark theme.

Rob Greens’ Overcast is another memorable piece, which examines sex, relationships and virtual dating. When a man and a woman fall in love with the same person, it takes a third to help them realise the truth – their love is not reciprocated. Greens’ cleverly written exchanges are full of detail, and the piece is very well performed by the actors (Christi Van Clarke, Hanna Lucas, Jamie Coleman), who capture their characters’ quirks perfectly.

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While some of the playwrights were able to create great situations in such a short period of time, others struggle to give their characters and their stories enough depth, creating some confusing pieces of work. Alexander Williams’ Gust, which focuses on a group of housemates, is very hard to make sense of. It requires a lot of hard work to keep up and understand the story, especially as the relationship between the characters is unclear throughout. In the end there is no comfortable conclusion, leaving it flat.

Similarly, Sylvia Arthur’s Haze is difficult to follow. Three siblings are at their mother’s funeral when one discovers a photo of her in bed with a man. As they discuss the photo, the conversation turns to each of their relationships with their mother, and politics. Arthur’s text is erratic, and the constant jump from one character to the other gives the piece an irregular rhythm, making it distracting to watch and overall quite dull.

The short plays are connected to each other through the theme of weather – each playwright was given a weather condition to write the play around – but other aspects connect them to one another too. A pair of binoculars, a tape measure and some badminton rackets make an appearance in more than one piece. This makes it feel like they connect with each other which is a nice touch, emphasising The Pensive Federation’s collaborative way of working. Although some of the plays are more engaging than others, the fact that the team work together to stage each piece in just 10 days is very impressive and admirable, and even for that reason alone, it’s worth a visit to The Significant Other Festival.

The Significant Other Festival is at The Vaults until 18th April.

Ionesco/Dinner at the Smiths’ @ Latvian House

Bringing to life some of Eugène Ionesco’s characters, and even himself, Ionesco/Dinner at the Smiths’ is a French and English celebration of the absurdist playwright and his work, directed by Marianne Badrichani. The show has some great portrayals, and although it could have included more ‘immersive’ elements, its inviting atmosphere elevates the whole experience.

Before you are guided through to the dinner party, the butler (Jorge Laguardia) hands over the evening’s menu to examine – which gives an idea of which Ionesco works to expect. Once seated at the long table in the centre of the dining room, Mr and Mrs Smith (Sean Rees and Lucy Russell) join the party. Their guests Mr and Mrs Martin (David Mildon and Edith Vernes) arrive, although late and apparently convinced they are complete strangers, and the full hilarity of the absurdist characters ensues.

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The whole event is quite pleasant. The ensembles give admirable performances of classic Ionesco, with snippets from The Bald Soprano and The Lesson. Russell is hilariously British as Mrs Smith, deliver the intricate dialogue delightfully. Laguardia has an immense likability that leaves a lasting impression, even though he is not as strong as the other performers. His charm is present from the start as he ushers guests in, through to his brilliantly boring anecdote as the Captain of the Fire Brigade later on in the performance.

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The most enjoyable scenes are those where Rees, playing Ionesco, is interviewed. Though the actors stand around the table firing questions in French (and English) as though in a press conference, these scenes feel quite intimate, giving insight into the playwright’s life – his thought-process, his fears, his influences.

The set and site-specific aspect of the piece is very enjoyable, the interior of the venue befitting the dinner scene. But with such a great space and set, if feels as though there should be more immersive parts to the play, and it’s disappointing to find out there isn’t. That’s not to say this isn’t an enjoyable experience. As a piece of absurdist theatre, Ionesco/Dinner at the Smiths’ is a brilliantly performed and directed combination of all the best bits of Ionesco you can fit into just over an hour, with a set-up that activates the senses.

Ionesco/Dinner at the Smiths’ is at Latvian House until 1st April.

The South Afreakins @ VAULT Festival

The South Afreakins is a comic and heartfelt story of an elderly couples’ emigration from South Africa to New Zealand, inspired by writer and performer Robyn Paterson’s own family. In this one-woman show Paterson plays both roles – Gordon and Helene – and her energy feeds the imagination, making it feel as though both are genuinely present on stage.

When Gordon’s retirement finally sets in, Helene is determined to convince him to move to New Zealand from their home in a South Africa – to leave behind her fears and the memories of her murdered son. Reluctantly, Gordon joins her on this journey, and as Helene becomes comfortable and confident with her surroundings, he becomes more and more isolated in his new home.

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It’s takes a bit of time to get used to Paterson switching between the two characters, as well as trying to understand Gordon’s especially thick South African accent – this isn’t helped by the fact that our initial introduction is in the dark and behind the curtain making Paterson’s voice quite muffled. But once she gets into her stride, it’s a delight to see her as the old couple. Her characterisation is brilliantly thought-out and her mannerisms as each person are hysterically on point. By the end you’re heartbreakingly invested in both characters.

Paterson is a strong performer. She fills the stage with life and her familial ties to the story add warmth to her performance. The show is hilarious from beginning to end, but does have some intense sobering moments highlighting themes of displacement, immigration and race. The South Afreakins is a great piece of work expertly put together and performed by Paterson.

The South Afreakins is at the VAULT Festival until 19th February.