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.

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.