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.

2 Become 1 @ King’s Head Theatre

Kerri Thomason and Natasha Granger’s 2 Become 1 is an upbeat musical exploring female friendship and the evolution of dating, set to a 90s soundtrack. Bursting with nostalgia and girl power, the play perfectly captures the pop-culture of the era, and the talented cast present some truly hilarious renditions of these classic songs.

Jess (Granger) has just been dumped by her boyfriend, and to stop her from wallowing in self-pity, her friends decide to take her on a night out. From speed dating, to using Cosmo tips to impress men, to singing in the ladies loos, the girls do their best to cheer up Jess’ broken heart. But in the end, after a quick stop at the chippy, Jess realises she doesn’t need a man when she is surrounded by girl power.

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Photo: Liam Prior

The chemistry of the cast is exquisite on stage and it genuinely feels like these women have been friends for a long time. Granger captures the distressed dumpee’s character perfectly, and her physical comedy is brilliant. The stand-out performer of the piece is Jessica Brady, who plays the obsessive and fickle-hearted Amanda. Her powerful voice is the perfect fit for Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want for Christmas is You,’ and along with the audience participation, this is the highlight of the piece.

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Photo: Liam Prior

While presenting a female-centric view through their characters, Thomason and Granger split the action with real-life recordings of men and their opinions on dating. Contrasting the 90s action with the contemporary recordings highlights just how much dating has changed in such a short period of time, especially with the internet. We see the character Molly (played by Thomason) muse about this at the end of their girls night out, commenting on just how ridiculous it would be to form opinions of people based just on the way they look.

Thomason and Granger have created a short and energetic piece, full of laughs and great throwbacks. Though their is an overarching theme about modern-day dating practices and how unorthodox they are when compared to 20 years ago, this is a very light-hearted show. With just the right amount of cheesiness, 2 Become 1 is a delight, and a great alternative Christmas treat.

2 Become 1 is at the King’s Head Theatre until 7th January.

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.