Review: YOU STUPID DARKNESS!

IN BRIEF Absorbing look at the values of optimism and community in a collapsing world

In the refuge of a run-down office, the motley crew of Brightline telephone helpline volunteers struggle to reassure callers that “it’s going to be alright” – even though the wailing sirens, gasmasks and explosions from the chaotic world outside their office are strongly indicating the reverse.

The team of four try to help callers- and themselves- weather the storms of uncertainty by providing a listening ear. They’re not that great at it, but they’re trying.

Team Leader Frances (Jenni Maitland) clings on to glib textbook motivational phrases, all the time stroking and cradling her ongoing pregnancy bump.

Jon (Andy Rush), a helpline old hand, is at times strident and jagged but his façade too is weakening in the face of a rocky relationship.

Angie (Lydia Larson) is a young woman who gets easily distracted, but connects with callers and cares about what she does.

And 17 year-old Joey (Andrew Finnigan), a work experience lad who has had no training, thrown into the deep end, unexpectedly proves himself a wise head on young shoulders. Finnigan brings a gentle thoughtfulness to this teenager trying to find his way.

Working through their own problems as they try to help others, the increasingly bleak outlook somehow does not impinge upon their determination to try to do…something. It’s perhaps something akin to what people might have called “the Blitz Spirit” in the Second World War.

These unrounded, incomplete characters show us flashes of their other selves but they, like the rest of the play, are never solid or secure, as if to further underline the insecurity under which these people labour.

Callers come and go, often hanging up without completion, and the uncertainty this breeds further fuels the instability of the project. Moments of poignancy, for example at the loss of a caller for reasons unknown, are nicely intercut with gentle, causal humour which give the script texture and depth.

What’s interesting is that you find yourself listening as hard as the volunteers to these incomplete, one-sided conversations in an attempt to make sense of them.

Our thought is “why do they bother?” but as it transpires, the people answering the calls get just as much out of the service as the callers they are listening to.

Sensitively and carefully written by Sam Steiner and acutely directed by James Grieve, despite the tensions and setbacks encountered, unexpected laughter often ripples through the show, bringing a warmth and humanity to an oppressive environment. (And if you’ve never heard angry trombone playing, it’s a hoot.) The cast are uniformly impressive.

The manky set works together with the excellent lighting and sound designs to expertly unsettle the audience along the way.

The show does feel rather overstretched in the latter stages, as it significantly resets our experience to reveal a surprisingly comforting ending, with the knowledge that just by doing something these four are making a difference. And as they say, where there’s life, there’s hope.


Theatres At Risk 2020 Register published

The Theatres Trust has today published its annual Theatres At Risk Register, which is its 13th year of publication. Yet again this year, the North West of England has the highest concentration of endangered buildings.

The list of 30 theatre buildings are those most at risk of being lost due to closure, irreversible changes, demolition or simply neglect. With the appropriate help these historic (sometime listed) buildings could become vital assets to their communities again. Once gone, they will never return.

Of the 30 theatres, 24 are in England with 10 of those in the north west and 4 in London. 3 are in Wales and 3 are in Scotland.

Changes from last year include the removal from the list of two buildings- the Bradford Odeon, due to extensive renovation work, and the ex-Odeon Peterborough, now reopened as the New Theatre.

Sadly there is one new addition to the list this year is the Grade II listed Groundlings Theatre in Portsmouth which has suffered from the effects of recent break-ins and vandalism as well as a neighbouring redevelopment threat.

Positive steps have also been made with the theatres who received financial and advisory support from the excellent new Theatres at Risk Capacity Building Programme – Burnley Empire, Morecambe Winter Gardens, Salford Victoria, Spilsby Theatre, Swindon Mechanics’ Institute, along with Peterborough New Theatre. Launched as a pilot scheme in 2019, the programme provides grants and in-depth advice from the Theatres Trust for the early stage work that is often difficult to fundraise for but essential to set theatres at risk on the path to revival.

There is also progress at the Walthamstow Granada in London which has been bought by the local council and is in the first stages of refurbishment (sadly complicated by the discovery of asbestos in its construction, which will add several million pounds to the overall renovation cost). You can read about my recent visit to the Walthamstow Granada here

This new Register underlines the extensive, valuable work which the Theatres Trust do to help keep our precious entertainment buildings from the wrecker’s ball.

To explore the full Theatres at Risk Register, click here


Orange Tree begins free screening of plays online

Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre has taken a bold initiative to increase access to its work by broadcasting one of its plays via Twitter and YouTube for the very first time.

First Broadcast on World Holocaust Day, 27 January, Maya Arad Yasur’s play AMSTERDAM, directed by Matthew Xia, was captured live at the Orange Tree Theatre last autumn. The play is now available on demand on YouTube at The Orange Tree’s YouTube channel here

You can watch the play until February 10th by clicking on the link here

You can watch a trailer below

The play will be touring the UK from 27 February to 23 May, calling at Plymouth, Salisbury, Glasgow, Manchester, Oxford, Coventry, Leeds, Birmingham and Newcastle.

GUIDANCE NOTES: AMSTERDAM is Recommended for ages 14+. Contains strong language and discussion of xenophobia (in particular anti-semitism) , the Holocaust and gynaecology.


OFFIES 2020- a look at the finalists

As the Offies Awards have announced their shortlists, I thought it might be interesting to take a look through the finalists in some of the major categories. (You can find the full list here).

When reading through, you can read my Unrestricted Theatre review of the show by clicking on the title of any show which is highlighted.

In the category Choreography / Movement, Oti Mabuse is a finalist for AIN’T MISBEHAVIN‘ at the Southwark Playhouse. Mabuse worked her cast well and I would hope that she would take away the prize for this category. (However I was very disappointed that Robby Graham was not even longlisted for his work on LEAVE TO REMAIN which ran at Hammersmith in January 2019.)

In the Performance Ensemble category, finalists include THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON at Southwark Playhouse, (Matt Burns, Rosalind Ford, Joey Hickman, Philippa Hogg, James Marlowe)(my review here). Also a finalist is LITTLE BABY JESUS at the Orange Tree Theatre (Anyebe Godwin, Rachel Nwokoro and Khai Shaw). (my review here).

Yet another finalist in this category is GHOST QUARTET at Boulevard Theatre, (Carly Bawden, Niccolò Curradi, Maimuna Memon, Zubin Varla). I would hope that Ghost Quartet wins this category as the interconnection between the four actor-musicians was just incredible, one of the main reasons I saw it twice (a rarity for me!).

In the category Company Ensemble the SpitLip company blow all competition out of the water with their superb OPERATION MINCEMEAT.

The Female Performance in a Play category shortlist includes Lucy Briggs-Owen for OUT OF WATER at Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre. Frankly all three performances in this play were award-worthy, but I wish Lucy well in this category.

The Male Performance in a Play category finalists include Irfan Shamji for THE ARRIVAL at the Bush Theatre (you can read my show review here). How you can choose one of the two powerful, inextricable performances in this play and not recognise both is a mystery to me.  I wish Mr Shamji well -while thinking his co-star Scott Karim deserves equal praise.

The Most Promising New Playwright category includes Samuel Bailey for SHOOK at the Southwark Playhouse, this year’s Papatango Prize winner, and I WANNA BE YOURS, by Zia Ahmed at The Bush Theatre . In my opinion Zia Ahmed should win for his eloquent look at a couple trying to hold on to love in an unequal world. Not only that, the production was beautifully acted and directed too.

Best New Play category finalist Rose Lewenstein challenged us all with her raw slab of a play called COUGAR at Richmond’s Orange Tree. In my opinion she deserves to win. You read an interview with the writer Rose Lewenstein here.

In the Best Director category I was disappointed to see that Max Key had not been chosen as a finalist for his stylish, mesmerising production of THE GLASS PIANO at The Coronet Theatre.

In the musicals categories, I was happy to see that Supporting Male Performance finalists include both Oliver Saville for FALSETTOS and Cedric Neal for THE VIEW UPSTAIRS, the show which also features in Best Set Design for finalist Lee Newby.

For the best Male Performance in a musical I was delighted to see that Keith Ramsay is shortlisted for his role as Rachmaninoff in the brilliant PRELUDES at the Southwark Playhouse. This show is also a finalist for Best Lighting Design (by Christopher Nairne).

Best Musical Director is really a shortlist of riches, with the talented Jordan Li-Smith longlisted twice (he also was an accomplished musical associate on PRELUDES) and shortlisted as a finalist, but for me the winner here should be Benjamin Cox for the detailed and mesmerizingly beautiful GHOST QUARTET at the Boulevard Theatre.

Best Director in the musicals section features Bill Buckhurst as a finalist for the aforementioned GHOST QUARTET, who in my opinion should win for his intricate weaving together of music, mood, whiskey and magic.

GHOST QUARTET is also a finalist for Best Musical Production, which nobody who saw it would quibble about.


Review: SCROUNGER

SCROUNGER plays the Finborough Theatre until February 1st. Information and tickets here

IN BRIEF Challenging play about disability, discrimination and spirit forces audiences to think long and hard

SCROUNGER isn’t an easy play – either for its cast or its audience. It’s about a culture of unconscious discrimination that people with disabilities have to face every day of their lives.

At some point in our lives most of us have felt powerless against the forces of big business when trying to complain or right a wrong. We might be ignored, insulted, or simply brushed off. But we can work around these things. However, when a person living with a disability is placed in that same position, their life could easily grind to a halt.

Scrounger- the play’s main character (played by writer Athena Stevens)- first appears as a ballsy, confident woman who is living her life as she wishes. The event at the centre of the play shows how one piece of her carefully built support system- her custom wheelchair- getting damaged affects her entire system, damaging with it Scrounger’s confidence and mental well-being.

Surrounded in the play by superficial people quick to talk and “like”, but who never act, writer/actor Stevens (as Scrounger) pretty much reads the audience the riot act about do-nothing liberals. This is confrontational, angry stuff and as the story proceeds it’s easy to see why Scrounger feels this way.

Based on a true story in 2015 when boarding a flight from London, the airline damaged her wheelchair and then unceremoniously dumped her off the flight so as to not further inconvenience all the other passengers. She received zero help and a lot of stress. If an able-bodied person were in that position there would be things they could do, like write down names and details, but Scrounger can’t, and receives no help; she is left with the stress of trying to remember all the details, names, incidents in her head. Her resilience and sheer bloody-mindedness throughout this ordeal are impressive, but these qualities also take their toll. We feel the rawness of her anger as her world implodes.

After taking to YouTube (and her sizeable following), lots of likes and a petition are started, but nothing actually changes for an unbearably long time.

Encouraged to complain passively (Tweet, videos, etc) these non-aggressive routes grate against her personality, which changes over time, showing the toll this chapter has taken upon her.

The issues raised are important- the constant inequality and institutional discrimination experienced by a woman who happens to have a disability simply trying to go about her daily life.  All the time being keenly aware of others’ conscious or unconscious prejudices, where they ignorantly see disability distorted through their lens- as an inconvenience, curse or embarrassment.

Regulations supposed to help are simply more talk on paper- with no real substance behind the generalised well-meaning façade of their writing, so they can’t help her.

The linear story is divided into small chapters, each prefaced with some quirky music and a “teaser” to lighten the tension with a little humour.

Stevens is trying to open our eyes to the fact that a wheelchair maybe just a wheelchair to the able-bodied, but that to its owner, their wheelchair is a part of their identity and a part of what enables them to live their life as independently as possible: breaking the chair equates to breaking the person’s liberty, freedom and spirit.

The lines between drama and reality blur along the story’s route, and at points it feels unsure to me whether Stevens is playing the character or herself, especially in the breakout sections, but her performance through the rest of the show is nicely balanced between anger, sarcasm and a quirky sense of humour.

Special mention for Leigh Quinn as the PA who impresses in fulfilling a dizzying number of quick-change roles in support of Stevens.  

In some ways SCROUNGER echoes FAIRVIEW in making us stop and deeply think about something that we thought we had “dealt with”. Although very different to FAIRVIEW, SCROUNGER is just as important in its highlighting the difficulties of people’s attitudes towards those living with disability. This is a provocative and necessary play.

As Stevens reminds us pointedly, any one of us could succumb to some kind of disability at any time. Is it only then that we will grasp what it is that she’s been trying to tell us?

SCROUNGER plays the Finborough Theatre until February 1st. Information and tickets here