Review: NO SWEAT

IN BRIEF Bleak, effective youth homelessness drama simmers angrily in moving production

Just occasionally, a show comes from out of the blue to highlight something which for some reason has gone under our collective radar. NO SWEAT was born out of the untold, unseen homelessness crisis in the LGBTQ+ community. Why unseen? Because so many use 24-hour gay saunas as a place of rest and refuge from the harsh realities of the world outside. In a venue where being gay is “the norm”, it may appear to some quite seductive to think of these places as a refuge. However, the sexualised environment leads many to selling sex to survive, which can also lead to drugs. These traps that many vulnerable young gay people fall into are unforgiving and highly damaging.

NO SWEAT tells the stories of three young men who take refuge in FLEX, a London gay sauna. Charlie, the Pakistani asylum seeker who cleans the place for a pittance; and customers Alf, a Welsh body-for-hire and naïve, numb newcomer Tristan. All three having fled from parental rejection and ejection from the family homes, with no means to support themselves.

As their stories and experiences are shared, what is also revealed is the desperation and loneliness of these young men, each at the mercy of others to survive. Forced into “survival sex working”, Alf educates Tristan in how to exist in this new world of 24-hour heat, where they are part of the majority – but still outsiders.

The three men form their own bonds and supportive gestures which bring a genuine humanity to the show and make the central dilemma of these forgotten people all the more moving. Drugs seem to follow sex in a cycle of desperation and numbness.

The performances are all of a high standard. Gentle, romantic and caring Charlie is played with delicate grace by Manish Gandhi, a sweet and generous soul in a country that doesn’t want him.

Cocky, superficially sorted Alf is played with brittle bravado by James Haymer. Denholm Spurr as Tristan gently takes his character from naïve to more knowing, but retaining a genuine helplessness, so that when he says “I don’t really know what I am doing”, its meaning becomes amplified – a strangled cry for help.

The authorities which should be helping are portrayed as doing worse than nothing- an utter failure of care. “Is this a joke?” asks Tristan at the end of his interview for assistance; those unseen forces charged with helping display a lack of respect, willpower and joined-up thinking as well as prejudice of all colours. It is a genuine slap-in-the face moment for characters and audience.

Unfortunately the ending is not a happy one, and the sadness of these lives, damaged through no fault of their own, is mixed with anger at the lack of any kind of effective lines of help for them.

Vicky Moran’s sensitive play, combining a wealth of original research, mixes the dramatic and audio interview clips with real people (which cover the lengthy scene changes) to good effect, but I did feel that the changes rather distracted my attention away from the audio. The piece undoubtedly benefits from Moran’s own direction, and she has fostered telling performances from the cast.

There is some brief nudity in the show, but I felt this rather cleverly underlined the vulnerability rather than providing any genuinely erotic content.

The only decision which didn’t quite work for me was that of asking the actors to be their own inquisitor at their interviews with authority figures, with the actors turning from side to side to represent different voices. I thought that perhaps another unseen voice (on audio) might have better captured the hardness and inhumanity of questioning, and would also have freed up the actors to maintain their carefully-crafted characterisations. However, these are small points.

As a radical call to provide properly for abused and abandoned young people, this is an important and urgent piece of theatre; both producer and writer should be thanked for bringing these issues to a wider attention. One can only hope that this spurs people to action.

Vicky Moran is definitely a writer/director to watch keenly. I also notice that the show’s producer Reece McMahon is a part of the excellent Roundhouse Future Producers scheme. I am excited to see what’s next for both of them.

NO SWEAT played at The Pleasance Theatre Downstairs (London) to February 29th


REVIEW: A NUMBER

A NUMBER plays the Bridge Theatre until March 14. Information and tickets here

IN BRIEF Interesting, slim, multi-viewpointed cloning play strengthened by acting and weakened by presentation

“There was a son”

There has been much written about the ethics and morals of cloning, which is all very headline-grabbing but also very academic.  Caryl Churchill’s play attempts to move away from the headlines towards the human, investigating instead the emotional costs of the process, by looking at real people. The show places the process some time in the past in order to examine the after- effects upon one instigator (a father) and three results of the process – his cloned sons- all of whom express a different reaction to the news of their unnatural birth.

At first there is some rather bewildered humour as we get to grips with just what the situation is and what is going on. However, the humour quickly fades and the interactions darken between “father” and the three son-copies that we see come to the fore.

It’s a hugely interesting play. At each scene’s end we are a little more disorientated. We are left to piece together the fragments of information we overhear.  The unconventional structure is interesting but ultimately not very theatrically satisfying.

The production’s biggest pluses are its cast. Roger Allam is highly watchable as the achingly ordinary, guilt-riddled, failed father; although we feel some sympathy for him at his incompetence there are hidden murky depths here. It’s fascinating to watch his character use the sons’ questions and suppositions as building blocks to create answers that do not appear to be the truth, at each turn hypocritically assuring each one that they were the special one (“You were just what I wanted”). It feels that between the drink-induced memory loss, the procrastination and self-pity, there is more that he is hiding than he is sharing.

Colin Morgan, as each of the three “copy” sons, innocent victims of a process instigated by the “father”, is obliged to do some fast changing, and gives three very different characterisations – representing potential different responses to the facts, and as such these all work well.

A couple of disappointments – the sets are distracting, especially after each reconfiguration- they take away focus from the actors ( and so I wonder if this show really needs sets at all?) ; we spend a long time in blackout between scenes (covered by some rather melodramatic loud music) to allow reconfiguration of the set (as well as for Colin Morgan to change character, I understand that need). What also disappointed me was that the staging was very remote. I was in the fifth row but the actors felt very far away. This distances us from engagement in many respects.

As an exploration of the human side to a medical breakthrough, the show allows some interesting discussion, finally reverting to facts to bring us some kind of “reality-check” after the hand-wringing. The figures about how much of our DNA we share were arresting in that respect. However, it felt like a very unfinished conversation- and with a duration of just 60 minutes, a rather slim piece overall.

A NUMBER plays the Bridge Theatre until March 14. Information and tickets here


Review: TIME AND TIDE

TIME AND TIDE runs at the Park Theatre until February 29th. information and tickets here

IN BRIEF Seaside quartet faces change with hope in funny and real play which treats its characters with care

“Cromer’s fine for growing up and ending up, but the bit in the middle – you need some life!”. In her run-down cafe on a Norfolk pier, dreamer May is dispensing advice to her “protégé” Nemo, a young gay man stifled by loneliness who’s leaving for the bright lights of London. But he’s torn between staying and going because of his feelings for his best mate, Daz. Is it love, or just bromance?

Amorous, lonely bread supplier Ken is also looking for company – in May’s direction, but things are not as straightforward as they might seem.

In James McDermott’s TIME AND TIDE, this quartet of characters ebb and flow through many challenges and changes in the pivotal day covered in the play’s two-hour duration. It’s enjoyably human; the carefully-crafted script is peppered with gentle comedy, often naturally arising from the situations and carefully brought out by director Rob Ellis. Humour like the daft, punning shop names, mixed with the quickfire comebacks of adolescence, could so easily have sounded lame, but here they contribute to a kind of authenticity, lending a warmth and ease which enables the audience to relax into the show.

Performances are all of a very high standard. Josh Barrow’s Nemo clings to routine in a busy but studied and vulnerable portrayal, allowing us to see the young man outgrowing his surroundings.  Elliot Liburd’s Daz (“the Archbishop of Banterbury”) exudes that natural verbal playfulness of adolescence that masks deeper, more conflicting feelings which don’t come so naturally. Both actors inhabit their roles meticulously, to effect. Wendy Nottingham points up the dreamer in May, mothering the two lads with compassion and a variable regard for reality; and Paul Easom as Ken the lifelong baker (“Cut me and I bleed yeast”) exudes a rough warmth and a gentle, wistful yearning for what he’s never had.

Ending on a hopeful note, TIME AND TIDE captures these sleepy small-town characters and shows us their hopes, realities and dreams. A small, detailed and touching play, it astutely balances its humour with moments of tension and quiet revelation, made all the more satisfying by Rob Ellis’s production.

TIME AND TIDE runs at the Park Theatre until February 29th. information and tickets here


Review: AUTOREVERSE

AUTOREVERSE plays Battersea Arts Centre until February 22nd. Details and tickets here

IN BRIEF Gentle, loving meditation upon memory and family drives this moving piece

We are each a collection of stories. Our stories become the memories that illustrate our lives, and the things that others use to recall us when we leave this world. Falling victim to distortion, selective memory and the ravages of time and disease, our memories are perilously fragile.

Florencia Cordeu’s one-woman show AUTOREVERSE is a gentle meditation upon the values and sorrows of memory, using cassettes recorded by her family.  As delicate and fragile as the cassette tapes that the voices that are recorded upon, she gifts us not only a memoir of her family but also a wider consideration of life’s fragility.

Set in a pre-internet world (“when the world seemed so big”), their recording of cassettes began when Florencia’s parents fled the incoming dictatorship in 1970s Argentina. Exiled in Chile, the only way to communicate was by recording cassette tapes to the family left behind. Florencia saved these tapes and during her show plays sections of them for us on ten cassette machines, spotted around the stage, most with microphones dangling above them to capture their sound.

It’s an interesting idea, but the show really comes to life when the stories begin. The legacy of over a decades’ worth of fragile, time-worn cassette tapes, their flimsiness evident by the potential for snagging, creasing and tearing, but still small faithful time-capsules. Hearing these “voices across the ages” she delights that “the more I play them, the more they become real”. They are fragments of impartial, objective, faithfully recorded memory.

Recalling family members still surviving or long dead, Cordeu also explores her own memories, what she recalls and what she does not. Particularly moving is her focus on her Uncle Isaac; there is almost literally nothing left of him. He disappeared without trace, without closure, one of the 30,000 to do so during the dictatorship’s life, when families burned letters and photos to eliminate any proof of connection between people that might be exploited by those in power. There are just 24 precious seconds of grainy home movie film to mark Isaac’s life. Half of which he has his back to the camera. This brings a poignant new measure to that time, and as Cordeu says, “this absence makes him more present than ever”.

Cordeu is fascinated by sound itself, using it in very specific ways to make us question and listen anew at sounds she creates.

Lovingly directed by Omar Elerian, for me the show’s gentle pace flags just a little towards the end, but does not detract from an absorbing evening.

Most importantly, AUTOREVERSE is a call for us to share our stories with those we care about, to ensure that stories to do not disappear before the end of our lives. Ironically, the very medium used to keep memories alive, the cassettes which were recorded upon, are now overdue their expected lifespan, a reminder that nothing is permanent.

As intriguing to the younger audience members who see this technology as museum-ware, as well as to older generations who remember the technology’s original liberating qualities, AUTOREVERSE is a poignant and loving look at how we recall our lives.

AUTOREVERSE plays Battersea Arts Centre until February 22nd. Details and tickets here


Review: THE HIGH TABLE

THE HIGH TABLE plays at the Bush Theatre until March 21. Information and tickets here

IN BRIEF Expansive family drama confidently argues for acceptance in an ambitious show with drama, heart and humanity

Temi Wilkey’s ambitious, brave and compassionate debut play covers a lot of ground. Tara and her girlfriend Leah are getting married, and the big day is approaching. But Tara’s Nigerian parents didn’t know about the wedding until now- oh, and also the fact that she is a lesbian. All the knee-jerk prejudices come tumbling out – “she doesn’t even look like a man”, “it’s a choice”, etc.

Simultaneously, high above the earth, in an afterlife, a meeting of a council of guidance has been called to decide whether or not to bless this marriage. Three past relatives of Tara gather- but they are missing one. Who is the late arrival, the fourth member of the council, and why does he carry such a disturbing aura with him?

Back on earth, the ensuing upset and pushback from her parents puts a strain on Tara and Leah’s relationship, as they doubt themselves and each other.

Posing intriguing questions along the way, this well-woven play shuttles back and forth between earthly and spiritual locations.

Tara’s need for family at this time is natural and her sadness at its lack is affecting. We see the parents’ opposition gradually unfurl itself as rooted in a protective fear for Tara’s safety, assuming that being gay is the same experience for people in the UK as it is in Nigeria, where intolerance, hatred, blackmail and beatings seem to be the ususal outcomes.

As the descendants’ and contemporary family stories are uncovered, unexpected connections and moving revelations bring about a hopeful ending with a wedding dance that cannot fail to make you smile.

THE HIGH TABLE is sensitively directed by Daniel Bailey (who did another good job with the part-mystical UNKNOWN RIVERS a few months ago at Hampstead), and strongly performed by the entire cast; Cherrelle Skeete brings soul and vulnerability to Tara, Stefan Aegbola makes his journey from victim to spiritual enabler most affecting, and Jumoke Fashola is a powerful and magnetic storyteller. The muscular rhythmic musical interludes, played (and co-composed) by Mohamed Gueye, effectively instil a sense of place and heritage.

Wilkey’s writing is knowing, passionate and human, with canny injections of humour and emotion, lovingly investing her characters with dimension and making a powerful case for “You go want who you go want”.

THE HIGH TABLE plays at the Bush Theatre until March 21. Information and tickets here

THE HIGH TABLE then plays Birmingham Repertory Theatre from March 25 to April 9. Information and tickets here