Review: The Animals and Children Took To The Streets!

IN BRIEF 1927’s unique fusion of stagecraft, film and graphic animation produces a gleefully twisted storytelling which is a delight to the eye

Having seen 1927’s five-starred (by me) massive hit GOLEM at the Young Vic in 2016 (televised in the UK on BBC4 in November 2018), I leapt at the chance to see this, one of their earlier shows now embarking upon a global tour (after a four-year global tour of GOLEM).

I suppose it was natural to find that THE ANIMALS AND CHILDREN TOOK TO THE STREETS! did not quite live up to GOLEM’s virtuosity, but this is more down to the storyline than anything else.  However, this is still an enchanting piece of theatre by a unique company whose work has been described as a graphic novel shocked into life.

On the outskirts of a prosperous city sits a squalid run-down apartment block, watched over by a depressive caretaker. The city is plagued by uncontrolled (and uncontrollable) children running amok, causing mayhem, disruption and anxiety. Determined to help, mild and well-meaning Agnes Eaves and her little daughter Evie move in to offer the kiddies some art classes, all pasta shapes and PVA glue, and pretty much as we feared, their efforts are soundly trashed by the little monsters. Finally, the Mayor acts with a heavy hand. Unfortunately, little Evie is caught up in the sweep and disappears. Will anyone save Evie and reunite her with Agnes?

The fact that show consists of three actors interacting with three flat panels onto which are projected various images seems at first very limiting, but this company’s imagination and technical skill still retains the power to make you smile in wonder. It is always great to hear an audience give a little gasp of surprise as the images reveal themselves, and there are one or two moments in this show where you can experience that sensation. The fusion of live action, graphic animation, filmic imagery (and downright weirdness) is underscored by a plinky-plonky piano accompaniment which is at once quaint and quite pleasantly unhinged. Moments of great humour are infused with the company’s trademark edginess. Crucially, the split-second interaction of the performers with their projected surroundings is impressive.

The idea that children can become a societal problem is an interesting one, however not as effective (to me) as the theme of GOLEM (modern technology taking over our lives and minds), but still worthwhile. As a critique that superficial methods are not enough to stem the deep dysfunctionalities within societies, it has a bite, but it is somewhat submerged in the general storytelling. The show, at 70 minutes, is just the right length before the onset of projection fatigue. You will feel that it is long enough, but a very diverting and entertaining 70 minutes it is. See it if you can.

P.S. Will you get a “Granny’s Gumdrop” from the leopard-skinned attendants?

THE ANIMALS AND CHILDREN TOOK TO THE STREETS! runs at the Lyric Hammersmith, London until March 16th and then tours internationally. Lyric tickets here

Views: A Star is…..Off by Marilyn Cutts

Marilyn Cutts

As well as being a space for my own thoughts, the Views section of the blog will sometimes give specially invited Guest contributors a chance to speak their mind on interesting theatre topics.

Our first Guest writer is actor/director Marilyn Cutts who has a wealth of experience across the industry, from Fascinating Aida’s first lineup to an extensive theatrical career encompassing musicals, drama and opera. Marilyn is passionate about actors’ rights, music, literature, art and theatre buildings. Marilyn writes below about how producers handle a star’s absence.

A Star is…..Off

When Louise Redknapp sustained injuries during rehearsals for the musical “9 to 5” (now playing in London), the producers took the unusual step of offering to exchange tickets for a future performance at which the Eternal star would be appearing. For those patrons who had booked specifically to see Ms. Redknapp this was undoubtedly a generous gesture, but it does raise an interesting point.

It used to be the case that in amongst the small print on the back of one’s theatre ticket there was a disclaimer that “the management reserves the right to make any alterations to the advertised arrangements, programme or cast without being obliged to offer a refund or exchange”. (I copied this verbatim from the back of a ticket to an event at Sadlers Wells dated February 2018). That was the deal, and it applied from top to bottom. Griffith James, a much-missed Company Manager once told me that in the early 1970s, when putting a sign outside the Haymarket Theatre Royal stating that “Miss Ingrid Bergman will not be appearing today”, a disappointed fan kicked him in the shins. Repeatedly. Now, while I do not wish a haematoma of the tibia on anyone, he was simply doing his job, and the angry fan was out of order on every count.

What has changed so that producers now feel they must make reparation for what could very reasonably be considered a “circumstance beyond their control”? Is it the perceived status of celebrities and stars? The attitude of the audience? Where does this leave fellow theatre producers? And what about understudies?

“…a disappointed fan kicked him in the shins. Repeatedly. “

I believe the answer is a subtle mix of some of the above. Big popular musicals, especially those based on films or jukebox musicals with their roots in pop, often attract an audience more used to seeking their entertainment in cinemas and concert venues. A celluloid star will always be available on request, and if a band cannot appear for whatever reason, the gig is cancelled, usually with the promise of a refund. So perhaps some fans expect the protocol of cinemas and concert venues to apply in a theatre setting too. Then again, where individuals have been voted to a high-profile position by a TV or online audience, the audience have physically assisted in that rise, and that changes the relationship. Instead of just appreciating a performer, the audience are now stakeholders in their celebrity, and they may well feel that their investment gives them certain rights. It could be that producers are already responding to this perceived sea change in the performer/audience relationship before it has been openly articulated.

All musical fans know that being an understudy can be a fast-track to stardom, just look at the role of Peggy Sawyer in 42nd Street. Or consider the real-life situation last year when Steph Parry rushed from Mamma Mia! just one block away to help out covering the star’s sudden indisposition in the second act at 42nd Street’s revival at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, to huge popular acclaim (and a contract to play the lead later on during the revival’s near two-year run). While we can all name our favourite icons in the ‘There’ll never be another……… (fill in as required)’ debate, when it comes to a show, no one is irreplaceable. Another current West End favourite, All About Eve, can tell us all about that!

Being a producer is one of the easiest ways to lose money there is. To survive, producers must sell tickets, consequently they engage artists with a substantial public profile, and presumably an eager following. But what is the criteria whereby one artist can be replaced by an understudy without comment, yet the same producers will offer a ticket exchange if another cast member is off? Surely by discriminating between performers producers are making a rod for their own backs? While offering to exchange tickets may appear generous in the short term, are the public missing out on the chance to see fresh talent given a chance? Think what it did for  Peggy Sawyer. She might have gone out there a nobody, but she came back a star!

Text and photograph Copyright 2019 Marilyn Cutts

Catching up with…..writer Rose Lewenstein

Rose Lewenstein is the writer of COUGAR (playing at the Orange Tree, Richmond, until March 2), an award-nominated intense two- hander about sex, climate change and consumption

Thanks for chatting with us, Rose. COUGAR is a really compelling piece of theatre. Where did the germ of the idea for the show come from?

It’s hard to pinpoint because the play didn’t start with a clear idea of what it was. It grew from thoughts and conversations around the way we consume stuff and each other. I actually started working on it about six years ago and I must have had a lot more time back then to just write and write until something revealed itself. And from that I became interested in the impossibility of this very intense relationship that seems completely cut off from the outside world.

When we chatted after the show, you said that you were still thinking about whether the play is intimate or epic. Have you had any more thoughts since then? (I, personally, think it succeeds as being both.)

I still don’t know. I guess the obvious answer is intimate, because it’s a two-hander set in one room (or many versions of one room) that focuses on a relationship. Nothing about that sounds epic. But to me it is, because it’s really about how we’re heading towards disaster and the question is what do people do in the face of disaster? 

One of the things that audiences love most about the Orange Tree is the intimacy of this in the round, 180-seater. You mentioned that each time you saw the play you have sat in a different part of the auditorium. What has that shown you?

That is one of my favourite things about the Orange Tree. You have a completely different perspective every time you see a play there. And the way Chelsea (the director) and Rosanna (the designer) have utilised the space with COUGAR is really amazing because you’re never missing out. When I was rewriting last year I had that space in mind and I think knowing it would be in the round really informed the writing of it. I was almost picturing a gladiator area or something like that, where we’re looking down on these characters who are tearing each other to pieces.

Have you had any unexpected reactions to the work?

My friend said that watching it was like being put in a washing machine…

The show is incredibly demanding in terms of movement and timing as well as technically. What impact, if any, did that have on the casting process?

It just meant we needed shit-hot actors. They literally don’t get a break. When I was writing it I was obviously more concerned with the rhythm and the arc and what it meant and I wasn’t ever thinking, Oh this will be really hard for the actors! Charlotte and Mike are brilliant, both technically and in the ways they inhabit the roles, but they also have this amazing chemistry and that’s something quite difficult to plan for during casting.

We are seeing a lot more plays run straight through without intervals. Why did you decide that was the best structure for COUGAR?

It’s a very intense play. I mean, two characters, eighty scenes! So one reason is that I can’t really see it being long enough for an interval because I’m not sure how much more of that an audience could take. And having watched it again and again now, in the hands of two incredible actors, it’s become clear that play is performed in one breath. And that sensory through-line feels important when its structure and form is quite disjointed.

The show is being co-produced with the renowned English Touring Theatre. Does this mean that we can expect a tour of the show soon?

I don’t know, you’ll have to ask ETT!

If our readers are thinking about seeing the show, what would you say to entice them along?

Erm… sex and climate change? But I also think Chelsea and the team have created a visually stunning piece of art. It’s visceral. You won’t be bored. And it’s quite short, so plenty of time for the pub afterwards.

Finally, what would you like audiences to take away from the show?

I’d like them to feel full

Thanks Rose! 

Readers will also be interested to know that COUGAR’s director Chelsea Walker has been OFFIE-nominated (Off West End Theatre Awards)

Rose Lewenstein is the writer of COUGAR (playing at the Orange Tree, Richmond, until March 2)

Review: Gently Down The Stream

Jonathan Hyde in Gently Down The Stream at the Park Theatre London until March 16, 2019

IN BRIEF Superbly written, positive and loving portrait of inter-generational relationships with a ticket-worthy central performance at its heart

February is LGBT History Month, and Martin Sherman’s heartfelt new play GENTLY DOWN THE STREAM (now at the Park Theatre, London, until 16 March) is a welcome highpoint. Covering 14 years, the story shifts and develops in a fluid yet completely natural manner to become a story of love, friendship and support which spans generations in what genuinely feels like a new maturity of writing.

Beau, a 62-year old cocktail pianist meets much younger bipolar Rufus, who is fascinated by the links to the past anchored in Beau’s memories. Instinctively protective of Rufus’s vulnerability as well as his own sensitivity to a long history of painful and deeply felt past relationships, he nevertheless allows this new relationship to bloom. Rufus’s obsession with recording gives rise to him filming Beau’s reminiscences about his past lovers at significant points in time; these lovingly crafted monologues are spotted through the play and delivered with a real intensity that brings them vividly to life and causes the audience to hang on the words.

When the dynamic shifts as Rufus finds himself falling for someone younger, the connection continues as Beau finds himself a valued friend and mentor, and slowly, subtly, each of the men has positive effects upon the others which are revealed along the way.

As Beau, the distinguished Jonathan Hyde gives a detailed, sincere and engaging performance, fully in control of his enormous central role, being onstage for most of the straight-through play’s 100-minute running time; Ben Allen as Rufus and Harry Lawtey as Harry also give great value as their characters grow in dimension through the play’s arc.

In ways both humorous and affecting, Sherman gently brings together the generations with warmth and humanity, to remind us that we all can learn from others if we open ourselves to it. Sherman’s writing is eloquent, empathetic and elegiac, a delight to absorb. Subtly and sensitively directed by Sean Mathias, the play meanders along, like the stream of the title, to a hopeful conclusion. We are spared the extremities of death, but the starting of a new life brings a sense of both hope and shared responsibility.

Just as family stories are passed down through generations, Sherman’s generous and hopeful play is a valuable reminder that the self-made families of LGBTQI people must share their stories across the generations to keep them alive.

GENTLY DOWN THE STREAM is at the Park Theatre, London, until March 16, 2019. Tickets and more information here

Review: Cougar

COUGAR at the Orange Tree Richmond until March 2nd 2019

IN BRIEF A short, sharp, shock of a play that leaves you thinking hard about the costs of consumption in all its disguises.

COUGAR is as powerful and stimulating as triple espresso. Rose Lewenstein’s script comprises 80 rapid snapshots of an unequal power relationship where the boundaries constantly shift creating a sense of unease and disorientation for both characters and audience; COUGAR is a compelling ride.

The set is a sterile corporate hotel room, bereft of personality or place, which serves as everywhere and anywhere, in an ingenious design by Rosanna Vize, its cuboid extremities delineating the room but also suggesting a cage. It’s a two-hander show. Leila (as sharply played by Charlotte Randle) is a driven, high-flying executive in her 40s advising companies on corporate sustainability at conferences around the world, emotionally detached and always in control. John (spiky Mike Noble) is a vulnerable, lost twentysomething hotel barman she has picked up for sex, subsequently travelling with her as ‘sex on demand’ in countless anonymous global hotel rooms.

Leila sees sex as a commodity to be bought and sold. John sees it differently, and falls in love with Leila, to his emotional cost. As the thrills repeat, she requires escalating extremes to get the same ‘hit’, calling into question ideas around responsibility and respect, both personally and globally.

Leila’s over-rehearsed corporate spiel comes across as another type of facade, indeed she seems to get more erotic charge talking about her massive salary hikes than climate issues or anything John can do for/to/with her. John, on the other hand is all bewildered masculinity, searching for love, humanity and meaning ever more frantically after each meeting leaves him feeling like every emptied minibar.

Chelsea Walker’s direction is fast, hair-trigger timed and as fully in control as the finely-tuned writing, which integrates some unexpected humour to leaven the tension. Lighting is unromantic and exposing. The sound design subtly brackets the restricted time frames of their meetings, aided by the lightning fast scene changes in blackout, giving the impression of a non-linear rough cut. It’s hard to do well, but these actors achieve this convincingly. Overall it’s a very demanding show technically but perfectly executed. Movement (by Shelley Maxwell) is an integral part of the show and expertly achieved, from the lightning scene changes to the increasingly careless way the characters move and behave (front row, watch out for flying popcorn/ water/champagne/ice) as their relationship deteriorates into chaos, leaving the audience drained but buzzing at the climax of its 85-minute running time.

I simply can’t get it out of my head.

Enthusiastically received by a younger audience than the Orange Tree usually attracts, COUGAR is well worth seeing for its writing, acting and staging. And with seats from £15, it’s a bargain too. Only until March 2nd at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond. More Information and tickets here