Review: The Ice Man / Vinegar Tom, Jackson’s Lane

When I was invited to a double bill of plays, I expected two short one acts. Oh no. Fourth Monkey’s Shizaru Season at Jackson’s Lane is essentially the showcase for their two-year actor training programme, and these two electric plays afford the cast ample opportunities to show off their excellent acting chops.

The Ice Man by Toby Clarke was initially inspired by Haruki Murakami’s short story. It is surreal but once you suspend your disbelief, the story of a man made entirely out of ice who falls in love with a girl from South Kensington, and goes on to campaign against global warming, is a compelling creation.

There are a couple of familiar faces in the company from Fourth Monkey shows I caught at the Edinburgh Fringe a couple of years ago. One of those is the incredibly talented Reuben Beau Davies who plays the Ice Man. The slow movement of the Ice Man (choreographed by Angela Gasparetto) draws you in to his enigmatic character, and the motor-mouthed realism of Francesca Heraghty-Smith is a relatable and loveable contrast for him as Sophie. Sadie Clark also deserves a mention for her ballsy approach to her character.

This is very much their love story. The ensemble support in several ways: as a series of montages, as a studio audience, and in ingeniously conceived scenes featuring penguin puppets made out of coat hangers with a David Attenborough-esque voiceover which parallels their love story. Every scene change in which the ensemble is utilised is true to Fourth Monkey’s form: slick and stylistic. However the overlapping of one scene into another does mean you have to push your imagination a little.

Several self-conscious references are made to the absurdity of the concept by the characters, which will make you laugh out loud. It is clever writing, which arguably saves the direction from being too caricaturist. As always, the overall vision of the play is brilliantly executed: the flexible uses offered by Lucy Read’s set, and the icy atmosphere created by Pablo Fernandez Baz’s lighting and Jamie Flockton’s lighting design create the perfect environment. And the illusion that Davies is made of ice, glitteringly pale and blue veined is believable enough.

For such an ambitious play, it’s all strangely relatable; the Ice Man and Sophie share the feeling that they don’t belong, despite the universal connection between all humanity that we share responsibility for the earth – these are diverse but touching topics. One minute we were in a love story, Sophie says, and now we’re not. To paraphrase, she calls it something like a wanky pseudo-political drama – and that ridiculous turn of events is ok. In fact it’s a brilliant reflection on Murikami’s original story, and the idea that we shouldn’t see through things, as if they were made of ice.

 

Straight off the bat, I’ll admit I struggle to get past my opinion that Caryl Churchill’s play Vinegar Tom is essentially The Crucible, rewritten from a feminist perspective. Looking beyond that, the musical interludes and the way the characters’ stories come to interlink makes this a very engaging drama.

Vinegar Tom is the story of Alice (played with genuine ferocity by Ami Sayers) amongst other women in the community including her mother, her friend, and a healer, who are accused of being witches. With retrospect, it’s a story which intelligently reflects upon how at the time one could either blame themselves for their misfortunes because they were sinners, or more easily pass the buck and blame a witch. It also offers a contemporary view of what Churchill brands as the modern day witch, obsessed by image and self-worth.

Fourth Monkey handle this crossover excellently, a mark of Simone Coxall’s talent as a director. In the Brechtian vein, the cast are in blacks and only add items of clothing whenever they’re in character. So, during a musical interlude or the crossover into the modern day, the cast can make quick changes. The music (composed by Jamie Flockton) is delivered viciously – maybe too much so. It definitely has an impact, but means that there is a bitter emotion monotonously retained throughout which doesn’t sit with the main story arc’s more gradual development. However I do feel the ensemble are more gainfully employed in this piece acting as the voice of Caryl Churchill commenting upon the play from the modern day. They are also inventively utilised throughout as human scenery, bringing the black box to life with accusatory glances and the unseen presence of Vinegar Tom the ‘witch’s’ cat.

Again, I could barely recognise Daniel Chrisostomou from his spellbinding performance as the Elephant Man; in this he plays a brutish farmer. He is clearly a very skilled actor with a commanding stage presence. The supporting cast are all equally convincing, Mollie Lambert veers from comedic to raw aggression as the wrongly accused, Adela Leiro is righteously naïve as someone who didn’t know she was a witch, and Natalie Allison is dark and superstitious as the healing woman. Adam Trussell’s witch hunter makes an excellent mockery of preachers, and Katherine Turner sweetly demands the audience’s attention as Betty, endearing them like a hard-done-by princess out of a picture-book. And she has a stunning singing voice.

It’s a long night watching both plays back to back, but is most definitely worth it. Both the creative team and casts of these plays are bursting with raw talent which has been honed expertly to deliver professional productions. See them here first before they graduate and get snapped up.

The Ice Man/Vinegar Tom play at Jackson’s Lane as part of Fourth Monkey’s Shizaru Season until 7 June. For tickets and more information see the Fourth Monkey Theatre website.