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Edinburgh Fringe Review: A Little Princess

Posted on 26 August 2012 by Catherine Love

As consummate storyteller Frances Hodgson Burnett recognised, stories make us feel alive. The best stories can haunt the senses and quicken the heart – an adrenalin shot to the imagination. Burnett also knew, like her fiercely inventive young heroine Sara Crewe, that stories are most powerful in the telling. It is this power, in the form of charming and immersive narrative, that is channelled by Fringe regulars Belt Up Theatre in their latest literary foray.

In what has become something of a trademark, Belt Up tell this particular story, sacred in the memory of little and not so little girls around the world, in a familiar yet bracing way. Jethro Compton’s play teases at and subverts our expectations, banking on the cultural currency of Burnett’s literary output and its legacy for many generations of children. Incorporating elements of Burnett’s biography and her other literary works, as well as mischievous nods to the film version of the novel it is working from, this is no straightforward adaptation.

The staging is likewise given a playful Belt Up twist. Gathered in intimately haphazard arrangements on the floor at the edges of the performance space, there is a quality of primary school story time to the company’s interaction with the audience. Removed from the inscribed formality of the traditional theatre auditorium and forced into childishly undignified positions, spectators shed their acquired inhibitions and enter happily into the spirit of play – two grown men even allow themselves to be chided into chasing one another around the room. Through such simple, evocative touches, gently transporting us back to childhood, Belt Up render the often tricky feat of interactivity seemingly effortless.

Set at ease and invited to dream, the imaginative step needed to fall headlong into Belt Up’s enchanting world is a barely perceptible one. Tightly enveloped in this thick blanket of storytelling, it is easy to appreciate, along with Serena Manteghi’s captivating Sara, why the lavish palaces of the mind might be preferable to the grey drudge of the everyday. There might be precious few happy endings in real life, but that does not stop us from pretending.

**** – 4/5 stars

A Little Princess plays at C Venues until 27 August, as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. More information can be found here.

Catherine Love

Catherine Love

Catherine is a freelance arts journalist, editor and copywriter. She is one of the editors of Exeunt and has written for publications such as The Guardian, The Stage, Time Out and IdeasTap, as well as working with organisations including Fuel.

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Edinburgh Fringe Review: The Boy James

Posted on 19 August 2012 by Veronica Aloess

The Boy James is Belt Up Theatre at its very, very, very best. Alexander Wright’s writing is sinister and it is bravely directed by Dominic Allen. If this play doesn’t destroy you then you’re trying too hard to be… well, hard.

In a cosy little drawing room (tremendously detailed), we sit on the sofas or cushions, and we meet James. Then we meet the people sitting next to us and exchange tales of adventures. And then we have a really great game of wink murder. James is the cutest damn character invented since Winnie the Pooh – although I suppose he’d rather be an explorer like Frodo Baggins. He can be anyone he likes though because James has got the best imagination in the whole wide world. Young James has been on the biggest best adventures with old James. Are you getting a gist of the show now?

And then everything gets a little more dark and disturbing, because a little girl comes along. And she wants to drink James’ poison that makes you forget everything (i.e. alcohol) burn everything, and have sex with James. It’s extremely uncomfortable. You’re in the room essentially like sick voyeurs. And for all her wickedness as she tries to force James into adult things he doesn’t want to do, there is foetal, shivering, sobbing James. Jethro Compton is a stellar actor because I believed in him wholeheartedly. Everyone in the room had to share in his nightmare, and the physical and vocal stamina that must take is awe-inspiring. Older James is played intelligently by Dominic Allen; he never shies from the menacing silences and lets us endure them for as long as possible, and the pain he feels at leaving feels earnest.

So Young James must leave younger James behind as all boys do to become men. Now this is where the audience interaction turned very sour. Young James can’t read, so will an audience member read the letter old James left behind? Now that silence seemed to span out for hours as we willed James to know why this had to happen, but can’t volunteer knowing that  – I at least – would probably break down in the middle of it. We watch James grow up in a viscerally distorted time span, and in this highly interactive, sensitive piece, all I want to do is reach out and hold James’ hand.

I can count on one hand the plays that have had a profound effect on me like The Boy James. This is a very rare, special piece of theatre. It  issomething that creates: memories, reactions, interactions. I left the theatre and couldn’t get it out of my head. Even though I knew it was fictional, I cried for ten minutes straight because old James left little James. Belt Up took my childish willingness to believe in stories, then stomped on it with it’s big, fat proverbial theatre feet. A Younger Theatre’s readers are presumably at a similar crossroads in life between childhood and adulthood, so The Boy James should definitely strike a chord. Yes this is influenced by Peter Pan, but I believe it’s a better story because there aren’t any silly pirates or fairies, what’s terrifying is the harsh reality of growing up.

***** – 5 Stars

The Boy James is playing at C Nova until 27 August as part of the Edinburgh Festival. For more information and tickets, see the Edinburgh Fringe website.

Veronica Aloess

Veronica Aloess

Veronica Aloess is an aspiring arts journalist and playwright, who trained at Arts Educational School London and is currently studying towards a BA in English with Creative Writing at Brunel University. She is co-founder of Don't Make Me Angry Productions which is dedicated to original writing and innovative performance.

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Edinburgh Fringe Review: Outland

Posted on 11 August 2012 by Jake Orr

How often do you find yourself transported back to your childhood? Where the imagination runs wild and is free to invent stories and monsters aplenty. It’s the childhood we all had but, as we grow up, these playful times become further and further removed from the realities of adult life. Catch a man mumbling to himself and we pronounce he is mad, but what if he is casting a magical spell in front of him? Well, that can’t possibly be, because our imaginations can’t allow such things. We hit teenage years and come under the strict ruling of being proper and adult-like, but don’t we all yearn to be lost once more in our imaginations where anything is truly possible? Belt Up Theatre’s Outland is perhaps the closest thing I’ve seen to really deal with the idea of adults forgetting to play. I’ve seen other shows which have ignited my imagination, but never have I questioned my imagination – and even gone so far as to mourn it.

Inspired by the stories of Lewis Carroll and C.S. Lewis with rabbit holes and wardrobes leading to far away lands, Outland is a homage to all childhood stories and to the excitement of learning to imagine and play. It tells the story of Charles, a professor with a pocket watch that can send him forwards and backwards in time but most importantly, transport him to the distant land of Outland. In this other world another professor awaits, who is the counterpart to Charles, the two parallel worlds collide and crossover with ease. When one professor is awake, the other is asleep, but together they weave a magical journey. Arthur and Murial, two childhood friends who during long summers were taught stories by Charles, struggle with conflicted emotions of wanting to engage with their childhood lives as well as their adults existence. This is played out between magical lands and time travel, and many a sinister character who intervenes. Oh, and not forgetting The Jabbarwocky, the frightful monster that stalks the land.

In true Belt Up Theatre style, the performance space in C nova has been completely transformed to represent a warm and inviting living or parlour room. The audience sit around the sides, and are instructed into the performance when required, which under the guiding hands of the performers is done with much play and excitement. The key within Outland is the constant reminder that we forget to play as adults, and should we choose to, we can so easily lose our adultness to fun-filled adventure. The piece continually shifts and transforms as the various characters are played out in succession. Perhaps the most surprising feeling is how compelling the story becomes: we sink so willingly into Belt Up Theatre’s playful world that, if I’m honest, I’m not sure I wanted to leave it.

Filled with playful and imaginative exploration into childhood stories, Outland really is a magical adventure that captures the heart, sending you spiralling into the unknown. You’ll feel completely uplifted, and I dare you not to feel for a moment the desire to play with the company. With some truly inspiring performances, and a narrative that is passionate and enthralling, it’s easy to see why Belt Up Theatre are selling out. Be quick if you want to join in the adventure, and remember to bring your imagination.

**** – 4 Stars

Outland is playing at C nova until 27th August as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. For more information and tickets, see the Edinburgh Fringe website.

Jake Orr

Jake Orr

Jake is the Artistic Director and Founder of A Younger Theatre. He is a freelance writer and blogger, a theatre marketer and a digital producer. He is also Co-Curator of Dialogue.

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Belting trio of tales

Posted on 06 August 2012 by Abigail Lewis

“I got a ginger beer,” says Artistic Director Jethro Compton. “Well, I’ve got a ginger beard,” quips Artistic Director number two, Dominic Allen. He does. It’s obvious where the playful nature of Belt Up Theatre’s productions originates.

“Playful, exciting, adventurous,” is how Compton describes Belt Up, and he maintains that although the company is renowned for fluidity, innovation, and change, those three words have applied from the beginning. “We’ve always had a fairly clear idea,” agrees Allen. “We know what makes it a Belt Up show. Of course it changes from project to project, depending on the demands of the play, but at the core is always the same fundamental feeling. We wrote an artistic statement back in the past and it still satisfies what we do now.” Allen, Compton, and their Associate Artist Joe Hufton quote together: “We put the audience at the centre of our wholly encompassing world.”

At a Belt Up show, there is no fourth wall; the audience is expected to interact with the cast, and if this doesn’t happen some of their plays could genuinely fail. The way they encourage this interaction has changed over the years, says Allen: “In our earlier work, the control of the audience was very direct, almost aggressive – you have to do this and if you don’t you’re going to be humiliated. Now we’ve become better at saying, it would be really great if you could do this. Our characters have become so much more sympathetic that the audience almost feels like they have to help because they’d upset the characters if they didn’t. They feel like they’re helping the show. It’s very, very rare to get an audience that in its entirety will refuse to help the show. The play would probably stop if that happened. It’s much easier now that we’re better at appealing to people. There’s nothing worse than the show grinding to a halt.”

“Audiences aren’t scared to come into a Belt Up show the way they were before,” adds Compton. “They’d come in thinking, am I going to be singled out, will I be humiliated, I hope they don’t pick me. Now people relax and enjoy the story.”

“It’s not like that anymore,” agrees Hufton. “We’re clever, we’re more grown up than before. It’s easy to say, I’m going to make you do this, but it’s harder to create a show where you don’t need to do that. I think we’ve found that balance now. So the audience can relax, and we can relax as well.”

Although they have mentioned that their mission is to create an all-encompassing world around their audience, I wonder if they also try to engage with the wider world. Is there anything political in what they do? “That’s not what we set out to do,” affirms Hufton. “Of course, along the way things happen, our opinions come through as we write. But we never set out to do that.”

“We all write, so our plays naturally have a bit of ourselves,” agrees Allen. “Sometimes writers can be mistaken for making points, though. There’s a speech in Outland this year in which [the character] Lewis Carroll talks about his religious beliefs. I’m never sure how the audience takes it. I always wonder if people think that’s my view.” He does concede that the shows contain interesting philosophical points. “This year they’re focused on the importance of stories, and childhood, and people. All the most important things in life can be boiled down to stories. What else can you spend your time doing? If you’re watching the news, gossiping with your friends, reading a book, going to plays or films – that’s all stories. The only reason we go to work is to earn money to spend it on stories. Even all the grand things like religion can be boiled down to stories.”

So what stories will Belt Up tell at the Edinburgh Fringe this year? They are bringing a trio of shows to new venue C nova: The Boy James, Outland and A Little Princess. Compton tells me more about The Boy James: “It’s a simple little piece, but the audience is asked to be involved in a way we’ve never asked before. They’re asked to do something, and the play literally doesn’t work if there is no one in the audience who will do that thing. Unless an audience member steps up everyone will just sit there for eternity!”

“Outland was a response to The Boy James,” says Allen. “We racked our brains for another piece to complement it, and the only obvious person or world to base it on would be Lewis Carroll. The Boy James is all about someone saying goodbye to their inner child, and Outland is the thematic reverse, about a man who is trying to get back his inner child and the inner child of others.”

Hufton tells me about the third show. “A Little Princess came to me as the perfect show to sit with the other two. It’s set in a similar time period to the other two, and it sits nicely in between the simplicity of The Boy James and the completely bonkers nature of Outland. I felt that it would instantly work in our space and has obvious ways to engage the audience.”

Their use of space is one of the ways in which Belt Up has evolved since their first appearance at Fringe in 2008. In the past, they have transformed spaces using more temporary materials, but this year they have built a whole room from the floor up. “The space is the other member of the company you have to work with, who sometimes pisses you off and sometimes does something amazing.”

“It’s like a marriage,” says Compton, “sometimes they’re really useful and we get on really well and sometimes they haven’t done the dishes. What has changed though, is that we’ve become less satisfied with our spaces. We look back at a space we loved in 2008 and we think it’s rubbish. Our expectations of our own creation get higher, it needs to be better every year.”

“This year we’ve gotten so much better at doing it,” Hufton is quick to add. “Things that took a day before now take an hour. We’ve learnt the brilliance of nail guns when we used to tie everything together, which has led to the excessive use of a nail gun even when we don’t need it.”

After a quick interlude where someone notices a poster on a wall advertising the services of a man who would like to feed your pigeons while reciting Spanish poems, we are back on track with a few of Belt Up’s countless anecdotes of audience hilarity – things must be bound to go wrong when you rely on an untrained audience.

“So many times. It happens all the time,” laughs Allen. “We did one show where an audience member was literally invited to perform whatever. Anything they wanted. Someone stood up and said he was a professional stunt man. He did a backwards flip onstage and crashed into the back curtain of this fairly huge room we’d built in the Southwark Playhouse. It was like Caesar’s tent. He rolled through the curtain and off the back of the stage, taking the curtain with him. Then there was the woman who threw up during Lorca Is Dead. She fell asleep almost as soon as she got in. She woke up at one point, threw up into her hand and wiped this biscuit tea sick under her chair and instantly went back to sleep. That was the harshest critic we’ve ever had.”

“We performed The Boy James to schoolchildren in Adelaide,” Compton remembers, “and their school suggested to the parents that the kids go into counseling, as a direct result of our show.” They’ve performed in Adelaide and in London, but hold a special place in their hearts for the fringe scene at Edinburgh. “It’s so difficult to be original in London,” explains Compton. “There are so many people doing something similar to what you’re doing.”

“There’s a community around theatre at Fringe, and it’s not like that in London,” says Hufton. “You don’t get any support in other artists.” The benefit of that community, says Allen, is that “when you’re at Fringe, there’s automatically a vibe where people want to enjoy themselves whereas in London everyone has huge expectations.”

“The festival environment makes you feel so much more worthwhile,” concludes Compton. “In London, you get in, you do your show, you leave and go home and you don’t meet anyone. So how do you know if anyone cares? In Edinburgh, you bump into people who are seeing your shows all the time and they say things. It just makes your day.”

Catch Belt Up Theatre performing at C Venues – C Nova until 27 August. For more information, visit or

Image credit: Belt Up Theatre, A Little Princess

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