Tag Archive | "Ella Hickson"

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Edinburgh Fringe Review: Boys

Posted on 03 August 2013 by Lauren Mooney


Star Rating:
(3/5 stars)

The Guardian called Ella Hickson the voice of our generation, and if that’s true, Boys suggests that we are not a very happy one. Set in a student flat in the dead days between results and graduation, Hickson paints a picture of a group of young people paradoxically desperate to cling to their childhood and enjoy their incipient adulthood all at once. They want fun without consequences; they want Disney films, but with a side-order of Ecstasy. Unfortunately for them, the trappings of adulthood are coming whether they like it or not.

Hickson’s stroke of genius is in creating a friendship group more real and more complicated than simply ‘university friends’. For instance, only two of the housemates were actually students; the other bedrooms are taken by their boisterous, sad-eyed drug dealer, and a young violin virtuoso who loathes his gift. This makes for a far more nuanced and less ‘laddy’ show than one might imagine from the title.

In their synopsis, No Prophet and Close Up theatre companies seem to trade on having a Skins cast member in the mix, and in a play that is by and for young people, this smacks of celebrity casting. It isn’t. Will Merrick absolutely shines as Benny – who’s succeeded academically so far but is terrified of what comes next – turning in an understated performance awash with vulnerability, that carries the show without ever overpowering its ensemble mix.

Merrick gets able support from a generally strong cast, with Alex Carden’s violinist protégé Cam and Wesley Lineham’s Timp particularly deserving of a mention. Lineham slowly peels away Timp’s desperate, riotous hedonism, always the first to start a party and the last to leave it, until we see the sadness at its core. The young alcoholic who hides his drinking beneath a veneer of endless fun and games is a curious modern phenomenon, astutely picked up on by Hickson. At their final party, Timp is dressed as Peter Pan – the boy who refuses to grow up – which works perfectly, and would work for almost any of the characters.

It’s not a perfect production, or a perfect play. Some of the cast struggle to make themselves heard, things occasionally slip into melodrama and some of the scene changes are clunky and slow when they most need to be fast. But it is an eminently watchable and enjoyable production, with things to say about the experience of being young that still deserve to be said.

Boys can be seen at 21.00 at C Aquila, every day until 26 August. For more information and tickets, visit the Edinburgh Fringe website.

Lauren Mooney

Lauren Mooney

Lauren graduated with an English degree from the University of Liverpool before moving to London. Aside from reviewing for AYT and her day job at Free Word, she also writes for Exeunt and TheatreGuide London, and helps make the London Horror Festival happen.

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Interview with playwright Luke Barnes

Posted on 28 February 2013 by Veronica Aloess

Extra Bottleneck

Luke Barne’s play Bottleneck took last year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival by storm, picking up rave reviews and earning itself a transfer to Soho Theatre. Bottleneck sounds simple enough: “it’s a right of passage play set in Liverpool, about a boy becoming a man”. It centres around a specific event which Barnes can’t revel without ruining the story, but I think his summary sufficiently reflects that he’s a playwright who believes in the purity of honest storytelling.

“If it’s not honest then what’s the point in writing it, if it’s not coming from something you believe in?” asks Barnes. His advice to budding playwrights is simple: “I think being honest is the important thing, and know what excites you. What excites me about theatre is I love the simplicity of it, people saying what they want to say in a way they can say it.” His ‘honesty is the best policy’ attitude reflects the influence of his other discipline, acting, too. However, Barnes tells me that he tries “to separate the two. Acting’s great, I enjoy it – and it’s not that writing’s not unstable work – but with the acting you’re not creating something, you’re just waiting for the phone to ring. I think for me it’s important to have a wide spectrum… when I wrote Bottleneck it was my own thing, I just did it in my own time… Bottleneck was just on my laptop and what happened was they dropped me a line and said there’s a gap in the programme for Edinburgh – it was three days before the deadline. So I sent that over. I was lucky; it came about at the right place at the right time.”

You could say 2012 was Barnes’s breakthrough year with two successful plays at the Edinburgh Fringe (Bottleneck and Chapel Street), yet he remains adamant that everything was “absolute luck, I nearly didn’t win that prize [Chapel Street was produced by Old Vic New Voices for an IdeasTap brief, but was initially turned down], and Bottleneck was last minute… Last year I had nothing planned really until about May when these two things came up; it got me a good set of reviews.” The two plays were not life-changing, but they did open doors: “My first play was on in 2011, it was literally the first thing I’d ever done, nobody had ever heard of me… Now I can talk to people about stuff and that excites me because if I tell somebody about an idea, they may be able to do something about it.”

Hightide not only produced Bottleneck but also commissioned another play, Eisteddfod, for Latitude Festival. “I think they’ve got a good gap in the market because there’s not many companies like them that will take risks on new writing.” And considering the Soho Theatre’s reputation for nurturing and producing new writing, I couldn’t think of a better home for Bottleneck: “Hightide have got a strong relationship with the Soho Theatre anyway because they produced Ella Hickson’s Boys last year. It’s exciting because I did a play there years ago with the National Youth Theatre so it’s good to go back. And they’ve got the best bar.”

What I love about Barnes is his sense of the writer’s role: “I think when it comes to drafting you’ve got to be really conscious that you’re creating something that everyone’s a part of and has invested in emotionally and intellectually to create something we’re proud of altogether. If everyone’s not proud, then it’s a failure in my eyes… What I enjoy about working in theatre is being a part of it in every capacity. It’s not ‘I’m the star of the show, I wrote this, I’m the director’ – no. We’re each contributing to produce something we’re excited about together.” Barnes’s thoughts behind the positive response that Bottleneck has received are that “it’s because when people go and see it, it’s not quite what you think it’s going to be. The play’s really humane, energetic, light-hearted, and then something happens that you don’t expect to see. Something happens… and it’s about how that thing shines a light on our own lives. God, that’s so wanky! I just wrote it as an honest story and luckily people responded well; all you can do is be honest about what you write and see what people think.”

Interviewing Barnes is less like an interview and more like a friendly chat at the pub. He’s the sort of man you’d like to have a pint with, not only because he’s extremely likeable but also because he’s obviously so creatively engaged in his work and theatre. Creative – but dangerous. Maybe it’s something threatening about his beard, but the way he dances around the fringes of Bottleneck’s plot makes me think that he could tell me the story, but then he’d have to kill me – so it might be a better idea to just go buy a ticket. And in Barnes’s ever humble words: “Why should people come see Bottleneck? Something happens. It’s funny. Well, in parts.” I’m sold.

Bottleneck plays at the Soho Theatre until the 9 March. For tickets and more information, visit the Soho Theatre website.

Bottleneck tours to Watford Palace Theatre on 14th March for more details visit the Watford Palace Theatre 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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Armada: a voyage to the Fringe

Posted on 02 August 2012 by Lauren Powell

423 years ago the Spanish Armada encountered a turbulent but determined journey across stormy seas. Three years ago, in 2009, Rob Winlow’s Armada the Musical first set sail with comparable determination, epic journey and narrative – but with the additional grandeur of song and choreography. This year, Armada sets forth again, on its maiden journey to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

The York Musical Theatre Company was reluctant at first to allow this Armada to “sail”. However, this just provoked Winlow, a devoted member of the company for 10 years, to fight for its cause. The Armada progressed to a rehearsed read-through in November 2009 and two years later, a performance at the Rowntree Theatre, York, with a cast of 25. Now, Winlow is about to transport his Armada‘s raring troops (now only eight of them), under the new name of the Old Hall Theatre Company, onto a Scottish battlefield with approximately 2500 contenders and one million thirsty spectators, including those notorious for the ‘make or break’ of many theatre companies. Aka: critics.

Luckily, the eight of the “last men standing” have formed a strong camaraderie. Professional musician and cast member Jessa Liversidge, who plays a feisty Queen Elizabeth I, informs me it’s irrelevant that there is a 34 year age gap between the oldest and youngest in the cast. Everyone is a professional with creative opinions wholly valued: “Rob really values everyone’s say”. Liversidge has been a member of the York Musical Theatre Company for 17 years and it’s clear that the company has played a huge part in her life. Although she wanted to study drama at university, this was seen as “frivolous” and subsequently acquired a BA in Chemistry. After graduating, she joined the company and proceeded to prosper in lead roles, fulfilling a “lifelong ambition” to play Maria in The Sound of Music. “It’s been fantastic and professional,” she enthuses. “Amateur groups are an essential breeding ground for young talent. It allows young people to experience performing and the technical aspects in a non-threatening, supportive environment. Without amateur theatre I’m not sure what the first rung on a career in theatre would look like.”

Just look at the credits behind the York Musical Theatre Company, proving age has no bounds when it comes to talent: from recent RADA graduate Samuel Edward Cook (who recently appeared in Ella Hickson’s Boys at the Nuffield and Soho Theatres and will soon be seen in BBC1 drama Land Girls) to Winlow himself – not only writer, director and performer but a BBC Radio 2 Golden Oldie nominee, nominated for two of the songs in Armada. This 110-year-old company is proving that “amateur” is not to be underestimated.

Winlow’s Radio 2 nomination is a source of pride for the entire cast. The song ‘Once in a While’, performed by Russell Fallon as a flirty Sir Francis Drake and a cantankerous Spanish commander, is full of tenderness and aplomb. For Reese McMahon (only 17), this will be his singing debut of ‘If I were you’. Liversidge praises McMahon for playing his role as romantic lead with innovation, creating a character who “is posh, awkward, funny: not what you’d typically expect”. The Queen Elizabeth actress affirms the entire cast’s pride at “how completely special it is to do something newly written”.

Winlow devised the concept whilst reading his son’s history homework on the 1588 Spanish tragedy. Though Winlow is the main brain behind the concept, it is also, rather specially, a Winlow family creation, as he explains: “My son, Edward, gained a first in music composition and has arranged the vocal parts, supplied the backing tracks and even wrote the music for a couple of the songs.” His daughter Lally helped to edit the newly formed script to get it ready for the Fringe and his 16-year-old son Will is tackling the roles of Lord Walsingham and King Philip. So how did Winlow get started on the project – and what advice can other young musical theatremakers take from his experience? He advises, “Find the story you want to tell; have a beginning and an end; decide how you are going to tell the story – i.e. retrospectively or real time or with narration etc. Then fill in the bits, in between deciding how the story breaks up into workable chunks. Then make these your scenes.” When you have these, he suggests getting a group of friends and a couple of people from your local theatre group to show them your work in progress. “Ask them what they think and would it be something they could possibly develop.” With the support of friends and a tightly formed cast, the Armada is proof that one person’s idea has every potential to flourish.

Whilst Armada is full of historical events and real people (Kelly Derbyshire, 21, and Ben Williams, 15, play other notable figures Mary Queen of Scotland and Lord Burghley) Liversidge emphasises that it is a story.  The retelling in fact follows fictional protagonist Sarah (played by Stephanie Bolsher, 16) who is caught up in turbulent proceedings both fictitious and historic. “The audience will have to use their imagination throughout the story,” Liversidge divulges. “Sarah has the power to transport herself and communicate with people in a different place.” How she has the power exactly and how this will be enacted remains to be discovered.

Winlow adds: “As the story has two characters with supernatural powers it’s really great we can perform a couple of magic tricks on stage.” This other mystical character he talks of is Doctor John Dee (played by Winlow himself), real life English citizen and intellect. “It was a real find to discover Dr John Dee, the Queen’s astrologer/alchemist/mathematician/bogus magician, as a real historical character. Elizabeth I tolerated him because he regularly visited her when she was incarcerated in the Tower in her youth. And I get to play him as a likeable rogue!” Liversidge chuckles as she offers a glimpse into the humour of the play, describing how the Armada’s creator dances and rejoices in his love for Sarah in a fashion which plays on West Side Story.

Clearly there’s lots at play here, and Liversidge affirms, “It is difficult to put into one category: it has romance, it is comic and there is drama.” Her character, Queen Elizabeth I herself, is a gutsy go-getter, determined to do what she thinks is right. “She also feels quite lonely: that she doesn’t have anyone to turn to.” With an emotional depth and a comedic take on historic events, Armada ensures there won’t be any of the yawns that populate GCSE history lessons at school. You never know, you might learn something this time.

Armada the Musical plays at Paradise in Augustine’s from 6 – 11 August at the Edinburgh Fringe, performed by Old Hall Theatre Company / York Musical Theatre Company. To book tickets, visit or for more information about the show itself visit

Image credit: Rob Winlow

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Review: Boys

Posted on 05 June 2012 by Imogen Sarre

By turns funny and tragic, deep and superficial, engrossing and alienating, Boys is a play that tries to do everything and very nearly succeeds. Set at the end of the university year, Ella Hickson’s play spans the 24-hours before four flatmates are going to be turfed out of their student digs. Half the characters are students on the cusp of graduating, fearful that life’s just going to go downhill from here on in. The others aren’t students at all and, although they cling onto every student lifestyle cliché, these characters provide us with an equally depressing insight into the stagnancy that is promised to those who refuse to grow up.

Ingredient by ingredient the production has it all, but there is something almost intangible that prevents it from working as it should. There is lots to commend: the set is quite glorious in its verisimilitude, the stolen ‘man working’ sign, half-full glasses from last night and bulging bin bags provide an almost exact replica of my own uni kitchen after a big night out. Boys wandering around half naked whilst the girls chirpily pull it together and manage to both look and sound human also rings quite a few bells. The personas we see here are sustained beautifully throughout, although the slightly frenetic feel of the cast’s press night nerves led to small touches of over-emphasis, meaning that moments were marred as my suspension of disbelief was attacked. Of a unanimously strong cast, Tom Mothersdale as Timp is particularly brilliant, inhabiting his character quite completely and with apparent ease. His relationship with Laura (Alison O’Donnell) is especially well-executed; I totally got why they work so well together but also how she is not quite enough, how much he cares for her yet also how he could behave so callously towards her. For the rest, although as individuals they are impeccably cast, something about how they come together as a unit made me unable to believe in them. Danny Kirrane as Benny had moments of weakness. I couldn’t quite believe that either he, or Lorn Macdonald’s Cam, could be quite the high achievers that their accomplishments suggested: neither seemed to have quite the presence of mind to have struck away from the flock, or the charisma to remain within the party group if their interests set them apart so obviously. However, Samuel Edward Cook was a wonderful brooding Mack and O’Donnell as Laura flitted in and out of insightful thoughts with commendable ease. Director Robert Icke has done a good job at pulling the very different personalities out of each character, making each wonderfully memorable in their own rights, but some things have been kept in from the script that feel just that bit too neat (the idea of the bin bags symbolising their state is one such obvious example).

By veering from comedy to tragedy and back again, weaving in and out of the meaning of life, youth, personal fallibility and social responsibility, and mixing the whole lot up within a hedonistic mix of sex, drugs and drum ‘n’ bass, it could be said that author Ella Hickson is trying to do too much. Throw in some student rioting, impassioned politics, guilt, dreams, cheating, suicide and lying as well – the juicy revelations from each character leading to the consequent breakdown of each person’s world – and it can safely be concluded that there aren’t many things this play doesn’t discuss. Rattling through every issue in the book has its problems; continually pulling its audience down different avenues means we are constantly forced to re-evaluate whether we buy both the writing’s representation of each of these issues, and the cast’s. The first ten minutes in any performance are always a tense affair, as the writer and performers lay their wares before you; normally, after that nerve-wracking first impression-off, both audience and cast can relax into the performance a bit as the former wait to see where the production takes them. This production felt exhausting throughout: every time the play was re-framed in a different light I had to reassess the cast’s capabilities, thereby preventing me from wholly becoming involved in the action. Sure, analysis throughout the play is part of a critic’s remit, but I do think the to-ing and fro-ing between themes had a detrimental impact on the whole: I neither laughed uproariously nor wept nor felt the tension really hit me, and I think that’s because the play and production hadn’t quite decided where it wanted to go rather than because the themes weren’t there or the actors weren’t skilled enough. With a bit more judicious cutting, some closer focus on certain topics, and some better work on how the characters fitted together as a whole, the director’s creative role could have been instrumental in underplaying the faults that Hickson’s play has.

Boys is playing at the Soho Theatre until 16 June. For more information and tickets, see the Soho Theatre website.

Imogen Sarre

Imogen Sarre

Imogen Sarre founded and manages theatre reviewing sites based in Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, Durham and up at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. She blogs and reviews theatre, is a script reader for Theatre 503, and currently does digital marketing at Ambassador Theatre Group.

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