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Review: Hopelessly Devoted, Tricycle Theatre

Posted on 10 April 2014 by Lisa Carroll

Hopelessly Devoted

Coming hot on the heels of the news that books are being banned from prisons, a play about habilitating female prisoners through music, and the empowerment that this creative outlet brings them, could not be more relevant or important. Indeed, Hopelessly Devoted, currently playing at the Tricycle Theatre, takes a sensitive and heart-felt look at the story of inmate Chess and her attempt to reach out to her daughter through song from behind bars.

And there is no better talent than performance poet, rapper and playwright, Kate Tempest to render Chess and her partner Serena’s troubles and hopes into song. With lyrics which are powerful and potent, in true Tempest style, the music in Hopelessly Devoted is no doubt its highlight. Through the course of the play, we see Chess journey from sullen, uncommunicative and closed off, to finding her feet as a singer thanks to the help of mentor, Silver. Cat Simmon’s performance as Chess is stunning: with her electric singing voice and quietly confident stage presence, the audience are on board with Chess’s story from start to finish. Tempest triumphs with moments which offer a fresh perspective on life inside, such as Chess and Serena’s claims that while they may be locked up, at least they don’t have to pretend to be free like the people outside.

The execution of the piece is theatrical and imaginative, thanks to directors, Stef O’Driscoll and James Grieve, alongside movement director Tuan Ly. Together, they avoid any kind of laborious prop or scene change-heavy naturalism, instead exploring more interesting and abstract ways to tell the story, such as a cleverly co-ordinated, physicalised game of chess between the inmates. This is only bolstered by Joanna Scotcher’s simple design and the nuance that Jack Knowles’s lighting design brings to the piece, meaning it is as strong visually as it is aurally.

Generally, the story does feel somewhat predictable as, despite the obstacles Chess faces, there is a sense of inevitability that she will eventually come into her own and find the strength to perform. As such, this pre-ordained story arc does at times lead to scenes veering more towards discussion than drama, such as Chess and Serena often wondering whether they can ever survive outside, and their discussion of the gravity of the crimes which brought them to prison in the first place. As a result, more of our sense of who these women are comes from what they tell us about themselves, rather than what they do. While Hopelessly Devoted has plenty of heart and passion, which truly emanates from the cast and Tempest’s own writing, this tendency did sometimes cause the balance to tip towards style and even sentimentality over substance, where it might have been fascinating to really examine these women’s behaviours and dig deeper into what was not being said. Nonetheless, while this slowed the piece at first, it does gain a huge amount of momentum as it plays out thanks to Tempest’s lyrical words and many witty exchanges which verve and colour to these women’s bleak world.

And despite any small problems, Hopelessly Devoted certainly stands out as one of the freshest and most interesting pieces of theatre so far this year, thanks to the strong creative vision and team behind it and the powerhouse performances of Simmons, Michelle Gayle and Gbemisola Ikumelo. Tempest is no doubt a playwright to watch, a playwright whose command of language and ability to channel such feeling into her work stands her apart from her peers, with Hopefully Devoted certainly an indicator of even bigger and better things to come.

Hopelessly Devoted is playing at the Tricycle Theatre until  19 April. For more information and tickets, see the Tricycle Theatre website.

 

Lisa Carroll

Lisa Carroll

Lisa Carroll graduated from University College Dublin in 2012 with a B.A International in English. She is also a playwright, script reader and director. @lisa_carroll46

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Review: Billy the Girl, Soho Theatre

Posted on 04 November 2013 by Devawn Wilkinson

Billy the Girl

Billy’s back home after a year in prison and, whilst she’s bright-eyed and beaming, her conversation a mishmash of motivational ‘positive thinking’ slogans, her mother Ingrid is not exactly overjoyed. In their scrubby, junk-strewn back garden (an immaculately detailed set from Joanna Scotcher) the pair circle each other warily like distrustful predators, cheery platitudes soon making way for frosty put-downs.

Billy the Girl, with our eponymous heroine played with an infectious, nervy energy by fiercely likeable Danusia Samal, is a tale that is by turns sobering and triumphant. Little sister Amber (Naomi Ackie) wants to buy her returning sibling a banner and a ‘Welcome Home!’ cake, whilst Ingrid (the fascinating Christina Entwisle) wants her to stay in the mildewed caravan with all the other tat kept safely out of the house. I’m certain it’s no coincidence that the caravan bears the name ‘Marauder’, because Billy is nothing less than a wholly destructive force in her mother’s eyes, turning up only to threaten Ingrid’s new-found happiness courtesy of Slimfast shakes and a Swayze-lookalike fiance. No-one is safe and nothing is sacred when mother and daughter lock horns, whilst naive teenager Amber tries, usually unsuccessfully, to keep the peace.

The phrase ‘you’ll have to laugh or else you’ll cry…’ comes to mind frequently, for it’s through comedy that the darkest details of these women’s lives are conveyed. Billy and her mother squabble over the minor (who took baby Amber to the park?) and the major (whose fault was the disastrous accident?) with equal venom, scrambling for any ammunition they can lay their hands on in a bloody battle of wills that can be both hilarious and horrifying. Yet, it’s a play as much about as forgiveness as it is about turmoil, picking up on such diverse themes as family, memory, identity, abuse, reformation and social care along the way. Playwright Katie Hims handles her characters with such affectionate tenderness that we can’t help but feel endearingly towards them even as they alienate each other. Blunt, brassy and pointedly unpoetic, the script refuses to flinch from touchy subjects in a way that suggests – much like Billy, trying to start afresh – Kate Hims knows full well that cleansing usually starts with making a lot of mess.

Even with its troubled protagonists and their traumatised lives, the show is effectively feel-good fare, an undoubtedly refreshing take on tried-and-tested narratives of familial estrangement and eventual reconciliation. Sweet-natured without being cloying, Billy the Girl leaving us in no doubt that the three women, despite their range of vices, really are trying their best in a less-than-perfect world. There’s never any sense that the plot threads of bereavement or prison life are simply dramatic devices being plumbed for emotional pay-offs. Just as in real life, what, in another kind of play, might be presented as revelatory bombshells don’t so much as explode as roll about clumsily underfoot, tripping everyone up as they try and steady themselves in an uncertain situation – a crossroads, it seems, between repeating the mistakes of the past and seeking an unknown but optimistic future.

Maybe it’s something about the highly-realistic set, the brief episodic scenes or the resonant one liners that tend to end them, that suggest Billy the Girl could work just as well, if not better, on film as it does on stage. The only real miscalculation here is that there’s nothing crucially theatrical about the play and so, sometimes, it seems that its very setting, caught between caravan and home, works less as a symbol for Billy’s potential stagnation and instead has a directly sedative effect on the action, especially when the back-and-forth histrionics get tiresome. Yet it’s impossible to resist the beautifully rendered snapshots of gutsy, damaged, complex and above all real women that each performer offers in this all-too-brief production, and the gently redemptive finale feels genuinely deserved rather than sentimental. A touchingly hopeful portrait of life after the worst has has happened, Billy the Girl confirms Clean Break’s reputation for bringing important and too often untold stories to the fore.

Billy the Girl is playing at the Soho Theatre until 24 November. For more information and tickets, please see the Soho Theatre website.

 

Devawn Wilkinson

Devawn Wilkinson

Devawn is a London-based writer, performance poet and aspiring theatre-maker. As a reviewer, she has written for A Younger Theatre, Theatre Royal Stratford East and Exeunt Magazine.

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Edinburgh Fringe Review: Jekyll and Hyde

Posted on 07 August 2013 by Eleanor Turney

Jekyll and Hyde

Star Rating:
(2/5 stars)

This super-camp, massively melodramatic re-telling of Jekyll and Hyde takes itself far too seriously despite all of its self-mockery. Trying to mix gothic horror with inventive silliness is an interesting idea, but one that sadly falls rather flat in Flipping the Bird’s tale. The central idea of this version – that Dr Jekyll is a woman fighting against Victorian traditions – could be a fascinating one, if it were given room to breathe. However, the subtle ideas that are trying to escape Jonathan Holloway’s script are smothered by a very mannered style of acting, and both playwright and director (Jessica Edwards) trying to cram too much into too short a space of time.

The script too often feels leaden and weighed down – yes it has one clever idea, but it is thrown away on a cheap visual trick that undermines any nuance to which the piece might aspire. For all its capering and funny voices, it often feels as though it takes itself so seriously it forgets to have fun with its high melodrama. Gothic horror doesn’t really work any more if it’s done po-faced – modern audiences are too used to flashes and bangs to find creepily atmospheric truly scary unless it is done superlatively well. The music here (composed by Laurence Osborn, and played by Elliott Rennie and Joel Phillimore) is nicely judged to add to the atmosphere, but isn’t enough to ever send a shiver down the spine.

Perhaps, then, the show was going for an intellectual take on the tale, examining how it works if the protagonist is a woman? Perhaps. There’s an awful lot of exposition, though, and despite a fiery performance from Cristina Catalina as Jekyll, it never feels as though this is her story. Michael Edwards is good as her put-upon husband, Henry Utterson, feeling his way through the horror that unfolds around him.

There are parts which do manage to be enjoyable creepy, and the set design (Joanna Scotcher) is stunning – far more elaborate than you usually find in Edinburgh. Scotcher’s set along with Joshua Carr’s clever lighting and Grace Nicolas’s intricate costumes are the best things about this piece. The central premise could have been brilliant, but feels misguided in its current form, and the pay-off at the end doesn’t feel worth the wait.

Jekyll and Hyde is at Assembly Roxy until 25 August. For more information and tickets visit the Edinburgh Fringe website.

Eleanor Turney

Eleanor Turney

Eleanor Turney is the Managing Editor of A Younger Theatre, as well as a freelance journalist, writer and editor. She has written for The Guardian, The Stage, The FT and Ideas Tap, and worked for the Poetry Society and the British Council.

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Review: The Railway Children

Posted on 30 June 2011 by Eleanor Turney

There’s a certain irony to missing the start of The Railway Children because your train is delayed, and not an especially funny one. Peter’s desperate watch-checking after the landslide (which was nicely done with a dramatic tower of tumbling boxes) – “The 11.29 hasn’t been by yet! We’ve only got three minutes!” – lost a little of its tension knowing what we all know about British Rail – don’t worry, mate, you’ve got at least 20mins before you need to start panicking…

But this is Oakworth, not Kings Cross, and things happen differently here. In the Railway Children’s idyllic countryside world nothing really awful ever happens (well, nothing Mummy and the Old Gentleman can’t solve, any how), everyone’s “a brick”, and the happy ending is inevitable. Given such a cheesy story to work with, Damian Cruden directs to wring every last drop of emotion from Mike Kenny’s script, laying it on thick but getting away with it because, well, we want Daddy to come home and everything to be alright.

Kenny’s script borrows heavily from both book and film, but it feels right because we want the familiar, slightly saccharine story to unfold, heading inexorably to the famous “Daddy! My daddy!” scene where Bobby (Amy Noble) is reunited with her father (Stephen Beckett) and there is not a dry eye in the house. Well, my 12-year-old companion remained fairly stoic, but I was weeping into my handbag.

The children themselves were done well, although Grace Rowe has a tough job making the rather immature Phyllis likeable. Tim Lewis’s blustering Peter is sweet, and Amy Noble makes a mature and sensible Roberta, with more pluck than she is perhaps gifted in the original story. Blair Plant, sporting a rather wonderful pointy ginger beard, is a moving Schepansky. Marcus Brigstocke is clearing having a great time as the grumbly Mr Perks, complete with thick Yorkshire accent. His gruffness hides a soft heart, and we know three children who will win him round in the end. It’s all predictable enough, but wears its soppiness well.

Special mention must go to Christopher Madin who wrote the beautiful score – strains of Copeland and English pastoral interwoven with brilliant, hummable tunes that never overpower the cast or stray too far across the bounds of sentimentality. Not that a bit of sentimentality is necessarily a bad thing; designer Joanna Scotcher has done a lovely job of making the whole Eurostar terminal space at Waterloo station feel almost cosy. The set and costumes are lovely – there is a real sense of no-expense-spared with the whole production. And then there’s the train. A real, actual live steam train, which runs between the two banks of audience members, puffing and chuntering. It does not disappoint.

Yes, it’s pure, unadulterated schmaltz, but if that’s what you’re going for, then do it boldly, and your audience will go with you. Cruden and his cast tackle the sentimental story with vim and enough dramatic moments to cut through some of the sugar without killing the sweetness. It’s handled with a light touch, and the cast manage not to be outshone by the gleaming train. It’s packed with enough cheese to last you a long time, but this avowed cynic was won over by The Railway Children’s charm, playfulness and sense of fun.

Eleanor Turney

Eleanor Turney

Eleanor Turney is the Managing Editor of A Younger Theatre, as well as a freelance journalist, writer and editor. She has written for The Guardian, The Stage, The FT and Ideas Tap, and worked for the Poetry Society and the British Council.

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