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Review: The Life of Stuff

Posted on 14 April 2013 by Devawn Wilkinson

The Life of Stuff Theatre503

If I were to say, “I’ve just watched a play about Scotland, the 90s, pills, parties and the darkest recesses of human desperation,” you’re probably more likely to think Trainspotting than Simon Donald’s The Life of Stuff, winner of various accolades in the year of its first production. Even though Irvine Welsh’s book and Donald’s play surfaced around at the same time, Donald’s 1992 play is widely unknown today. That apparently unwarranted obscurity is the impetus behind Paul Robinson’s production, as part of Theatre 503’s Second Look strand of work. Yet, despite the classic tunes, fine performances from a consistently excellent cast (including a live snake), Robinson can’t quite make this period piece sit comfortably, or perhaps uncomfortably enough, for today’s audience.

If you can fathom it, The Life of Stuff offers a somewhat darker, bloodier world than Welsh’s heroin-addled one – perhaps because the action is contained claustrophobically within one dilapidated warehouse.  Casual sex (the soul-depleting rather than glamorous kind) and casual drug-taking are the order of the day. The lows set in early, mainly because the highs never arrive – dodgy drugs courtesy of big-talking Dobie (Gregory Finnegan), the small-time crook and dealer landlord who has gathered a motley crew of henchmen and ‘floozies’ for an ominous-sounding party. We’re certainly thrown in at the deep end amongst the action (and thick accents) but it’s all part of the ‘fun’. The man who is really running the show – Sinatra fan, caretaker and part-time violent psychopath Arbogast (Cameron Jack) is trying to rouse his strange band into cleaning up but they’ve got other ideas. Best friends Holly and Evelyn (Paula Masterton and Pamela Dwyer) dressed at the height of fashion (cringe) are only interested in the major chemicals they’ve been promised. Eczema-ridden Leonard (Rhys Owen) wants only to be taken seriously, and consequently has chopped the toe off the pharmaceutical student who cooks up drugs for arch-rival Sneddon (Ben Adams) – the drugs-baron who we soon discover has been handily dispatched, hence the celebrations.

As you’d expect from an award-winning playwright, Donald’s writing is sparky, speedy and littered with surprising poignancies.  Despite their many, many flaws, Donald is compassionate to his characters, and the cast work wonders with the intriguing and nuanced personalities they are given. Claire Dargo’s fiery, fragile and unwittingly hilarious Janice soon became my favourite character, even if (and maybe because) the first major thing she does on stage is vomit, before being locked in the basement with the nervous but kind-hearted Fraser (Owen Whitelaw). Sporting a creative take on the undercut (think bald patches),  Whitelaw spends the entirety of the play in a pair of aged underwear that leave so little to the imagination, it’s proof of his talent that we manage to focus on his face. Owen is also brilliant as the terrifying/adorable Leonard, Paula Masterton gives depth to the spacy Holly, whilst Pamela Dwyer is subtly scene-stealing as the smart, sarcastic and reluctantly sober Evelyn. The aesthetics, too, are perfect – designer James Perkins’s industrial wasteland of a set exudes such a pervasively grim air of squalor that you can almost feel toxic fumes soaking into your pores, whilst Johanna Town lights the space ingeniously with a chaotic array of lamps and neon.

Having enthused so much, it’s hard to insist that something is conspicuously absent from this production. Perhaps the problem is, oddly, the play itself – the fact that The Life of Stuff doesn’t quite hold our attention because it is critiquing a radically different society. Poverty-stricken, yes, but there is nothing austere or cynical enough about it – it’s all too languid and hedonistic, nothing near to the end-times atmospherics of doom that make ’90s playwright Philip Ridley’s work still so reliably relevant today. The remote familiarity of the ’90s means The Life of Stuff lacks the sharpness needed for satirical contrast whilst also rather redundant as social observation. Whatever punch it once packed lacks violence now, and we end up as alienated observers to a series of events with which, despite everyone’s best efforts, we cannot fully engage.

The Life of Stuff is playing at Theatre503 until the 4 May. For more information and tickets, see the Theatre503 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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Review On Tour: Medea

Posted on 19 November 2012 by Billy Barrett

Headlong’s Medea, directed and written by Mike Bartlett after Euripedes, dispenses with the suits and minimalism favoured by most contemporary stagings of the tragedies. Instead, the action is transposed with filmic detail to present-day English suburbia. A psychological examination of a woman, this scorching drama fuses the personal and the political to study what can drive someone to commit the worst imaginable crime. It’s clever, unflinching and surprisingly funny – with pitch-black humour, Bartlett’s thoroughly modern Medea stabs at the heart of the family next door and lets the tragedy bleed out.

Ruari Murchison’s set is a row of identical houses, the middle of which cuts away to reveal a typical middle-class interior, all flat-pack wardrobes and polished kitchen surfaces. This soulless domesticity, and the blurred distinction between the public and private (Bartlett’s chorus is a builder working on the neighbour’s house), are central to the action of the play and are perfectly visualised. The sound is also effective; Tom Mills contrasts bland radio pop with a discordant non-diegetic score that sets the heart racing.

Rachael Stirling is electric in the lead role; she creates a character that’s both attractive and repulsive, the type of murderer you’d love to have a drink with. Constantly agitated, with movements too big for the house that contains her, Stirling’s Medea is like an insect, burning under the magnifying glass of neighbourhood watch. Amelia Lowdell and Lu Corfield give strong support as a neighbour and a colleague, quick to watch Medea fall apart but unwilling – or unable – to pick her up again. In this version, Jason is a weak misogynist, who makes Medea into a monster and then punishes her for it, and Adam Levy’s portrayal is suitably nasty.

Unsurprisingly, Bartlett’s update is occasionally problematic – the tension between the classical source material and the contemporary landscape can be jarring. When such freedom has been allowed in the rewrite, it’s unclear why some aspects of the mythology remain.

Given that the play is known primarily for its climax, it’s testament to Bartlett’s skill that I remained on edge throughout the play. However, if the anticipation is built effectively, the execution is a disappointment. Bartlett goes all out in the final scene, and I was left unsure whether it was brilliant or awful, but sure that an understated approach would have been more emotionally powerful. Despite these flaws, it’s an intelligent reworking that manages to comment on modern society through a classic, and finds its most tragic moments in comedy.

This review of Medea was from the Warwick Arts Centre performance. For more shows at the Warwick Arts Centre, see their website.

Billy Barrett

Billy Barrett

Billy currently studies English and Theatre at Warwick University. Between reviewing and reading for his course, Billy writes, directs and acts in theatre. He tries to see everything in London, Warwick and beyond!

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Review Edinburgh Fringe: Llwyth (Tribe)

Posted on 23 August 2011 by Jake Orr

It seems rare that a piece of theatre that is based around the subject of being gay is able to stay away from cliched boy-meets-boy narratives and camp dialogue. It’s great to finally see a show which isn’t all a-sparkle with gay glitter, but has a deeper, sentimental focus too. Llwyth (which means ‘tribe’) was originally produced by Sherman Cymru in 2010, but was such a success that the production is now being co-produced with Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru and is part of the British Council Showcase at The Edinburgh Festival (the first time a Welsh play has featured in the showcase).

Llwyth sees a group of gay friends come together for an evening of celebration, dancing and friendship-strengthening. They reminisce about the times they’ve had, sneer and shudder at some of their sexual escapades, and (naturally!) drink and dance the night away. Of course, it would be foolish to think that this is just about the drinking and the drugs of a gay-lifestyle night out. Dafydd James’ play has undertones of troubled relationships and strained family ties – we may laugh as the characters cringe at sex stories, but our emotions fly low when the ties of friendship are taut from emotion. James has an ability to take his audience through the journey of his characters with precision.

The production values of Llwyth are certainly concrete, too, compared to much of the work at the Fringe. Tom Rogers’ design has created a flexible space that acts as the various locations of the evening. Lighting Designer Johanna Town has worked closely with Rogers to make the most of the space through lighting, individually pinpointing areas of focus, or creating a club-like essence for dance scenes (no easy task when your show is programmed for midday).

Simon Watts as Aneurin is exceptionally good at driving James’ narrative onwards throughout Llywth, especially in the closing moments of the production when the emotional drive of his character takes place. Watts is supported by an equally robust cast, who double-up throughout. The cast seem to have developed an energy between them that allows them to easily push themselves in the piece. As they switch between Welsh and English you can appreciate the complexities of Arwel Gruffydd’s direction. It’s not the easiest of tasks to produce a fluidity of time and space, with differing languages, but Gruffydd’s direction makes it seem easy, and enjoyable to watch too.

Llwyth has all the right touches of laugh-out-loud enjoyment, with tender reflections on characters that are deeply portrayed and written. As a piece of gay theatre, it doesn’t preach gay rights or troubles, it offers the audience the chance to appreciate a friendship that is built around sexuality but not because of sexuality. Llwyth is camp but grounded, it’s distinctly Welsh, but also universal, and is certainly worth a visit to St George’s West to enjoy it during the Edinburgh Festival.

Llwyth is playing at St Georges West at the Edinburgh Festival until 29th August. For more information and tickets see the Remarkable Arts 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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