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Review: Cool Rider, Duchess Theatre

Posted on 19 April 2014 by Senne Vercouteren

Cool Rider

Sequels in the musical theatre industry are rare, unlike of course in film: after Grease there was indeed Grease 2, a less famous, less successful and less memorable production than its predecessor. Cool Rider bases itself on the lesser of the two, resulting in an exuberant celebration of the 1961 high school class. In this version at the Duchess Theatre, however, the teachers join in the action and, instead of teaching, hold auditions – for what exactly remains obscure, but it really doesn’t matter. Cool Rider is every bit as sexy and exhilarating as the film should have been.

Directed by Guy Unsworth, the show sees a large and capable cast fill the shoes of the quintessential heart-throbs, bad boys and cheerleaders, and of course the winning couple: Ashleigh Gray as the unattainable Stephanie and Aaron Sidwell as British newcomer Michael, who’ll only get the girl if he turns into a bike-riding dude clad entirely in tight leather. The storyline is overly familiar, and it is a good thing this production recognises that. It goes beyond the usual trodden path and offers – often very funny – commentary on the art form and the ridiculousness of the story, and engages with a very enthusiastic audience. The whole thing often feels more like a concert than a musical.

The songs are catchy and performed with gusto; Sidwell especially stands out and it would by no means be an exaggeration to say he is a star. Choreography (by Matt Krzan) is simply a lot of fun and allows a wide variety of styles and personalities to take centre stage. This is in line with the ultra-fast pace with which the story rolls along before our eyes: clearly, enjoyment takes precedence over any narrative profundity.

The show has some minor flaws. I found the use of both standing microphones and headsets confusing; at the moment Stephanie climbs up onto a ladder during her number, a stagehand has to hold it steady – a task marked out for the nun (played by a man) who is seen here and there and gets a lot of the laughs. These flaws however, on second thought, might have been deliberate in an attempt to mimic the shortcomings of the film. In which case, of course, they only add to the fun.

One week in the West End is not long enough. Cool Rider is a refreshing show, the kind we need more of, and incidentally has the capacity to draw new audiences into central London – save Matilda, I haven’t seen such a young audience in a commercial theatre.

Cool Rider is playing at the Duchess Theatre until 19 April. For more information and tickets, see the Cool Rider website.

Photo by Pamela Raith.

Senne Vercouteren

Senne Vercouteren

Senne Vercouteren graduated from the Courtauld Institute in 2013 and is now an emerging theatre producer, currently working on the MACP at Birkbeck. He is passionate about theatre, Kanye West and fast cars. @SenneVercoutere

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Incoming preview: Tin Shed Theatre

Posted on 13 April 2014 by Lauren Mooney

Tin Shed – Frankenstein

Tin Shed Theatre Company is busy, busy, busy. I speak to Company Director Georgina Harris on a chance free day between school tours of An Inspector Calls and Of Mice and Men, educational work that is not so much the company’s “money-making thing” as its “bread and butter, to help us fund the more experimental, devised work – that we obviously would like to produce 24/7, but because we’re un-funded…”

This practical realism has enabled the company to make theatre its full-time work, which gives it a certain amount of freedom. When I chat to Harris, the trio are trying to organise a run at “the oldest horror theatre in San Francisco” to follow their slot at the San Diego Fringe in July – but before all that, they will be bringing Dr Frankenstein’s Travelling Freakshow to Incoming Festival next month.

“I think the way that we chose to tell the story is very much how we take on any piece of theatre that we devise and adapt,” Harris says of Dr Frankenstein. “It’s very visual, there’s a balance of light and dark to it, and it’s quite loud.”

After graduating from their shared alma mater, the University of Newport, Harris and her co-collaborators Justin Cliffe and Antonio Rimola went their separate ways, working as actors, until they realised they missed the creative control they’d enjoyed at university. The trio began devising immersive and site-specific work together in and around Newport, but it is perhaps their literary adaptations for which they are now best known.

“We did the Brighton Fringe a couple of years ago for Hendricks gin,” Harris explains. “They had their own venue in Brighton which was an old Victorian carriage, it’s very much Victorian-themed, and they were looking for small performances to go on within the venue.”

Tin Shed pitched a work based on the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe, which eventually became Mr Edgar Allan Poe’s Terrifying Tales, and then “the year after they wanted us back to do something of the same sort of fashion”. The company narrowed it down to “three possibilities: Frankenstein, Jekyll and Hyde, and Dracula. We knew that we wanted it to be one of those three and for some reason Frankenstein for us really just shone out as this horrendously beautiful story.”

Adapting such a vast, weighty novel was a challenge for the company: “We all read it out loud, which was really important, to start, that helped us listen to the dialogue and be quite ruthless with it.” They also watched “probably every single version of the film that has ever been released”.

“Lots of them were pretty naff, especially the Kenneth Branagh one, which I’d watched as a child and then rewatched doing this, and had never realised how awful it was until I watched it again! The way they tell the story is really cliched, so I think if anything we took all those worst bits, all the mistakes people had made in telling this story and said ‘well that’s what we’re not going to do’.”

The result is a darkly funny, energetic, hugely idiosyncratic show in which a Victorian freakshow put on a production of Mary Shelley’s famous novel. The play-within-a-play structure gives depth and originality to an oft-told tale, and remains in keeping with the gothic aesthetic of the original. Tin Shed has since toured Dr Frankenstein across the country, including at the London Horror Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where they performed in a “sweat box”.

“We nearly died,” says Harris. “We were so hot it was unbelievable. The show before us had a cast of about fifteen and you’ve only got a few minutes to get in; the heat would just smack you in the face.”

Original not only in its output, Tin Shed also breaks the mould of up-and-coming young companies in being based outside London, to which most aspiring theatre-makers inevitably drift. The logic behind remaining in Newport, Harris tells me, is partly artistic and partly practical: “Firstly it comes from being passionate about where we are in the country, wanting to give something directly to the people that are around us, and offer them culture and art in, essentially, a completely art-deprived area.” The urge to bring theatre, art and excitement to Newport and its residents, rather than being “just another blip” in a capital city “saturated” with culture, is clearly integral to how the company sees itself and what it sees as the purpose of its work.

In terms of practicalities, Harris also extolls the virtues of their local theatre, “as well as other local venues in Cardiff – everyone is incredibly supportive – the arts council here is very supportive, and comes and meets us whenever we need them to.” Outside London, the company is “able to stand alone and stand out”, which makes sense for it – but inevitably this means missing out on a lot of the work of their peers, who are largely elsewhere.

“I think that’s the downside to not being based somewhere culturally alive – we get to see some stuff but we have to travel to see that, either to Bristol or Cardiff, and we go to London a lot too… So to be surrounded by other companies doing the same thing as us,” she says of INCOMING, “is going to be great.”

Having experienced first-hand how hard it can be to start out, Harris is also passionate about INCOMING’s support of emergent theatre-makers. “I think for young companies to be able to get on their feet and start producing work is very difficult,” she says. “There’s not a lot of money out there, there’s not a lot of funding, you almost have to be established in your own right before anyone will even come and see your show, let alone think about funding it! So the fact that there’s a festival actually supporting that is great, and we’re just really honoured to be part of it – we’re all super excited.”

Dr Frankenstein’s Travelling Freak Show will be at the New Diorama Theatre on 24 May as part of INCOMING Festival. For more information and to book £5 tickets, visit the NDT’s 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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Review: The Gut Girls, Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

Posted on 21 March 2014 by Rebecca Pinnington

The Gut Girls

Sarah Daniels’s The Gut Girls follows the women of Deptford Foreign Cattle Market, who work 12 hours per day chopping meat for London’s many butchers. The women earn a decent living, but they are maltreated and marginalised, stuck in a seemingly less-than-desirable way of life, until the upper-class Lady Helena decides to ‘improve’ them and teach them to be proper ladies, training them for a life as serving girls. However, this is far from an improvement; London high society is not for everyone, and the tough girls of the cattle market don’t do well there.

This is a really interesting play which contrasts the poor conditions of working class life with the pristine privilege of their social superiors. Much as their lives are full of hardships, the gut girls seem happy in the beginning of the play; unity of the working girls creates a positive outlook on life and seems to make their troubles feel small. The upper classes, on the other hand, do not seem as happy; Priscilla lives under an oppressive husband, while Lady Helena

Gemma Paget played a delightfully prim Lady Helena, and her consistently strong stage presence made her the centre of every scene, even those in which the gut girls were vying to be the main focus. Appropriately preachy and with intentions far beyond her abilities in reforming the working girls, she perfectly emphasised the extreme differences between the upper and lower classes at the time. Also excellent was Beth Eyre as both the socialist reformer Ellen and as the depressed, downtrodden upper-class Priscilla. The level of contrast between these two characters showed impressive range, and the use of one woman to convey both sides was a particularly useful device in demonstrating the great disparity between classes.

The men of the cast were also particularly versatile multi-rolers, and both Luke Stevenson and Oliver Malam proved themselves as very talented actors throughout the production. Stevenson’s multiple very different characters are of particular note; Len was suitably bumbling and lacking in social etiquette, while Lord Arthur Cuttle-Smythe was leering, unsettling, and at times strangely charming (though sadly in this role Stevenson was prevented from an altogether convincing portrayal by his hair, which was not as appropriate for this character as for the others).

Slightly less convincing was Billie Fulford-Brown as Polly, although this seemed to be down to the director’s choices rather than any lack of acting talent on Fulford-Brown’s part. I felt that the meat-based jokes in the first scene of the play were massively underplayed and would have done better to set up the character as energetic, jokey and full of heart had they been more of a focus. I also didn’t really get the sense of Polly as a bit of a lumbering fool, as the physicality was relatively feminine and the character seemed to have her wits about her throughout.

Indeed, throughout the play I felt that, while performances were usually very strong, the direction seemed lacking, and it was not only the character of Polly that felt underplayed. I also found Maggie and Lord Tartaden’s pivotal scene in the second act to be lacking; considering that this contains a major revelation about a key character I was surprised that the direction had not encouraged more of a contrast between the two faces of Tartaden. The scene at the girls’ club with the tea pouring was also, for me, not quite enough; I would have liked to see the working girls behaving worse and being more of an adequate distraction to the other women.

However this said, the group scenes were pleasingly riotous and did well to showcase the lack of propriety and high manners in working class society. Especially enjoyable was the scene in the music hall, which was perfectly pitched by every actor on stage. The four gut girls in the scene made enough noise to convince us of the loudness of the whole crowd, and the clear differences between them and Lady Priscilla served once again to contrast the different classes very well.

On the whole this is a solid production, which does well to showcase the class conflict and poor living conditions of the time. The ignorance of the upper class towards the working classes’ plight, and their ineffectual moves towards solving it, drew an interesting parallel with modern politics. Direction and performance conveyed the essential message of the play, encouraging its audience to advocate equality and acknowledge all social classes as of equal standing.

OutFox’s version of The Gut Girls really merits seeing; the performances are strong, the vision is cohesive, and there are very few weak moments which at all detract from the overall feeling of the piece. The audience is drawn into the story, and leaves really thinking on what they have seen, making this a very strong and exciting piece of Fringe theatre.

The Gut Girls plays The Jack Studio Theatre until Saturday 29 March. For more information and tickets, see The Jack Studio Theatre website.

Rebecca Pinnington

Rebecca Pinnington

Rebecca is a second year modern languages student at University College London. In between reading French philosophy and conjugating irregular verbs, she watches and performs in as much theatre as possible, especially musicals, which are one of her two greatest passions (the other is cats). As well as AYT, she has written for Broadway Baby at the Edinburgh Fringe and her university newspaper.

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Blog: Filskit Theatre – The only way is out of London. Or is it?

Posted on 26 February 2014 by Filskit Theatre

London

Until recently, every funding application, mission statement and biography we have ever written has begun with the phrase “Filskit Theatre are a London based company…” but as we have grown as a company and our personal circumstances have changed, we have now come to the realisation that two thirds of the original company are actually no longer “Londoners”.

When we were all 18 year old aspiring actors from the shires, the bright lights of the City beckoned and it seemed as though London was the only option if we were going to ‘make it’ in our chosen field (even if we did end up living in Sidcup, which isn’t technically London). It’s a buzzing hub of activity with its lively offerings of the West End, museums, pop-up venues, fringe scene and everything else that a European capital city can offer.

Our time in London has most certainly served us well; the opportunities for young companies are endless and indeed many of our regular supporters such as Stratford Circus and Creative Youth are London based. But as we plan and scheme new ways to make Filskit our fulltime job (and plan our subsequent world domination…) we have realised the importance of expanding the reach of the company outside the Big Smoke.

So last year when we were planning two weeks of R&D for our latest production, we were thrilled to be offered the chance to develop the piece at two different venues: Stratford Circus, which provided our London setting, and The Point in Eastleigh which saw us spending a week on the South Coast.

Having now completed two weeks of R&D at these two very different venues (and writing our evaluation for Arts Council England) we are looking at how geography can affect your creative process. Let’s start with our first week at The Point.

What makes The Point a unique place for artists is its onsite accommodation and ‘Creation Space’ – a “state of the art retreat for creatives from around the globe”. Being able to stay onsite at the venue had a huge impact on our process; it’s amazing how very un-creative a 90 minute commute with your face in a stranger’s armpit can make you feel. But by staying onsite with only a short walk downstairs to the fully equipped theatre, via the kitchen (with teabags aplenty), we completely bypassed all of the stressful day-to-day things that can have a detrimental effect on your creativity.

We must say that up until this week of R&D we were always a little sceptical of how productive it can be to be locked away in a rehearsal room with no outside influences. Ok, so we weren’t staying in a wooden shack in the middle of nowhere, but still we always worried that any kind of isolation could potentially make the work a bit self-indulgent. But the creative retreat at The Point was the perfect balance for us – quiet enough that we made huge developments to our new piece, but we also had the opportunity to meet with staff and engage with a local nursery group which massively helped with our audience development.

After our brilliant week at The Point, we returned to Stratford Circus, which is becoming a bit of a home from home when creating new work. We love Stratford Circus and always receive great support, especially from the technical team. But being back in the city soon began to take its toll on our productivity, all of a sudden we went back to worrying about which train to catch and how long it would take to drive the set over in the morning traffic, – basically we were distracted. It took us a day or two but things soon picked up and we managed to make significant developments to the piece which we then shared with a local school group.

This sharing again highlighted how different locations can affect the work; whilst the first group at The Point were very well behaved and perhaps a little tentative, the group at Stratford Circus were positively raucous. The different audience responses will help us develop our work further, and highlight the importance of still engaging with London venues and audiences as we look to expand into other areas of the country.

Whilst the piece is a little way from being finished, we are already seeing the benefits of creating work in a variety of locations. We hope that this way of working will make the piece more accessible to a broader range of young audiences. It’s not necessarily all about the buzz of the city.

Photo by Flickr user _dChris under a Creative Commons Licence. 

Filskit Theatre

Filskit Theatre

Filskit Theatre are an all-female ensemble with a passion for micro-projection. The company, Sarah Gee, Katy Costigan and Victoria Dyson, have been making work together since 2008. As graduates of the European Theatre Arts course at Rose Bruford they were brought together by their shared love of projection and cake.

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