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Tag Archive | "Max Roberts"

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A perfect future? Soho Theatre’s quest for Utopia

Posted on 28 June 2012 by Douglas Williams

“Searching for Utopia never really ends – it’s stubborn in that way.” For Josh Roche, Assistant Director of, Utopia, a new writing project at Soho Theatre, “every hell or dystopia that people arrive at is led by an urge for utopia.”

Soho Theatre’s latest new writing project brings together an eclectic mix of talented writers, including Dylan Moran, Simon Stephens and Chi Onwurah MP, in order to question the notion of a perfect future. The project is a collaboration between Soho Theatre and Live Theatre, with Artistic Directors Steve Marmion and Max Roberts at the helm.

“Max did A Walk On Part at The Arts Theatre,” says Roche. “That also played here and it’s a lot about disillusionment with New Labour – the passion at the start but the struggle to do the right thing. The idea for this show came as a response to dystopia – how do we make theatre that is aspirational and optimistic?” Utopia features visions that come from separate writers involved in the project. These visions arrive on stage as blueprints, which are then tried and tested via enactment by the six ‘fools’ who perform the many segments of the show.

“The show is two things,” explains Roche. “It started as a collaboration between different writers responding to one idea, so there’s a huge amount of variety between the narratives but then at the same time they are all present within this holding form of six fools trying to find Utopia. You can expect very separate approaches to an idea but at the same time you’re guided through the piece in a way that’s nice and honest. It’s very direct with the audience, engaging, light-hearted.”

On Sunday June 24, Soho Theatre also hosted Hub Utopia, an event in which emerging writers and artists responded to the brief set for the main Utopia production. “The Hub is our community of playwrights and theatre artists that we’re really interested in supporting and helping,” explains Dan Herd, Director of Hub Utopia and Artistic Associate at Soho Theatre. “We offer them spaces and scriptwriting consultations and many other things because we really want to develop their voices.”

Regular Hub nights allow Soho Theatre to commission its emerging artists to come up with short pieces, either around a specific theme or in relation to their current practice. Professional actors are called in and the events work as a combination platform and workshop for aspiring writers and artists. Soho Theatre Bar also functions as a space in which practitioners and spectators can meet, greet and discuss the ideas on offer.

“We put these Hub events on to give them that bit of learning that you can only get from seeing it onstage as opposed from sitting in a script consultation,” says Herd. “So because we had Utopia opening and because that came from the idea of proposing a perfect world, it made sense that the Hub responded to it. The event was conceived to see what these really exciting people could come up with for a drama set in a perfect world.”

It seems that the Hub artists responded to the brief with a variation to rival that featured in the main Utopia production. The pieces that arose ranged from dystopian comedy blues by Johnny and The Baptists,  a sombre and poetic look at the fragile bliss of love through the eyes of Briony Kimmings and two sharp, witty two-hander plays by exciting up-and-coming writers, Joe Coelho and James Graham.

“There are an awful lot of plays submitted about how we’ve ruined the world and how that will lead to our downfall,” explains Herd. “Steve (Marmion) was interested in discovering the other argument. What could we have done right? What are the options? The other interesting thing is that by its nature, utopia is free from conflict, it moves along in flat lines. The tension is actually between the impossibility of utopia, which by definition is subjective, and the practical achievability of a perfect world.”

Subjectivity is clearly a central theme in the Utopia projects. The ultimate paradox in the concept of a perfect world is that any vision of utopia can just as easily become a dystopia, either for the visionary or for those upon who the ideals are thrust. The main production of Utopia features projected quotations from, among others, Adolf Hitler, in a bid to point out the subjective nature of the very concept of utopia. As Herd puts it: “If I want everyone to ride around on horses, there’s going to be someone who doesn’t like horses. For some people, the perfect world is a one-on-one thing about love and family, and finding perfection. For others it’s about solitude and being right in your head. For others it’s about changing society. You always run up against the brick wall of subjectivity but you want to smash through that subjectivity and say, ‘Why can’t we all just live together in harmony?’”

It’s easy to wonder about the creative relationship of the Utopia projects with the current social climate. Herd talks about the sense that “every day we are getting closer and closer to the furnace and that’s because of things our parents did and things we are doing, whether those things are economic, environmental, personal or social.” Roche and Herd both stress with urgency that it is important for young artists to see Utopia. “Our theatre’s not really about safe, smug pieces,” says Herd. “Utopia is a reflection of that. It’s a big, bold, brave statement.”

“I would encourage young directors and actors to see Utopia because it’s bold and it’s different,” urges Roche. “It’s different and it’s not in a distinct mould. You won’t be able to say it’s this kind of show or it’s that kind of show. It has an individual identity. It won’t be boxed or categorised and for that reason it should be seen.”

Utopia runs until 14 July at Soho Theatre. Tickets are available from sohotheatre.com/whats-on/utopia.

For half price tickets and a free programme, exclusive to A Younger Theatre, visit our offers page!

Image credit: Soho Theatre 

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Review: Utopia

Posted on 24 June 2012 by Veronica Aloess

Utopia - Soho Theatre

“Utopia: a place or state of things in which everything’s perfect. The opposite of Dystopia.” The brilliant irony of this sentence is that one person’s utopia is someone else’s dystopia – and it is this self-defeating concept which directors Steve Marmion and Max Roberts capture so well.

The opening of this play reminds us that past visions of utopia were always only visions, and never achieved. For example, Stalin ran away with Marx and Engel’s vision, and Northern Rock really does exemplify the failing of capitalism. So I forgive Utopia for being rough around the edges, because this concept has always been more about the idea than its history of shoddy executions.

No stone is left unturned as the cast explore different visions of utopia from a series of different people, including Chi Onwurrah MP, Hitler, Dylan Moran and Simon Stephens amongst others. Lucy Osborne’s set is a series of tattered blueprints of utopias to be tested out, and the actors all clad in white are blank canvases ready to test them. These visions range from Moran’s Who Was Ray, “inspired by every dinner party you didn’t find utopia at”, to an extra-terrestrial TV show in Onwurrah’s Humanity. And it makes me think: they’re all linked less by the concept of utopia, and more by failure. And there’s something simply very sad about that, which is captured by Michael Chaplin’s Sunnyglade, where Pamela Miles poignantly plays a politician with failed dreams to change the world.

However it’s a more ironic tone which dominates Utopia, overflowing in Arthur Darvill’s weirdly wonderful compositions and Marmion’s witty lyrics, which play comically off the drama. The persistent future tense of Stephens’s The Sun Will Come Out only highlights that utopia is an unobtainable dream. “Somehow” there will be no homophobia or racism the characters say, because of course you can’t imagine these things ever disappearing. The poetry of Stephens’s writing is beautiful and reflects the dreaminess of the concept, but drives the show towards a sentimental ending that is a little sickly sweet in comparison to the rest of the writing. In Alastair McDowall’s Propaganda, a cruel dictator suddenly sees the light. Why? Because millions of people have joined a Facebook group calling for his arrest, including Jay Z. It’s difficult to find a more fantastical image than a man who has brutally murdered people, crying “THANK YOU FACEBOOK” to the heavens, but sadly utopia is just that: a fantasy. Nothing more than a vision, an image, or a fiction written in a book. Richard Howell’s lighting subtly picks up on this, colouring the blueprint outlines of a window, a picture frame and a bookcase when acting out the series of possible utopias. And Jan Urbanowski’s video design gives these everyday objects eyes and mouths as they come to life in Rufus Hound’s amusingly animated trip (during A Deep Breath, words from Aldous Huxley’s Island).

In these short scenes, the cast very quickly reach into the humanity of their characters (particularly Sophie Myles and Pamela Miles), because that’s what this show is about. Utopia exists as a concept because human beings have always strived for more; something echoed in the quotes about utopia from famous figures. The whole ensemble show themselves to be extremely flexible and full of character in this fast-paced production, every individual excelling in their part. Laura Elphinstone injects a bright energy into every scene, and Rufus Hound (best known as a comic on our television screens) couldn’t have found a better show in which to make his stage debut. The Club of the Future (by various writers) showcases what he does best, comedy, but in other scenes he has the conviction of one of the strongest stage presences within this ensemble.

Utopia is a delightful concoction of song, dance, drama and hope. This is a thought-provoking production with its strangely charming imperfections, and executed with great attention to detail by Marmion and Roberts.

Utopia runs at the Soho Theatre until 14 July. For more information and tickets, see the Soho 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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Review: The Pitmen Painters

Posted on 12 July 2011 by Tiffany Stoneman


The Pitmen Paintersis Lee Hall’s stage adaptation of a book by William Feaver, following the Ashington Group of miners who in the 1930s took an Art Appreciation class and became some of the most extraordinary artists of the twentieth Century. This piece, directed by Max Roberts, is subtly Brechtian, with projected scene titles and the cast sitting in the shadows upstage when not part of the action. These help to push through the political message, vocalised throughout the play by Harry Wilson (Michael Hodgson), whilst maintaining the balance of comedy and moving honesty that make this show so successful.

At first appearing dim and straight forward, the character of Jimmy Floyd has an unexpected depth which David Whitaker harnesses with real skill. Having seen the production during its run at the National Theatre, I wondered if Whitaker would be able to capture Floyd in the same way – his balled fists implied a childlike naivety that was only broken during his Act One monologue where, for a brief moment, we see something more to the life of this hardened miner. Whitaker has no trouble with this surprisingly complex part and provides a more innocent dimension to the group.

Trevor Fox plays Oliver Kilbourn, arguably the more central character in the piece. Quiet but powerful, he epitomises the potential of the group and the issues surrounding a life in the mines. Fox was the one I became most emotionally connected with, drawn to his passive demeanour and the sincerity that came through the few lines he spoke each scene. This apparently submissive attitude makes his outbursts all the more poignant as we see how this man has lived for everyone but himself, noticed only by Helen Sutherland (Joy Brook).

All the actors are strong and provide completely different perspectives within the play; Hodgson’s Harry Wilson at times overbearingly political, and Deka Walmsley’s George Brown a comically attentive man who loves his rules. David Leonard takes the part of art tutor Robert Lyon, and he does so with enthusiasm and charm, balanced by Brook in the part of the heiress patron who is both sympathetic and independent.

The set, designed by Gary McCann, is simple but effective in its use of space and light (Douglas Kuhrt) to move the play along without unnecessary stage changes or distractions. The Pitmen Painters has many different sides to it – a political statement about the privileges seldom given to the lower classes, an emotional journey for a group of pitmen seeking something more, and a comical look at pre- and post-war life. It is a play that will have you laughing out loud one moment and thinking deeply about society the next, without feeling tedious or imposing. It’s not just entertainment, it’s something so much more, sharing the lives of a group of men from Northumberland – as Harry Wilson rightly said “the value of art is in the whole”, and this performance brings together all elements to be more than just a story.

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