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Review: Pests, Royal Court Theatre

Posted on 05 April 2014 by Lee Anderson

Pests

As the lights go up on Pests, you may be forgiven for believing you had accidentally stumbled into a time warp. Developed in collaboration with Clean Break, this intense two-hander from Vivienne Franzmann (Mogadishu, The Witness) resembles the kind of short, sharp shock of a play that was the raison d’être of new writing more than a decade ago. The fact that it has been directed by Lucy Morrison, who has previously worked with Mark Ravenhill and Sarah Kane, probably has something to do with this. This isn’t to suggest Pests is old-fashioned per se, since the subjects it sets out to dramatise – drug abuse, sexual violence and social deprivation – have hardly faded with the end of the nineties. And yet there is something peculiarly anachronistic at work in this play’s predetermined desire to wear us down and shock its audience into submission.

Pink (Sinead Matthews) and Rolly (Ellie Kendrick) are sisters and both the victims of abusive parents. When a pregnant Rolly returns from prison to her sister’s ‘nest’, Pink must fulfil the role of hunter-gatherer and protect her little sister. However, when Rolly decides to fly the coop for a job as a cleaner, the balance of power shifts and Pink begins to exercise increasing control over her sister.

Matthews commands the stage as the cunning older sister, striking a combative pose as she attacks the “aspirational” TV culture of the middle-classes (“wiv dere Pret-a-Mange free-rangey baguettes an’ flatish whites”), and her social critiques gain a barbed relevance amongst the Sloane Rangers decking out the auditorium. Rolly is a delicate balance of warmth and vulnerability, with Kendrick conveying a wide-eyed, fractured innocence as we witness her descent into full-blown addiction and emotional dependency. 

Rolly and Pink refer to their makeshift digs as a “nest”, and Joanna Scotcher magnifies this impression through her design. An enormous mound of detritus, including filthy mattresses and moth-balled duvets, are piled high and enclosed by a network of steel pipes. Above, a single strip-light fizzes into life, bathing the space in a cold, electric glow. We’re somewhere in London, but the precise location is never specified and this only adds to the sense of dislocation. Meanwhile, Kim Beveridge’s video design neatly captures Pink’s deteriorating mental state through a series of hallucinations and the overarching sense of menace is topped off by Emma Laxton’s churning, industrial soundscape.

However, Pests‘s most distinguishing quality resides in Franzmann’s mastery of language. Rolly and Pink speak through a mixture of cockney phrases, Jamaican patois and childish gobbledegook. This bracing concoction of registers creates a world unto itself. The sisters occupy a sealed-off realm in which an escape into language offers temporary respite from the hostile reality of their lives outside. Comparisons to Philip Ridley are inevitable, but the density of Franzmann’s wordplay reminds me more of reading Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. The experience of deciphering this language through a process of osmosis has a similarly heady effect in theatrical terms.

Unfortunately, what begins as an electric shock to the nervous system is reduced to the dramatic equivalent of being bludgeoned over the head with a blunt object, particularly in Franzmann and Morrison’s attempts to ratchet up the intensity by breaking up the action into a series of smaller, more violent episodes by the play’s second half. Ultimately, Pests is a difficult play to love, but I don’t really think it wants to be loved. That’s not why it exists in the first place. Instead, it seizes you by the throat, gets a stranglehold, and punishes you in a language that is wholly its own.

Pests is playing at the Royal Court theatre until 3 May. For more information and tickets, see the Royal Court Theatre website.

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Review: Away From Home, Jermyn Street Theatre

Posted on 16 March 2014 by Daniel Harrison

Equality within football is in a sorry state. The ‘Kick Racism Out of Football’ campaign deserves plaudits for its work in dragging the game out of its shameful escapades in the 70s and 80s, but the words ‘fag’, ‘poof’ and ‘bender’ are still commonplace on the terraces, aimed at a ref making a controversial decision, or a rival player appealing for a penalty. Thomas Hitzlsperger’s recent ‘coming out’ is undoubtedly a positive step, albeit a step taken after Hitzlsperger had hung up his boots. It’s all very saddening.

It is surely time, then, for theatre to explore this issue, as seen in the Royal Court’s The Pass, and Rob Ward’s one-man piece Away From Home, on tour and currently playing at the Jermyn Street Theatre, tucked away just round the corner from Piccadilly Circus.

In his programme notes, Ward gives mention to his gay and football-passionate identity, and how he has struggled to marry the two in what can be a suffocatingly homophobic environment. I know exactly what he is talking about, as people are often surprised by my interest in football, seeing it as being at odds with a career in theatre. This is the problem in a nutshell: perhaps both worlds are reluctant to embrace each other, preferring the safer option of mocking and deriding the other instead.

I suppose a way to counter this is more theatre about football. But just perhaps not Away From Home, because despite the piece’s many merits – its heart and message of tolerance, the warm and charismatic performance that Ward provides – it just feels like a bit of a pre-season friendly, with nothing really at stake: one of those games that you could probably knock off early from as to avoid the final-whistle rush to the tube.

Ward plays Kyle, who is football-mad. His friends in the pub know that he is gay (a surprisingly positive addition to the plot), but they don’t know he’s a male escort. And that one of his clients is a top premiership footballer recently signed to their arch rivals (Ward and co-writer Martin Jameson don’t mention any teams specifically – why is this?). We meet Kyle’s parents: the well-meaning and pained mother and his gruff and icy father, one of those dads who seem to think that being gay may just be an awkward phase. Kyle’s relationship with Player X is as under-the-radar as possible, with secret encounters in hotel rooms and long car rides, while Player X maintains a public façade with a string of It-Girls. What we are delivered is a message that unless things change, gay footballers will never be able to sustain a long-lasting and meaningful relationship. This is a brutal fact. So why doesn’t it come across as punchy as it could be?

The ending is powerful enough. There’s a popular swipe against FIFA for their lack of action on the issue, Russia and Qatar hosting the next World Cups “is a middle finger to equality” and ultimately Player X is closeted because “he doesn’t have the balls to stand up to that kind of shit.” Perhaps the focus of the play should be the player, and perhaps Ward should play him instead. I for one would have found that more interesting.

Away From Home is playing at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 28 March. For more information and tickets, see the Jermyn Street Theatre website.

Daniel Harrison

Daniel Harrison

A graduate of Theatre Studies, Daniel has worked in a number of different areas within theatre, most recently cutting his teeth with the Communications team at BAC. He is currently Project Assistant for the Young Vic's upcoming Schools Theatre Festival, and is a champion of the power of theatre as a force for good within society.

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Feature: Straight from the director’s mouth – 27 mins with Gbolahan Obisasan

Posted on 08 March 2014 by Rachel St John

Jackie Sibblies Drury’s cleverly titled play We are proud to present a presentation about the Herero of Namibia, formerly known as South-West Africa, from the German SudWest Afrika, between the years 1884 and 1915, took the US by storm, becoming part of a growing trend of exploring Africa, its past and its culture. The show has now been brought to London’s Bush Theatre, where actor turned writer/director Gbolahan Obisesan is taking charge of the show.

“I actually found out about the show whilst researching another play,” Obisesan says. “I had been receiving newsletters from Jackie’s agent and I saw the name of the play in one of them and found it intriguing. I eventually read the play and was moved; it was funny, challenging but very tragic.”

Drury’s play is about six young actors in their 20s, three black and three white, who are doing a presentation about the first genocide of the twentieth century. With themes such as race, identity, belonging and culture within the performance, it’s no wonder Obisesan jumped at the chance to get involved. Not many plays bring up the eye-opening reality of such a historic tragedy in a modern day context.

“I really wanted to put the play in front of a British audience and see how they’d respond to it,” Obisesan continues. “In the same way that Jackie Drury intended to engage the audience in the script, I wished to do the same with the production over here – making it poignant and relevant to the audience on a high level. I was excited to get into the rehearsal process with the actors, unlocking and unpicking the play so that it would work theatrically. The play explores an obscure historical event that deals with a lot of issues which the well-intended characters deal with. They become challenged, battered and broken on the legacy of what happened as they look into their human sense of identity.”

Obisesan, a London-based director, originally started out as a member of the National Youth Theatre wanting to be an actor. I asked how he transitioned into writing and directing so successfully. The National Youth theatre started up a programme called Short Nights where it challenged members to write a play. As a result, Obisesan wrote his first play, Roadside, about a young man dealing with addiction and mental illness. “People responded positively to it and I also directed it. It was then I wanted to learn more about what I could offer actors, but I also had more stories within me that I wanted to explore and share through the medium of theatre.” From there, he began looking for outlets to further explore this creative side – and became part of the Soho and Royal Court writers’ groups whilst undertaking an introduction to directing course at the Young Vic. “I was keen to find out which I felt a stronger pull towards without limiting my potential by focusing on just one.”

Which does he prefer, I wonder? Cue another chuckle: “In a way, I think they go hand in hand. Part of my motivation is to remain visible and to not feel limited. I’ve been lucky enough for people to acknowledge me as a writer and a director. As a director, you need to communicate the play to actors and decipher the message. With writing, it’s about sculpting characters, the narrative, and elements of the drama and its structure which may be helpful for the director. So to me, both are valued and they feed off one another. If a writing job comes up, I’ll take it. If a directing job comes up and it’s a play I really want to do I’ll probably take it as well.” He went on to describe himself as a “hired gun”, going where the money is. “You don’t want to be struggling or on benefits and there’s an integrity about making a living whilst having freedom, so the balance of writing and directing for me depends on where the work is coming from.”

Although he had a busy press day ahead, I took time to ask what advice he would offer to directors and theatre makers who are just starting out: “One of the biggest challenges for directors starting out is breaking into the industry, so just jump in with both feet and immerse yourself, rather than half exploring it. Take every opportunity you can and ensure that you’re being creatively challenged whilst learning about the things you’re lacking. If you have a sense of what you want to achieve and where you want to go, you’re more likely to find yourself gaining momentum and not stagnating.” Because from there, he continued, you can find opportunities to match your dreams.

All this is easier if you live in or close to London – but what if you don’t? “Remain visible,” he advises. “Get involved with your local theatre the best way you can – even if it means writing a letter with regards to what you’re interested in. They might be able to lead you in the right direction or support you by making the theatre more open to you. When it comes to being taken seriously, how you present yourself on a professional level is very important. So make adjustments if you need to. It could be your sense of style, how you communicate or your attitude in how you relate to things. As long as you can present strong ideas and back them up there’s no reason they won’t take you seriously.”

We are proud to present a presentation about the Herero of Namibia, formerly known as South-West Africa, from the German SudWest Afrika, between the years 1884 and 1915 is at the Bush Theatre until 12 April. For more information and tickets, visit the Bush’s website

 

Rachel St John

Rachel St John

Rachel is an aspiring playwright and theatre enthusiast who graduated from Kingston University in 2012. She currently works as a freelance writer and part-time babysitter, and is a regular volunteer at the New Theatre Royal in Portsmouth.

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Feature: Michaela Coel – a powerhouse

Posted on 07 March 2014 by Lisa Carroll

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Playwright, actress, singer and poet, Michaela Coel is a busy woman, I learn, as I manage to grab a few minutes with her on a two-show day: she’s currently performing in Blurred Lines at the National Theatre Shed, while simultaneously preparing for her upcoming solo show, Chewing Gum Dreams, which will play the same venue in March. “I’m a Jack of all trades,” she jokes, “but average at all of them.” Her modesty only adds to her list of enviable qualities and talents. And indeed, the longer we chat, I soon see that her comment couldn’t be further from the truth: Coel really is a powerhouse.

Coel only graduated from Guildhall in 2012 but in her time since has had some formidable achievements. Believing that “unless you’re very, very lucky, there aren’t enough opportunities being blown in your face. You just have to get up and do it yourself – you have to,” she decided to develop a short solo piece she’d written while at Guildhall, which formed the basis of Chewing Gum Dreams. Following persistent phone calls to Jay Miller, Artistic Director of The Yard Theatre, Hackney, he agreed to put the play on and Coel set to work; “I designed the flyers, I designed the set, I built the set, I produced the show and was standing on the street handing out flyers. It was on for four days and every night was sold out.” Now the play has been published, she is on commission with the Bush Theatre and has projects coming up with the Almeida and the Royal Court, on top of which, the show opens at the Shed in March. Talk about being proactive, or as she humbly describes it, “just working hard and trying to put stuff out there”.

The play draws inspiration from Coel’s own school days in the early noughties, (“it’s literally like a tribute to Craig David,” she tells me) and it explores the tipping point between innocence and adulthood – that moment where “suddenly life isn’t full of laughter and it’s not easy anymore – you start to realise there’s a life that I’m going to come to know which includes a bit of hardship, which includes struggle”. While some people realise this young, she goes on, others hit might hit that point at 40 – but when it comes down to it the play is for “anyone who went to school, basically,” with audiences from their early teens to their sixties responding incredibly positively to its original run at The Yard, with Coel hopeful for more of the same when it opens at the Shed.

With Chewing Gum Dreams being set in an all-girls school and exploring relationships, early sexual experiences and violence, Coel agrees that writing from a female perspective does inevitably inform the tone of her work: “I think naturally being a woman I find it quite hard to escape writing something that did have women’s issues. I think it’s impossible.” That said, it was her role in Blurred Lines which really opened her eyes to gender issues; “it has sort of changed my life in that sense,” she tells me, “I don’t think I even realised that I was particularly a girl until I did Blurred Lines.” Working with Director Carrie Cracknell and Playwright Nick Payne in devising Blurred Lines gave Coel the chance not only to examine those issues but also to contribute to the debate, as Payne was keen to include some of Coel’s own poetry in the play.

Nonetheless, Coel is the first to admit that she struggled a bit when rehearsing Blurred Lines, as she began to wonder if she was right to prioritise gender over other issues such as class or race: “I’ll be honest, I started thinking there’s so many other things going on in the world – there are worse things going on in the world– I’d just be like – I’m a bit busy being black at the moment.” In hindsight, however, Coel has come to believe that “if something is wrong, then no matter the scale of the wrongness it should be addressed”. And, though it also touches on ‘women’s issues’, Coel tells me that class is much more central to Chewing Gum Dreams, with the play taking a look at the young people who populated her school and whose voice she feels is not so often heard on the stage or beyond.

As a result, with her future work, Coel is keen to keep telling unheard stories and examining life from different perspectives: “I rarely see an Indian girl or a Bangladeshi girl in a play that isn’t about India or Bamgladesh – you never see that girl in the theatre. I love the idea of just writing Sunita,” she explains. “I feel like I do have a voice that I don’t hear – I think everybody has a voice that they don’t hear, though – and it’s about expressing that voice in whatever way you can.” And doubtless, with so many opportunities coming her way thanks to the her hard work on Chewing Gum Dreams, it seems certain we’ll be hearing more of Coel’s voice soon.

Chewing Gum Dreams is at The Shed at the National Theatre from 17 March to 5 April. For more information and tickets, visit the NT’s 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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