The Olive Tree/HYENAS!

Jessica Forrest and Olivia Nicholson

The Olive Tree and HYENAS! Produced by Sugar Butties

The King’s Arms

The Olive Tree

Jessica Forrest in The Olive Tree
Image credit: Shay Rowan

Written and Performed by Jessica Forrest

The first of tonight’s double bill from Sugar Butties is The Olive Tree, a one woman show that explores how the loss of loved ones impacts how we value the pivotal moments in life whether big and small. Jessica Forrest takes us straight to Umbria in Italy…el centro del mundo…as she goes straight to the heart of her story of loss and solace. Forrest does bittersweet poignancy and wry humour extremely well. She has a flair for observational comedy and mimicry that makes for great storytelling. She regularly breaks the fourth wall to interact with the audience as she shares fragments of her life and invites us to note a fragment from our own lives on tags to hang on the olive tree. This is done with care and sensitivity; and nothing personal is shared openly during the show.

Forrest paints vivid images of her time in London as a nanny. They veer from the quiet pleasure and anguish of nursing your employer’s sleeping baby while trying to come to terms with an abortion to a wickedly funny parody of a Manhattan socialite describing giving birth. The frustration of a fleeting and unsuccessful sexual escapade with a devout Christian is vividly brought to life…I’m laid by a raging erection protected by St Peter and his fucking pearly gates! Her emotional escape to Italy brings new experiences such as when her friend Hillary makes mischief on what turns out to be a gynaecology appointment at an Italian Co Op. The poetry in the storytelling can be earthy and humorous but also incredibly delicate as she tenderly describes Hillary as a friend who tied purple ribbons around everything in life. The pain of living with grief is perfectly evoked by the thought of wearing another’s hat purchased from a charity shop…perhaps in donning a strangers’ hat we might temporarily have reprieve from our own memories. Forrest closes this accomplished first show by inviting her audience to sprinkle a little glitter on ourselves; perhaps a little of her creative magic dust will have been added to the mix.

HYENAS!

Olivia Nicholson in HYENAS!
Image credit: Shay Rowan

Written and Performed by Olivia Nicholson

HYENAS! is already a 2021 recipient of a Pick Of The Fringe Award at Edinburgh. This one woman show by Olivia Nicholson takes the audience on the hen do from hell in Marbella complete with a Mr and Mrs questionnaire that involves our participation, multiple trashy costume changes and a very unhappy bride. Nicholson a powerhouse performance while performing a range of characters at breakneck speed. Kirsty is the skinny and miserable bride obsessed with Instagram, Lauren is a cackling firecracker oozing backhanded compliments while inhaling cocktails, Sarah is a socially awkward wallflower while posh Tasha is a sexually voracious, emotional vampire.

There is nothing on surface level that is remotely likable about any of these women yet Nicholson manages to give each of them their humanity and a sense of their vulnerability. The bride may be desperately embarking on marriage to a coercive, abusive partner in an attempt to create a family having recently lost her mother. Sarah is a high school teacher on sick leave having just had a dangerously inappropriate meltdown in the classroom, Lauren is a loving mum who is hiding the heartbreak of a broken marriage and Tasha has just lost her best friend to cancer. Each woman is real onstage despite the comic caricatures, they all cover their pain with more than just thick layers of MAC. There is real skill in the writing and the performance as HYENAS! is a whirlwind comic assault that delivers a hefty emotional punch.

The King’s Arms 11th and 12th July 2022

MANCHESTER FRINGE FESTIVAL

A Little Night Music

Sandra Piques Eddy and Quirijn de Lang as Desiree and Fredrik.
Photo by Sharron Wallace

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Directed by James Brining

A Leeds Playhouse and Opera North co-production

Quarry Theatre, Leeds Playhouse

This production of A Little Night Music returns to Leeds Playhouse after successfully opening here last summer. The main changes for 2022 are Sandra Piques Eddy as Desiree Armfeldt and Sam Marston as Henrik Egerman, the removal of social distancing measures and the poignant reality that musical theatre genius Stephen Sondheim is no longer with us. This is a confident partnership between Leeds Playhouse and Opera North which looks and sounds absolutely glorious. This really delivers as a special night out at the theatre which in our current rather grim society is a breathe of fresh air and a much needed tonic for the soul.

The cast of A Little Night Music.
Photo by Sharron Wallace

There is real drama and impact in the sheer simplicity of Madeleine Boyd’s set design. The opening act reveals the full orchestra warming up with Conductor Oliver Rundell while The Quintet start to unpack the set pulling away white sheets as they set up the staging. There’s something particularly exciting about seeing what will appear next and what it may reveal about the production…perhaps akin to post pandemic measures seeing the face behind a mask. For Act 2 at Madame Armfeldt’s chateau there is a vast functioning fountain complete with cherub! The elegant polished parquet floor that surrounds it adds to the sense of a bygone age. Tellingly the floor is peeling and damaged at the edges, poignantly suggestive that this golden age of champagne weekends in the country are coming to an end…aging and decaying alongside the elegant chatelaine of the chateau.

A Little Night Music merges a romantic musical with elements of French farce. Written in triple time to create variety, it also neatly links the multiple triangles of complex love relationships that play out around the three generations of Armfeldt women, and theThe musical opened on Broadway in 1973 and has seen many successful productions in the subsequent almost 50 years. Originally set in Sweden in 1900, director James Brining cleverly moves the action to the 1950s where the restless, career-oriented Desiree looks forward to more opportunities for her and her daughter Fredrika, whereas her elegant mother looks wistfully back to her heyday as a beautiful courtesan desired by Princes and Dukes. What remains unchanged and unchanging is the theme of love… Sondheim’s score makes the heart soar while his incisive, perceptive lyrics get to the core of all the highs and lows of love in its many and complex guises.

Opera North already have a great relationship with musical theatre and in 2016 worked with Leeds Playhouse on a highly successful production of Into The Woods. The full orchestra in place for this production is an added delight as on stage with the actors it both adds to the drama of life on tour for Desiree and life in the luxury of a chateau for Madame Armfeldt, while providing a perfect accompaniment to pitch perfect vocals from the cast.

Unsurprisingly the standout performance is Dame Josephine Bardtow as the grand dame Madame Armfeldt. Her crystal perfect diction, regal bearing and acerbic reflections make for the archetypal matriach. She effortlessly moves into tender and beguiling as she reflects on her early life in Liasons. Her facial expressions even when not centre stage are a study in storytelling and her every move is delicately and precisely nuanced.

Dame Josephine Bardtow as Madame Armfeldt Photo by Sharron Wallace

New to this 2022 production is Sandra Piques Eddy who is a real joy as Desiree. She looks gorgeous enough to merit It Would Have Been Wonderful and exudes Desirees’ playful and  impetuous nature. Her Send In The Clowns is spine pricking in the anguish and regret of a woman realising she may have missed her best chance at love. Quirijn de Lang returns as Fredrik and looks like a quintessential Hollywood  leading man from the 1950s. He has a polished but slightly weary elegance and brings both vanity and vulnerability to a middle aged man caught in a love triangle. He also brings great physical humour and timing to his role as the hapless lawyer. He is simply wonderful in all his big numbers such as Now, It Would Have Been Wonderful and Send In The Clowns.

This production seems perfectly cast throughout with Corinne Cowling as Fredriks’ vacuous and naive young wife and Sam Marston as his brittle and intense only son. Christopher Nairne as Count Carl-Marcus and Amy J Payne as Petra are highly entertaining on stage while Lucy Sherman brings a stillness and serenity that perfectly counterbalances some of the other more dramatic performances. Helen Évora as Countess Charlotte is simply wonderful as the brittle, disillusioned wife who still loves her errant buffoon of a husband. Her rendition of Every Day A Little Death is pitch perfect on every level and utterly unforgettable.

This production really is a pleasure to sit back and just relax in the assured direction of James Brining. Everything about it works smoothly yet nothing feels slick or shallow. Complex and flawed as every character undoubtedly is, there is such care and attention to each performance that its impossible to not leave the theatre on a summer night and feel that just as Madame Armfeldt promised…the night really has smiled.

Quarry Theatre, Leeds Playhouse 6th-16th July 2022

Vice Versa

Dorcas Seb. Image by Robin Clewley

Written, Co-produced and Performed by Dorcas Seb

Directed by Emmy Lahouel

HOME

Wide eyed and smiling earnestly Dorcas Seb dances in a repetitive, slightly robotic style. The audience slowly start to fill 3 sides of the stage and sit while Seb continues to dance. The music shifts subtly as a more electronic hum starts to merge in and create a more ominous tension. The 3D effect set by Dylan Howells is strikingly beautiful with its neon blue and pink lights that flicker and flow across the floor and backdrop like neural pathways in an artificial brain or a strange simulation of the tree of life. By the time Seb actually starts to speak she has already created an absorbing, dystopian vibe that feels trance like and strangely calming.

Vice Versa was originally conceived as an E.P in 2018 but has been crafted into a visually arresting, evocative piece of performance art/gig theatre. Commissioned by Eclipse Theatre and HOME as part of the Slate: Black. Arts. World project in 2018/19, with development support from Unity Theatre and funded by Arts Council England. It is clearly a deeply personal project for Seb which explores the modern digital world and our increasing fixation and reliance on our phones and computer screens as a means of communication. The original ideas behind this piece in 2018 were to become even more sharply prevalent during the pandemic when our spoken words mainly flowed from our fingers and direct eye contact was via a Zoom screen.

Dorcas Seb is a confident and accomplished artist who creates an engrossing audience experience. The production feels genuinely immersive and the seating layout brings the audience so close to Seb it’s as if they too are awaiting induction into this new dystopian world. As a performer she seems to effortlessly move between dance, spoken word, song and some wickedly good characterisations. As she morphs into her Boss and gives a sassy, evangelical spiel to the new recruits, she really brings the character alive. There is a wonderful physicality to her performance and likewise when she sings her voice is rich and pure moving from spoken word to disco to RnB without flaw.

Dorcas Seb in Vice Versa. Image by Robin Clewley

Vice Versa takes us to a world where the Welfare State no longer exists and the Welt-exe state governs our thoughts and actions. Working hard and being a good citizen is rewarded with a  repetitive bliss created by the experiences purchased when codes are currency and real dreams are a thing of the past. The world as perceived by Seb’s alter ego Xella is not exactly unpleasant in its familiarity and routine but her character is increasingly aware of her isolation and lack of human connectivity. 17 hour work days are interspersed with subway journeys, state infomercials and moments of joy when plugged into code REM where Xella momentarily can play Grandma’s Footsteps among the pixilated trees. It is during one of her journeys into artificial REM that the code glitches and her unwavering acceptance of this dystopian reality is challenged. Suddenly there are questions to be answered but no one to answer them…simply a quietly ruthless invitation to reboot or risk being ostracised as a crossed out.

Xella charts her own course and removes her digital collar to suddenly look up at the blue sky and the birds. Her redemptive journey is about connection and being in the moment. For the Crossed outers this may be an evangelical connection with Christ…for others it may be simply about living in the moment and being fully present with ourselves and others. However you choose to express your connectivity in the world Vice Versa is certainly a cautionary tale and we would all be wise to still connect to the digital world but start thinking about how we use it and not how it uses us.

HOME Theatre 1st and 2nd July 2022

Unity Theatre Friday 8th July 2022

THE WHITE CARD

Estella Daniels. Image by Wasi Daniju

Written by Claudia Rankine

Directed by Natalie Ibu

HOME

Claudia Rankine’s first play forensically dissects the debate around white privilege and guilt in a world where collecting  artworks of black deaths is perceived by some as more worthy than taking an unflinching look at why white skin remains invisible. The White Card is a cool, clinical look at themes of art, race, suffering, discrimination and patronage. Written in 2019, it predates the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests and highlights an America that is increasingly racially divided. Rankine places a cultured  black artist at a dinner party with her privileged white hosts and invites her audience to sit back and watch as the conversation implodes.

The White Card. Image by Wasi Daniju

The dinner party from hell includes wealthy, liberal hosts Charles and Virginia, their woke son Alex, their obsequious art broker friend Eric, and Charlotte, a successful black artist who they hope to impress with their patronage. The first half plays out a number of  classic racial faux pas as Virginia mixes up the identity of her guest with another black artist she had previously met and later in the party delivers the ultimate cringe worthy comment. The first half focuses primarily on highly intellectual and rather stiff conversations around American artists such as JeanMichel Basquiat and Robert Longo interspersed with details of numerous, horrific race hate crimes. The dialogue is debate heavy with little action and is undoubtedly interesting, however the degree of detail and the volume of factual information involved makes for a somewhat heavy, rather plodding script. The characters are all very well played by the actors especially Estella Daniels who brings so much nuance to her character Charlotte. The main issue is that the pacing doesn’t quite work and the result is a play with fascinating subject matter that somehow remains quite flat and static. The characters are so elite that they feel largely unrelatable and the core theme of the play about the invisibility of whiteness risks getting greyed out by the equally stark, unspoken visibility of class.

Image by Wasi Daniju

The set design by Debbie Duru looks fabulous and perfectly conveys a sleek, minimalist Manhattan loft apartment. Everything screams whiteness including the male protagonist’s carefully curated art collection despite its content. All the paintings are blank with their subject matter of black suffering conveyed starkly by their titles simply written on white canvases. In the second half the cleverly crafted set reveals Charlotte’s much more personal studio workspace.

It is the second half where the dialogue becomes more richly human rather than cerebral. The energy and drama of the set change accompanied by the thrombing beat of Childish Gambino‘s This is America seem to breathe life and colour into the proceedings. It’s one year on from the disastrous party where Charlotte’s artwork was compared to Charles’ latest acquisition which is a sculptural piece that included the autopsy report for Michael Brown. The artist has profoundly changed her style and is now making work to make the invisible visible instead of photographing renactments of black trauma. When Charles comes to her studio he is bewildered by her shift and is aghast to discover that it is his white skin on display in her latest exhibition. The great white curator has been redacted down to simply become Exhibit C.

This is a genuinely fascinating piece of theatre and definitely provokes dialogue on complex subject matter. The performances are all strong and perfectly pitched especially those of Estella Daniels and Matthew Pidgeon. I really wanted to love this piece but somehow this dissemination of race issues that affect all of us feels too elitist and removed from the everyday conversation we all need to be having if things are to ever truly change.

HOME 18th – 21st May 2022

On tour Leeds Playhouse 24th May – 4th June 2022

Birmingham Rep Theatre 8th – 18th June 2022

Soho Theatre 21st June – 16th July 2022

OH MOTHER

Abbi Greenland ,Helen Goalen and Simone Seales. Image by The Other Richard

Devised by Helen Goalen, Abbi Greenland, Penny Greenland and Simone Seales

Composed by Becky Wilkie and Simone Seales

HOME

Rashdash has been a hive of creativity and productivity in recent years. In the midst of Covid lockdowns they produced shows Don’t Go Back To Sleep about the pandemic and Look At Me Don’t Look At Me about Pre-Raphaelite artist and muse Lizzie Siddall. while also producing several babies. New show Oh Mother was originally in the making pre- pandemic but was delayed due to funding issues, covid and subsequent pregnancies. It seems oddly fitting that when it finally reaches the stage all three core members of Rashdash are now mothers.

Oh Mother is brimming over with ideas and creativity that spills out the like the vivid ball pit balls that litter the opening sequence. Fittingly the stage is initially hidden by a curtain haphazardly erected to screen the audience from the mayhem on stage. There are apologies from Abbi Greenland and Helen Goalen who both appear dressed like Grecian goddesses and whose studied poses exemplify the glorification of Motherhood in classical art. As the curtain falls away the disarray is all too visible. The gleaming, sleek stage is littered with plastic balls, toys and ikea beakers. As they frantically tidy up this unflinching look at motherhood also includes the tidying away of blood soaked maternity pads and disposable birthing sheets. Either side of the stage is a cello played by Simone Seales whose music flows and spikes like hormonal surges and a glossy dishwasher which is the subject of choral hymn. The glittering raised backdrop is a gorgeous light display of the word BABY which is used creatively throughout the show. The set design by Oli Townsend and lighting design by Katharine Williams are really striking and incredibly effective.

Helen Goalen and Abbi Greenland. Image by The Other Richard

The show is structured around sketches and songs and movement that all explore what it is to be a mother and to be mothered and the expectations and assumptions Society makes around what it means to have a vagina and be potentially capable of building another human being. It also explores mothering from the cradle to the grave as dementia means that many of us become mothers to our own mothers when they require the same care they gave us as babies.

Abbi Greenland. Image by The Other Richard

There are poignant moments as Goalen and Greenland reflect on those who don’t have their babies any more or who never got to meet them while recognising the vital importance of saying something rather than being silent on the subject. Goalen grapples with the tension between couples when a new baby redefines her relationship, while Greenland reflects on navigating friendships where one is now a parent and the other is not. Seales who is non binary experiences nightmarish sequences where they are under threat from a mother who has rigid stereotypical views of women and hilariously meets their own vagina in the form of Greenland dressed as a swashbuckling, baby demanding Don Giovanni as Goalen feverishly ejects baby dolls through the vee of the A in BABY. Interspersed are conversations with the unseen Penny Greenland who looked after her own mother Hannah for 7 years. The other performers play her and her mother giving a wonderful flavour of generations of wit, wisdom, joy and despair.

This really does feel like vintage Rashdash (even though I miss Becky Wilkie on stage) with witty acerbic songs on how to make motherhood sexy despite the shit under your nails and underneath your maternity pants being unwashed and unwaxed. There are golden cherubic babies strapped to bosoms, Daddy bear costumes, playful toddler games and desperate pleas to tyrannical babies who have left them feeling like dried out husks. There is undoubted strength as their dance trained bodies are still strong and limber as they move fluidity around the set. There is joy and adoration as these mothers embrace their new roles while still wanting to have the time to fuck around and leave a trail of beautiful men wondering what went wrong. If they can produce work like this with the infamous fevered baby brains then there is no doubt that these clever, witty women are just hitting their stride

Abbi Greenland and Simone Seales. Image by The Other Richard

Oh Mother is rather like a projectile vomit of creative ideas, it is gloriously messy and frantic and for some it may seem too busy with too much crammed into 90 minutes. Personally I loved the energy and passion. It perfectly summed up the cacophony in your head that is early motherhood when your pre-existing neuroses get magnified fifty-fold and you are chronically sleep deprived so fact and fantasy merge. As Greenland and Goalen acknowledge there is a lot going on…but perhaps just like their babies they have birthed something really special.

HOME 12th -28th May 2022

Tobacco Factory Theatres with MAYK Bristol 21 -25th June 2022

Soho Theatre 19th July- 13th August 2022

Between Tiny Cities

Devised and Directed by Nick Power

CONTACT THEATRE

Between Tiny Cities is the creative vision of Australian hip hop dance artist and choreographer Nick Power. He has previously worked with Aboriginal communities, and his other productions have included works such as Two Crews which brought together Sydney’s Riddim Nation and from Paris, all female crew Lady Rocks. This interest in exploring diverse cultures, languages and geography through conversations in dance has culminated in the four year project that is Between Tiny Cities. This production brings together Darwin company D*City Rockers and Tiny Toones from Phnom Penh in Cambodia.

Dancers Erak Mith and Aaron Lim square up to each other in the centre of a circle surrounded by their audience. Will this be a classic hip-hop dance battle, a war of clashing cultures or miscommunication due to language barriers, a fight of masculine prowess or even some form of mating game? Will these two young men find a commonality within this dance space? Being in such close proximity to the performers means the audience get a real sense of connection to the dancers. We see up close the glistening sweat on their bodies and the wary looks that later warm and then become humorous and  collaborative.

At one point the dance moves from street dance styles that are similar filled with young male posturing and impudent intensity to the commonality of two breathlessAt CONTACT Theatre 10th -12th May 2022CONTACT THEATRE 10th-12th May 2022, exhausted performers who simply sit down and share water. This shift in pace cleverly brings the men together as their breathing synchronises. This is also when Erak Mith steps out of the circle to briefly sit in the audience as though to say we are all one…we breathe and we need water to survive…these are universal needs.

Image credit. Prudence Upton

The sound design by Jack Prest and lighting design by Brosco Shaw work perfectly with the choreography as the dancers change pace, explore each others style and learn from each other before merging and forming a new shared style. The spotlight focus on Lim and Mith highlights the differences and the similarities but as the lights warm and mute down towards the closing sequence. There is a dreamy quality as movements become increasingly obscured and finally it is simply two young men inhabiting and sharing the same space. As this piece moves through the rituals of their individual cultural experiences and their shared knowledge of hip hop dance culture, we witness a sharing of journeys and styles leading to a genuine appreciation of each other.

CONTACT THEATRE 10TH-12TH MAY 2022

Frankenstein: How To Make A Monster

BAC Beatbox Academy. Image by Joyce Nicholls

Directed by Conrad Murray and David Cumming

A Battersea Arts Centre and BAC Beatbox Academy Production

CONTACT THEATRE

This is an incredibly innovative and skilful reimagining of a classic. A truly bold and daring reworking that Mary Shelley herself would undoubtedly delight in. This production uses alchemy in a way that Dr Frankenstein could only dream of as the performers use their unique vocal skills to breathe life into their creation. They cleverly deconstruct Frankenstein to reveal the monsters in present day Society, bringing to life the horrors of social media, false news and our shunning of anything unique or outside our understanding.

BAC Beatbox Academy was established by Battersea ArtsCentre with Conrad Murray as Artistic Director. Working with 11-29 year olds this is an incredibly inclusive art form that requires only the power and ingenuity of the human voice. There is no need for expensive music lessons or a requirement to buy or hire musical instruments so this is genuinely accessible to all regardless of class or wealth. This vigorous approach to accessibility is obvious throughout the show as the audience is encouraged to take photos and video extracts if they wish. The performance is relaxed and Special K (Kate Donnachie) involves the audience in the classic beatbox Call and Response having taught us the basics Boom Tee Cla. Later in the performance which melds gig theatre with traditional storytelling, the audience are part of an electrifying rave as everyone is up on their feet and dancing.

The ensemble include BAC Beatbox Academy stalwart GLITCH (Nadine Rose Johnson), Beatbox UK champion ADH (Alex Belgarion Hackett) and relative Beatbox newcomer AZIZA (Aziza Amina Brown). Every performance style is unique and relative to each performer but they are melded together with fluidity and sensitivity. Co-Directors Murray and Cumming ensure that everyone gets to shine while ensuring the piece is cohesive and powerfully choreographed. The cohesion of sounds of birds, traffic and the cacophony of social media chatter are woven into rap and  snippets of tracks that help drive the narrative. They move effortlessly between Pachelbel’s Canon, Firestarter by The Prodigy Cardi B‘s WAP, and their own fearsome CLICK CLACK when they literally turn a spotlight on an audience often validated by their own shares and likes.

The message is clear, we are all better together as opposed to when feeling connected is more important than being connected. BAC Beatbox Academy did a highly effective job of connecting their audience to their message…I think we all left feeling more connected and much the better for it!

CONTACT THEATRE 10TH-14TH MAY 2022

BAC Beatbox Academy Battersea Arts Centre

Together Again, Again

Created and performed by Jinkx Monsoon and Major Scales

It’s 2022 and the newly refurbished CONTACT THEATRE is open again, the space is packed as audiences return to theatres as we slowly emerge from a global pandemic…all is well…or is it? Apparently its actually 2065 and the world is ruled by reptiles and many of the stars of Rupauls Drag Race are long since dead, as is Lady Gaga. Thankfully we are still here and so is the live cabaret…enter faded movie star and chanteuse Jinkx Monsoon reunited with her pianist and lyricist Major Scales after 45 long, hard years.

Major Scales is balding and bitter but still stylish like a snide merging of Noel Coward with Karl Lagerfeld. Winner of Rupaul’s Drag Race Season 5 is the indefatigable Jinkx Monsoon who now looks like a cross between retired club singer Rita Sullivan and the infamous Norma Desmond. This mighty drag queen has undoubtedly seen better days as she shuffles arthritically across the stage with all the style of an OAP in sequins and an ill fitting Tena lady pad. This doesn’t bode well but as the show gets going one thing is resoundingly clear; the body may decay, the mind may glitch but the indomitable spirit of a great drag queen will remain. This musical duo may have had a 45 year hiatus and a whole other lifetime of festering resentments yet the old magic remains.

Belting through blistering asides, heckling the audience and occasionally “forgetting” where she is in a song…Monsoon still has the voice and Scales is the perfect foil and accompanist. This really is a joyous and raucous night out. The jokes come thick and fast, the onstage arguments are like the Burton and Taylor of the cabaret world, and the choreography perfectly captures an elderly superstar still living her best life on stage. The songs feature some great twists on classics and very funny but also allow Monsoon to deliver some brilliant vocal performances.

Together Again, Again is a delightful celebration of raw talent, sheer determination and the ruthless meeting of vanity and the aging process. The 45 year hiatus for this creative duo is a wickedly funny but sobering reminder of what the pandemic did to performers across the world when theatres had to close their doors to live audiences.

CONTACT 7-8th May 2022

UK Tour dates 2022

ELECTRIC ROSARY

Written by Tim Foley

Directed by Jaz Woodcock-Stewart

Royal Exchange Theatre

At the 2017 Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting I was both bemused and intrigued by the prospect of a play that brought nuns and robots on to a theatre stage together. Tim Foley won a Judge’s Award for Electric Rosary and it was a genuinely exciting prospect to see if his theatrical vision could ever be effectively realised. Fast forward to 2022 and despite scheduling delays due to the pandemic the time finally arrived to unpack Mary the council-funded robot nun and deliver her to the shabby, crumbling convent of St Grace.

Times are hard and nuns are in short supply in this grim, futuristic world. Foley cleverly just alludes to this world outside the convent walls where climate change makes for ever muddy fields farmed by robots under threat of attack from dissatisfied Luddites. Jez WoodcockStewart invites the audience into the convent to simply imagine this bleak world outside the confines of convent life. It is grim enough inside where the nuns have little to look forward to in this life except extra biscuits and sweet buns if one of their sisters dies, and the dwindling hope of affording a trip to visit their twin convent in Ecuador.

Designer Charlotte Espiner opts for a beautiful inlaid wooden floor made for years of mopping and polishing. There are random boxes of overspill relics alongside the obligatory tea trolleys, candles and a beatific crucified Jesus. The staging of the closing scenes provide an uplifting miracle as cascading rainbows are born of the eventual use of the chains that rise up from floor to ceiling in the second act. They initially suggested the wild possibility in this eclectic play that the trip to Ecuador might yet be funded through the creation of an S&M dungeon club staffed by robot nuns!

The Royal Exchange is the perfect setting for this new play. It is home to The Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting which champions new works and supports new writers. A play that introduces robots as our future into an out of date convent immersed in the rituals and relics of the past. A play performed in a space age like theatre that breathed new light into a defunct old building that had once been a thriving cathedral to commerce that had once birthed both Luddites and Cottonopolis.

The simple setting is a very fitting backdrop for  this production which is filled with strong, vivid performances from all the actors. Foley writes these women in a very authentic way and avoids them simply becoming comedic caricatures to simply deliver the humour and provide contrast to robot Mary. Jo Mousley is doggedly determined as Acting Mother Sister Elizabeth as her ambitious streak squares up to the gritty and world weary Sister Constance. Owen May is marvellous as the older nun with a secret pain that makes a possible miracle in Ecuador even more poignant. She exudes gritty common sense and is a mistress of the pithy one liner. The other nuns provide additional shades of dark and light with a mischievously comedic turn by Saroja-Lily Ratnavel as the boxfresh, ingénue postulant Sister Theresa while Suzette Llewellyn brings complexity to Sister Philippa with her complusive need for faith and duty to sooth her troubled mind.

The standout performance is however Breffni Holahan as Mary, the newly arrived robot nun. She is eerily believable with her bird like movements and watchful stare, you can literally see the cogs of machine intelligence as she absorbs and assimilates her environment and new companions while she calmly mops like a smiling maniac. Her journey from her council funded programming through to her emerging belief that she is indeed a conduit for miracles is genuinely moving.

It’s delightfully bonkers veering through a kaleidoscope of ideas and concepts like a night at Eurovision. At times it feels like a rollicking good farce with almost a 70s sitcom feel before moving towards more sinister sci-fi themes and sideways to a detective drama or Grand Inquisition as Sister Elizabeth seeks to discover who nobbled her election as Mother Superior. Electric Rosary questions our faith and our humanity in a fast changing world and seeks to explore the nature of miracles whether we place our hopes in the religious or the secular. Electric Rosary is a play that simply shouldn’t really work and yet miraculously it really does hit its mark on so many levels.

The Royal Exchange 23rd April – 14th May 2022

The Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting

The House with Chicken Legs

The House with Chicken Legs
Rah Pelherbridge

Written by Sophie Anderson

Adapted by Oliver Lansley

Directed by Oliver Lansley and James Seager

Co-production HOME and Les Enfants Terribles

HOME excels at being a welcoming venue for vibrant, colourful and riotous productions such as the Emma Rice’s Wise Children and The Tiger Lillies Corrido de la Sangre. This brand new collaboration with Les Enfants Terribles is no exception. This lively adaptation of the hugely successful children’s book by Sophie Anderson is brimming with energetic performances, Eastern European folklore, music, puppetry and animation. Its easy to see why The House with Chicken Legs  was such a great choice to showcase the very varied talents of Les Enfants Terrible as they celebrate 20 years as a successful company.

The House with Chicken Legs tells a tale steeped in Eastern European folklore as the audience are invited into the netherworld of this house of bones which is home to Baba Yaga and her granddaughter Marinka. They play host to nightly parties for the dead before guiding souls through the gate to the afterlife and safely on their journey back to the stars. Baba Yaga relishes her role as gatekeeper unlike 12 year old Marinka who wistfully dreams of a life among the living. The fantastical house moves often and careers around the world on its chicken legs so Marinka is quite literally a displaced child. Although in development from before the pandemic this story is particularly relevant in our current political times. The folk music and the rustic borscht and kvass that nourish the living and the dead have much of their roots in Ukraine. Witnessing Marinka in this house that literally moves without warning is a potent reflection on what it is to be a refugee child who has witnessed death all around her.

Eve de Leon Allen as Marinka
Andrew AB Photography

This production is brimming over with passion and energy. Like the house itself it moves constantly between quiet, beautiful moments of reflective song or charming storytelling through puppets crafted from wood and bones through to riotous parties for the dead and dreamy, kaleidoscopic animation sequences. The house is sometimes homespun cosy for Baba Yaga or jazzy and sassy for the Yaga Tatiana in New Orleans while in other instances it literally grows legs to be on the move. Intimate moments with ingenue Marinka can be replaced by big song numbers with the whole cast resplendent in Yaga house costumes from across the world that lead to bizarre sequences that feel like you are suddenly watching some bonkers Eastern European entry for Eurovision!!

Pérola Conga as Baba Tatiana
Andrew AB Photography

There is enough content here to have something for everyone. The set design by Jasmine Swan is suitably fantastical and glorious, as is the lighting design and fabulous costumes. The musicians are multi talented and a pleasure to listen to. The performances are strong and well fleshed out. Eve de Leon Allen is perfectly cast as Marinka and has a beautiful tone to their singing voice. Lisa Howard and Pérola Conga excel as Baba Yaga and Baba Tatiana, with the latter giving a real powerhouse performance as a sexy, sultry ancient Yaga full of wisdom and panache. Matthew Burns brings magic with a simple puppet and a glistening fan that brings Jackdaw to life for both adults and children. There really is a lot to enjoy and admire in this production however there are points where the pace gets bogged down in repetitive narrative and this clever show loses its tautness. The result is overly long and coming in at just under 3 hours with the interval may be more than some younger kids will comfortably appreciate.

The House with Chicken Legs
Andrew AB Photography

The House with Chicken Legs has definitely got big enough Legs to take itself out on tour. This is a production that celebrates being different and has a strong message of inclusion. It is both magical and macabre but with enough heart at its core to tell us about death and loss in a way that may bring comfort and reassurance to children and adults alike as we navigate our own stories of what it is to live our lives and mourn our dead.

HOME 29th March – 23rd April 2022

The House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson

Les Enfants Terribles