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A message from Theatre Punk:

As promised, here is the first review from the only darn professional on this blog! James works primarily in film journalism, but has been torn from his comfortable press screening room into the world of theatre. Keep an eye out for his reviews on here which, no doubt, will be much more insightful than anything we could write!

Over to you James…

24/08/11

Let’s get this out of the way- I am not a ‘theatre guy’. I have been to, and enjoyed, lots of productions in my time, but cannot profess the same passion for this world as others who have written on this site. However, this seems somewhat appropriate, as “Batman Live” is not your traditional type of theatre. For starters, it’s an ‘arena tour’, then there’s the multi-million pound budget, the ‘unprecedented’ (the publicity department’s words, not mine) scale… basically, this is to fringe theatre what a U2 concert is to a gig in the back of a pub.

Two reservations remained, however, as I approached the familiar dome- how will the O2 handle a theatrical production? Even if it is more of a stunt show than a play, can it hold the attention of 20,000 (most of which, no doubt, will be sugar-filled youngsters)? Secondly, the ever-present concern of whether the production will ‘get’ Batman. The world of Gotham is easy to get wrong (exhibit A- 1997’s “Batman & Robin” film), and lest we forget over in Broadway the infamous “Spider-man: Turn Off The Dark” debacle, so how will they balance the dark world of Batman whilst still keeping it family friendly?

The first thing that struck me as we waited for the gates to open was the diverse array of people in the crowd- obviously, the throng of under-10’s charging around in masks and capes, but also groups of teens, young couples, thirty-somethings, businessmen… I even saw a couple that must have been in their seventies eagerly clutching a programme. The appeal of The Dark Knight is clearly wide-reaching, or at least that was the impression before I entered… and found half of an arena. The upper half of the O2’s seating was ‘blacked out’ with curtains, leaving what I assume is just a little over half of the seats available. The website implies this is planned, as they state the show is designed for crowds of 4,000-10,000, however it did give a strange sense of intimacy to a usually vibrant arena.

First impressions of the production however, were mind-blowing. The stage was Gotham, a roughly Manhattan-shaped island with buildings, skyscrapers and at its rear a giant bat-shaped screen which would provide the background. The real marvel was to come when the show opened, and revealed the stage to be a technological marvel- buildings sunk into the stage or revolved, so the combination of this and the screen (which also opened up to accommodate bigger props) could make this stage anything they wanted it to be.

The show begins with a brief origin story of Bruce Wayne’s parents, and how revenge drove him to become Gotham’s savour- Batman. We are then transported- and I mean transported- to Gotham’s circus, complete with streamers, ‘horses’, jugglers and a trapeze show. We are then thrust into the origin story of Dick Grayson, whose parents are killed at the hands of an unknown assailant, and is put in the care of Bruce. The pair conflict with each other as Bruce struggles to keep his identity as Batman a secret, and prevent Dick from trying to seek out revenge. The murder turns out to be a plot by the evil joker, who takes over the circus and hatches a plan to destroy the Caped Crusader, using the future Boy Wonder as bait. Aiding him in this is the full rogue’s gallery, including .

The show is a wonder to look at. Every penny of the bloated budget is there on the stage, with the aesthetics genuinely feeling like a circus, Wayne Manor, Arkham Asylum, and many more locations. We are also treated to spectacular dancing, acrobatics, and props that would make any West End show green with envy- hot air balloons, a giant Joker head, and of course the impressive Batmobile (a modified Formula 1 car). The first act is perhaps less impressive, owing no doubt to the fact that it is trying to appeal to everyone. This act is full of backstory, and that makes for a somewhat slow pace (albeit with the welcome distraction of some wonderful acrobatics). The general tone is a little pulpy, somewhat like a Dick Tracy serial, which will not please fans of the darker Christopher Nolan interpretation (although, to be fair, that would be a tough sell to a crowd of families).

 Perhaps the scene that sums up the production’s issues is Batman’s rooftop fight with Catwoman, which is an exercise in ambition versus practicality. The way it is done feels jarring and unclear, with the scale making for a confusing set piece. Basically, it looks great but doesn’t really get you anywhere. The second half is far more entertaining, thanks almost entirely to the presence of The Joker- played by a wonderfully maniacal Mark Frost. Equal parts humorous and menacing, it’s the stand-out performance of the night. We are then treated to what we came for- fights, explosions, big props, and a frankly terrifying climactic scene (complete with hanging corpses) in Arkham Asylum.

Overall, this is a crowd pleaser, a fun family night out that tries to give everyone something to be excited about (there are darker moments that will no doubt please fans of the comics), but really is a big bucket-load of Hollywood glitter thrown in your face. A cross between a west end show and the ‘live spectaculars’ that you might find in a theme park, there’s very few that won’t find this hugely entertaining, and children will be absolutely entranced.

Length: Approx. 2 hours inc. interval (Act one: 50 mins; Act two: 45 Mins).

Programme Price: £15. (capes and masks sold separately!).

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 Shakespeare For Breakfast

 Shakespeare for Breakfast

Shakespeare For Breakfast has become a staple of my Fringe experience; putting aside the free coffee and croissant you get with your ticket, the show is really just a great way to wake yourself up if you’re feeling a bit show-fatigued. This year’s production is Macbeth, but filtered through some High School movie clichés, and, as always, it’s fast-paced, funny and rather well written.

At Castle High School, Duncan is head boy and favourite of the overbearing and glory-hunting PE teacher, Mr Macduff. Meanwhile Macbeth (Joseph Morpurgo) is visited by three Goths, one of whom is hilariously portrayed a glove puppet, who predict his rise to be head of Cawdor House and ultimately head boy. When his ambitious cheerleader girlfriend, Beth, (Felicity Russell) hears of this, she schemes to embarrass Duncan and install Macbeth as head boy.

This year’s production is much better than it has been in previous years, and i really enjoyed previous years!  The writing is slick and treads that line between traditional and more topical jokes really well – the acting is also well above the normal standard. Tomas Wolstenholme is just outstanding as Mr Macduff, and his comic timing worthy of a much much larger audience. The rest of the cast are great too, though perhaps outshone slightly by Wolstenholme’s performance.

This is essentially a Fringe panto. There is audience participation, jokes about the tiny cast, a musical number, and a few blue jokes thrown in for good measure. It’s probably not going to win awards, it may not be innovative and life changing, but it’s incredibly good fun, and will set you in good stead for a day of Fringe fun. Highly recommended. 

Little Matter

 The River People: Little Matter

I feel this review needs some explanation. When I stepped into the tiny theatre set around a beautiful wagon, I first registered the delightful folk music filling the space, then I inhaled and my heart sank. The River People had, I suppose in an attempt to engage all senses, filled the air with inscense. Unfortunately for me, I am violently allergic to inscence and air fresheners, so was immediately dreading the following hour. I understand that not everyone had this problem, but I was immediately put off. I noticed quite a lot of other people coughing too – and spotted one mother subtly trying to give her son his inhaler in the middle of the show. Perhaps a sign or something similar outside the tent would help to warn people?

Anyway, I was understandably a little distracted during the performance as my arms broke out in hives and my eyes started streaming, but I struggled on as, despite my whinging, I really am a big fan of The River People.

Tucked away in a car park off Chambers Street, The River People present their usual blend of puppetry, music and storytelling, telling the story of a young man who feels he has not reached his full potential, wrapping this tale in magic and myth.

There are echoes of their previous production Lilly Through The Dark here as The River People once again examine the light and dark in all of us. However, where Lilly was driven by a fantastic story, Little Matter lacks this. The music, atmosphere and tehcnical skill are all there, but the story is not. The narrative is muddled and often appeared incomplete. What started as a tale of a man who did not live up to his potential became a confusing and convoluted trip into the subconscious; encountering potential children and dark characters along the way. And then, seemingly from nowhere, the whole thing was blamed upon an absent parent. I really wanted to like this, The River People are one of my favourite companies at the moment and they have bags of potential, but this one just doesn’t match up to the very high bar they have previously set.

Saying that there were some lovely moments of storytelling and puppetry, most notable the ogre of a boss with glowing green eyes. The music was also beautifully executed, and the design was great (though the lighting a little low for intricate puppetry). All four actors were brilliant actor/musicians, and there is something incredibly endearing about seeing such talented people appear so humble.

I am confident that with some polishing this show could be just as great as their previous productions. I wonder if the wagon signals a swing towards rural touring, because The River People would no doubt bring a lot of joy to smaller communities. 

Street Dreams

 Street Dreams

It appears I am on something of a puppetry binge this Festival. Street Dreams was the only time flyering actually worked on me, as it was handed to me while I was queueing for Swamp Juice, and as I had a gap I thought I’d give it a go. This is puppetry at its simple and glorious best.

The story is a simple one. A little hobo tries desperately to read his book in peace, but is distracted by his rubbish dump companions. Because of this, he decides to emigrate to the grassy land he spotted just a short umbrella ride away. When there, he realises that home really is where the heart is, and travels back to be with his old friends.

A silent and simple puppet show, Little Cauliflower use bits of scrap and things from the rubbish bin to create a rich and engaging world. The birds are made from carrier bags, his rubbish dump friends a rubber glove and old banana skins. It’s lovely to see the young company breathe life into these ordinary objects.

The main puppet, that of the hobo, could perhaps be a little more expressive – his movements weren’t immediately clear, and took some guesswork to figure out his intent, but you were willing to make that effort, as the company had instilled in this little puppet a warm and child-like personality.

I am unaware of Little Cauliflower’s work until now, but this show shows some promise. The music and puppetry is delicate, if not totally accomplished, and the story is really quite touching.  It’s a very sweet play, and I’m sure this would be particularly great for children, though may not have the universal appeal I have seen in other puppet shows.

And The Birds Fell From the Sky

 

Sitting in a darkened and dirty waiting room, watching a broken TV relaying newsreels of a freak occurrence in America, I wondered what I had let myself in for. I had no idea what Birds Fell was when I bough the ticket, but, like most things at the Fringe, a friend had recommended it, so I had to give it a go.

Performed every 15 minutes for only 2 people, its worth seeing this piece if only for the technological innovation involved. The show takes place on some video goggles, while you and your companion are drawn, both physically and mentally into this world taking place before your eyes.

The smells and sensations around you completely match up with what you are experiencing visually – a clown spits alcohol over you and you feel it hit your skin, smelling the pungent alcohol smell in your nostrils. Objects are placed in your hands, and you are seated in a car and taken on a wild ride.

The difficulty with this show is the story itself. If there was a story, I was so disoriented by the style that I found it impossible to follow, and even if I were completely nonplussed by the goggles, it would still have been incredibly difficult to understand. As a piece of art it was certainly interesting. The car full of clowns was a powerful image, but they overcomplicated the story for the audience who are new to this style.

Those niggles aside, this is a nicely innovative show that stays with you for some time. I particularly enjoyed all the small touches that made the show that bit more special: a phone number you can call afterwards, a keepsake that unravels to become a tarot reading, and a parish newsletter in the waiting room. This appears to be the start of something new. It covers ground that Alma Mater tackles a little more delicately, but the intent is the same. This is the next level of immersive theatre – first person theatre, if you will.

Swamp Juice

Swamp Juice

What an unexpected delight. Scamp’s reputation precedes them, but my only experience of them was the beautifully crafted Private Peaceful (also at the Fringe this year – though I saw it in 2009) – I wasn’t expecting the puppet menagerie awaiting me.

Set in the eponymous swamp, Jeff Achtem fills the story with creatures in various forms, but the main story follows the journey of one little man’s determined pursuit of Birdie, his Roadrunner styled nemesis who is always one step ahead of him.

The apppeal of this show is its simplicity – it’s a very basic story performed incredibly well by a supremely talented actor. Achtem is superb – bumbling, shy and instantly endearing, he effortlessly brings his shadow puppets to life with breathtaking realism, despite being made from cardboard and bits of scrap. His adorable performance style means that, even in the shows darker moments, no child is frightened as Achtem draws them into his world as though a child himself. (“That took me a week!” he exclaims proudly, pointing to one of his puppet creations)

At various stages he involves the audience in creating his beautiful shadow world, inducing squeals of delight from adults and kids alike, and as we reach the end he adds another fantastic element as we all don those familiar red and blue glasses and the shadows become 3D! “Avatar, eat your heart out,” says Jeff – I have to agree!

This show is perfect fringe fodder, and deserves to be seen by a much wider audience. I doubt you will ever see shadow puppets so lifelike and full of character – and you’ll find yourself thinking “Here Birdie Birdie Birdie” long after you’ve left the theatre.

 
Translunar Paradise

I went to this show on the recommendation of my twitter feed and thank goodness I did. Theatre Ad Infinitum tell the story of a man who is lost following the death of his wife. Lonely and mourning, he copes by reliving treasured memories of his wife and their life together, from meeting and courtship, through to sadder memories of heartbreak and loss.

Told entirely without words, with only an accordion/singer for accompaniment, this show could very easily have slipped into schmaltz, but instead this show packs an emotional punch I don’t think I’ve ever experienced before in a theatre.
The masks used to portray the elderly couple force meaning into the simplest of gesture. A tapping finger, a glance to the left – all create a full and moving picture of a man bereft of his life partner. The lack of words was heartbreaking – there was no weeping or wailing, no beating of the chest – instead there was an unspoken sense of loss that needed no words.

The man and his wife’s older selves are played using handheld masks that are pulled away when they play the younger versions of themselves. The effect is extraordinarily poignant, their whole bodies becoming younger and more full of life. George Mann and Deborah Pugh delicately portray these scenes of the younger couple – the movements suggesting snapshots of utter happiness. Even an argument between the couple becomes just another expression of love.

Perhaps the moment that will remains with me longest is that of our elderly friend distracting himself from his loneliness by making a cup of tea – only to absent-mindedly pick up two cups from the cupboard. As I describe this I realise I am making it sound like a maudlin and depressing tale, when that couldn’t be further from the truth. For each moment of sadness there is another of joy as we celebrate their incredible life together.

I rarely give praise without fault, but I fell completely in love with this show. I, like most of the sell-out audience, wept unashamedly as Theatre Ad Infinitum taught us that death isn’t really the end, so long as we keep the memory of loved ones alive. See this show. Bring tissues and tell your friends, such a sublime and beautiful piece of theatre should be seen by as many people as possible. It’s astounding how much you can say without words, and this company says it perfectly. 

Comedian Dies in the Middle of Joke

cditmoj image

            Forest Fringe is, in my opinion, the greatest venue the fringe has to offer. With free tickets and a bohemian style, the place seems to encapsulate exactly what the Fringe is all about. This fun little show is set in the middle of a comedians failing comedy set, and as if his day couldn’t get any worse, he’s going to be shot at the end of the set.

Written by Ross Sutherland Comedian Dies In The Middle Of Joke is an interactive play for small groups, where audience members take it in turns to play the various parts on offer. There’s the sycophantic agent, the party table, the insulted soldier and many more, and a fortunate few even get a chance to be the comedian. The reason everyone changes around so much is that our eponymous comedian is stuck in a 6 minute time loop – and no matter what happens, he’s going to die at the end of that 6 minutes.

            If nothing else, this show was really great fun. There was something really engaging about coming up with various lines and barbs depending on the character you were playing, and the ‘6 minute loop’ repetition was quite effective as we witnessed our comedian struggling to overcome the inevitable. It was also a very social event – I went in alone, but I emerged chatting animatedly about the show and agreeing to meet my fellow audience members for a drink.

            Saying that, this show isn’t going to change lives. It has a powerful ending, and the repetition is very effective, but when you boil this show down, it’s really just a very clever parlour game. However, this was a parlour game I was more than happy to play.

Crunch

 

Another Forest Fringe show (I told you I love that venue!), Crunch is pretty unique for fringe shows. Part lecture, part sales pitch, part motivational life coaching, Crunch examines the worlds over-reliance on money, and asks us to question this once in a while.

            In his sharp suit and slicked back hair style, Gary McNair presents his lecture on the money, explaining its history, and presenting it to us for what it really is, just a belief system like any other. He asks us to enter his five-step programme to rid ourselves of the tyranny of money and take back control. After all, he explains, we are the ones who really decide the value of that bit of paper with £10 printed on it.

McNair is honest and charming, and uses various techniques to show audiences the true value of money. There is an auction for a sealed envelope containing an unknown sum of money, and as he attempts to purchase a bag from an audience member he offers things that, perhaps, have more worth – building your flat pack furniture for example, or cooking you a meal.

However, what most people will be talking about when they leave is the moment when Mcnair, like a faith healer or preacher, invites people up onto the stage to be ‘cured’ of their obsession with money. He then unveils a shredder and asks for volunteers to take the money from their wallets and shred it. What is fascinating is the amount of people that queue up to do it. They laugh in delight as their money is shredded before their eyes and take away the tiny pieces as a souvenir. Some throw them in the air like confetti, some take them grinning back to their seats, but all look happy and satisfied with their decision to do it.

            Crunch, oddly, leaves you feeling quite good about yourself. McNair isn’t telling anyone to live without money, that would be impossible, but he is asking his audience to see it for what it is – unimportant in the grand scheme of things. It’s a refreshing message, and while I didn’t get up there to shred my hard-earned cash, I did leave with a much lighter view of my financial situation: after all, it’s only money.

2 days ago on this blog I posted a review from a sneak preview of The Wright Brothers.

The preview was intended as just that, and not a review or a serious critique of what is still a play in the early stages of its development.  I’ve since removed the post, and would ask anyone who read it to consider the preview in the spirit that it was offered. a Preview, not a Review.

As with any review posted on this site, my ultimate goal is to spread awareness about theatre (particuarly good theatre!), and I would always encourage you to judge for yourself.

On a personal note, I wanted to put up the post simply because I was so excited about the show & wanted to share that enthusiasm, as a fan, with other fans.

Thanks for reading, and I’ll leave you with the key theme of this message…

Lauren

Prior to TheatrePunk, I started another blog which I never posted on. I wrote a 2010 round up for that which I thought I’d transfer over to here. So sit back, relax and enjoy a little blast from the past…

 As we reach the end of a great theatrical year, I thought I’d jump in at the deep end and do my top ten. This list isn’t necessarily what I consider to be the best shows of the year, but instead it is the shows I have enjoyed the most. The ones I left feeling as though I had seen something that I would remember for a long time. So, in no particular order, here are my theatre highlights…

Enron – Headlong

Saw this at the Birmingham REP about a year after seemingly everyone else in the industry had already seen it. I thought it would take a lot for it to live up to the hype, and boy did it. Intelligent, exciting, fantastic staging, and a narrative that sucked me in despite the dense subject matter. I am still perplexed as to why American audiences didn’t warm to this play when it reached Broadway.

Duchess of Malfi – Punchdrunk

We are all aware of the furore over tickets for this event. I was one of those people who managed to crash the ENO website. After the site crashed I had ENO on speed dial as I repeatedly tried to get through. After some perserverance (and wasting quite a lot of work time) I succeeded, and it was worth it. Perhaps not Punchdrunks’ best show of all time, but certainly worth the trip. Highlights included the beautiful fight in the netted room, witnessed only by me and one other audience member, the quiet monk’s journey around the building to find his forbidden love, and that ending…oh, that ending. I got a shiver just typing that.

Spend Spend Spend – Watermill

I saw this twice. Once on a marketing trip for work, the second time for pure pleasure. It was just a joy from beginning to end. The ensemble worked harder than I’ve seen any other cast work this year and their performances were flawless. Heart-breaking at times, joyous at others. I left with tears streaming down my cheeks and a smile on my face.

Posh -Royal Court

I may be a little biased on this one as my dear friend was in it, but it still remains one of the most enjoyable evenings in a darkened room this year. Tightly written script, excellent direction and the cast were just great. The final speech which led into the interval wherein one of our Riot Club boys emphatically announces ‘I fucking hate poor people!’ elicited shocked gasps and incredulous laughs. I don’t think Laura Wade could have predicted how appropriate her script would become as the election was announced and some Bullingdon Boys made their way into Downing Street. It made the show all the more chilling as there was a real sense that this was not beyond the realms of possibility.  

The Red Shoes -Kneehigh

I think this may be the best play I have seen all year. It appealed to my love of the strange, and was crafted in such a way that you could just sit back and bask in the delicious unravelling of a dark and twisted tale. This show was Kneehigh doing what they do best. It was dark, laced with black comedy, and just beautiful. It also included the best description of a theatre I have ever heard – ‘this darkened thespic fun-palace’

Lilly Through the Dark – The River People

Recommended to me by Mr Alex Wadham (who appeared in the River People’s show Angelrust). I first saw this in Edinburgh. I cried for around an hour – and walking down Chambers Street sobbing while holding a balloon a passing flyerer gave you is not a good look for anyone. After being so affected, I insisted all of my friends see this show – as a result I ended up watching the show a further 3 times. It is a testament to the power of this young company’s storytelling ability that even after seeing the show 4 times I still cried. Lilly was brought to life with simple storytelling and a beautiful gothic narrative. You would have to have a heart of stone to not be moved by a little girl’s struggle to remember her fathers hands.

Blasted -Lyric Hammersmith

 I hated this show. It was crude, downright offensive and made me feel a bit sick; but my god it was brilliant. Great performances, disturbing content, and a set you could just drool all over (and if you did that you would probably fit in quite nicely) . There isn’t much I can say about this show that hasn’t already been said, so I’ll just repeat the general sentiment. It was brilliant. Truly brilliant. Now let’s never speak of it again.

 Hamlet -Crucible Theatre

Who would have thought that this was John Simm’s first attempt at Shakespeare? His performance felt as though I was watching the prince of Denmark for the first time. His plea ‘to die, to sleep’ spoke of a grief-ravaged insomniac, lost in a society that doesn’t seem to care. The staging was minimal, the performances delectable. I think the biggest compliment I can give this play comes from a friend of mine. Despite having read, studied and seen Hamlet countless times, she was so disturbed by the ‘Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I’ speech that she left in the interval. Having calmed down, she booked tickets to see it again and stayed for the duration. She then booked again. After seeing it 3 times she told me it was the best version she had ever seen – I think I agree with her.

 A Western – Action Hero

 This one caught me by surprise. Quite simply the most fun I have had in a pub all year. This deconstructed western had all the elements of the epic gun-toting tales of yore, but with English sensibilities and no budget. The audience were just as important as the two performers as a Western was built out of ketchup and a few cards. I revelled in the sheer absurdity of what I was witnessing as the hero rode into town on his steed, a card table was knocked over, and our hero had a showdown with his arch enemy at high noon. Better than all of these moments, however, was the moment when our hero asked for a shot of whiskey at the bar. He asked very politely for a shot of whiskey. Fished out the £1.20 from his pocket, said thank you, then walked to the opposite end of the bar, meekly shuffling past anyone standing there. He then removed all obstacles and silently gestured to the barman that he would like the whiskey to be slid over to him. When it reached him he gave a small satisfied smile and took a sip. It was simultaneously hilarious and touching – rather like the whole show, really.

Sporadical – Little Bulb Theatre

See this show. See it immediately. If it isn’t on, see anything Little Bulb have to offer. Can’t praise the show or them highly enough. Amazing. Amazing. Amazing. Don’t worry about what it’s about, that doesn’t matter. Just go and see it. …Why are you still reading this? Go!

Honourable Runners up

The Event (Theatre Tours International) – A one man show about the nature of theatre. Outstanding.

Decky Does a Bronco (Grid Iron)- Site-specific piece that has been doing the rounds for years, and rightly so. Great script, great cast, great show.

The Big Fellah (Out of Joint) – a real performance based show. Acting of the highest order.

Le Morte D’Arthur (RSC) – An atmospheric and affecting piece of theatre, this show would have made it into my top ten of the year were it not too long. My bum still hasn’t fully recovered.

Arabian Nights (RSC)- It was a celebration of storytelling, imaginitive, fast-paced, and just a joy to watch from beginning to end And that about sums it up.