Close Your Eyes, I’m Filming

The cold weather and the dark nights are truly creeping in as autumn affirms itself around us. Pumpkin spice lattes are back on the coffee shop menus while the leaves on the trees transform into fiery hues. But now is the season for more diabolical things than fall colours and cinnamon flavours – now is the spooky season for horror films and ghost stories as Halloween heralds its coming in the next fortnight.

Not that we need many more frights and scares after this stinker of a year, but I will readily admit that I am one of those odd people who finds comfort in the horror genre. There is something to be said about the adrenaline rush one feels when a ghoulish creature reeks havoc on some poor unsuspecting friendship group or a vengeful spirit upsets the family equilibrium; it’s as if a release of one’s own anxieties takes place. I always love finding an excuse to binge watch a few classic horror thrillers and engaging with new editions to the genre is always a tantalising prospect.

Close Your Eyes, I’m Filming is the horror film of our times. As all of us have spent many long months in isolation, with many artists having to adapt to the new normal of digitally produced, remotely accessed content, the world of this film is starkly relevant to this new age of socially distanced performance. Directed by Lex Kaby, written by Douglas Murdoch and devised by Greedy Pig Theatre Company, Sam Cattee and Matt Rawlings, this half way between short and feature film delves into the darker side of our digital world and the infernal influence of influencer culture.

We are thrown into the madcap life of Daisy the vlogger (played by Sam Cattee), a rising star of the YouTube scene whose hunger to make it to the number one trending spot knows no bounds. With the help of her rather long suffering boyfriend, Nathan (played by Matt Rawlings), Daisy engages in viral trends old and new in her bid to gain more subscribers, but things take an unexpected turn when objects in the young couple’s home begin to mysteriously move around the house.

This is a masterfully realised horror flick with some brilliantly nuanced performances from the film’s two leads. With the found-footage narrative framing, a lot of responsibility rests upon the shoulders of the actors to portray these characters with highly focused naturalism and both Cattee and Rawlings pull this off with complete ease. Cattee portrays Daisy’s descent into tyrannical divadom with frightening realism, tracing the stark changes in her on and off camera personalities with precision. Indeed, the construction of this film’s narrative, while not ground breaking within the horror genre, is nonetheless skilfully orchestrated. You can tell that this is a film made by horror/thriller fans and the twists that unfold are cleverly handled.

Fans of the Paranormal Activity franchise will enjoy the self aware call backs to that recent horror classic, but even more so the ways in which this narrative flips the tropes of those found-footage films on their head. Indeed, the true horror of Close Your Eyes, I’m Filming cannot be chalked up to any demonic haunting but rather to something far more frighteningly real, which only serves to make the film that much more chilling.

So as All Hallow’s Eve draws closer and the things that go bump in the night grow more restless, why not treat yourself to this spooky little film? It certainly is more treat than trick.

Star Rating:

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The Space Between Us

Ten minutes is a paradox of time where in one moment it can feel like an infinity, and in another it flickers by in an instant. For the purposes of narrative, particularly when it is performed by a single performer, ten minutes is a challenge in succinct story telling balancing with emotional weight. For the online short film, The Space Between Us, written by Rick Allden, performed by Jordan Bernarde and directed by Alun D Pughe, this balancing act is achieved with focused attention and careful skill.

Lockdown has been lauded as something of a golden opportunity for creatives to challenge themselves and flex their artistic muscles across mediums they may have never previously ventured into before. There has been a boom in online, often free artistic content over the course of 2020, and while it has shown the powerful talents that exist within our industry and brought them to audiences who may have not engaged with them before, it is a sad fact that many in the industry are struggling to maintain our careers in this pandemic. Indeed, this pain and fearful uncertainty extends to many of us both in and outside of the creative industries, and while The Space Between Us taps into a specific blend of grief, these feelings hit home all the more effectively in these troubled times.

Jordan Bernarde brings Allden’s script to life with nuanced care as a young father having the difficult conversation with his young son as he departs with his mother following a painful break up. Allden’s writing flows with light humour that highlights the  aching agony that simmers under the surface of this paternal interaction. It is a tough feat for any actor to perform something so intimate and vulnerable within the unforgiving exposure of film, but Bernarde does so without ever straying into melodrama or demonstrative performance. This is a piece as much about subtext as it is about the text, and the moments of silence slice through the dialogue like a scalpel, revealing the depths of the father’s sense of loss beneath his fantastical stories of aliens and Millennium Falcons. As much as his words try to deflect away from the pain of the moment, the tension of their shared grief is always there.

While parts of the script could bring out more of the natural comedy that comes from the earnestness of young children, this is a powerful piece of drama worthy of viewing and deserving of praise for its powerful performance and precise execution.

Star rating:

⭐️⭐️⭐️

S#*! Talk

It is always a joy to see a female friendship played out on screen. In a world where female voices are often silenced, stifled or compromised for the sake of male driven plots, it is refreshing to see these relationships given the attention and levity they deserve – and S#*! Talk certainly delivers on all these fronts.

This new web series created by Savannah Betts and led by a female creative team examines the lives of friends, Savannah and Ray, as they navigate the baffling and often hilarious shenanigans of their twenties. These bite sized snapshots into these two women’s lives are a delight to watch, with beautiful direction and photography from Raquel Grela and Aphra Evans – this is a series that visually pops and brings an added brightness to the zany humour of the script.

Anna Rømcke Høiseth and Savannah Betts’ chemistry as Ray and Savannah is what truly drives this show and it is a credit to their comedic skills that they are able to land these carefully crafted gags with such flare in a short space of time. Indeed, while these brief episodes only allow us a glimpse into the lives of these two women, the world they present feels fully realised and fleshed out; we can believe that the action goes on beyond the snapshots we are allowed to see, and while there is a sketch-like element to this narrative’s format, the through lines within the writing allows for a sense of real life continuity.

While elements of the editing could be streamlined to hone the speedy delivery of this style of comedy, this is a charmingly conceived web series that holds women and all their flaws and strengths and humour firmly at its core. If you’re in need of a light-hearted binge that’s relatable and giggle-worthy, S#*! Talk should certainly be on your radar.

Star rating:

Alright?

Theatre is a place where the taboos of society are brought into the spotlight. In these almost sacred spaces shared by performer and audience, we can examine the things that are most uncomfortable or painful about our lives, or reveal parts of our history or cultural experience that have been forgotten or concealed. Theatre can be a great place of learning, about ourselves and about the world we live in, but most of all it can teach us to be compassionate as we view the world through another’s eyes and see how that world is shaped by their experience which may differ from our own. At least, this is what I believe, and certainly this new show from Black Hound Productions demands rightful compassion from its audience.

Written by Patrick Withey and performed by Dillon Berry, Alright? follows the story of Noah, a young man in his mid-teens who, while facing the stress of secondary school exams and the inevitable awkward encounters of teenage-hood, has been struggling with depression. With clever direction from Benjamin Hardy-Phillips, this solo show explores Noah’s struggles with his mental health through his interactions with the important figures in his life, highlighting the unprejudiced nature of depression, for even when a person is surrounded by friends and loved ones we can still feel lost in our own emotions.

Indeed, the power of this piece lies in the handling of what can be an incredibly heavy subject matter. While there is a tendency for pieces concerned with mental health and depression to fall into the realms of melodrama, Alright? walks the fine line between tragedy and comedy with focused care. Withey’s writing brings both shades of light and dark to Noah’s life as moments of levity allow for the bleaker moments in the script to become even more enhanced. There is a natural wit to Withey’s writing which Berry brings to life with skilled ease.

It is refreshing to see a piece about male mental health that does not devolve into violence. So often, narratives around mental health and masculinity become narratives about the worst excesses of these experiences. Indeed, recent films like Joker have been hijacked by the narrative of the white male malcontent resorting to acts of violence as a result of their frustrations. In reality, sufferers of mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence as opposed to perpetrators, yet while anger and frustration are key themes in this piece, there is little to no involvement of violence. More often than not, those of us who are impacted by mental illness will not have some dramatic occurrence happen to us; our mental illness is part of our every day reality and while it may evoke intense feelings or indeed, a lack of them, our world does not always descend into chaos. Alright? portrays the mundane nature of depression beautifully, whilst also highlighting the importance of having a support network. In a world where funding for mental health treatment is being slashed, this is perhaps the most important message that Alright? gives its audience – the importance of asking the right questions, checking in with someone and listening to them. While it isn’t a substitute for treatment, it is, as Noah’s final speech states, better to listen to a person express their difficulties than to listen to their eulogy.

While the final act of this show needs a little more focusing, this is a very moving and powerful piece of theatre. To see young men being given the space to show their vulnerability without the usual trappings of toxic masculinity is what makes this a unique piece of writing and makes it more than deserving of many future performances.

Star rating:

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Savage

When going to see a Black Dog Production, one should always be prepared for intense psychological drama, an ode to Americana, and finely choreographed fight scenes. So it is no surprise that their latest production, Savage, has all this in spades.

Set in the 80s within the confines of a seedy, macho office, Savage follows the enigmatically named Apollo as she battles to save her sister, Artemis, from the clutches of the lascivious Janus and his mysterious client after Apollo’s botched embezzlement of a large sum of the ‘Client’s’ funds. What ensues is a drama filled with twists and turns, shocking reveals and inspired examinations of the tropes often found within psychological thrillers both in film and theatre.

This is a truly slick piece of theatre, with excellent performances from all the cast. Sami Edrus’ Janus oozes with chauvinistic smarm, his cokehead energy juxtaposing with the still, controlled tension of Charlotte Turner-McMullan’s Apollo and Njeko Katebe’s monolithic presence as the Bodyguard. Yet the drama truly sparks into life with the presence of Matilda Dickinson’s Artemis, whose keen intelligence and vibrancy of character brings the brutal stakes of the narrative into stark clarity. It is in her interactions with Janus, Apollo and the Bodyguard that the emotional depths of all these characters are brought into the light to be examined and scrutinised. Indeed, the greatest strength of this play is in writer Russell Eccleston’s refusal to degrade any of the characters into one dimensional stereotypes; each of the characters, despite their great flaws, are allowed complex inner lives which are portrayed with nuanced care by this talented cast.

While this show certainly evokes tones of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, Eccleston takes an interestingly feminist perspective on the tropes of the thriller genre. The character of the Secretary, played with beguiling charm by Katherine Aldridge, reveals the inherent sexism of this so often male-driven genre. As great artistic institutions like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are being scrutinised for their lack of inclusion of female artists, Savage offers the female driven thriller to be just as (pun intended) thrilling as any male driven narrative.

This is a show which, while not overtly political, is answering the call of the times for more diversity in the stories we tell, making this both an entertaining and relevant piece of theatre.

Star rating:

Before I am Lost

History, as they say, is written by the victors, and as such, certain figures or movements can end up being washed away by the narratives of said victors. Within literary history, this has included numerous female artists who while, at the time, were as popular if not more successful than their now more famous male counterparts, have largely been forgotten since the male driven creation of the literary ‘canon’ at the turn of the last century.

Indeed, this male-centric focus within literature was abundant in the post-First World War societies of America and Europe. There are of course exceptions such as Virginia Woolf or Gertrude Stein, whose contributions to literature are rightfully recognised within academia, yet still the appreciation of other contemporary female artists pales in comparison with their male colleagues. Hilda Doolittle, known by her literary moniker of H.D., is one of many widely forgotten female artists from this fraught and fractured time, and it is her story that is brought to life within Cobalt Theatre’s Before I am Lost.

Written and performed by Beatrice Vincent, this solo performance follows Hilda’s journey to self realisation as she enters the first pangs of labour. She relives the relationships she has shared with other poets – both male and female – and we witness her agonies of rejection, in love and in art, as well as the rising pain of childbirth. This is a woman who is all too aware of her silencing by her male friends and lovers, bringing to light their inherent sexism – Ezra Pound, with whom she was once engaged, seems controlling and restrictive of her work, while D.H, Lawrence is oddly repressed and dismissive of her artistic capabilities purely because of her gender. Then there is Hilda’s husband, Richard Aldington, whose own psychological trauma from his time in the trenches of war torn Europe amounted to his neglect and emotional abuse of Hilda as he engaged with an extra-marital affair with their female lodger.

Beatrice Vincent carries Hilda’s pain with a wearied exhaustion – she is a woman who has long since lost hope, and as she reveals the details of her past affairs, of her fraught relationship with her husband, it is easy to see why. The hypocrisy of Hilda’s world is stripped bare by Vincent’s script as Hilda is continually rejected by the people she loves as well as the society she lives in. While her husband may freely carry on with his mistress as he pleases, Hilda must birth the child conceived from her own adultery in isolation, with Aldington’s threats of legal action at any attempt of legitimising her child hot on her heels in the birthing room. This is an all too familiar story of a woman shouldering the consequences of her actions while her male contemporaries have little care for the impact of their own actions upon others.

This pain is portrayed strongly by Vincent, and while the subtle changes in light and sound paint the contrasts between Hilda’s past and present, there is a lack of sharpness to the flow of this piece. Though my empathy with Hilda was strongly felt, there was an absence of true emotional climax and little variation of pace within the piece. Vincent’s performance is strong and consistent, but I was left wanting to see the highs of this woman’s passions, the force of her pain and anguish.

The moment that struck me most was when the voice of Hilda’s husband admonished her for seeming so unfeeling since his return from the War. While this highlighted the fine line a woman must tread between emotional forbearance vs. straying into the realm of ‘hysteria’ – that terribly sexist term that we see used time and time again to describe a woman showing any extreme of emotion – I wanted to be able to see the depth of Hilda’s hurt that she kept hidden from Aldington. There were glimpses, but there was a desire in me for more. I wanted Hilda to take up her space, as she had so rarely been able to, and to dare to be daring.

That said, this is still a strong piece of theatre, and a story that is worth seeing – there is a diamond in the rough quality that I hope will be polished into the shining gem it deserves to be.

Star rating:

Fairview

Walking into the Young Vic, I didn’t know what to expect from Fairview. I knew that this was the Pulitzer Prize winner for Drama in 2019 and I knew that it involved a family drama revolving around a grandmother’s birthday. It was surely going to be political because all theatre is inevitably political, but I was not prepared for was the brilliance and boldness of this piece.

The opening act, with its snapshot window of a proscenium stage and a lavish set dedicated to high realism, lulls its audience into a false sense of security. This particular security lies upon the familiarity an audience has with the style of realism in theatre – we are led to believe that this could well be a domestic drama akin to Tennessee Williams or Edward Albee where secrets are revealed over the course of family tensions reaching a boiling point. It’s a form most theatre goers know like the back of their hand and that sense of security is followed closely by a background sense of boredom.

I’ll say it, as much as I enjoy Williams and Albee, they can get bloody boring.

But Fairview is not Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and it could not be a more important and relevant piece of theatre today. It is difficult to discuss this play without ruining the twists and turns that make it so powerful, but what I will say is this – the way in which form is shaped and reformed is what makes this play a powerhouse, how satire is treated in a way that sets your teeth on edge is masterful, and the provocation of its ending will leave you reeling.

Race and the debate about race is the heart and soul of this show, but what Fairview does with this discussion is extraordinary, because it is asking its predominantly white audience – and I am sure both writer Jackie Sibblies Drury and director Nadia Latif are well aware of the broad demographic of theatre goers – to remove themselves from the debate. Or rather, to allow people of colour the space to articulate themselves without the stereotypes and identifiers white people place upon them. The final speech is a cry to not only be heard, but a cry to be able to cry – to speak without impediment, without self consciousness and without judgement.

Many audience members were left profoundly uncomfortable in the play’s final speech, with one white female audience member standing up to challenge actress Donna Banya as she delivered her emotional monologue – but the thing that struck me most was the applause. No cast were remaining in the auditorium or on stage that I could see, and as we applauded I realised that we were only clapping ourselves – the predominantly white middle classes who had the economic privilege to afford a London theatre ticket.

So I stopped clapping, because white people have had enough applause in this world.

Star rating:

Retellings, big returns and new adaptations: Christmas TV of 2019

There was a line in my Christmas theatre job this year which was lauding the excitement around Christmas TV specials, and every time I uttered the words, there was a definite truth in them for me. Christmas hails in some truly excellent slices from the television cake, offering different flavours for all to enjoy in their own ways.

As someone who was fortunate enough not to be working on Christmas Day, I was treated to a plethora of small screen treats. Luddites may bemoan the modern habit of gathering round the television to watch some commercialist entertainment rather than spending time with family, but for me and I think for many families, shared viewing tastes can unite families who can often times be at odds with one another.

So, without further ado, here are a selection of my thoughts on my Christmas viewings…

A Christmas Carol (BBC)

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Guy Pearce as Ebeneezer Scrooge

Dickens’ 1843 novella has been adapted numerous times – almost ad nauseam – and while there have been modern adaptations bringing a twist to the original tale such as the 1988 Scrooged or mashups with pop culture icons like The Muppet Christmas Carol, a new twist within the confines of the story’s original setting has rarely been attempted.

Peaky Blinders’ Steven Knight helms this three part adaptation of the traditionally heart warming tale, but given Knight’s previous writing creds, don’t for a moment think this is the same saccharine tale that has been told time and time again. This is a version not made for purists of the text and nor does it ever pretend to be – the opening scene of a young working class lad urinating on Robert Marley’s grave firmly asserts itself as breaking away from the rose-tinted glasses of a traditional Dickensian Christmas.

While some may have bristled at the divergences from the original plot and atmosphere of the novella, I delighted in this, what I felt to be, a far more realistic and philosophical presentation of the classic tale of moral redemption. Examinations of the intersectionality between race, class and disability are succinctly and cleverly handled, and the evolution of Scrooge’s change of heart feels far truer than in the original – to me, Scrooge seems immediately won over by the Spirits by simply looking at his past, making the battle for his soul by the Spirits of the Present and Future null and void.

Guy Pearce presents a compelling Scrooge, with hints towards neuroatypicality which bring a new intrigue to his emotionally distant and misanthropic nature. He is dislikable but complicated in his cruelty and as we see his redemption achieved not solely through the thawing of his heart to emotion, but also in equal measure through logic and reason, the perhaps most uncomfortable aspect of the original tale is broken down – the now much deservedly scorned white saviour complex. In this version of events, the Cratchit’s do not forgive Scrooge for his previous wrong doings, Bob Cratchit is not the simperingly loyal employee, and rather than resting on our laurels that all is right in the world because one millionaire gains a conscience, we are challenged with a call to arms by Mrs Cratchit. While the Cratchit’s may survive from the generosity of Scrooge’s donation, the final shot of Vinette Robinson looking directly down the camera barrel brings the tale to stark relevance.

We live in a world where the richest of us continue to lie and cheat their way into more money and prestige while the working and lower-middle classes continue to suffer under austerity measures. Thousands of children are currently living in poverty, and families are having to turn to charitable organisations like food banks in order to put some kind of dinner on the table. Mrs Cratchitt’s final words hold a frightening pertinence.

“Spirits… there is still much to do.”

The Goes Wrong Show: The Spirit of Christmas (BBC)

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Henry Lewis as Santa and Charlie Russell as Nistle

I love a bit of slapstick comedy and I love spoofs and satires. I first saw Mischief Theatre’s original production of The Play That Goes Wrong on the West End in 2016 and I absolutely fell in love with the show. I adored the classic am-dram gaffs, the inflated egos of the cast members, and the fecklessness of the technical team. It wasn’t ground breaking comedy but it was a merry spoonful of utter silliness.

The Spirit of Christmas is most certainly silly, but was my belly aching from laughter and hilarity? Decidedly not. Perhaps I was viewing the show with too much of a cynical adult eye, but in watching this Christmas special, I felt wearied of jokes and gags that seemed tired and unoriginal – gags which have been executed with much finer precision and panache by comic geniuses like Morecombe and Wise or Victoria Wood.

The comedy felt flaccid and far too over reliant on the bombastic talent of Henry Lewis’ luvvie Santa. I had the distinct sense that I should be laughing at Santa failing to come down the chimney, or Christmas decorations getting mixed up with food items but few of these farcical gags could evoke a smile let alone a chuckle from me. As I felt with the Royal Variety performance of their upcoming show, Groan Ups, there were too many broad strokes and not enough detailed work to the plot or performances.

No doubt, The Spirit of Christmas is a wonderful way to introduce kids to farcical comedy, but for a (perhaps) jaded comedy viewer such as myself, it fell flat.

Martin’s Close (BBC)

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Peter Capaldi as the Attorney, Dolben

Watching ghost stories, particularly the old and new adaptations of M.R. James’ spooky creations, is something of a tradition in my family. It’s one of the few traditions we’ve been able to keep up as a family during a particularly busy season this year, and I’ve loved being able to settle into the macabre comfort of these familiar tales on these dark winter nights. So I was thrilled to know that Mark Gatiss had adapted another of James’ stories for Christmas this year – excited enough that I even read the original short story. The English Lit nerd in me lives on.

Compared with recent big blockbuster spookfests such as The Conjuring or The Babadook, M.R. James’ stories are somewhat tame for most modern horror audiences, but there is a quintessential and atmospheric sensation that comes from his stories. These are tales of dread and the fear of the unknown, the terror of being pursued by an unrelentingly malignant spectre. Martin’s Close encapsulates these familiar, Jamesian tropes, even including his love of a historical setting.

Concerning the 17th Century trial of a country gentleman, George Martin, for the murder of a local village girl, Martin’s Close examines abuse of power, particularly between class, gender and ableism. It is about the unrelenting rage at injustice that a spurned and mistreated girl’s soul embodies, and for a text that was written in the early 20th Century, is refreshing in its lack of victim blaming towards the female subject of the case.

Martin’s Close is an extremely accurate adaptation to the original text – in fact, much of the dialogue is spoken verbatim from the story. Yet, that is perhaps where this ghost stories weaknesses lie. It is framed as a story within a story, as a contemporary amateur historian retells the narrative from recently discovered court records, yet this overarching framework is completely unnecessary to the main narrative of the tale within a televisual medium. Having an actor give direct address in intercutting scenes between the court action was jarring and oddly self-indulgent, bringing a sort of tongue-in-cheek nature to the narrative, completely undercutting the sinister atmosphere created within the historic scenes. Indeed, the most alarming scene from the original story is literally cut short by a camera cutaway during the only female witness’ testimony, removing to some extent the true extent of the horror at the realisation of George Martin’s situation.

While it is a true adaptation of the text, Martin’s Close does not utilise the advantages of television’s visual medium to enhance the horror of the written story. It is, undoubtedly, one of the most difficult of James’ ghost stories to adapt for the screen, and while it does leave something of a chill down one’s spine – George Martin’s screams of a thirteenth juror was truly frightening – it is not the best of the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas canon.

Gavin and Stacey (BBC)

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James Corden (Smithy), Joanna Page (Stacey), Matthew Horne (Gavin) and Ruth Jones (Nessa)

Perhaps the most anticipated piece of Christmas telly this year, I like millions of others was ecstatic with excitement at the return of Ruth Jones and James Corden’s brainchild, Gavin and Stacey. A lot was riding on this Christmas special and I cannot even imagine the pressure both Jones and Corden felt about delivering something that could even match the quality of the original series. There is a mixture of joy and dread in fans’ hearts when a beloved show makes a return or ‘reunion’ episode years after its series’ finale, and part of me wondered if the pressure would be too much.

I was, so very thankfully, proven wrong. The 2019 Christmas special of this charming, hilarious and heart warming show felt as though the nine year gap between the final episode and this had never happened – not as in the action had not moved forward, but in that the quality of the writing and the rapport between the cast had remained ever the same.

This is a special that is not too overly reliant on resurrecting tired old gags from the series, but felt fresh and current. Of course there were references to running jokes such as the dreaded Fishing Trip (which was masterfully handled), but this was an episode that never for one minute felt like it was sycophantically pandering too much to its fans. Jones and Corden have kept the integrity of their characters in tact, and with the shocking cliffhanger ending – which literally left my whole family screaming at the telly – there is only one question on my mind.

Will there be a fourth season?

(EDIT: I have a lot of feelings about the use of the ‘f’ word in The Fairy Tale of New York concerning safeguarding the LGBTQ+ community on national TV and using hate speech so flippantly. TL;DR it was unnecessary to use that word in Bryn and Nessa’s rendition of the song as it can so easily be changed into something that does not have so much pain and hurt associated with it.)

Joan of Leeds

Christmas is the time for nativities and pantos. Most people’s engagement with theatre at this time of year involve’s attending a child’s school reenactment of the birth of Christ, or shouting ‘oh no it isn’ts’ and ‘oh yes it is’s’ at brightly clad soap stars. These are indeed the traditions of British yuletide theatre-going, but sometimes we need a break from tradition.

Breach Theatre’s new comedy musical Joan of Leeds offers exactly this, with much pomp, laughter and ferocious merriment.

Following the partially documented story of the 14th Century nun, known historically as Joan of Leeds, as she fakes her death in order to abandon her religion and pursue a life of carnal pleasure – or so the official story goes. What follows is a hilarious and raunchy romp as Joan (played by Bryony Davies) discovers herself and her sexuality through brilliant musical numbers and absurdly funny scenes.

Framed as the creation of the Yorkshire Medieval Players – a 1970s drama group with a passion for reviving the tradition of the medieval mystery play – Joan of Leeds has the self-aware comedy value of Victoria Wood’s Acorn Antiques or Mischief Theatre’s The Play That Goes Wrong. Yet, Joan of Leeds does much more than split one’s sides with the classic gaffs and pomposity of low budget or amateur theatre; it examines the prejudices and biases with which we view history.

Breach Theatre’s documentary-style theatre has highlighted a number of widely forgotten yet utterly captivating moments in history and examined them with a political eye – and Joan of Leeds is no different. Though the vampy musical numbers fill the show with an essence of mirth, there is an anger and frustration embodied in the figure of Joan. As Joan escapes her restrictive life as a Benedictine nun to become the wife of a local physician, she realises that the root of all her misery is in fact the expectations of a patriarchal and therefore inherently heteronormative society that are placed upon her. The religious dogma that trapped her in the convent was merely another product of a world that was built to restrict her as a queer woman.

By setting the show within the framework of a 1970’s play, Joan of Leeds highlights the misery of living hidden and closeted, existing as a false version of one’s self just to survive the day to day. But what is the point of merely surviving if you deny yourself the potential to thrive? The 1970s was a time of sexual revolution but that revolution could only be sparked – as all revolutions must be sparked – by a crushingly opposing norm. The 70s was a time when comedy was often founded upon outrageous racism, sexism and other generally loathsome bigotry, and yet it was also the time when some of the greatest feminist and queer literary theory was written. There were revolutions in art, music and theatre and you feel this fraught, fractious energy within the play throughout.

This tension and self criticism, along with the brilliant original musical numbers, composed by James Brewer and co-written by Ellice Stevens and Billy Barrett, is what makes Joan of Leeds not only thrilling to watch but also thought-provoking. Even in 2019, so many of these prejudices around queer history still exist and while it may not be possible to determine whether the real Joan was a queer woman, it is not possible to discredit the possibility either. To acknowledge queer visibility within history is a powerful political statement and one that needs to be made.

In these politically charged times, with a Christmas general election looming, Joan of Leeds provides a rip-roaring piece of theatre that keeps you thinking with every laugh and giggle – the kind of laughter that is fuelled by a lust for change.

Joan of Leeds performs at the New Diorama Theatre until Saturday, December 21st.

Star Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐

The Hound of the Baskervilles

The Hound of the Baskervilles is perhaps one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s best known Sherlock Holmes stories. Written after the outcries of Holmes’ supposed death in The Final Problem, it gained such popularity at the time that it prompted Conan Doyle to resurrect his sleuth detective.

To this day, it is still one of the most popular Sherlock Holmes narratives, and indeed, it is one that had a formative influence on me.

Adapting a text like Hound of the Baskervilles is a challenge for any writer. Director and adaptor Louise Wallace herself says that previous stage renditions of this tale have often been performed as a farce – and it is easy to see why. Conan Doyle’s episodic structure – in part due to how the story was first published in episodes for The Strand Magazine – lends itself to the structure of a farce, with frequent changes in scene locations and characters dashing from Dartmoor heaths to gothic manor houses to the comfort of 221B Baker Street.

It is an ambitious task for any writer and director to make sense of this, what could be chaotic stage action, but Wallace manages it with a sense of focus. Changes of scene are achieved by simple set changes and clever lighting and sound designs, created with panache by Ross Lewis and Paul Olding respectively. Rather than being over reliant on lavish sets, Lewis and Olding give us the atmospheric sense of the various settings of the play, avoiding the worst aspects of frantic scene changes that a complicated set would demand.

Another challenge for a Sherlock Holmes production is the man himself. Performing such an iconic role can be extremely daunting. Like James Bond, Holmes is a pinnacle fictional figure for most English speakers. We each have our own favourite versions of the character – my own is Jeremy Brett – but Robert Finlay dons the pipe and deerstalker with ease and confidence.

Finlay’s Holmes is frenetic, impudent and bombastic but without straying into ‘ham’ territory. His performance reminds me of a fox or a cat in the way that you can see his cunning and intelligence working in an energetic and ever moving form. His rapport with Richard Chivers’ Dr Watson brought a warm buzz to the stage whenever both men shared a scene together. The sense of their long friendship, often marked by competitive joviality, was beautifully captured by both actors.

Indeed, the greatest strength of this production lies in the talent and skill of its cast. All of those involved give strong, detailed performances, with particular highlights being Tom Louis’ macho American Sir Henry Baskerville and Ian Crook’s eccentric Mr Frankland. The energy on stage was always high, keeping up the pace but never losing control of what risks being a confusing narrative.

While it was something of a disappointment that the Hound itself was never revealed on stage, and scene changes at times were conducted with awkward shufflings in the dark, the Rondo Theatre Company’s The Hound of the Baskervilles is an enjoyable show. For any Holmes fans, or those looking for an entertaining evening of classic Victorian drama, this is certainly a show to be seen and enjoyed.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is performing at The Rondo Theatre, Bath. 7:30pm, Wednesday 27th-Saturday 30th November.