Shirley Valentine

As theatres begin to tentatively reopen for live performances, there has been much discussion within the theatre community about the types of shows being programmed for many venues’ reopening seasons. The understandable anxiety around ticket sales and how to best guarantee optimum audience attendance has been thick in the air, and for many, there has been a return to classic, tried and tested theatre favourites. So the decision by the Alma Tavern Theatre to reopen their doors with Willy Russell’s iconic one-hander, Shirley Valentine, seemed a very shrewd and savvy choice. While other venues have chosen big hitters like Shakespeare for their post-lockdown programmes – which will always have its guaranteed and ardent following of theatre goers – it was somewhat refreshing to see a show that focuses its narrative lens upon a working class, middle aged woman. This focus, coupled with the play turning thirty five this year, offered a theatrical bouquet as enticing as Shirley’s own glass of wine.

Directed by Adam Elms with Anna Friend performing as the titular heroine, Schoolhouse Productions stays true to Russell’s original text, keeping it placed in 1980s Liverpool. The kitchen set is deceptively simple – which even included a working hob upon which Shirley cooks a real egg and chips supper from scratch – with details such as contemporary table cloths and place mats situating Shirley’s humble domicile beautifully within the period. Friend’s performance exudes the warmth and humour of Russell’s text, and Friend does a brilliant job of embodying Shirley; she is every bit the endearing friend with her quips and amusing anecdotes, and when the depth of her loneliness is brought to light, your heart truly aches for this character. It is so difficult for an actor to shoulder the mantel of a role that has been made famous by a particular performer – for many of us, Pauline Collins just is Shirley Valentine – but Anna Friend brings her own flavour to the character, portraying this complex woman with the skilled ease of a seasoned performer.

While certain aspects of the script are rather dated in their attitudes – Shirley’s animosity towards feminism is somewhat jarring for a 2021 audience, though many still share in Shirley’s misconceptions – there is still so much about this play that speaks to life in Britain today. The portrayal of loneliness, isolation and loss of self identity is particularly resonant in our present COVID world, and with studies having shown that many heterosexual women in relationships over lockdown returned to the gendered roles of the classic 1950s housewife, Shirley’s frustration at her family life is all the more impactful. We are still living in a society that upholds many of the misogynistic and gendered bigotries that were present in 1986, when the play was first premiered at the Everyman in Liverpool, and it is fascinating to see where we have and have not changed as a society in those interim thirty five years. Schoolhouse Productions brings these tricky, multi-layered cultural dialogues to life with this excellent revival of Shirley Valentine, and as theatre reopening productions go, this is a highly accomplished piece of theatre.

Star Rating:

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ 1/2

Introspection

Story telling has always been an integral part of human culture. It is how we inform future generations of our past, how we interpret the often taboo subjects that pervade our societies, even how we learn to be wary of the dangers that may materialise in our lives. Stories hold power, and in many cultures, the role of story teller has long been a figure of mystery and magic. To weave a well plotted tale is a greatly revered skill – we have countless awards created with the purpose of honouring this enigmatic talent, from the Nobel Prize in Literature to the Academy Award for Best Screenplay. In these COVID times, the escapism presented by stories has never been so warranted, and it is this particular power of stories that Morosophy Productions and Black Hound Productions digital, audio experience, Introspection, plays with.

Running at just under 40 minutes, Introspection takes its audience on a journey of self discovery and self reflection. Narrated by Patrick Withey, we are asked to imagine sequences that may be drawn from our own pasts and examined with guidance from our narrator. It feels at times, almost like a guided meditation, and the potent images director and writer Cordelia Tarbrooke evokes in the script are given colour and shade by Withey’s assured performance. This is certainly an accomplished piece of audio drama, immersing its audience in the quiet world of memory and mindful practice.

Though the show aims to be universally inclusive and unique to each audience member, the specifics of the scenarios that are presented through the narration are not inherently universal, particularly those concerned with childhood memories. It is a difficult fact that not every child’s earliest memories present the kind of rose-tinted idyll we would hope for all children, but it is a fact nonetheless, and it is something of a trap when it comes to universal narratives as every narrative is inherently biased. This said, Introspection‘s pairing back of story telling into its primal form, demanding of its listeners to create their own imaginary worlds, is a striking and skilfully executed approach. In a world where we are spoiled by the high quality special effects of movies and incredible feats of human endurance with the extended dance numbers and acrobatics of theatrical events, it is rather magical to be given the space to let one’s own mind create a playground of adventures and thrillers. This is where Introspection’s true power as a production lies, and it is accomplished with unflinching confidence.

Star Rating:

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Aunt Flo’s School for Girls

We are entering a new era of comedy. At least, I hope we are. The age old favourite phrase of misogynists everywhere that “women aren’t funny” seems to be losing its power as more and more modern comedy icons are indeed women. We’re funny, we always have been funny, it’s just the world is finally catching up with this fact, and it is this spirit that beats at the very heart of Jury’s Out Theatre Company’s digital sketch comedy, Aunt Flo’s School for Girls.

This collection of sketches, spoken word and spoofed ads bring together a show that is reminiscent of comedy titans like That Mitchell and Webb Look and Smack the Pony. Created by Lauren James Howells and developed with Taylor Bond, with writing and performances from its extensive ensemble cast of Esme Michaela, Ayse Demir, Monique Eleanor, Elizabeth Howard, Natalie Prescott, Louise May Mosley, Robyn Naylor and Charly Beahan, we are taken on a whirlwind ride through the hypocrisies and outrageous inequalities of living as a woman in the 21st Century. At points zany and surreal before swooping into the realm of the jarringly dark and all too real, Aunt Flo captures the highs and lows of many women’s lived experiences in the modern world.

From the opening bars of Liv Muir Wilson’s brilliant theme song, right through to the rolling credits, this is an expertly realised piece of digital sketch comedy. The transitions are seamless, creating the strange channel flicking world of satirical adverts, menstrual cycle weather reports and scenes of character based comedy. It’s a streamlined and professionally accomplished show that feels very assured in its comedy style; if this were a TV pilot, I would be itching to see it picked up for series. The balance of biting satire, weird humour and cringingly relatable content is achieved to perfection within this cavalcade of hilarity, and I surely hope this won’t be the last we see from the prestigious halls of Aunt Flo’s School for Girls.

Star rating:

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The Wave

Summer in the UK means many things. These warm, heady months herald the start of the long holidays, filled with ice creams, sunburn, and of course, the obligatory trip to the beach. Summer is the time when Brits descend upon seaside towns en masse, revelling in the brief period in which our salty waters are a just about bearable temperature. As an island nation, we have a rich history of maritime traditions and tales, many of which have strong associations with the South West. We are the gateway to the Atlantic, the toe that dips into the great western ocean, holding with it all the possibilities and adventures of such a peripheral space. So it seems none the more apt that Bath based production company Calf 2 Cow’s new show The Wave brings to life a weird and wonderful maritime world to the forum of outdoor, garden theatre.

Created over 12 days by its company, The Wave follows three hapless pirates in their adventures upon the high seas. Sailing upon their trusted ship, Wave Goodbye to Your Sanity, our heroes battle the elements, their own temper tantrums, and seductive mermaids in this high energy, slapstick caper. With gorgeous, original compositions and songs by the actor-musicians Sam Freeman, Matthew Emeny and Rosalind Ford, along with a healthy dose of live action water fights – this is very much a ‘sensory’ experience – this is a rip roaring show for all ages.

After the year we’ve had, with so much worry, heartbreak and strain, it was truly wonderful to kick back and enjoy this barmy show. Sat in the gardens of the Holburne Museum, it was a treat to be laughing along with adults and children alike as we watched this zany tale unfold. The set is beautifully realised by the aptly named Cory Shipp, with the bow and stern of the Wave marking out the dimensions of the actor’s stage, while lurking off the stern by the audience is a stunning sculpture of a sea serpent. It all adds to the bold, childish world this show paints, and I mean childish in the best sense; this show feels like the projection of a child’s dream of what life on the sea might be like, complete with characters whose emotional extremes are as bombastic as any passionate youngster. These characters are fantastically realised by its cast, who utilise clowning techniques with utter precision to create individuals who are true reflections of their target audience – indeed, every child in the audience seemed rapt by the action onstage, which is itself, given most children’s attention spans, a triumph. The physical comedy is executed to perfection by all, with brilliant movement direction from Emile Clark, and in so many ways, it felt as if Christmas had come early with this pantomime-esque show.

This is a delightful piece of outdoor theatre, perfect for families looking for a different kind of summer activity in these socially distanced times, and one that I truly hope Calf 2 Cow will be able to extend through further touring. A salty, rum-soaked treat for the Summer of 2021.

Star Rating:

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The Neat Freak

When a subject becomes taboo, it is easy for misunderstanding and misinformation to fill the vacuum left by the silent unspoken. This is certainly the case with perhaps one of the world’s greatest taboos, mental health and mental ill health. Yet, while more conversations are opening up around the experiences of those who suffer with mental illness, certain mental disorders are still steeped in misinformation and ignorance. Obsessive-compulsive disorder is one such condition, and it is this disorder that forms the main crux of Moonhouse Theatre’s show, The Neat Freak.

Created by Charlie Henderson-Howat and Ellen Larson, before being developed by Larson’s own company, Moonhouse, The Neat Freak follows the story of Meg (played by Larson) through her childhood and into young adulthood. We see Meg’s obsessive behaviour grow into full fledged OCD, beginning with small rituals of watching television with her dad every night into the destructive cycle of self harming cleansing compulsions as Meg is physically and mentally eroded away by the ravenous wolf of her disorder. An ensemble chorus represent Meg’s intrusive thoughts that fuel her obsessive compulsive rituals, played by Moonhouse regulars, Laura Haybrock, Zoë Fawcett, Rob Bellamy and Odette Clark, bringing a Greek style tragedy to this very modern show.

Moonhouse Theatre peels back the layers of its complex subject matter in a way that is both emotionally powerfully and narratively engaging. It is no surprise that this is a piece shaped by people with the lived experiences of this mental disorder, for the nuanced handling of OCD in The Neat Freak is so expertly precise. Through ingenious use of movement sequences and the physicalisation of Meg’s compulsions through the chorus, the reality of living with OCD is laid bare; that living with such a condition is to live in constant fear of your intrusive thoughts becoming reality, and the only way to prevent your own self-fulfilling prophecies is to carry out your specific rituals. There is an air of the prophetess Cassandra about Meg’s character, which seems only fitting given Moonhouse’s background in Ancient Greek theatre. This is a hauntingly brilliant piece of ensemble theatre that examines a widely misunderstood condition with masterful intelligence and nuance.

Star Rating:

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ 1/2

Dirty Bath

We all have an image of our hometown, something that seemingly sums up its core essence. For some it might be a particular building, for others it might be a person or event, while for many it will be a combination of people, places and things. For fellow Bathites like myself – I was born in Bath though raised in Frome, so does that technically count? – many of us will have a very specific image of our historic hometown. For most of us, it will include the sandy-coloured stone grandeur of Georgian architecture, women clad in Regency dresses, and dog eared copies of Pride and Prejudice or Northanger Abbey. Bath is an internationally renowned city, recognised for the preservation of its period architecture, its Roman baths and association with a certain 19th Century author, but as often happens with history, certain elements of a place’s story can become lost. Over generations, the narrative of a place can become sanitised by its inhabitants or the powers that be – politics change, propaganda machines can spur into action in a bid for a booming tourist trade – the dirt and grit of a place is swept under the proverbial carpet to be forgotten. Yet, the Bath based Natural Theatre Company have done just the opposite with their interactive comedy show, Dirty Bath – they are proudly lifting up Bath’s deceptively grand carpet to reveal the grime that lurks beneath.

Directed by the Naturals’ Artistic Director, Andy Burden, Dirty Bath explores the darker, raunchier sides of Bath’s over two millennia history. Lesser known residents like the fiery Carroty Kate, the tragic Fanny Dayer, the outrageous Venanzio Rauzzini and the spooky figure of the Theatre Royal’s Grey Lady are brought to life by the ensemble cast, Alison Campbell, Amy Vickers and Florence Espeut-Nickless. Taking the usually street theatre based Natural Theatre Company out of their exterior comfort zone, the show is staged in the cosy environs of the Rondo Theatre, the playful nature of the show superbly realised in its set of piled props and packed costume rails. We are transported across time by the trio of actors as they transform themselves into their various historical personas through swift changes into a myriad of period costumes and wigs, telling the wild stories of their characters with brilliant comic timing and superbly handled moments of audience participation.

This is an incredibly funny and fun show. Following in the footsteps of Horrible Histories, what the Natural Theatre Company have achieved here is a brilliant re-evaluation of Bath’s heritage. Though the struggles of characters like Carroty Kate and Fanny Dayer are played to comic effect, the class politics at play within these two women’s stories is not lost amongst the laughter. By using humour as a lens to tackle darker subject matters, Dirty Bath uncovers the parts of Bath’s history that have been whitewashed by the privileged elite, highlighting that while Bath is so often seen as the playground of the rich – both historically and in the present – it has always been a home to people of every social strata. Indeed, as Amy Vickers excels in the roles of pompous toffs such as Beau Nash and 18th Century sexologist, James Graham, the class divides within Bath’s history are given a harsh airing as hilariously extravagant poshness is juxtaposed by the unjust treatment of the working classes and, in particular, the city’s women sex workers. There is a darkness that creeps amongst the silliness of this show, and it is this interplay between gravity and levity that really drives the narrative.

Dirty Bath is a brilliant piece of comedy theatre, executed with masterful skill by its three actors. Alison Campbell shines as the grotesque and weird characters of Rauzzini and the unnamed clueless producer of the Theatre Royal, while Florence Espeut-Nickless offers more earthy, grounded performances as Carroty Kate and William Gooch. Running at just over an hour, this is the perfect way for one to ease back into live performance, and the instant rapport the cast strikes up with its audience highlights the Naturals’ heritage as an interactive theatre company. Dirty Bath is a highly enjoyable way to spend one’s evening out.

Dirty Bath is performing at the Rondo Theatre, Bath as part of the Bath Fringe Festival from June 2nd until June 5th and June 9th until June 12th, 2021.

Star Rating:

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The Memory of Water

The return of live theatre has been, for many, something of a long wished for cause for celebration. While outdoor venues have been better equipped for the demands of social distancing and COVID associated health and safety, many of our indoor venues have remained dark. The brief flickerings of hope in the winter of 2020 proved to be a false start, but as spring begins to give way to summer in 2021, it seems that finally we theatre fans can return to our beloved performance spaces. Stepping into the Mission Theatre was my first return to indoor theatre, and as I sat in my socially distanced seat, casting my eye over my fellow masked audience members, I was touched not only by how fortunate we were to finally be in a theatre, but also the love and excitement that was emanating from this sold out audience. We were all happy to be there, but it was clear that our own jubilation was felt even more keenly by the cast and crew of Next Stage Theatre Company.

This revival of Shelagh Stephenson’s award winning comedy, The Memory of Water, is a production that has been over a year in the making. It was, like many pre-pandemic shows, a victim of lockdown closures – not once, but twice. Yet, as the saying goes, the third time was indeed the charm, and as the house lights went down over the audience, the eagerness to sample the fruits of this Bath theatre company’s labour was palpable.

Directed by Ann Ellison and performed in the round, The Memory of Water follows sisters Teresa, Mary and Catherine – played by Liz Wilson, Hayley Fitton-Cook and Georgi Bassil respectively – as they process the loss of their mother, Vi (played in ghostly form by Jane Lawson), on the eve of her funeral. What follows is a tangly drama tinged with comedy as the sisters discover the fluid, non-linear nature of memory and identity, and stumble upon some bombshell revelations that threaten to plunge the upcoming funeral into disarray.

With its pressure cooker plot line and strongly realised characters, this is a piece that demands a skilled cast to keep the narrative ticking at a pace, and Next Stage do not disappoint. Liz Wilson’s turn as the put upon and neurotic eldest sister, Teresa, brings a simmering rage that keeps the fires of the plot alive, and Teresa’s increasing inebriation is played with an assured comedic performance from Wilson. The brittle ego of Georgi Bassil’s self-centred Catherine is played to perfection, with Bassil’s levity of speech through Catherine’s ramblings at once showcasing her trappings as a fantasist and the underpinning tragedy of her neediness. The rapport between all of the cast is tangible in this show, with Mary and her married lover, Mike’s (Richard Matthews) crumbling relationship played to a painfully real anticlimax of an ending; sometimes the most devastating romantic conclusions are the quiet ones filled with cold apathy.

While the women of the piece very much take centre stage, Matthews’ performance as Mike along with Robert Edwards as the overworked Frank are never eclipsed by the glimmering rays of their partner and spouse. Matthews brings a swagger to the charming yet slightly greasy Mike, and he truly shines in his scenes with Hayley Fitton-Cook’s Mary. Meanwhile Frank is given a quiet strength by Edwards, who turns a character who could easily fall into the hen-pecked husband cliche into a man with heart and reserved drive.

The text does feel of its time, possessing many of the trappings of ensemble cast British comedies of the late 90s/early 00s, but its use of metaphor and imagery concerning memory and its intangibility remain as fresh as ever. The often tricky staging of in the round is perfectly balanced and beautifully executed by the cast, while the subtle lighting changes between dream and reality clearly moves the audience between these two realms of consciousness with ease.

As re-introductions into theatreland go, Next Stage Theatre Company’s production of The Memory of Water is a real treat. Superbly performed by its cast and confidently staged, this is a high quality production that will leave you feeling excited for the long awaited return of live performance.

The Memory of Water is performing at the Mission Theatre, Bath as part of the Bath Fringe Festival from May 25th until May 27th and June 7th until June 9th, 2021.

Star Rating:

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Me ‘Ansum

Perhaps one of the most creatively exciting things to come out of lockdown has been the rise and evolution of digital theatre. Though born somewhat from necessity during the COVID pandemic, I am fascinated to see how digital performances play with narrative form within this new sub-genre of theatre. In watching Blonde Boss Theatre Company’s show Me ‘Ansum, I was struck by the form changing possibilities of digital theatre, and how the conventions of recorded media and theatrical work could be effectively hybridised.

Me ‘Ansum is a patchwork piece, created by its founders Leonie Barnes-Wake, Lydia Webb and Georgi Bessey, featuring original monologues and songs by Eleanor Sawyer, Morgan Waters, Megan Robertson, Tianna Weir, Fran Harman and Josie Lauren Ellis. Me ‘Ansum’s central plot follows Saff and Bella, two students navigating the new socially distanced world of further education, as they bond over a joint university project and begin to realise that their feelings for one another might not be entirely platonic. Intercut with the ensemble cast’s monologues and music, Me ‘Ansum explores the highs and lows of love, sex and relationships for LGBTQIA+ women in the West Country.

This is a truly charming piece of queer theatre. So often, women’s same sex relationships are not given the space for happiness and tenderness. Indeed, most LGBTQIA+ romances portrayed in the media usually end in tragedy, but this is particularly so for women characters in same sex relationships. Me ‘Ansum, however, brilliantly avoids this trope. The way in which Me ‘Ansum plays with narrative form really enhances the emotional impact of the piece, with the changes in pace provided by the monologues in between the central plot line’s story bringing a greater breadth and depth in showcasing queer women’s experiences. If Saff and Bella’s story functions as the show’s backbone, the monologues and song (written and performed beautifully by Tianna Weir) are the show’s organs, fleshing out what could be a simple rom-com into a show with guts, brains and heart. This is a heart-warming half hour of digital theatre, one which embraces the parameters of its online medium and sores with it to funny, riveting and thought provoking heights.

Star rating:

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Nhair

Theatre is the space of the taboo. Whether it’s one of Ibsen’s domestic dramas, an in-yer-face play or even a Wildean farce, theatre has been the church of the unspoken and the unseen. Its inherently political nature – for all stories hold their own implicit politics – means that often it is a space to give voice to the topics we tend to steer clear of in polite conversation. Difficult topics are given air, whether through metaphor or humour or bluntly forthright discussion, and it is this quality that makes me excited for this art form – a quality which Conny Hancock and Greedy Pig Theatre Company’s R&D co-production Nhair plays with in beautiful fashion.

This autobiographical solo performance follows Conny in her quest towards a beautiful green garden and bodily autonomy. Diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome, Conny struggles with issues of self image and the pressures of societal expectations of beauty as her symptoms present, among other things, as excessive hair growth, and it is this symptom more than any other that forms the central conflict of the piece. Through intercut scenes in doctor’s surgeries, pokey rented property gardens, and bustling pub poetry nights, we witness Conny’s journey towards self realisation and acceptance of her physical identity.

Nhair is a joy to watch, with its charmingly realised garden set – complete with bunting and technicolour synthetic plants – and Hancock’s natural and honest performance. Hancock’s background as a poet is utilised with clever skill as the imagery of her barren, overworked garden is interwoven with her own struggles with her body image, and coupled with her irreverent humour, this is an entertaining and thoughtfully challenging piece. While there is still room for fine tuning with regards to plot – certain threads such as Conny’s relationship with George deserve to be teased out more – this is an accomplished R&D performance that holds promise as powerful piece of theatre.

Star rating:

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The Seven Stages of Woman

Music is universal. It transcends the usual barriers of communication and translation; in its rhythms and phrases we can interpret the mood and atmosphere of a piece as keenly as any well crafted dialogue. Musical lyrics are themselves a unique form of poetry, and I am always in awe of those who are able to create a story within the precise structure of song. So in watching Fitzwarren Musician’s song cycle, The Seven Stages of Woman, I was intrigued to see how the complexity of womanhood would be portrayed within a musical medium.

Written by Jeannette Owen, with lyrics by Philippa Johnson, The Seven Stages of Woman is a collection of seven songs in different classical styles exploring the life of an unnamed woman, from babyhood to old age. Performed by musicians Abi Owen (viola), Alice Thomas (clarinet), Amanda Ayling (flute) and Jeannette Owen (flute), and singers Danielle Stacey-Evans and Mandy Bohun, this movement of songs cleverly plays with the styles of lullaby, polka, folk song and tango to evoke the changing developmental and emotional states of its central character. The music is beautifully realised by its musicians, with a great performance from its soprano, Stacey-Evans, who portrays the younger embodiment of the piece’s heroine with an assured vocal presence. Yet, while this is a musically strong piece, the lyrics often fall short in matching the assured tone of the score. Indeed, while Danielle Stacey-Evans’ beautiful soprano lifts the writing, the second half of the cycle falters with a more vocally nervous performance from alto, Mandy Bohun.

The Seven Stages of Woman is, conceptually, an intriguing piece, but in its execution it does not quite hit the mark. While the music is sweet on the ear, the story told through the lyrics offer a somewhat reductive view of womanhood, confining its tale to the age-old feminine archetypes of maiden, mother, crone. It is a piece worthy of further development – there is much potential to be had with its subject matter, and certainly, this is a talented group of performers – but in its current iteration, The Seven Stages of Woman misses the mark of musical ingenuity.

Star rating:

⭐️⭐️