My Jerusalem

Theatre should challenge us. All theatre, as with all narratives, are inherently political, but some are more overt in their presentation than others. Jerusalem is perhaps one of the most politically contentious cities (and subjects) in the world, so the discussion of this holy city in any play will always be in someway contentious, and given the the recent and ongoing events in Gaza, this is even more the case than ever. Avital Raz’s choice, as an Israeli, to name the piece My Jerusalem is a provocative one, but as the show unfolds, it becomes clear that this title is a subjective one; this is a solo performance that is self aware in its biases and individual perspective.

Created in response to the controversy and themes that arose from her 2013 song, The Edinburgh Surprise, My Jerusalem is an autobiographical, multi-media show that explores performer and musician Avital Raz’s life and her relationship with her home city and state. The original song is woven throughout the piece, bookmarking the chapters of Raz’s non-linear recollections as she occupies the liminal space of her paired down stage. Footage and video montages from the song’s music video and film that was created by Chris Davis, and still images of Jerusalem by Jimmy Spaceman are projected upon Raz, washing her and her space with the potent imagery of drunken fumblings, sacred architecture and nocturnal Edinburgh streets. It is a visually and audibly beautiful piece of theatre, with Raz’s gorgeous vocals making her starkly blunt lyrics all the more shocking. Her prose is just as brutally honest and unflinching, offering us this complicated, often murky and conflicted view of her life and growing up in Western Jerusalem.

This is, in many respects, an uncomfortable watch. It is a beautifully crafted show and Raz’s talent as a performer is unquestionable, but there are some difficult truths and flaws within the piece. It is intentionally provocative, and Raz’s relationship with Israel and Jerusalem are complex. She does not shy away from the failings and bigotry she has seen shown by many Israeli’s – the sequence, from which the show gets its title, where an orthodox Jewish woman berates a teenage Raz for dressing in “immodest” clothing is particularly unsettling – and she is unflinching in her recollections of the systemic sexism that pervades the Israeli military and other institutions. Yet, the song that flows at the heart of this piece remains inherently problematic; the sexual encounter between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man in a bedroom in Edinburgh remains consensually murky at best, and I can see why many critics felt it perpetuated the stereotype of Palestinian male aggression. What is probably intended to be a clever subversion of real world events diminishes the horrors and systematic violence Palestinians are facing, and though there is nothing black and white about the events that have and are taking place in the Middle East, this felt like an ill judged creative choice. Though it is a fascinating piece of theatre, My Jerusalem is far from perfect. It left me thinking, as a child of a great colonial power, now should be the time for colonised voices to be lifted, and that despite all of Raz’s criticisms of her country, whether one’s own cultural biases can ever be truly wiped clean from one’s work.

Star Rating:

⭐️⭐️⭐️

Light On Showcase: Series 2

Despite the relaxing of COVID restrictions with the advent of “Freedom Day”, the world of theatre remains a very precarious one. Many productions have already had to pause in their runs as production teams have been required to self isolate. It is tenuous time to be working in this industry – even more tenuous than it usually is – so it is refreshing to find, within the mire of legitimate fear and stress, a series of works that attempt to cut through the limitations theatre currently faces and produce work that is both challenging and entertaining in equal measure.

Lights Down Productions returns for a second series with its brilliant Light On Showcase, bringing together 15 actors and 10 directors to perform the works of 10 writers. With narratives ranging from a daughter’s struggle to retrieve the front door keys her dog swallowed, to a new mother’s struggles with adjusting to her family’s new addition in lockdown, to the examination of the trailblazing though somewhat controversial Hollywood star, Hattie McDaniels, the scope of this series is broader and more adventurous than its first iteration. Indeed, there is a confidence and self-assuredness that seeps through ever pore of this series with the full embracement of its digital world setting; the gags and foibles of our now Zoom dominated lives are particularly slick in Vicky Richards’ Funny Old World and Tracey Hayward’s Sisters.

Lights Down once again bring a brilliantly skilled and strong creative team to this showcase, with moments of high comedy being tempered by beautifully controlled moments of naturalism. Sinead Ward is brilliantly infuriating as a seemingly hyper critical mother in Funny Old World, making Melanie Crossey’s growing frustrations as a children’s party clown all the more potent; I think any of us who have had experience in teaching or the children’s entertainment industry will recognise the spine crawling dissatisfaction of Crossey’s character. Bethan Leyshon’s quiet tragedy in Caley Powell’s I Wish I Was Clean beautifully places the writing into high naturalism, allowing the narrative structure’s unnerving conclusion to land with even more power. The detailed naturalism of Julia Papp’s performance in Judy Upton’s Moths is also beautifully handled, shining a light on the stories of those who have often been conveniently forgotten in our national pandemic narrative. The power of Kate Webster’s writing in Her (R)age blooms to full maturity with Shereener Browne’s performance, who strikes every beat with measured precision and a gorgeously multifaceted quality that details the complexity of her character. Indeed, this is an ambitious follow up to a strong premier showcase, and Lights Down excels in its ambition to lift up the voices of women in theatre.

Star Rating:

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Light On Showcase: Series 1

Digital theatre is the future. At least, that’s what I think. Of course, it can never replace live performance but I think as we move forward in this COVID world, I believe digital theatre is an essential art form that must continue. Not only does it address many of the accessibility limitations of live theatre, with so many of our old Victorian buildings still lacking disabled access, as well as the limitations with captioned and audio description services for theatre productions; digital theatre could be a way in which to reach audiences who often feel ostracised by the very infrastructure of live theatre. Not to say that digital theatre is in itself universally accessible, but it also offers theatre company’s a more autonomous platform in which to showcase their work. It can be a way for under-represented voices to bypass the difficulties of traditional theatre programming and the myopathy of certain industry gatekeepers in order get their work produced and shown to audiences. Lights Down Production’s Light On Showcase combines this independent spirit of producing with the rebellious streak of working in this pandemic era with impressive verve.

Produced by Caley Powell, and featuring the works of ten women writers, the Light On Showcase is a collection of five monologues and five duologues, ranging across the spectrum of drama and comedy with a cast of thirteen actors. It’s a brilliant body of work, with narratives ranging from a sweet couple lamenting their COVID delayed wedding day, a truck driver’s magically strange nocturnal encounter, an American and a Brit looking to swap nationalities via a dating app type service, to a queer couple trying to photoshop their own digital wedding – Light On covers a lot of narrative bases and appeals to a wide demographic.

This is a fascinating anthology of tales with some truly excellent performances. Jodyanne Richardson shines in Judy Upton’s The White Hart, elevating the already beautifully mercurial writing into a space of intimate naturalism. Emilie Maybank brings a detailed performance to her own writing in CitizenSwap.com as the simmering pain and anguish of her character is played with wonderful skill. Saba Nikoufekr and Josie Sedgwick-Davies have gorgeous chemistry in Maybank’s I Digitally Do while the musicality and tenderness of Catherine O’Shea’s Milton Keynes State of Mind are expertly brought to life by Moureen Louie and Gracie Lai. While some of the pieces could have benefited more from embracing the socially distanced constraints of their production, this is an impressive showcase of talent and passion for this art form we call theatre. Work like this reminds us that creativity can still bloom in adversity and that, in and of itself, is incredibly inspiring.

Star Rating:

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

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:

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

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:

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

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:

⭐️⭐️

Mother Tongue

Apocalyptic plots and stories of hubristic doom feel as close to reality as ever in these troubling times. Yet, like any disaster movie worth its salt or well crafted piece of speculative science fiction, there is something unnervingly comforting and compelling about these narratives. Perhaps it’s the feeling of superiority about not being in quite so dire a situation, or the sense that eventually our heroes will pull through against all odds – it’s difficult to pin point what exactly it is about these ill-fated tales that draws us in, but like a moth to the flame, we are entranced.

It was this feeling of entrancement that best describes my reaction to Bath Spa Production and the Wardrobe Ensemble’s new devised piece, Mother Tongue. A modern re-imagining of the Tower of Babel story, Mother Tongue examines the double edged sword of human nature – our desire for advancement at the cost of social altruism, our need to communicate at the cost of misinterpreting cultural nuance, our need to discover and expand at the cost of indigenous destruction – through a distinctly sci-fi lens. Through use of distinctively choreographed movement, choral speech and brilliantly crafted moments of near naturalistic dialogue, Mother Tongue paints a rich tapestry of humanity’s faults and strengths, overseen by the unnerving hive mind of a mysterious pantheon of six unspecified deities.

This is a brilliantly accomplished piece of devised theatre that brings an age old story to a very immediate near reality. At times, Mother Tongue feels like a theatrical extension of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror before swooping more into the unnerving realm of Darren Aronofsky’s cinematic biblical allegories. It is a piece of theatre that leaves one questioning and disturbed in equal measure, but most of all, it’s a production that leaves you with a sense of wonder at the fluid and metamorphic nature of theatre as an art form; there truly is no other kind of creative expression quite like theatre.

Star Rating:

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

SUPER SPREADER, sex in lockdown

Lockdown, social distancing and… sex? It’s a tricky combination that many of us have had to try and navigate in this COVID world. Add in the already awkward baseline of repressed British self expression and you have a field ripe for comedy picking. This is the brilliant basis behind theatre collective From Rags to Witches’s spoof dating show, Super Spreader: sex in lockdown.

Over the course of this half hour show, we are introduced to Helen (a bookish food journalist), Dwayne (a football mad gamer), Tag (a closeted young bartender), Meg (a polyamorous conceptual artist), Archie (an up and coming rapper) and Jennifer (a bubbly call centre operator), all of whom have been unlucky in love. It’s an amusing mix of clashing characters, yet what makes Super Spreader even more intriguing is how writers and performers Alex Wollacott, Holly Leggett and Vanessa Ndema play with the show’s casting; not only are the women of the show played by Wollacott, Leggett and Ndema, but so too are the men.

Donning masculine drag, Dwayne’s Bristolian bravado is brought to life by Alex Wollacott, as Holly Leggett brings a sweet tenderness to the tragic figure of Tag, while Archie’s hilarious lack of self awareness is given a skillfully underplayed performance by Vanessa Ndema. Indeed, it is in these three key performances that Super Spreader’s strength lies as a comedy. Wollacott and Ndema shine with particular verve as Dwayne and Archie, inhabiting the clumsy macho nature of their alter-egos with a comedic edge that cuts through the sometimes awkward timing of other scenes. Leggett’s Tag, meanwhile, brings a more gentle comedy to temper the other two more brash male performances, touching on the toxic masculinity within internalised homophobia in a way that tips the scales between comedy and tragedy.

Super Spreader is a fun half hour that follows in the tradition of many great British mockumentaries, and while some of the comedy beats don’t quite land, the show’s drag kings are the true stars of the piece; I hope, perhaps, this won’t be the last we see of Dwayne, Tag and Archie.

Star Rating:

⭐️⭐️⭐️ 1/2