how to live a jellicle life: life lessons from the 2019 hit movie musical ‘cats’

I will freely – though somewhat nervously – admit that I am not a huge musical fan. This seems like something akin to sacrilege within the theatre world. Many who work within the industry, it seems, began their love affair with the arts through the medium of musicals. Trips to see a big West End show often bookmark the chapter of an artist or theatre fan’s blossoming adoration for the art form, but that never happened for me. Musicals as a theatre and narrative format has never held a burning candle in my heart, but that isn’t to say I hate them. They’re not my forte, but I appreciate the artistry, and I do enjoy film adaptations of musicals; West Side Story always brings me to tears and Chicago was a formative awakening for my young, queer self. Yet, I am seemingly in the minority of people who has never ventured to see the 2019 adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats. This film was, in many respects, a cultural ‘moment’ for 2019, and while I have never seen it, you’d have to have been living under a rock not to be aware of the impact this film had on the cultural consciousness. So in going to see Awkward Production’s new creation, how to live a jellicle life: life lessons from the 2019 hit movie musical ‘cats’, I felt like perhaps I was finally engaging with this cinematic phenomenon in a way that I had been unable to way back in the pre-pandemic world.

Written and performed by Linus Karp, how to live a jellicle life takes us through the many qualities it takes to be a jellicle creature and how we can apply these to our every day lives. Conceived in the format of a Ted Talk spoof, Karp proposes his thesis argument through that wondrous medium of presentation making, the PowerPoint. Punctuated with moments of dance, choreographed by Sam Carlyle, and a satirical ‘fake’ intermission, how to live a jellicle life immerses its audience in the non-sensical, bonkers world of T.S. Eliot, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tom Hooper’s creation, introducing us to its cast of jellicle felines in a way that is approachable for both established fans and newcomers to the world of Cats. The enigma of what it is to be ‘jellicle’ is demystified through the hilariously animated slides, and there is a sense that in simply watching the show, we the audience have become a little more jellicle.

This is a brilliantly funny love-letter-come-satire of the 2019 movie, Cats. Karp’s humour moves between the surreal and the self aware with masterful ease, and coupled with Joseph Martin’s tech and production support, the sparse style of the show perfectly accentuates the cognisant satire of the piece. Alison Carlyle’s costume design is a beautiful call back to the iconic costumes of the original stage production of Lloyd Webber’s musical – the filmed version of which is seared into my memory from watching during many rainy school breaks – and the nostalgia of the PowerPoint presentation design, with its use of stock images, animated text and Comic Sans font, is a perfectly pitched piece of Millennial/Gen Z humour. Silliness abounds within how to live a jellicle life and it is a true joy to experience – a purrfect comedic concoction!

Star Rating:

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ 1/2

The Last Thing He Saw Was A Ferret

There’s something about the nature of web series that is both enigmatically exciting and challenging. In the world of online streaming platform giants like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+, web series as an art-form could have easily become obsolete. Micro formats like TikTok have become incredibly popular as a form of entertainment for online users, particularly amongst younger generations, so the short to medium forms of YouTube web series and vlogs could have begun to lose their relevance. Could, being the key word, because in many respects, the indie creations that have appeared on YouTube and Vimeo have in many ways been some of the most formally interesting and ingenious narratives to have been produced in recent years. These self-publishing platforms have allowed artists to experiment with their craft in ways that many before them would not have been able to whilst concurrently growing an audience for their work. Web series can play with narrative and cinematic style in ways that studio and contract bound productions cannot and this is what makes them so exciting to watch; there’s a risk to them that you don’t really get with a lot of television or film. Could this be a revolutionary piece of art, or a clumsily hashed piece of dross? With the internet, it can be a bit of a pot luck, but with Greedy Pig Theatre Company’s latest project, The Last Thing He Saw Was A Ferret, we are offered a true treat of online drama.

Co-written by Gabrielle Finnegan and Douglas Murdoch, The Last Thing He Saw Was A Ferret, is a five part thriller where the events of a disastrous student flat party are gradually revealed. Student friends Eli (Russell Eccleston), Lulu (Inez Solomon), Hettie (Kyiah Ashton) and London (Nell Bailey) recount what happened in the lead up to their flatmate Angelo’s (Michael Difford) fall from their flat window, involving a rather disgruntled ferret of all things. Each episode focuses on a single character’s testimony of the party’s events, and as the characters reveal more about their relationships with one another through these intimate monologues, the dark, tangled web of what – or who – caused Angelo’s potentially fatal fall is revealed in all its sinister glory.

I love a good mystery – it’s probably why my favourite genres are horror and thrillers, and in some ways, The Last Thing He Saw Was A Ferret falls into both genres. The tension of each episode, cultivated by Lex Kaby and Alicia Pollard’s direction, Alex Latham’s lighting and Finn MacNeil’s sound design and composition, is perfectly balanced with the vulnerable performances of the ensemble cast. The choice to have the characters’ monologues framed by whether their testimony veers towards honesty or dishonesty is a brilliant conceit that ramps up the tension and suspicion about each of the characters, and with all five episodes running at roughly ten minutes, the unfurling mystery truly becomes addictive watching. In the fifth episode’s final moments, as the truth and context of what happened is revealed through ingenious cuts between the different character’s accounts – edited to perfection by writer Douglas Murdoch – the brilliance of this series’ writing reveals its masterstroke. This is a brilliantly executed thriller that utilises its minimalist cinematic design in order to create a tense, intriguing plot that neatly ties up its many threads in a cleverly satisfying ending.

Star Rating:

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

In Bad Taste

What if the answer to capitalism was to eat the rich? We’ve all heard the phrase – popularised via meme in the early part of 2020, whose roots are based in an abbreviated quote from the political philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau – but what if this provocative statement was actualised in reality? One of the beautiful things about art is that we are able to wonder at the what ifs of life, and theatre can bring these what ifs into a physical realism – or surrealism, as the case may be. Theatre is provocative, as all art forms are, and sometimes that provocation stirs from the darkest parts of human experience. Cannibalism is, within Western society, an enormous taboo. Though the consumption of meat is seen traditionally as an indication of social standing – the types of meat people consume have always had enormous, albeit shifting, significance to one’s economic situation – the act of eating human flesh is viewed in the European tradition of morality as inhuman. In Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, the image of a mother eating her own sons who have been baked into a pie is a horrifying image of the ultimate revenge, while the true life stories of the Donner Party and Franklin’s lost expedition to the Arctic are often viewed as real life horror movies. So in bringing perhaps one of the biggest cultural taboos to the stage, Sixteen Sixty Theatre are challenging their audience to consider how far morality can be twisted in order to serve a perceived great good.

Written by Daisy Kelly, In Bad Taste follows Violet (Rachel Ferguson) and her tight knit group of friends (played by Daisy Kelly, Kirby Merner, Léonie Crawford and Chloe Pidhoreckyj) as they decide to exact revenge on Violet’s investment banker boss in a somewhat… novel way. What begins as a surreal first draft of a socialist revolution becomes a new, visceral (with extra viscera) wave of feminism. As each of the women fall further into this strange, dark and twistedly funny world of cannibalising misogynists, the real world of law and order begins to catch up with them. Will their feminist message be missed amongst the media hubbub or will they indeed stoke the fires of a new, carnivorous revolution?

I love dark humour, or, more specifically, dark humour that has a purpose to it. The grotesque isn’t something that particularly shocks me so long as it has a well reasoned intention behind it, and In Bad Taste certainly utilises the grotesque to make a point about how misogyny is not addressed in our culture. Indeed, the highlights of this show for me were the moments of utter absurdism in the face of one of the most horrific acts a human being can commit – the fourth wall breaking, surreal moments of stylised running sequences and alibi planning were cleverly choreographed and achieved the kind of hilarious jump cuts that offset the grim reality of the characters’ situation. However, there was a lack of grounded passion and emotional focus from some of the cast that left the more serious elements of the plot floundering in apathy. While Kelly and Crawford balance the comedy and tragedy with expert flare, there is a lack of any real anger or outrage within the show’s atmosphere. In the closing moments of In Bad Taste, this female led theatre company lay down their creative thesis for the show in a beautiful spoken word style verse, and at the heart of this thesis is rage; rage at the society that continues to abuse those who identify as women. But within the main body of this play, there is more irreverent humour than rage. Anger can be an incredible fuel for comedy, but in this dark comedy, the fires that could be raging are only gently flickering.

Star Rating:

⭐️⭐️⭐️

The White Heart Inn

Horror is a genre that has pervaded human civilisation since the dawn of time. Stories told around primordial camp fires that connect with a culture’s foundations myths often feature great monsters, ghoulish figures and celestial spirits. Indeed, the concept of an afterlife is something that defines us from other animals; the cognitive ability to think beyond our present plane of existence and to consider what lies within the unknown realms post-death. Whether you believe in an afterlife or not, it is something that has been considered and reconsidered across the millennia, and so too has the possibility of communicating with those that dwell within this beyond space. Ghosts, spirits and revenants have shaped many a mythology, and indeed, the horror genre has thrived upon the infinite possibilities of what could happen if one could interact with the dead. Yet, perhaps the most interesting ghost narratives are those that use their spooky subject matter as a lens through which to examine the darker, more uncomfortable sides of humanity. Recent horror hits like Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House and Midnight Mass have used the genre tropes and their creepy goings on as a way to delve into discussions about death, grief, family and religion in more nuanced and riveting fashion than many straight dramas. Indeed, within this vein of metaphor and allegory, the new creative collaboration from Apricity Theatre, Black Dog Productions and Dumb Blonde Theatre, The White Heart Inn, uses the horror genre as a way to explore morality, religious repression, generational trauma and bigotry in similarly fascinating fashion.

Written by Tiffany Rhodes, CJ Turner-McMullan and Russell Eccleston, and directed by Emily Malloy, The White Heart Inn follows the events of a night in the play’s titular setting. Situated in a remote, marshy corner of Cornwall, the White Hart Inn plays host to a gaggle of overnight guests – newly pregnant young couple, Otis and Melissa (Saili Katebe and CJ Turner-McMullan), ghost hunting couple, Kate and Lily (Tiffany Rhodes and Alicia Pollard), and the forever inebriated lad, Axel (Stan Elliot) – all of whom are presided over by the Inn’s twin owners, Bethel and Hector (Matilda Dickinson and Russell Eccleston). As a near biblical storm sets in, the night quickly falls into chaos as strange and seemingly supernatural occurrences begin to happen and the Inn’s eccentric owners become increasingly sinister. No one is safe from the horrors that have lain dormant in the White Heart Inn for decades, but are these horrors the work of paranormal forces or something more terrifyingly earthly?

The White Heart Inn is a very well crafted ghost story. Finn MacNeil’s sound design coupled with Esther Warren’s lighting beautifully evokes the tense, foreboding atmosphere of this dark thriller. So within this framework of creepy flickering lights, rain ASMR and otherworldly whispers, the cast thrive in their varied characterisations of the play’s inhabitants. Alicia Pollard balances Lily’s intensity and vulnerability with masterful skill, while Saili Katebe’s Otis and CJ Turner-McMullan’s Melissa glow with natural chemistry and charm. Tiffany Rhodes and Stan Elliot play with the light and shade of comic relief that transgresses into the dark and the violent, revealing the hidden depths within their characters, Kate and Axel, that truly pays off in the play’s second and third act climaxes. Yet, of course, a horror narrative would fall flat without its main antagonists. The clever switch that happens between Matilda Dickinson’s Bethel and Russell Eccleston’s Hector is a brilliant homage to the classic horror movie twist; as Eccleston’s imposing and blunt Hector reveals his inner gentleness, Dickinson’s meek and nervous Bethel blooms into disturbing malevolence. They are the dark and twisted duality at the heart of the White Hart Inn, and as the play winds down in its final moments, the true horror of the piece is revealed in all its bleak and haunting glory.

Featuring the brilliantly choreographed fight sequences you’d expect from a project involving Black Dog Productions and the precise direction of Dumb Blonde Theatre, this is a ghost story that challenges its audience to consider what is truly terrifying. While certain pacing elements could be tightened up in the play’s final moments, this is a perfect theatrical outing for any horror fan.

Star rating:

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Submission

I love dark theatre. Theatre that wades into the murkier aspects of human experience, that is challenging and nuanced in its examination of cultural taboos fascinates me. Yet, when it comes to the examination of cruelty and violence through a moralistic lens, things can become tricky. Humanity’s propensity towards violence and war has shaped much of our history. For many of us, our history education is split into chapters of the numerous wars and battles that have been fought over the centuries, and given the male dominance at play within the politics that drive these events, it wouldn’t be completely unfair to say that violence is so often associated with masculinity. Indeed, within the patriarchal binary of the masculine and the feminine, femininity is traditionally aligned with passivity. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule – some of the most famous women in history (Elizabeth Báthory, Boudicca, Joan of Arc) are remembered because of their “unfeminine” association with violence – but the fact that they are exceptional is precisely what makes them memorable. Even now, the idea of women being cruel and physically violent is shocking to many of us and the examination of such characters can be very unsettling as it brings into question many deep held cultural assumptions about gender. In their new play, Submission, Black Dog Productions tackle the question of how far people, particularly women, are willing to go in order survive.

Written by company co-founder, Alicia Pollard, and directed by Tiffany Rhodes, Submission introduces us to the grim confinement of a mysterious room in which two young women are trapped. From the get go, Girl (Ebony Cassie Corrick) and Baby (Alicia Pollard) are forced to engage in increasingly barbaric puzzles which, if they fail to solve, will result in death or electrocution via the shock collars they are locked into. Neither woman can remember their identity before their entry into this chamber of horrors, and when a young man, Caspar (Russell Eccleston), is thrown into the mix, the paranoia these women face mounts to a climax of horrifying violence.

It is a concept that many horror films have tackled, and indeed, the writing is self aware in its connection to movies such as Saw and Cube. The psychological toll and horror of these characters’ situation is beautifully captured by the actors, with Ebony Cassie Corrick and Alicia Pollard bringing some tour-de-force performances as Girl and Baby; Corrick’s determination and vulnerability as Girl is countered expertly by Pollard’s brittle and unnerving portrayal as Baby. Tiffany Rhodes brilliantly plays with the claustrophobia of the play’s setting, moving her actors like chess pieces in the grimy, bone-chillingly bleak room that is these characters’ prison cell. Yet, as the violence unfolds and the sadistic manipulation at play is revealed, Submissions final moments don’t quite deliver the satisfying deconstruction of the horror sub-genre it inhabits. What sets this piece a part is its focus on the women in it. So often in these narratives, women characters are reduced to the archetype of the victim and are not afforded the emotional complexity of their male counterparts. They lack the light and shade of morality that many male characters in horror are afforded, and while Submission attempts to subvert this, the characters are not given the space in which to reveal the depth of these complexities. It felt somewhat as if too much time had been afforded to the horror of the situation rather than the psychological subtexts at play between the characters. It is a well crafted piece of horror, but one that does not quite break the mould.

Star Rating:

⭐️⭐️⭐️

Things We Do Not Know

For me, great political theatre is that which challenges taboo. It gives voice to the unheard and ignored, bringing to light the parts of our society that are often left in the dark because they disrupt our sensibilities of what is to be a moral society. Morality is a huge concern within human cultures – what is deemed good (moral) and what is deemed bad (immoral) by a culture has shaped the lives of people across countless societies and innumerable generations. Indeed, our views around morality have changed throughout the centuries, but there is a certain strata of society that has always been a trigger point with regards to morality across numerous different cultures, and it is that of sex work. Sex, in and of itself, is a morally taboo subject for many, but as soon as monetary exchange is brought into the mix, it is like a red rag to the bull of cultural debate. The centuries old debates around sex work bring with it telling discussions about the treatment of women, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, human rights and our relationship with sexuality. It is a heady subject to dive into, but it is a subject that Process Theatre examine with nuance and care in their show, Things We Do Not Know.

Devised and developed by this female and non-binary led group, Things We Do Not Know is a semi-verbatim, semi-multimedia piece that explores the lives of female street sex workers in Bristol and the work of Bristol based charity, One25. Through live monologues performed by Ciara Flint, Keziah Spaine, Erica Flint and Ellie Buckingham, recorded interviews and a capella choral singing, we are offered glimpses into the lives of Petra, Kay, Claire, Zara, Nina and Sam. These are real stories, told in the words of the women who lived them. The stark reality of their lives, so often shaped by drugs, addiction and abuse, is brought to life in the black box space of Camden People’s Theatre, transforming the performance area into a gallery of information, statistics, names and verbatim quotes from the women and the charity that this show investigates. It is a piece that blends theatre and performance art into a multi-layered and textured creation that is both beautiful and provocative.

I must admit, I was nervous to see how this piece would handle it’s complex subject matter. Sex work is so often vilified, even by those who consider themselves to be staunch advocates for women’s and human rights. Sex workers are dehumanised or reduced to one dimensional victims whereby the bodily and monetary transactions they engage in are, in and of themselves, inherently evil. Yet, Process Theatre does not fall into this reductive narrative trap, and indeed this is down to the verbatim storytelling that drives the heart of the show. By centring the real stories of sex workers, the true villains of their lives – loneliness, abuse by male partners or family members, mental ill health and substance abuse – are brought to the fore. These women are allowed the humanity they are so often denied, and it is clear that it is not the sex work itself that is truly evil, but the misogyny, sexism and classism that pervades our society. Dramaturg Davina Chao does an excellent job in composing the various narrative strands, weaving an intricate snapshot into this unheard section of Bristolian society. The power of the performers shines throughout, with each monologue delivered with painstaking precision, and the clever use of familiar pop, rock and blues songs highlight the sexist echo chamber our society exists within. This is, at times, a difficult show to watch. It deals with difficult and upsetting subject matter that will be triggering to many, but it is, in my view, an essential creative documentation of women sex workers in the post-COVID 21st Century.

Star Rating:

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The Fish Cage

Identity is something of an enigma. It is both mercurial and solid, changing and eternal. It is shaped by the factors that influence our environments, by the events that happen in our lives and the communities we grow up in. Identity is both shaped by and in spite of the culture and history that surrounds us, and yet, parts of our identity are utterly innate and predetermined. With recent and ongoing cases such as the murder of Sarah Everard and the Plymouth shooting bringing the insidious influence of toxic masculinity into the spotlight, there are questions to be asked about what it means to be a man in the 21st Century. How has the performance of masculinity been shaped through our cultural history, and how sustainable are these traditionally gendered ideals in a world that demands equality across gender, race and sexuality? It is this questioning of identity that forms the crux of the intense drama within Greedy Pig Theatre Company’s new full length play, The Fish Cage.

Written by Douglas Murdoch and directed by Lex Kaby, The Fish Cage places itself in a Black Mirror-esque world where criminal surveillance technology has reached new heights with the invention of heat map tracking software, Recognition. But of course, with every new technological breakthrough comes the counter-tech, and in this Orwellian setting, the best way for a criminal to hide from the authorities is in the consciousness of another person. This is where we meet introverted nerd, Connor (played by Patrick James Withey), the play’s protagonist – or rather, joint protagonist – because it is Connor, or rather Connor’s body, that must play host to the consciousness of the bombastic criminal, Fish. As Connor, his older brother Ryan (Njeko Katebe) and Ryan’s girlfriend Ruby (Lorna Durham) are thrown into this madcap world of mind-transference and shadowy organisations, things only get darker as Fish makes a shocking discovery about the young man whose body he is now trapped within.

The Fish Cage is a real masterclass in writing within the genre of the thriller. With all its twists and turns and spine-tinglingly satisfying reveals, Murdoch’s writing sores to brilliant heights with the precise and measured performances of the cast. Patrick James Withey shines in the Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde role of Connor and Fish, with Kaby’s tight direction beautifully bringing out the light and shade within Withey’s extended monologue-come-duologues; the switches in physicality and vocal energy between Withey’s two characters are utterly seamless. Njeko Katebe exudes fraternal warmth as the protective older brother Ryan, whose misplaced sympathy is all the more painful and frustrating as Lorna Durham’s Ruby counters and questions her boyfriend’s trust in his brother. As Tiffany Rhodes enters the scene in the play’s second act as Alice, she brings with her a sumptuous reinvigoration of energy and intrigue, and Rhodes’ performance is magnificent in its layers of rage, pain and dark humour. As is characteristic of any Greedy Pig production, the set for The Fish Cage is wonderfully detailed and naturalistic, allowing for Cara Hood’s lighting design in the opening scene to function as its own cast of characters; indeed, the show’s opening is utterly brilliant in translating expositional dialogue into a visually compelling piece of theatre. This is a finely executed show that hits all the beats of a crime thriller in all the right places, and examines the pressing topics of toxic masculinity and male violence towards women with the allegorical flare of a truly great piece of science-fiction.

Star Rating:

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ 1/2

The Inner Circle

New writing nights are a magical space. To see the fresh new efforts of creatives is a thrilling experience. These are spaces for experimentation, for the seeds of ideas to germinate and begin their growth into mighty behemoths of the theatre forest. Edinburgh hits and theatrical triumphs have often started life in the humble realms of new writing nights, and after the year of lockdown isolation and pandemic stresses, it was an even more magical experience returning to one of these nights of showcasing new creative works with Circle Theatre’s The Inner Circle.

The space which Circle Theatre have chosen for this night is in itself an evocative and atmospheric one – the low ceilinged, vault space of Zed Alley creates a sense of primordial storytelling, the electric candles dotted around the peripheries of the stage giving an almost occult feeling to the night’s proceedings. It felt as if the ancient theatrical muses were being conjured up in this evening of six monologues, the spirits of artistic sharing being resurrected after a year of creative strife. Indeed, The Inner Circle is much more than just a scratch night of new writing, it is an experience – an opportunity to enjoy the works of others but also the space in which to forge new creative connections, and executive producer come MC of the night, Jonathan R. Parsonage, beautifully handles this balance of sharing and connecting.

The showcase offered a brilliantly diverse range of narratives, moving from comedy to tragedy to the utterly surreal with unfaltering skill. We open with Daisy Kennedy’s Refreshing Facebook on a Fag Break, brilliantly performed by Petra Jones and directed by Freya Taylor-Baraclough. Jones captures the frustrations of working in a creative field with little to no reward or recognition, and the jealousies that are fuelled by social media are hilariously relatable. Our next monologue, Matt, is presented by a triptych of Bens – writer Ben Banyard, director Ben Jenkins, and performer Ben Nash – and the piece explores depression and attempted suicide in men with beautiful care and nuance. Act I of the night is concluded with Thomas Besley’s Echo, directed by Simone Einfalt and performed to perfection by Nina Bright. This modern retelling of the story of Echo and Narcissus (here turned into the female Narcissa) is a sumptuous feast of lyrical spoken verse and potent imagery, and the fragility of Echo is brilliantly captured by Bright. The second half of the night provides both comedic and more outlandishly surreal tales, opening with Ruby Butcher’s fantastically funny An Observation on Flirting. Directed by Rosie Tricks and performed by Amy Harris, the use of stillness and pause is expertly utilised to enhance the beats of the gags, and Harris gorgeously captures the toe curling awkwardness of flirting in public. Georgie Bailey’s The Fibster brings a more pressure cooker, psychological thriller element to the night’s proceedings, with Gary Owston’s direction of performer Emma Wilkes honing in on the caged, trapped atmosphere of Bailey’s writing; Wilkes is beautifully mercurial in her role, at times tragic and grotesque, and others wickedly funny and cruel. The night closes with Christopher Brett Bailey’s utterly surreal the greatest mistake i ever made, directed by Casey Lloyd and performed by Elliot Winter. This utterly bonkers script is played with utter conviction by Winter, who allows the ridiculousness of this world to land with bizarre believability; it is a wonderfully weird performance.

In all, this was a night of absolutely stellar work, from both a writing and performance perspective. While I think it could have benefitted from some trigger warnings given before certain pieces, The Inner Circle triumphs with its programme of glorious new writing. If the quality of this night’s work is anything to go by, I’ll be counting down the days until the next Circle Theatre production.

Star Rating:

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Hitchhiker

Escapism is something we have all become particularly familiar with over this past year. For many of us, lockdown was a time of Netflix binges, National Theatre at Home screenings, and epic rewatches of old movie favourites. The power of story telling and its ability to transport one’s mind away from the stresses of reality were most potently felt in this time of COVID, and the genres of sci-fi and fantasy hold a particularly strong resonance with the act of imaginary escape. Yet, perhaps ironically, good science fiction has the ability to explore taboo subjects and hold up a mirror to our society in a way that many genres struggle with; the allegories and metaphors of alien worlds allows for a certain objective distance for the reader, making space for the kinds of detailed introspection that can alter one’s perceptions of our own world. But as science fiction narratives go, Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy franchise is perhaps one of the most brilliantly weird of the lot. With all its Babel fish, Vogan poetry and improbability drives, I don’t think anyone would quite expect it to be a mirror to everyday human experience, but Tea Stain Theatre accomplishes exactly this with their new show, Hitchhiker.

Written and directed by Jessy Roberts, Hitchhiker follows sound engineering student, Dougie (played by Joe Welch) after dropping out of his university course and moving back home with his mother and much younger brother, Adam. As Dougie struggles to adjust to living back home, with his child minding duties of Adam causing particular tensions between him and his mother, we are thrown into the world of Arthur Dent and the Hitchhiker’s Guide as our hero tries to escape the humdrum banality of his domestic life. But as Dougie’s relationship with his brother grows, and his self produced audio drama creation takes a disturbing turn, the truth behind his undergraduate degree abandonment is revealed and the storming emotions that bubble beneath the cool waters of this young man’s apparent apathy are given their space to rage.

The balance of humour and pain are handled with utter precision within the script, and Welch’s easy naturalism fits within the framework of this beautiful, sort-of love letter to Douglas Adams’ work. Adams had a way of turning the ordinary into the extraordinary and the extraordinary into the ordinary, and Roberts’ script perfectly captures this essence. The reveals of Dougie’s past are handled with expert care, pealing back the layers of what initially appears to be a callous lack of compassion to in fact be the residual trauma of a difficult adolescence. Dougie isn’t a wholly likeable character, but in the post-Fleabag theatre world, it’s interesting to see these darker shades of emotional turmoil expressed by a young man who does eventually try to redeem himself. Though the ending somewhat loses its punch, the nihilistic optimism of Generation Z is beautifully and candidly explored in this piece. While the script does not forgive Dougie for his mistakes, there is an uplifting sense of hope as the lights go down for the last time on stage, and the iconic strains of the Hitchhiker’s Guide theme tune play out to the close, and we are left to consider that life is not always about clear beginnings, middles and ends, but rather, it is a continuum for learning, growth and change.

Star Rating:

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ 1/2

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:

⭐️⭐️⭐️