Bea and the Winter Winds

The winter season is one of inherent magic and wonder. As the Winter Solstice approaches with the coming of longer, lighter days, and the prospect of mid-winter festivals and holidays offer some joyous respite from the cold and the damp, we find ourselves drawn to the bewitching power of stories. Now is the time for Christmas Specials of our favourite shows, of reading classics like Dickens’ A Christmas Carol whilst sipping on warm hot chocolate or mulled wine, and if you were raised in the UK, most of us will be familiar with the traditional Christmas theatre outing to the annual pantomime. 2020 has been an extraordinary year for all of us, and while many of our usual traditions have been thrown into a state of flux in light of these strange and unusual times, there is still magic to be found in the telling of seasonal tales.

Though many Christmas shows this year have made the move into digital performance, it was with incredible fortune that I was able to see the new and charming creation of Black Hound Productions within an actual theatre. Indeed, stepping into an auditorium for the first time in over nine months was a rather emotional moment, and there was a strong sense within the show itself of the weight of this tenuous new world of performance during a pandemic. The significance of this play being able to perform in these times when giants of the London theatre scene have fallen silent was not lost in this play, and in many ways, this subtle self awareness strengthened the poignancy of this already pretty poignant show.

Created by Patrick Withey and Benjamin Hardy-Phillips, with a story based upon a Bulgarian folk tale, Bea and the Winter Winds tells the story of a young girl’s journey to save the Spirit of the Feast from the clutches of the wicked Jack Frost, and thus prevent the world from falling into an eternal winter. It’s the perfect recipe for a family show at Christmas, and Black Hound Productions deliver something truly magical. With a set that feels inspired by the minimalist, almost steam-punk esque creations of recent Bristol Old Vic and National Theatre productions, and songs that would have even the most curmudgeonly Scrooge tapping their feet, this charming show is the perfect way to indulge in the spirit of the season. Indeed, after the year this has been, we certainly need a healthy dose of joyous escapism.

Anabella Fairgrieve shines as the titular Bea, providing the bright, warm heart of the show as we follow her on her adventures through the frozen woods and mountains on her quest to save the Feast. Her talents truly soar in the musical numbers, and indeed Fairgrieve should be one to look out for on the musical theatre circuit in years to come. Then of course, what would a Christmas show be without its larger than life villain? Pete White gives us just that with his vampy Jack Frost, strutting about the stage like a crystalline Mick Jagger, ready to turn any swooning fangirls into icicles – he commands the stage with just the right amount of nefarious evil and showman’s panache. Yet it is the comedic talents of Patrick Withey and Tiffany Rhodes that really captured my heart. I’ve always been the one to fall in love with the anthropomorphic animal side kicks of fairytale heroes, and indeed, Alistair McNutty and Rita Squeaker are two characters worthy of such adoration. The rapport between Rhodes and Withey was a joy to watch, and their mirthful addition to the narrative pulls the story away from any kind of over earnestness.

This is a joyful show that provides a real festive tonic after a strange and tumultuous year. In these socially distanced times, Bea and the Winter Winds reminds us of the value of stories and community. Even if we can’t be with one another in the ways we usually are, we can still recognise our appreciation of one another and live in the hope that this long metaphorical winter of COVID-19 will soon be broken. For now, we can take pleasure in the small things, and shows like Bea and the Winter Winds certainly offer a bit of heartfelt sparkle at this festive time of year.

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:

⭐️⭐️⭐️

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: