Review: The History Boys by Alan Bennett

In a time where the importance of arts & culture in education is being devalued, (the threat of theatre studies being removed from the national curriculum, alongside continuing cuts across the arts council), Sell A Door Theatre’s production of The History Boys by Alan Bennett couldn’t be more relevant & urgent in its commentary on the current state of education.

It is 1984. We are in an un-named school near Sheffield where we meet Hector, played wonderfully by Richard Rycroft, teaching his young pupils in what may be labelled as a ‘General Studies’ lesson, but is so much more than that. The boys sing, quote & perform their way through Hardy, Orwell, even the Carry On series, and we think to ourselves “what wonderful, well rounded young men”. We look on these lessons with pure jealously, but we soon learn that these lessons are not regarded as important – as the boys and their headmaster believe they can’t possibly use anything from those lessons within their Oxbridge entry exams.

Enter Irwin – a very young cover teacher, brought in to help the boys succeed in the exams. David Hutchinson adopts the role of Irwin in a delicate and precise manner – despite his intelligence and charisma when he is teaching, Hutchinson shows the audience a weedy, painfully unconfident side of Irwin. Much like his figure in his clothes, we get the sense that Irwin doesn’t quite fill out his role as a teacher – a view shared by Hector when he finds that the poems and plays the boys have learnt in his lessons, have been reduced to tools to succeed in an exam.

The performance is narrated beautifully (both verbally and musically) throughout by the character of Scripps, played with sincerity by Joe Morrow. Scripps inquisitive nature as an aspiring journalist becomes our point of access to the more subtle relationships between the boys.

Directed with delicacy and attention, every subtle look, laugh & response to each other builds a natural and empathetic admiration for the characters, so by the time we arrive at the results of the exams and interviews, the audience are desperate for the boys to succeed.

A solid piece of theatre: subtle, intelligent and performed with a great collaborative energy. Just as life is like pass the parcel: take it, feel it, pass it on: seeing the show is a decision I took, felt, and am passing on to you.

Running till Sunday 24th June at Greenwich Theatre

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Review: The Coming Storm – Forced Entertainment

Forced Entertainment – arguably the original company to experiment & devise within the UK theatre scene, have made a great return to form with their new show, The Coming Storm.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing four productions live, as well as numerous live recordings of shows. So as I entered the beautiful Battersea Arts Centre and saw the single microphone laying on the floor & racks of clothes either side…. I started to get a sense of how the evening was about to unfold.

Whilst some could see this as a negative; arguing that once something is established, its boundaries are no longer being challenged and pushed, i ask for those people to remember that feeling of seeing Forced Entertainment for the first ever time, and question whether they would change any of the components & techniques that facilitated that experience.

Filled with stories (some heartfelt, others grossly exaggerated) Cathy, Terry, Claire, Phil, Richard & Robin take us on a journey through “storytelling”, failing spectacularly at every hurdle. We witness terrible impersonations of forests, several times (“because it looked like fun”) and hear fragments, moments that we may have heard before, in different ways, in different contexts.

For those more used to admiring character work within the theatre, seeing Forced Entertainment is like a master class in the performative body. We see them, as performers, as human beings (and they return the favour through continual reference to the audience), which makes the whole experience that little bit more, well, human. It is why we make theatre after all.

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Review: A Womb With A View – Pinkanoe Theatre

I love comedy sketches.

In fact, I write them in my head all of the time. Situational comedy sketches. Absurd comedy sketches.

However, if someone said to me ‘right, lets me a show about pregnancy in the 90’s’, i’d probably ask them to put their copy of The Female Eunuch.

Entering the intimate lounge space of Leicester Square theatre to the sounds of ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’, ‘All That She Wants (Is Another Baby)’ and various other 90’s-classics-with-baby-in-the-title tracks, I started to get a sense of fun and anticipation in the air.

As I was introduces to of four northern women, whose lives intertwine through the waiting room of a family planning clinic…

I feel a kick in my stomach.

No silly reader, I’m not pregnant, I’m in fits of laughter, because i’m watching four women dancing with knitted sperms, Irish dancing to B*witched, falling around and improvising banter with the audience like absolute pros.

It was probably one of the most enjoyable pieces of devised theatre I’ve seen in a while. Something that did more than just follow the process, but eek all of the funniness of the process out and utlilse it in performance. Original theme, great research, hillarious one-liners and quick, clever scene changes (even the scene changes were utilised for laughs). And magically, it didn’t alienate the male audience at all.

So good job girls, and remember, BREATHE!!

A Small Review of Matilda The Musical

Anyone who knows me knows I’m not a particularly big fan of musicals.

Ok, that’s an understatement, a MASSIVE understatement.

It isn’t often that musicals provide an insight into human life: other than that of the ‘American Dream’ we all supposedly follow, and the happy ending we always experience (followed by what seems like an infinite number of encores of the worst song in the production, delivered in terrifying key changes).

But there is just something about Matilda that made me fall in love with the art form of musical theatre.

Maybe it’s the punk-style-anarchic lyrics of Tim Minchin, campaigning for equality and fairness through the voice of a sweet little girl. Or maybe it’s the witty exchanges between observant, intelligent child vs. ignorant, idiotic adult in Dennis Kelly’s writing. Or maybe it’s the fact that everything seems to magically appear from nowhere – tables, chairs, libraries, everything. I am a fan of wheels, but this took it to a whole new level, one that arguably upstaged some of the action.

Speaking of things magically appearing: I even forgot Matidla gained her special powers until it happened 80% of the way in. There was a sense that perhaps this was due to the difficulty of staging it, but it just showed that through excellent writing, you can see the humanity in the story and its resonance over the magical.

However, Bertie Carvel showed the whole world what character acting was all about. I can’t tell you his process, but I can guarantee that locking yourself away in some Strasburg-style ‘method’ could never have achieved the level of excellence that he achieved with the role of Miss Trunchbull. In a theatre that size, everything boils down to two things: physicality & voice as the carriers of character – and the beauty of making her larger-than-life, yet so believable, deserves so much praise (and more awards, hint hint).

Overall it was one of the best musicals I’ve seen. Possibly because its filled with adorable kids (who you’d have to be Miss Trunchbull to criticize for their acting), or possibly because its politics hidden through the triple threat of musical theatre.