The Nether

The Nether Play

In the virtual world of The Nether, there are different realms where the people who log in can become any character they want for a price. One realm has such superior coding, that sensations within it feel “real” and it draws a lot of returning guests. The only problem is, it’s a realm run by a paedophile.

“Papa” has created a virtual world for himself and others like him, to fulfill their fantasies so that he doesn’t act out his “urges” in the real world. But when this virtual world is so “real”, the question of what’s right and what’s wrong becomes blurred.

This complex moral argument is at the heart of Jennifer Haley’s incredibly powerful new play which transferred from the Royal Court and is now playing at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 25th April. The play raises questions about identity, reality and what it means to be human and also deals with taboo subjects like paedophilia and the continuing pace and subsequent dangers of technology. Is it good for us to be inhabiting these virtual worlds for long periods of time or do we begin to lose our sense of self? Considering that a recent Ofcom survey claimed that, in the UK, adults spend more time on media devices than they do asleep, this play is bang-up-to-date in terms of subject matter.

The Nether

The cast of 5 are all very good in their roles (with a particular nod for the understated qualities of Ivanno Jeremiah) but it’s the play and the design which are the real stars. To compliment Jennifer Haley’s pin-sharp writing and ingenious way of unfolding the story (complete with a couple of didn’t-see-it-coming twists), set designer Es Devlin and video designer Luke Halls have created a world in which the realms are represented. It’s like being inside a computer and the design is so simple and so beautiful that I would expect some award nominations to follow. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if The Nether wins best new play with best designed production to boot.

It will certainly provoke some interesting debate afterwards and that’s precisely what a company like The Royal Court does so well. Don’t be put off by the subject matter. It’s a definite must-see not only for the writing but for the visual possibilities that the theatre can offer material with a futuristic, sci-fi edge.

A Dramatic Menu

About 12 years ago, I played Angela in a dinner theatre production of Abigail’s Party which went out to Bahrain and Qatar and was one of the strangest experiences I’ve had as an actor.

Alison Steadman in the original production
Alison Steadman in the original production.

The production I was in was performed in the round on a metre-high platform surrounded by dinner tables in a 5-star hotel. We performed the play whilst ex-pats and wealthy arabs ate a three-course meal. Needless to say that performing a 70’s play, where the action centred around adults getting drunk in gulf nations where alcohol is illegal, seemed an unusual choice. But mostly, it seemed to go down very well with the diners (when they weren’t distracted by their mobile phones or dessert!)

What reminded me of this, is that in March, The Art of Dining will be holding an Abigail’s Party pop-up event – a night that includes food, drink, theatre and music, all with a 70’s theme and based on Mike Leigh’s play and film of the same name.

Abigail's Party invite

The blending and integration of various art forms – design, music, role-play, costume, food and drink (which, done well, is a kind of art form in itself) is just one of the many creative ways that companies and organisations (especially small companies or those just starting out) are trying to give their patrons and audience a new entertainment experience. Dinner out, a film or theatre excursion, is given a fresh approach in order to elevate it from your standard evening out. I’m not sure if it’s as a result of funding cuts within the arts, or people just wanting a different, more immersive experience but competition to attract paying guests seems to have led to an increase in creative ways to get bums-on-seats.

Cheesy pineapple hedgehog

Although the pop-up Abigail’s Party event won’t feature actors performing the actual play (and with chef Ellen Parr at the helm, there will be a more tasteful twist on the 70’s cheesy-pineapple-sticks-and-prawn-cocktail fare), it made me think about other possible links between the dining experience and theatre shows currently being performed.

Here’s my TOP 5:

  • Sweeney ToddTooting Arts Club had a huge hit last year with their production of Sweeney Todd set in Harrington’s Pie and Mash shop. In fact, it was such a phenomenal success that it reached the attention of none other than Sir Cameron MacKintosh and with his help they are rebuilding an exact replica of Harrington’s in London’s West End at 39-45 Shaftesbury Ave. Described as Theatreland’s first pop-up theatre venue, audience members can either partake of Mrs Lovett’s infamous pies or order jellied eels, mash and licqor whilst they watch the gruesome antics. For tickets or more info, click here.
  • The Faulty Towers Dining Experience – a third of this show is scripted but the rest is improvised as you become a “diner” at the Faulty Towers restaurant. You’ll be waited on by Basil, Sybil and Manuel so expect mayhem and shambolic service to ensue and with the food being a three-course 1970’s style menu the emphasis might be more on a comedy  rather than a quality dining experience. But that’s all part of the fun. (Just don’t mention the war….)
  • Been to see The Lion King? Want to continue the experience but in a restaurant setting?? Shaka Zulu probably comes closest.

shaka_zulu_mezzanine_3

  • There’s a distinctly Indian flavour in the current performances at the National Theatre with Behind the Beautiful Forevers and Dara. If seeing either production makes you long for the heat, colours and taste of that fascinating and vibrant country you could check out the following: Masala Zone (if on a budget), Dishoom (great for atmosphere), or for a more fancy affair, try michelin-starred restaurants like Tamarind, Amaya and Gymkhana. Of course, you’ll be spoilt for choice if you head to Brick Lane. Whilst I love a good curry, Thrillist has rated every curry house along Brick Lane. So I don’t have to. Check out their list here.
  • Ok, so it’s a cafe and not a dining experience as such. And the link is as flimsy as a wet tissue. But seeing as the musical Cats is back in the West End, I would suggest a visit to Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium. Whilst I have nothing against the actors/singers/dancers in Cats who are all very talented, I am not a fan of the musical itself. It’s just not my cup of tea (and I’m a cat lover!) What I would suggest, is that instead of seeing grown men and women prance about as cats in lycra-clad “rags” and face-paint, you have an actual cup of tea in the soothing, purring presence of real cats! All for a fraction of the cost!! Check out some of the cats here.
See this
See this
Not this.
Not this.

 

 

 

 

 

Perhaps you know of a great Vietnamese to eat at after catching a matinee of Miss Saigon? Or maybe you have some other linking culinary/theatrical suggestions.

If you do, please let me know. I’d love to add some more to the list.

Di and Viv and Rose

Di and Viv and Rose is the story of three friends who share a house during their university years and charts how their friendship changes and survives the various events that happen to each of them over the decades.

di and viv and rose

It premiered at the Hampstead Theatre in 2013 with original cast members Gina McKee, Anna Maxwell Martin and Tamzin Outhwaite and was such a sell-out hit that it recently transferred to the Vaudville Theatre in the West End. Tamzin Outhwaite who plays Di, transferred with the production and joining her in the West End are Samantha Spiro and Jenna Russell as Viv and Rose respectively.

Di

I didn’t see the production at Hampstead but as it began, I wondered if the production had been slightly adapted in terms of the design to suit a more commercial, West End stage and audience. Because of the names attached, not only the three actresses and writer (a successful comedy actress herself) but also with Anna Mackmin as director, I went with the expectation that it would be a very good, very slick, enjoyable production. But I must admit that it exceeded my expectations.

The play by Amelia Bulmore is very funny, especially the first half which bounces along with the characters’ youthful enthusiasm dealing with sex, dating, feminism and the ups- and-downs of sharing a student house. The three are totally different in personality – Di is the sporty lesbian, a warrior woman with a soft heart; Viv, the slightly disapproving intellectual and firm feminist who dresses like she’s from the 1940’s and home-maker Rose, aptly named as she sees the positive in everything and views men and the world through rose-tinted specs – but the university years see their friendship sealed and bonded for life.

Rose

The second half shows how the years take their toll on the three and there is a slight predictability to the tragedy that occurs. The first half is mostly light-hearted, good humoured froth so you know that there’s going to be some darkness to counterbalance this further down the line. But even still, I was unprepared to be so reduced to tears, kicking myself yet again for going to the theatre without packing some tissues (something you would have thought I’d have learned after seeing Visitors at the Arcola which left me a snotty-nosed wreck!).

The writing is good, the direction and design are good but what really makes this production special is the acting. Jenna Russell, Tamzin Outhwaite and Sam Spiro are SUPERB and even though they’ve been playing these roles for a while now (especially Tamzin Outhwaite), they each hit the emotional bullseye every time. Nothing was forced or seemed acted. The timing for both the comedy and the moments of high drama were spot on. Even uncontrolled giggling (something which I think is harder to act convincingly than crying) seemed so genuine that you laughed along with them even through the tears.

viv

Initially, I wondered whether the three actresses (all in their mid to late 40’s) could convincingly play 18-20 year olds (the age of the characters during the entire first half). But by the end it was clear that the production needed three actresses of sufficient mature talent and range to play the passing of time through the play and be believable as the older characters. All three were convincing throughout and I left genuinely believing that these three were the best of friends.

As a production it will possibly appeal more to women than men as it’s about female friendships but all the audience, the night I went, seemed to be laughing and enjoying themselves (with plenty of sniffles in the later, sadder parts).

So grab a friend (or two) and go celebrate the joys of friendship. Long live Di and Viv and Rose!

Viv di and rose groupshot

 

An Alternative V-Day

Valentine’s Day is the marmite of festive occasions. Love it or loathe it, there’s no getting away from the fact that if you want to head out for a meal this Saturday, you’ll struggle to find anywhere that won’t already be booked out with couples dining elbow-to-elbow in an environment festooned in pink and red with heart-shaped balloons at every turn.

If this activates your automatic gag reflex, here’s a list of alternative things-to-do in the capital this weekend.

LOATHE IT

There are a number of Anti-Valentine’s Day parties/events taking place:

Back for the third year running, Bounce will be hosting a platonic party with wood-fired pizzas, cocktails and lots of ping pong (which is what it’s known for).  There will also be a DJ and plenty of opportunity to dance the night away (with nary a slow-dance in sight). Warning – all the female allocated tickets have been sold so there are only tickets for men available. Not sure why that is, considering it’s supposed to be a platonic party?! But you can check it out for further info here.

Anti-Valentine's Day

Source in Battersea will be holding their annual Anti-Valentine’s Day pig-out. For £35, you can experience a three-course, “Nose-to-Tail” menu centred around…yes, you guessed it, the pig! A cocktail is also included in the price. See here.

Source

Go Speed-Hating. At this alternative event, you don’t have to put on a cheery act to impress another singleton. Armed with a fake name, you are actively encouraged to have a good old moan about everything that irks you.  You can also play “Blind Hate” where you get to ask more in-depth questions. So forget about what kind of job they do or how many kids they might like. Get down to the nitty gritty questions  like “If I turned into a zombie, which household implement would you use to finish me off?” The event takes place tonight and tomorrow, with tomorrow night being reserved for Gay Down With Dating. See here for details.

For those who prefer their hearts ripped out and still pumping (!) why not see My Bloody Valentine at the Prince Charles Cinema and get a free bloody cocktail with every ticket.

It’s sold out now but I had to give a quick mention to a talk called A Night with Venus – A Lifetime on Mercury at the Old Operating Theatre tomorrow evening. Those with tickets will get to hear all about how mercury was used to treat sufferers of the pox or syphilis and how the treatment was often worse and more painful than the disease itself. And if that doesn’t have you running for the hills, away from the opposite sex and ducking the arrows of a certain chubby youngster along the way, nothing will!

LOVE IT

Even for die-hard V-Day fans you can minimise the cheese factor and maximise the brownie points with your beloved by celebrating in a more creative and unusual way. Here are a few suggestions:

For theatre buffs, I’d heartily recommend seeing Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre. The production has undergone a cast-change of late but the production remains funny and joyous and very romantic. Visit their website here for details.

Broken_Hearts__Promises-620x413

Broken Hearts and Promises is a Valentine’s Day-themed pop-up party by the organisers behind Nordic Yulefest. They’re throwing a fabulous bash  in the rather grand Bloomsbury House where there will be disco, cocktails and a Lulu Guinness kissing booth. There will also be heart-shaped pinatas which you’re invited to beat in order to try and win the prizes inside. For an extra tenner on the ticket price you can watch True Romance within the special 100-seater cinema. For more info and for tickets, click here.

For cinephiles, there’s plenty to choose from. Whether it’s classic films like The Philadelphia Story, Bringing up Baby (BFI Southbank) and Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Prince Charles Cinema) or more “twisted” screenings like The Honeymoon Killers, Harold and Maude or The Virgin Suicides (The Barbican), LOVE, in all its complexities, is covered.

On a side note, I noticed that a number of cinemas are showing Ryan Gosling films  – Blue Valentine at The Prince Charles and a double bill of The Notebook and Drive at pop-up cinema The Nomad which will be setting up at Hyde Park. A bit of advice to you menfolk out there….Yes, she’ll be thrilled you’ve taken her to see a RG film (so mega brownie points there) but it might backfire and invite some unfavourable comparisons later on. Don’t say I didn’t warn you…

Ryan Gosling

Take your partner to a live music gig. Time Out have published a comprehensive list to suit all musical tastes. Check it out here. As Shakespeare wisely said:

If music be the food of love, play on.

Indulge in a couples’ spa day at one of London’s best spas. See list here.

Head to Columbia Road market for fresh flowers and that cool, East-London vibe.

Columbia Road market

Feline Lonely? (not my pun, honest!) Give the gift of love and attend the Battersea Cats and Dogs home event of the same name on Friday 13th Feb whereby couples, friends or adults attending solo can meet some of the resident cats over a glass of bubbly and a piece of cake. There are a limited selection of tickets available on the day (see their website here) and if you can’t attend you can still send a kitty a Valentine’s present. So have your heart melted by a whiskery face and furry paws. You never know, you may meet some like-minded cat lover that’s just purrrfect for you (still not my pun – it’s on their website if you don’t believe me). And if you don’t meet a like-minded mate…well you can always give a home to a few moggies and fully embrace being a single cat lady/laddy! You’re likely to get a whole lot of love in return…

Feline Lonely event Feline-Lonely-2015Feline Lonely

 

So go on. Spread the love!

3 Winters

3 Winters poster

I wish I’d seen 3 Winters at the National much earlier in its run because then I would have recommended it to lots of people and they would have had time to see it. Instead, the last performance is tomorrow and it feels rather late in the day to be giving a review of it. However it really is worth seeing if you can catch it before the run ends tomorrow.

A new play by Tena Stivicic (my keyboard doesn’t allow for the accented letters of her surname unfortunately), 3 Winters deals with Croatia’s recent history and political turmoil through the eyes of a family spanning 3 generations.

The action begins in 1945 after the Communist Partisans under Tito emerge victorious after the war with Nazi Germany and the fascists. Rose, a member of the party is told to choose the keys of a house from a selection of keys – all from houses taken over by the communist party for the use of their party members. Rose selects one (not entirely by accident as it turns out) and the story of the house, of the families that come to live in that house, unfolds through 3 different timelines (1945, 1990 and 2011) and an imaginative set design.

3 winters

I had worried that I wouldn’t really be able to follow the politics of the play. The former Yugoslavia’s history since the beginning of the 20th century sees change after change in terms of leadership and conflict after conflict. What Tena Stivicic manages to do is make us understand the complexities behind the political and social unpheaval through the different family members so that the story is clear without ever feeling like it’s being spelt out to the audience in a heavy-handed way.

The large cast (I counted 18 at the curtain call) all play their parts with conviction and there is not really a weak link as far as the acting is concerned, although it is the female roles that really stand out; the relationship between the sisters, daughters and mothers are really at the heart of this play, which makes a refreshing change.

It is well directed and shaped by Howard Davies and is just one of those really great ensemble plays with lots of layers and (surprisingly) a lot of humour and laughs as well. Perhaps it was a difficult play to market as I’d heard that ticket sales hadn’t been great and that’s a real shame because for me, overall,  it was one of the strongest productions to come out of the National Theatre of late and deserved a bigger audience and more acclaim.

3 winters cast

Bull

Mike Bartlett is one of those writers whose work I feel I should know better. A quick squiz of his wikipedia page confirmed my fears;  I have not, in fact, seen even one of his plays in action. Considering how prolific the man is, how did that happen? Somehow, I missed Earthquakes in London at the National. I never saw Love, Love, Love that Paines Plough produced  and am about to miss King Charles III at the Wyndhams as it comes off this weekend and I have no spare evenings in which to see it. I even missed out on Cock at the Royal Court (yes, I’m aware of how that reads!)

I have however, read Contractions and thought it was a superb two-hander for women and very thought-provoking. So I went with high expectations last Friday to see Bull at the Young Vic.

Bull poster

I’d heard that the play was about office politics and had purchased ringside standing seats for the bargain price of a tenner. We entered a brightly-lit auditorium with pumping 80’s tracks like Eye of the Tiger which gives some indication of the “fight” ahead.

The action takes place in a square shaped “ring” (like a boxing ring) – an area by the water cooler where 3 employees await to hear the fate of their jobs from the boss , Carter. One will be forced to leave the team, the other two will stay.

What progresses in the 55 min timeline, is that the two more confident members have hatched a plot to bring down their weaker team member, Thomas, by playing mind games and undermining him at every turn so that by the time Carter (an excellent Neil Stuke) arrives, Thomas is so rattled and perspiring heavily that he effectively seals his own fate.

BULL

Both the acting and writing are incredibly sharp with the 4 actors (Neil Stuke, Adam James, Sam Troughton and Eleanor Matsuura) playing their parts with great observance and precision. Our empathy lies with Thomas who at every turn is goaded like a bull in a ring, emotionally and mentally poked and prodded right to the bitter end. Possibly for that reason, because we are witnesses to his fear and confusion, Sam Troughton stands out in his role as Thomas. I’d realised afterwards that I’d seen this actor play Edmund in Sam Mendes’ King Lear at the National and he’d stood out then.

Despite hoping that Thomas will, at some point, stand up to his bullies, there is no real let- up in the action, so if you were hoping for a dramatic change in the storyline, there isn’t one. What Bartlett does do, is to take a scenario and push it all the way to its inevitable conclusion. Thomas may have our sympathy but we can’t help but laugh at the wickedly-sharp observations of the other two and therefore we, as an audience, become complicit in the bullying. This is a darker, nastier revealing of ambition and survival of the fittest which makes the participants on The Apprentice seem like cosy, supportive mates.

Would I recommend it? Absolutely. It might not be up there with the best plays I’ve ever seen but the terrific writing, acting, directing and design plus the cheap ticket price of £10 (which is really not a hardship if you’re only standing for 55 mins) all combined to make it a thoroughly worthwhile evening. Plus there’s plenty of time for a drink in the bar afterwards to reflect on what the play says about us as a species.

It’s certainly not a load of old bull….

Reviews

Critics

Now that I’ve been writing this weekly blog for almost a year, I’ve decided to add a reviews page to the site in order to give my opinions and feedback on some of the shows I’ve seen and will be going to see over the coming months.

I can’t profess to have any particular qualifications for being a critic or a reviewer beyond a love of theatre and the fact that I try and see as much stuff as often as possible. I’m also aware that it’s such a subjective area. I’ve rushed to see productions that have been hailed by respected critics as the best thing since sliced bread (but in more theatrical terms) only to come out bitterly disappointed. Other shows I’ve loved have barely gotten a mention in the press, or the general response has been luke-warm.

Having co-founded and assisted in the running of the Little London Theatre Company with Alex McConnell from 1998 – 2006, I got to see what it was like to put on plays from behind the scenes. When it’s your own company, you often end up doing lots of different roles (and I’m not talking about acting) – sourcing props, dealing with press and publicity, as well as managing various egos. So I feel I have some idea of how hard it is to balance all these different elements to strive for a production of the highest standard possible, while at the same time doing every thing you can to get bums on seats so that people will pay to see it and you won’t lose your entire life savings all in one go.

In other words, putting on a play is freakin’ HARD!

With that in mind, I shall endeavour to be as encouraging and as positive in my criticism as I can be. Scathing reviews can be fun to read (and write) but are devastating for those involved who’ve put in lots of money and effort for this show to go on.

Also, it can be difficult to tell whether certain choices an actor has made in the playing of a part has come from them or from the director. In being the “objective” eye of the whole production, we have to trust that a director is steering our performance in a way that feels appropriate to the telling of our character’s story, which will, overall, be just one element in the telling of the whole story. It can happen that a director’s view of our character is very different from ours which can lead to some conflict.

On the flipside, we can applaud an actor for being superb in a role without really knowing how much input the director has had to get him/her to that stage. And really, how many of us pay particular attention to the lighting and sound design? If the design element is good it can get overlooked simply because it’s serving the play well and so is not obtrusive in any way.

So, here are my own personal set of criteria for reviewing a play:

1) I hearby endeavour to try and notice ALL the elements of a production – the writing, design, costume, acting and directing as well as the music/soundscape.

2) When critiquing an actor, I shall try to apply the following: How well are they telling their character’s story? Do I believe them? There are plenty of good, well-acted performances out there but are they really connecting to the material? Does it feel like they’re saying their lines for the first time? With good actors, you can see that they’re thinking before they speak and that there’s a life behind the eyes. Are they fully inhabiting the role and all their characters’ hopes, dreams, motivating impulses and any resulting emotion?

3) I shall try to be constructive in any criticism.

4) Is it a production I would rush to see again? Would I urge good friends and family to see it?

That’s all I can think of for now.

Coming soon… my first review of the year for BULL at the Young Vic.

Criticism quote