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london theatre review

New Diorama Theatre – Borges and I

Have I read anything by Borges?  I consulted my bookshelf. Given the mauled state of the book I found, yes, I have. “One of the greatest writers of the 20th Century” the cover notes tell me – I probably should have read more. Like a student who hasn’t done his homework I approached the New Diorama Theatre, a pleasant oasis amidst the towering cut glass financial institutions it nestles in the shadows of. “Boor-jey?”, “Boar –ga?”. The programme includes a reading list, oh dear.

The New Diorama is a production company led theatre that tries to give fledgling outfits like Idle Motion, the creators of Borges and I, the infrastructure and resources to make great theatre.

And if Borges and I is anything to go by they are doing an excellent job. The production by Idle Motion was a beautifully thought out ensemble piece. The use of wonderfully choreographed physical theatre, projected imagery and a constantly transmogrifying set combined to produce vivid vignettes of Borges life. These were offset by a contemporary love story built around an everyday British book group that kept the play grounded and accessible.

New Diorama Theatre - Borges and I

Although these two narrative strands worked well together with the action passing seamlessly from one story to another I did sometimes wish we could spend more time in Borges bucolic world than that of the quotidian book group. That being said the company’s clear creative amity did produce many excellent comic moments with Grace Chapman’s performance as Hilary, the authoritarian leader of the reading club, proving to be particularly funny.

New Diorama Theatre - Borges and I

The show received an excellent reception at the Edinburgh fringe this year and not without good reason. This is a company that had put in the hours developing this work and the result is a performance that is a bittersweet homage to the power of the written word, and the quiet solace a book can bring.

I left the theatre and passed beneath the bright banking lights again, itching to pick up a book, and revel in the glorious power of a well turned phrase.

By Nick Rushton

New Diorama Theatre is an 80 seat theatre based just off Regent’s Park in the heart of central London. Unique in the capital for our development and support of emerging and established theatre companies, in our first two years we welcomed close to 30,000 audience members to theatre productions, readings and other events.

Idle Motion creates highly visual theatre that places human stories at the heart of its work. Integrating creative and playful stagecraft with innovative video projection and beautiful physicality, its productions are humorous, evocative and sensitive pieces of theatre.

From small beginnings, having met at school, the company has grown rapidly over the past six years, producing five shows that have toured both nationally and internationally. Its collaborative relationship is at the centre of all that it does, and it is proud to be an Associate Company at The New Diorama, The Lowry and the Oxford Playhouse. Idle Motion is a young company with big ideas, and a huge passion for creating exciting and beautiful new work.

Borges and his legacy

Let The Right One In - Apollo Theatre Review

Adaptations of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel can best be described as a mixed bag – the 2008 Swedish language film received rave reviews, whilst a 2010 American remake, renamed Let Me In, is better left forgotten. Because of this, the National Theatre Scotland version of Let The Right One In comes with a complex set of expectations. Will it be faithfully mysterious and haunting? Or will the same kind of commercial and populist pressures that sank the later film render it toothless? Fortunately, this play is as shocking and eerie as theatre is able to be, whilst also packing an emotional punch that not only excuses the gore, but also provides a profound exploration of alienation and love.

At its heart, this is a coming of age story – Oskar is a bullied teenager who finds opportunities for friendship and escape through a romance with Eli, who has moved next door with an older man. Difficulty arises not only from the increasingly violent bullying of Oskar, but also as it becomes apparent that a recent spate of violent murders has a cause close to home. On top of this familiar-sounding set up, however, is a playful mixing of genres and the interweaving of a folkloric vampire tale.

Writer Jack Thorne has moved the setting from Sweden to the Scottish Highlands – the story of a harassed innocent being freed only by extreme actions must have resonated with a Scottish audience facing September’s referendum – with the forest and snow that fill the stage highlighting the similarities between the two. Both are far away from central London on a spring evening, and this is something that the transformative set makes beautifully clear.

This is also helped by the two leads – Martin Quinn as Oskar and Rebecca Benson as Eli – reprising their roles from the initial Scottish run. Quinn adds a cheeky humour to the painfully awkward Oskar and, although Benson’s combination of fey innocence with a slightly gruff aggression initially grates, this choice eventually makes perfect sense. Eli’s appearance during a fantasy sequence in which Oskar enacts violent revenge on his bullies could lead to a reading of her character as merely the personification of this fantasy. Benson’s physicality and vocal delivery mean that she always seems something more than that, with a sense of insistent, latent power ever present in her performance.

LET THE RIGHT ONE IN - Apollo Theatre

The revenge fantasy sequence is an early example of the excellent choreography and music that is used throughout. Icelandic musician Ólafur Arnalds, whose music has appeared in The Hunger Games and Broadchurch, has provided a techno-tinged soundtrack that used most effectively to back group dance sequences. The most haunting choreography appears in early scenes, where Oskar’s desperation to be powerful enough to overcome his problems is expressed through other cast members shadowing his movements, expressing a feeling familiar to anyone who has ever felt overwhelmed by a problem.

Helpfully, if this overwhelming problem is the sheer number of plays in the West End, Let the Right One In manages to combine elements of an assortment of them: the awkwardly innocent youth of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time (which precedes it at the Apollo), the out-of-your-seat horror of The Woman in Black, and even a train scene straight out of The 39 Steps – playing just around the corner. Far from a bricolage, though, Let The Right One In subverts each of these ideas, leaving audience reactions varying between rapt attention, head shakes and gasps that only increase as it reaches its breath-taking finale.

benBen Rackstraw
Theatre Reviewer

Let The Right One is currently showing at the Apollo Theatre.  www.apollotheatrelondon.co.uk

Gallery Weekend Berlin 2014 
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Arcola theatre dalston london

Unexpectedly recognising something is a powerful experience – spotting someone in the street that looks like a friend or accidentally catching your own reflection can be deeply affecting, and this seems to be magnified triggered by a work of art. In the exceptionally well-observed Visitors these moments are frequent but subtle enough not to be overly sentimental, making for an incredibly moving piece of theatre.

London Theatre Review - Visitors at the ArcolaImage  Mark Douet

This begins before the play even starts, with the stage set with the footstools, rug and crossword books that are standard issue for any elderly relative. Arthur and Edie, the elderly couple at the heart of the drama, also reminisce and bicker in a way that provides touchstones for anyone who has spent time with their grandparents, whilst also presenting their individual experience. This opening, with its snatched pieces of memory mixed with current worries accentuated by Edie’s accelerating dementia, echoes Beckett. Here, however, Godot does arrive, in the shape of young home help volunteer Kate. This sets in motion a gradual unravelling of family tensions and a debate about care for the elderly.

Writer Barney Norris has described increasing life expectancy as one of the greatest challenges faced by Middle England, and the questions he poses here – in his first full-length play – feel timely and important. It is a noble undertaking, tainted only by the difficulty posed by his tackling this subject as a young man. Norris writes Arthur and Edie beautifully, but the deep, unquestioned love and easy conversation sometimes feel saccharine. Norris clearly recognises this, and has Arthur address the problem in an early scene by explaining to Kate that the couple don’t often talk that much, and that they are just excited about her arrival. Nevertheless, because we don’t actually see these everyday silences, Visitors, despite its depiction of dementia, can occasionally seem like a rose-tinted view of the old age that we might wish for our relatives and ourselves.

London Theatre Review - Visitors at the Arcola

Image  Mark Douet

This issue is mitigated entirely, however, by breath-taking performances from Linda Bassett as Edie and Robin Soans as Arthur. Their love never feels anything less than genuine, and Edie’s illness is played with great sensitivity. Because of how adoring they are, it is slightly baffling that they have managed to produce such odious offspring as Stephen, played with an uncomfortably tense gawkiness by Simon Muller. It is difficult to feel sympathy for him, even as he delivers a great set piece of a joke that falls completely flat, highlighting the gulf between him an his father, or his increasingly apparent sadness. The only duff note is Muller’s tight-lipped Jimmy Carr-esque delivery of Stephen’s desperate one-liners, which, although clearly meant to grate, do so too successfully.

There is a slither of hope for Stephen, though: in the opening scene Arthur delivers an affectionately sarcastic “ho ho” in response to a comment from his wife; later, his son does the same. This verbal tic, passed down between generations, seems to be the one thing that father and son share, suggesting that if old age presents challenges of isolation and changes to the world that make it difficult to understand, at least we can pass down laughter and affection.

London Theatre Review - Visitors at the Arcola


Ben Rackstraw
London Theatre Reviewer

Catch Visitors till March 29 2014 at the Arcola Theatre

Fear and Loathing Review – Vault Festival London

And so with my designated Samoan lawyer for the evening in tow we headed off in search of a Leake Street venue in Waterloo. In very unlike Hunter fashion we actually managed to make the event in good time.

I was questioning my lawyer’s advice on heading for the bar first when I saw the size of the queue. Was it even the right queue for Hunter’s Fear and Loathing? I ask a guy in the queue, he looks at me and in a foreign accent politely tells me that this is in fact ‘a queue’ while implying that most people have tickets and so not for a couple of chancers like me and my Samoan lawyer who obviously did not belong. Ah, good to know that reptilians are alive and well in London town.

We spot a door opening to what we think may be a side entrance to the play, result, we dive in, politely keeping the door open for a couple of female chancers. It takes all off 7 seconds to realise we are not at the Hunter play and in fact in some kind of Victorian candle lit affair. We bolt out again. After a little ‘press negotiation’ skills to enable jumping the queue we manage to get into the small venue which is packed out for the performance.

Fear and Loathing Review

Image Space Rockets via Flickr

And so to the play. I remember before the release of the Terry Gilliam movie many thought the novel was just not transferable to the big screen. I actually thought Terry Gilliam did a pretty good job but my Samoan lawyer hated the film but after watching the play actually said for him it was better than the movie. Using only dialogue from the book the play was a faithful adaptation which for those who have not read the book may have been totally agreeable. Having re-read the book on numerous occasions I yearned for something more, a different spin, creativity in adaptation.

Rob Crouch-Dr Gonzo Ed Hughes-Raoul Duke

Image left, Rob Crouch (Dr Gonzo) right, Ed Hughes (Raoul Duke) Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Vault Festival London 2014.  Pic by Nobby Clarke

Ed Hughes, definitely looked the part as the main protagonist Raul Duke, but somehow lacked the crazed Hunterseque wild quality you would hope for. Rob Crouch, as Dr Gonzo, was always gonna have a tough task living up to the yardstick of Benicio del Toro’s performance in the film. Crouch did his best work in the bath, naked, when he was totally believable as the out-of-control lunatic feeling the effects of a twisted drug binge.

I thought the play may have missed a few tricks. For starters when they pick up what in the book is a wide eyed fresh faced impressionable hitch-hiker kid, in the play it’s a guy with a beard or a ton of stubble and looking as old as Duke and Dr Gonzo and so killing dead most of the humour of that scenario.

Hunter_S._Thompson,_fear and loathing in last vegas

Image Hunter S Thompson via Wikipedia Creative Commons

The narrator, John Chancer, as an older Thompson, who occasionally walked on to the set worked OK but the reading verbatim from the book did not do it for me. The projections on the walls of Nixon footage and some of the book’s imagery and motifs were cool and could have possibly added another dimension rather than being purely a backdrop. The ensemble also provided some worthwhile flourishes.

I also thought the scenes when Duke and Gonzo are sitting in the midst of a drug law enforcement cops convention felt a little flat given the sublimely amusing and absurdity of the situation.

Due to the verbatim nature of the dialogue from the book I found myself just wanting to listen to Hunter’s words and not really engage fully with the stage performances which relegated the work to that of an audio-book.

Hunter S Thompson rolling stones journalist

Image ianmunroe via Flickr

All said and done, the performance was fun and for those coming to Fear and Loathing fresh probably more enjoyable with less lofty preconceptions attached to it. My Samoan lawyer made the observation that the continual drug fuelled antics are amusing and more acceptable in the book as part of a crazy out-of-control road trip but to see that performed live you just thought get a shave and go for dinner and sort yourself out.

The Great Brain Robbery party, part of the Vault Lates, after the play was good fun with a good mix of ages, party tunes and extremely good prices for double rums particularly given typical London South Bank prices. Suffice to say that the evening ended with a loss of a number of hours from leaving the venue to getting home – till now still unaccountable. The partial memory of possibly vocally abusing a number of black cab drivers and a manic Samoan whisking eggs like a lunatic at 5am. Hunter would have approved.

You can catch Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas till the 28 February 2014 at the Vaults Waterloo www.thevaultfestival.com

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London Theatre Review – Roland Schimmelpfennig’s The Golden Dragon

Our resident theatre critic Ben Rackstraw heads for the intimate theatre tucked away above the Drayton Arms pub to review a staging of Schimmelpfennig’s The Golden Dragon.

What is happening behind the windows that we walk past every day? What is hidden behind the blank faces of the people we walk by? Roland Schimmelpfennig’s The Golden Dragon challenges us with some uncomfortable answers to these questions – so what better setting could there by for a new production than self-satisfied South Kensington?


The Golden Dragon of the title is a takeaway that serves as the springboard for a variety of stories, populated by the customers whose lives play out in and around the building that houses the restaurant. The most striking thing as the play opens, each of the five cast members chopping furiously in the kitchen, is that there are no Asian actors. This initially appears problematic – in a play ostensibly about the oppression of Asian immigrants, there are no Asian voices (Schimmelpfennig is German).

Roland_Schimmelpfennig play - london theatre review

Image Roland Schimmelpfennig. Wikipedia Creative Commons

However, as the play continues, two older actors play a young couple, men play women, women play men, and one male cast member plays a female grasshopper (more on that later). This playing with gender, age and race asks the audience to confront their expectations, and goes some way to excuse the all-white cast. This element of the play is attacked with enthusiasm, with Madlen Meyer’s controlled male aggression and Linus Karp’s uncomfortable female sexuality being played particularly well.

It is around half way through the play that the kaleidoscope of vignettes comes into focus, and it becomes clear that Asian economic migration is merely a device to explore general ideas about the effect of hegemony and power relationships. This is when this production really finds its feet. The first half drags a little, with some characterisation verging on caricature, but as the stories begin to interweave the actors discover a new energy, and this production really finds its feet.

 Roland_Schimmelpfennig play - london theatre review

Roland_Schimmelpfennig play - london theatre review

Images www.thedraytontheatre.co.uk

The failings of the first half are perhaps due to downplaying the play’s more shocking aspects. This work is a confrontational black comedy, but too often the comedy was played up and the drama played down – particularly in a poorly judged tin-foil tooth prop that renders a hilariously dark slapstick sequence just the wrong side of ridiculous. Towards the end the shocks came thick and fast, but they might have been better spaced.

One of the most effective threads is a disturbing twist on the fable of the ant and the grasshopper, which seems to ask how far we use stories to desensitise ourselves to the brutal reality of the world. The strange, long limbed physicality of Karp’s grasshopper communicates a terrible melancholy and shame that grows to fill the whole play. Even the restaurant scenes, played mostly for laughs, take on a sinister hue. Is the play of server and customer also a story? A lie that allows us to ignore cruelty and deprivation? This production poses that question subtly, showing how power imbalance can corrupt both the powerful and the powerless – although there is a hint of saccharine in the ending that feels slightly out of place.

brompton road london

Image The Wolf via Flickr

Walking back out into South Kensington, on to a street of takeaways and minicab firms, the power of The Golden Dragon is such that you can’t avoid thinking about what might be behind those curtained windows, but you worry that if you looked you might just see yourself reflected in the glass.

London Theatre Review -  Roland Schimmelpfennig’s The Golden Dragon

Ben Rackstraw
London Theatre Reviewer

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You can see what other productions are playing at the Drayton Arms Theatre on Old Brompton Road at www.thedraytontheatre.co.uk


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