The Oxford Revue and Friends – A preview

This article first appeared on The Oxford Student website on 1 June 2016.

Most Playhouse productions are no laughing matter. Sitting comfortably at the top of the student theatre hierarchy, the Playhouse is a place for high production values and even higher brows. But in two weeks’ time the Oxford Revue, Oxford’s own band of student comics, will be taking to the stage in their annual show, The Oxford Revue and Friends. It sees them teaming up with long-time frenemies the Cambridge Footlights and the Leeds Tealights for two hours of sketches, songs and stand-up, providing a culmination of a year’s worth of shows, and the launching pad for a summer trip to the Edinburgh Fringe. I got to sit down with Revue co-president Jack Chisnall, who told me about the plans for the show.

“The show is a two-hour extravaganza, everyone is going to show off some of their stuff. There’s an air of competitiveness when you bring all these people together. But it’s really a celebration of student comedy, in all its amateurism, and the sense that people could take off from this. The format will be two halves. The first will be the Footlights and the Tealights doing some sketches, songs, whatever they feel like – we give them half an hour each to do whatever they want. And then they’ll hand over to us, the Oxford Revue, for the second half. It’s a chance to really show the kind of smorgasbord of what we did this year, dipping in and out of all the different shows we’ve done.”

“Working with the other troupes, I flatter myself that we all influence each other a little bit. We do a lot of shows together – we’ve met the Footlights three or four times already this year. This kind of show that we’re doing at the Playhouse gets recreated in Cambridge and Durham, and even in Bristol last year. So we see each other a lot – me and Georgia also went up against the Footlights at Varsity this year, so you see each other develop across the three years of your degree. So it’s competitive, in a fun way, but also collaborative. I don’t think we take ourselves too seriously. We all think that we’re going to make it, and that’s daft in its own way.”

“Performing in the Playhouse, well, without getting too precious about it, you’re very aware of the history it’s got. You look at that bruised and battered old stage, and you think, ‘oh, maybe Alan Bennett caused that rupture on the stage, maybe he dropped a heavy prop there’, or ‘maybe that was where Stewart Lee or Michael Palin performed’. It is, traditionally, where the Revue has always done a show. One is aware of the ghosts of the past there, so to speak. You’re aware of the really cool people who’ve performed there before you, and that’s what makes it so incredible.”

“There’s a general sense of being connected. You’re connected to the past, but you’re also connected to people who aren’t students. It’s full of townsfolk – they throw curveballs at you, as a performer. I know what students are going to laugh at, or I flatter myself I do, but you face different audiences when you do the Playhouse, people who don’t share that same set of references. It’s wonderful, because Oxford’s a great city, and you do forget, in a very arrogant way, that it’s actually a thriving town full of very interesting people. For one night a year you get to feel connected to this wonderful history of a city and a history of performance. The Playhouse is this rite of passage for us, and it’s very nice.”

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Queueue – A preview

This article first appeared on The Oxford Student website on 30 May 2016. I interviewed Leo Mercer about Queueue here.

The style of Queueue: A Coffee Shop Musical is best described as a kind of gentrified cyberpunk. A free-form, genre-mixing musical, Queueue unites some of the finest talent of the Oxford theatre scene for a show about life, love and cyber-stalking, all set inside one painfully hipsterish coffee house. Set to be performed this weekend at the Modern Art Oxford Cafe, director Scott Bolohan and writer Leo Mercer have tasked themselves with nothing less than ‘adapting the internet’. This is a show with ambition in spades, and while the preview performance showed several rough edges, Queueue looks set to get people talking, both online and off.

The coffee shop setting is more than superficial. The audience will be seated among the performers themselves, with the whole cafe as the play’s dramatic space. The performers sit at tables, stand behind counters, and wander around as the various episodes unfold, and the whole production has an air of intimacy which the writing capitalises on in interesting ways. The characters are all upper middle-class metropolitans, of a type familiar to anyone who has ever sat in The Missing Bean, with laptops and smartphones as omnipresent props. The songs are nicely relatable as well, and deal with such familiar themes as clickbait, procrastination, and the issue of privacy in an age when a person’s entire life can be stored electronically.

The singing is natural and unmodified, while Stephen Hyde’s backing tracks are all contemporary-feeling electronica. It’s a nice thematic contrast – the intimacy of the space set against the artificial nature of digital communication – but it’s one that could very easily go wrong, and the decision not to use microphones might end up backfiring. But with the singers themselves there’s very little to complain about. The Oxford Gargoyles’ Jemimah Taylor is charismatic and charming as Alice, the play’s nominal lead, and John Paul and Amelia Gabriel are just as compulsively watchable here as they were in The Marriage of Kim K. Also impressive is Charles Styles as banker-cum-hacker Cody (geddit?). He manages to be both sleazy and oddly thrilling, even if a few of his raps didn’t quite hit the mark in the preview performance.

The songs themselves are dynamic and punchy. The opening number ‘9 a.m. I Am’ builds an effective wall of sound which mirrors the everyday anxieties of coffee shop society, and ‘Number One’ makes an intelligent love song out of the clickbait listicle format. The lyrics present witty riffs on internet trends and bourgeois anxiety, and the performers’ gusto helps sell what would otherwise be a lot of very privileged people moaning. This is not the slickest or most disciplined preview I’ve ever seen, but it does have the makings of something truly special, and will certainly be a worthwhile experiment either way. Or, as they say on the internet, Check Out These Sixteen Reasons Why The Internet Is Totally Weird (Number 6 Will Blow Your Mind!).

Queueue will be performed in the Modern Art Cafe from the 3rd-5th June.

The Marriage of Kim K – A Preview

This article first appeared on The Oxford Student website on 26 February 2016. In the end, The Marriage of Kim K wasn’t quite the best play Oxford had ever done. But it was very, very good. 

If you’ve ever thought that Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro could be made better with the addition of reality TV stars, a squabbling middle class couple and an omniscient vlogger, then… Well for one thing, you have unbelievably specific tastes. For another, the O’Reilly has the play for you, starting next week. As that role call of elements suggests, this is a production with a lot going on, but if the preview is anything to go by then that sense of ambition is matched by the skills of its cast and crew. Barring one potentially serious technical problem, this looks to be one of the most exciting shows Oxford has seen all term.

The plot involves three couples, two of which are being watched on television by the third, but who emerge to interact with each other and the audience as the play goes on – never mind the internet, it seems Kim Kardashian has broken reality itself. The linking element is the character of Figaro; an employee of all three couples, he wanders between the three different realities of the play, manipulating and wryly commenting on events by means of vlogs addressed to both the characters and the audience. He’s an anarchic trickster figure, played note-perfectly by Jack Trzcinski; alternating between tender and heartfelt and swaggering and roguish, he’s a magnetic stage (and screen) presence, and the climax of act one sees him unleashing hell with a click of his fingers in a masterfully-timed bit of acting.

The rest of the cast are stunning as well. Gabriella Noble is convincing as Kim, but charismatic enough that her performance doesn’t just feel like an impression. James Quilligan is hilarious as Kris Humphries, able to generate laughter from mere facial expressions, while Jonno Hobbs and Ell Potter are regal and dignified as Mozart’s Count and Countess. But Amelia Gabriel and John Paul really stand out as modern couple Beth and Mo, selling their duet in the final scene with a sense of honesty and sweetness, which is lovely without feeling clichéd: “You’re my chocolate,/ You’re my cheesecake/ I would go gluten-free for you/ Even join a gym for you.” They all work splendidly with one another, and harmonise a treat. If you’re in this for the singing, they won’t disappoint.

However, this brings us to a major problem with the play as it previewed, which has the potential to wreck the entire production. As lovely as the music was, it frequently drowned out the words and occasionally indistinct enunciation certainly didn’t help. I sat a just metre away and I couldn’t hear everything, and this was with just a piano accompanying them. So what this production needs is either personal microphones or for the band to take it down a notch. This problem kneecapped The Prophetess at the O’Reilly last year, and it would be criminal to see the same thing happen again, especially because Mercer’s script is clever, witty and heartfelt enough to deserve better than being drowned out by an another overzealous orchestra.

The Marriage of Kim K runs the gamut of emotion, from joy to despair to anger and back again. It may well be the most vibrant and self-assured preview I’ve ever seen. But all of that brilliant scripting and all those poignant performances will be for nought if none of the words can actually be heard. If it can sort that out, it’s got the raw ingredients of the best play Oxford’s ever done. If not, it’s staring down a tragic case of wasted potential.

This World Lousy – A Preview

This article first appeared on The Oxford Student website on 23 January 2016.

Next week, St John the Evangelist’s Church will be moonlighting as a forest. A new musical by Peter Shepherd and Theophilus Kwek, This World Lousy is a haunting and atmospheric fairy tale about a man on the run, and the various characters he meets along the way.

Mysterious, playful, and occasionally very dark, This World Lousy has some serious potential, and seems well worth checking out for any curious opera fans. In talking to me about the production, director Maya Ghose highlighted the fact that none of the characters have names. At first it seems an alienating choice, but it makes sense once we see them in motion; the production is more operatic than dramatic, and the lack of individual names lends the play an allegorical air more suited to myth than to standard issue musical storytelling. As composer Peter Shepherd told me, these characters are “meant to represent all of us”.

The plot kicks off when the Fugitive (played by Aaron King) is accused of murder, and flees into the woods to escape persecution. Over the course of the play he encounters a number of mysterious and intriguing characters, including an Orphan who nicks his wallet before striking up a conversation, and a Hermit with a shameful secret. It’s an intelligent riff on European folklore, whose major beats are as powerful and dramatic as they are touching and intimate. But what really sells This World Lousy is the music. While the orchestra at the preview were clearly a few days’ practice away from the finished product, they still managed a very impressive showing. The opening number is a grand, sweeping affair which effectively conveys the harshness of the natural world as the Fugitive ventures out into the world.

Another highlight is the scene of a brewing riot, scored with a palpable sense of rising dread, as well as a powerful catharsis when the scene reaches its inevitable conclusion. Overall, there is a sense that the music derives from the plot rather than the way round, something that can be tricky to pull off for an original composition like this, even if in the preview performance the orchestra occasionally threatened to drown out the singers.

The music is helped by a top-notch cast. Aaron King brims with leading-man charm as the Fugitive, while also managing to convincingly portray the character’s pervading sense of self-doubt. Emily Coatsworth is marvellous as the Orphan, her cheeky and playful stage presence complemented by her superb singing voice. The rest of the cast acquitted themselves admirably, though were less prominent in the bits I saw. This World Lousy still feels like a work in progress, but its rough edges belie a rock solid core. With just a few more rehearsals this has the potential to be something truly special. This looks to be an immersive, atmospheric experience of a type you won’t see anywhere else this term.

Preview: Singin’ in the Rain

This article first appeared on The Oxford Student website on 28 October 2015.

There are two things that any British production of Singin’ in the Rain needs to do in order to succeed. The first is, like any production, to nail the song from which the film takes its name. The other is to not have the American accents sound completely awful. Judging by the preview, this production looks to have done a near-flawless job at both. Exciting, charming and infectiously upbeat, this hugely ambitious student production looks set to be a belter of a play.

Based on the classic 1952 film starring Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds, the play follows silent movie star Don Lockwood in the late 1920s, as the film industry moves from the silent era to the age of talkies. On the way there are friends, lovers, harassed executives and overlooked musicians to deal with. And at one point Don is forced to perform despite a bit of rough weather.

If I had to describe the production, based on the preview I saw, in one word, it would be confident. Everyone involved is absolutely committed to what they’re doing, and the actors throw themselves into their performances with gusto. This play is a wilful throwback, and it’s done without the eye-rolling ironic detachment which characterises too much student drama. This is a production which believes wholeheartedly in the consciously retro image it’s selling, and if you can buy into it too then you’re in for a treat.

Of course, a good cast helps. James Hyde is fantastic as Don, switching effortlessly between deadpan straight man and iconic lead, his quietly understated style making the play’s most iconic number feel fresh and new all over again. Kathryn Peacock is charismatic and charming as Kathy Selden, boasting the best singing voice of a seriously talented cast. Niall Docherty delivers great comic relief, putting in a compulsively watchable physical performance, particularly appropriate for a play about silent cinema, and Annabel Mutale Reed may well be the highlight of the play as the unstoppably hilarious Lina Lamont. Combined with a terrific supporting cast, they make incredibly demanding material come across as child’s play.

The choreography is also largely impeccable, with complex dance sequences involving huge numbers of people coming off without a hitch. The tap-dancing in the first half is some of the best I’ve seen all year, and everything is so perfectly paced you feel like you can sing along even without knowing the words. The grace and polish of the choreography reflects well on the production as a whole; slick, witty, and effortlessly charming, this play hasn’t got a hair out of place. An absolute joy, and one well worth battling through the late October drizzle to see.

Preview: Bruised Pear Bleeding

This article first appeared on The Oxford Student website on 5 May 2015.

When I spoke to writer Sami Ibrahim about Bruised Pear Bleeding, the new ‘rehearsed reading’ detailing a blacker-than-black farce set during the English civil war, he was pretty frank about the fact it wasn’t finished yet. Having seen the preview, I can confirm that: there are clearly a fair few things to iron out before the performance this Friday. But what’s equally clear is that Ibrahim has written a delightfully dark, sickly funny and incredibly powerful script, and that he has managed to assemble a phenomenal troupe of actors.

The play involves a group of travelling actors, wandering between English villages during the dying days of the civil war, as Charles I makes his way to his inevitable appointment on the scaffold. It centres on a young actress, played by Ali Ackland-Snow, and the various advances made on her by her odious director, played by Jack Taylor. From there the play goes to some incredibly dark places, including some very nasty conjuring tricks, a rehearsal that goes horribly awry, and an awkward chat with a professional gravedigger and part-time con-merchant.

You often see comedies described as screamingly funny, and here it’s particularly appropriate- there are a number of great comic set pieces, and the dialogue is packed with brilliant one-liners (“You don’t appreciate the thrill of a cemetery?”), but the play is also deeply horrifying. Surreal and disturbing imagery pervades the play, with highlights including an awkward priest inviting a woman “back to crypt”, and a doctor uprooting a mandrake, represented by a screaming head rising steadily upwards. The results are bizarre and hilarious, but also deeply disturbing, and Bruised Pear Bleeding treads a fine line between psychedelia and pantomime. The play is characterised by a constant sense of unease and disorientation- every time you think you understand it, it changes out from under you, making for an experience which you won’t be forgetting in a hurry.

Of course, material like this often lives and dies on the strength of its cast- so far things look promising on that front. Jack Taylor is a wonderfully slimy leading man, delivering his monstrous monologues with a sneering relish, and demonstrating a good knack for timing comic lines. Ali Ackland-Snow is similarly good, with an excellent stage presence and skill at delivering the trickier emotional speeches, even if she does occasionally struggle with the rapid shifts in tone the role requires. The supporting cast are solid, though few of them get much of a chance to stand out amidst all the weirdness.

Bruised Pear Bleeding looks to be a thoroughly weird, deeply engrossing piece of drama, and a bold experiment from one of Oxford’s less prominent playhouses.

Preview: The Effect

This article first appeared in The Oxford Student on 29 January 2015. It was my first ever piece for the Stage section, and the start of the whole theatre reviewing experience for me. So this article, for all its faults, has a special place in my heart.

The Effect is intense. The play deals with a number of people involved in a clinical trial of mood-altering drugs. A relationship forms between two of the participants, and events spiral out of control as emotions run high, and it becomes harder and harder for the characters to distinguish between their own emotions and those induced by the drug. The play is a crescendo of confusion and fear, culminating in a dénouement as shocking as it is poignant. The first production of Lucy Prebble’s award-winning 2012 play outside the National Theatre, Freya Judd’s ambitious staging will premiere in third week, and will (Judd hopes) start a few important conversations.

The Effect is difficult to summarise, but Judd says that the play is about “The struggle for identity in the modern era, and what love really means when you can medicate your emotions.”

The Effect “deals with some really important issues, and in Oxford, actually, we have a lot of problems with mental health… about 30% of the student body will be in counselling at any one time, and for me, therefore, depression is really important. I wanted to do a play that meant something… the message of the play, talking about antidepressants, de-stigmatising mental health, putting it on stage for people to see, that was really important. For us, it’s important to not just say that as a marketing gimmick, but to actually do something, so we’ve invited people from the counselling service, we’re in association with Mind Your Head, which I think is really good.”

Judd talks about finding the right actors for the lead roles- “Sarah [Mathews] turned up in the audition… she had this real calmness, but she had this very deep emotion, and I thought that was an amazing piece of self-possessed acting. Callum [Lynch] was just really cheeky, really funny, I think he’s really good for his character.”

The Effect is an example of a particular type of story which has caught on in recent years; Judd says that “a lot of modern plays are a bit of science with a love story thrown in. That’s essentially what The Effect is about, keeping the science in, whilst making it intelligible to an audience.”

Judd hopes that audiences will “really engage with the debate on stage. I would love to know what people think at the end; I’d be interested to know what side the audience comes down on.”

Judd and her team look to have created a complex, disturbing and riveting piece of drama, and when it comes to starting debates, it looks set to make quite an impact. You might say that it will have a real effect on its audience.