Review: The Marriage of Kim K

FULL DISCLOSURE: I am in no way unbiased towards this production. I am friends with most of the cast and crew, although I should note I was a fan of their work before I knew most of them personally. I also had a minor role in it, helping out with marketing in the run up to its first performance, and I sat in on roughly two weeks’ worth of rehearsals. As such, while I will strive be objective in my criticism, there’s no way I can actually write about this show objectively. Consider this review a biased opinion from someone involved, and I advise you check out some other reviews from less biased sources.

The Marriage of Kim K might be best described as Channel Surfing: The Musical. Mashing up the stories of Kim Kardashian, The Marriage of Figaro, and a couple arguing about which of the two to watch on television, fledgeling company leoe&hyde have produced a witty and engaging piece of theatre. Its clever structure, vigorous performances, and ambitious music make this a play well worth catching, even if the elaborate technical challenges sometimes threaten to overwhelm the team.

The play tells three overlapping stories which interact and comment on each other as the show progresses. We open with Amelia and Stephen, a lovely if slightly passive aggressive couple chilling out in front of the television. We are then introduced to Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries, in a condensed version of their infamously failed 2011 marriage. Finally, we have the Count and Countess from Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro. Amelia wants to watch Kim. Stephen wants to watch Mozart. Arguments, inevitably, ensue.

As Stephen and Amelia bicker, we switch back and forth between them and the shows they are watching. The effect, while jarring at first, is the baseline from which the show pulls several clever tricks, and the music makes the most of this juxtaposition. The live band switches between electronica and classical music at the drop of a powdered wig, and there’s some fun to be had spotting the show’s many quotes from contemporary pop songs.

But these quotations are still in service of the larger show. They create dramatic irony, such as when Amelia sings about her unhappy marriage to a sample of ‘Happy’, or hint at the world beyond the stage, like when ‘N****s in Paris’ is used to signal the approach of Kanye West. This is a show about the detritus of culture, both high and pop, but while the juxtapositions are all terribly clever, the script can feel a little bit timid.

It takes the best part of twenty minutes for all three narrative tracks to get up and running, which feels like quite a slow run up to the play’s real premise. Similarly, the decision to give every cast member a solo does not do wonders for the show’s pacing. The Count and Countess’s in particular feel underwhelming, and audio problems are a frequent occurence. The performance I saw had some real trouble with microphones, including a particularly nasty bit of feedback during Kim’s solo. There was also a real problem with audio levels, as the band frequently threatened to drown out the singing.

This is not a knock on the performers, however, who are good across the board. Stephen Hyde and Amelia Gabriel are impeccable as themselves, full of warmth and humanity, while effectively conveying their respective flaws of egotism and control freakery. [I should stress here that I am referring to the characters’ egotism and control freakery]. Yasemin Mireille is a classic diva as Kim K, while James Edge is pure id as Kris Humphries, his wild gyrating and asides to the audience almost taking him into panto territory. Nathan Bellis and Emily Burnett are similarly impressive as the Count and Countess, their skilled opera tones a marked contrast with the high-pitched pop antics of Kim’n’Kris.

The Marriage of Kim K is a sprawling, ridiculous contraption of a show, but at a mere 72 minutes it also manages to be energetic and concise. While it occasionally threatens to collapse under its own ambition, on its own merits it’s a funny, heartwarming, and downright clever piece of work, whose finer touches you will still be realising several days later.

Oh, and it has possibly the greatest title drop in the history of theatre.

 

The Marriage of Kim K is in London until 29 July, and the Edinburgh Festival in August. Tickets are available to buy here.

 

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Review: Henry V

This article first appeared on Oxford Opening Night on 17 November 2016.

King Henry, it should be noted, is a nasty piece of work. He’s an arrogant dictator, ruthlessly purging his own men and committing war crimes before forcing himself on a French princess. This new production of Henry V at the Corpus Christi auditorium has its faults, mostly stemming from a maximalist approach to Shakespeare’s text, but it’s worth applauding for its embrace of Henry as a despicable scumbag. It’s an uncompromising take on the character, but the cast and crew make the play’s nationalist tubthumping a thing of genuine horror.

This production opens with the edited highlights of Henry IV, before transitioning into Henry V proper. It’s an odd decision, and leads to some awkward moments (the ‘Prologue’, for example, comes fifteen minutes in). But it serves to show where things start to go wrong for the young Henry. His youthful love of Falstaff quickly morphs into outright contempt, and the eventual banishment of ‘plump Jack’ is not just cold but outright vindictive.

We see this brutal streak writ large in the older Henry: Laurence Belcher is brilliant as the ranting psychopathic tyrant. Quick to anger and devising elaborate punishments for his own men, Belcher’s Henry deliciously plays a scene of rooting out traitors, as he forces the naïve lieutenants to condemn themselves. Yet he also displays the demagogue’s knack for holding attention. His lengthy deliberations on diplomacy and torture are gripping, delivered with arresting conviction and variety – Henry is many things, but never predictable. The production is pleasing in its willingness to undermine him, too. Henry delivers the St. Crispin’s Day speech to two disgruntled guards rather than an army of fans, and, in the most subtly damning detail, he draws up the peace treaty with hands still covered in blood.

The rest of the cast acquit themselves admirably. James Bruce strikes a perfect tragicomic note as Falstaff and later Nim, nailing the physical comedy of the fat knight. Similarly good are Gerard Krasnopolski as Pistol and Harry Carter as Boy; a scrappy counterweight to Henry’s macho posturing. (Krasnopolski also performs the most impressive leek-eating ever to grace an Oxford stage). Tom Fisher is perfect as the dithering King of France, and Christopher Page is a gloriously contemptuous Dauphin.

The play’s main flaw is over-lengthiness; introductory scenes feel extraneous, and the second half flabby, mainly in service of hammering home how nasty Henry is. There’s also a bit of a problem with accents. There are some appalling attempts at Scottish and Yorkshire accents, as well as the usual cringiness of thesps affecting ‘common’ voices. It’s a nitpick, but when you’re trying to shed light on a complete monster it helps not to accidentally indulge your own stereotypes about non-royalty.

But this is still absolutely a play worth seeing. Belcher is a brilliantly monstrous leading man, backed by a production unabashed in tackling his brutality. Angry, bitter, and darkly hilarious, this is what Corpus auditorium does best. Watch it, and be thankful that we no longer allow thin-skinned psychopaths to lead international armies.

Review: The Trojan Women

This article first appeared on Oxford Opening Night on 2 November 2016.

Greek tragedy, like most ancient drama, feels wrong in the modern day. The recourse of the playwright, then, is to make that wrongness their point. Set in the mother-and-baby unit of a post-war prison, Caroline Bird’s rewrite of Euripides’s The Trojan Women puts the traumas of its female characters front and centre. Sickly funny and deeply disturbing, it’s a hard, uncompromising polemic, an aggressively feminist reframing of the male-dominated mythology of Troy. As a production, it suffers from technical and pacing problems, but as a political statement it’s one of the most powerful Oxford has seen all term.

The play opens with a bare cell; two women. One old and untethered, one pregnant and handcuffed to her bed. The first is Hecuba, ex-queen of Troy. The other is not supposed to be there. A working class woman imprisoned with a queen, the setup makes for some good jokes, with the nameless one as straight woman to the melodramatic Hecuba. But it’s a source of horror as well as comedy; the women are visited by Cassandra, Helen, even Menelaus himself, as well as their own hapless male guard, and the nameless woman is shouted down constantly. Not allowed to speak, she can only gaze, appalled, at the meaningless squabbles which have destroyed her life. It’s an astonishingly bleak story, and it ruthlessly confronts the horrors of a society stratified by both gender and class.

The script’s ideas are disturbing in the abstract, but the cast help make them viscerally horrifying. Georgie Murphy is effectively traumatised as Hecuba, but conveys a sense of the ingrained prejudices which drive the plot. Marcus Knight-Williams is funny as the guard, pathetic and bumbling despite his petty authority, and Alannah Burns is a chilling Menelaus, all icy psychopathy and insecure shouting. India Phillips is impeccable across her three roles, her sweetly morbid turn as Casssandra marking the play’s creepiest moment. But the standout performance is Elizabeth Mobed as the nameless woman. By turns sardonic, deluded, outraged and anguished, she is the play’s emotional core, and her status as a silent onlooker of history drives home the central point with humanising force.

That said, the play can occasionally feel a bit much. The dialogue is full of over-ripe metaphors, and the script is awkwardly structured. After a few episodic encounters the play’s climax stretches on for more than twenty minutes, and there’s a point at which the horror simply becomes exhausting. But then again, that exhaustion is part of the point – the audience, like the characters, are faced with the absurd horrors of this masculine world, and that exhaustion creates a crucial sense of empathy. So I can recommend The Trojan Women; it’s harsh, angry, and extremely moving, an intimate character piece and a scream of rage against an unjust world. This is what the BT is all about.

Review: Anything Goes

This article first appeared on the Oxford Opening Night website on 12 October 2016.

With the Playhouse newly redecorated for Michaelmas term, where better to start than a musical from the 1930s? Anything Goes is a retro-cool season-opener, and it delivers all the colour and style we’ve come to expect from Playhouse musicals, even if it’s a tad unpolished in places. Upbeat, funny, and energetic to a fault, it’s a jolly romp of a show that will surely make a delightful introduction for the many students getting their first taste of Oxford theatre this week.

Our hero is Billy Crocker, a young stockbroker in love with an heiress engaged to an English earl. With the help of his friend Reno, as well as a helpful tip from a passing gangster, he winds up on a cruise ship with all of the above, as well as being on the run from the law. Hilarity ensues (obviously), and the production team deserve credit for managing the play’s laundry list of elements as stylishly as they do. There’s a lot going on here, but the show hums along admirably, the scenes cleverly interwoven to give a sense of several plots developing at once. This helps maintain a brisk pace, as well as the shared space of the cruise liner itself.

The set is marvelous, with the band sitting up on the bridge like a kind of omniscient narrator. This is a show defined by song, so it’s great to see the musicians paced centre stage rather than cast into the pit. It’s also very much an ensemble piece, so it’s difficult to call anyone the ‘star’, but the all-cast musical numbers are stellar. The ‘Blow, Gabriel, Blow’ sequence which kicks off act two is a masterpiece of choreography, a perfectly-paced bit of dance and gymnastics which goes on for fifteen minutes, running the gamut from joy to heartbreak, with plenty of laughs along the way.

The individual parts are mostly unflashy, but the actors are a treat nonetheless. Toby Chapman is a capable straight man as Billy, reacting dryly to the madness around him, and Josh Blunsden is perfect as the ship’s put-upon captain (watch out for his final scene). Nils Behling is an adept physical comedian, and Laurence Belcher nails the part of the oblivious aristocrat, his cringeworthy love poetry forming the basis of the play’s most quietly brilliant set-piece. But the real standout is Kathy Peacock as Reno; agile, charming, and bursting with charisma, she may also be the best singer of the bunch.

It’s not a flawless show: the opening night saw severe audio problems, and several of the jokes fell flat. There was a sense of attempting to speed through the awkward material, rather than relaxing in its ridiculousness, a feeling not helped by occasionally rushed line readings. But these problems largely fell away by the second act, once awkward banter gave way to elaborate showtunes and personal confessions. Anything Goes is bubblegum theatre; it’s bright, cheerful, and drives away the academic blues, even if the memory of being pleased lasts longer than its actual pleasures. It’s a big, frothy delight, and for the year’s first major student play, that’s one hell of an achievement.

Review: The Tempest at the Donmar Warehouse

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review website on 29 September 2016.

Shakespeare has many faults, not least his failure of the Bechdel test. Director Phyllida Lloyd has taken it upon herself to correct this, and since 2012 she and her team have staged a trilogy of all-female productions for the Donmar Warehouse, with the final instalment debuting this week. The trilogy has grabbed a few headlines for its setting in an all-female prison, and it’s certainly a bold move. The Tempest is about a powerful wizard in command of a mysterious exotic island, so setting it in a chilly concrete cell seems counter-intuitive. In its best moments this produces an interesting tension, but it often feels like the play is struggling against its own concept. Rough, strange, and a little bit shambolic, there’s a lot to like in this production, but there’s also a sense of a gimmick wearing a bit thin.

The play starts with the cast lining up, and Harriet Walter announcing she is serving a life sentence for “a politically motivated bank robbery”, before taking up her role as Prospero. The story unfolds as a performance, or shared fantasy, of the prisoners, with the realities of prison life intruding at key intervals. It’s a good idea, but it feels a bit arbitrary — guards are constantly harassing Sebastian and Antonio, but they never come near Prospero, despite her constant tricks on her fellow inmates. This ought to be ambiguous and fantastical, but comes across muddy and confused. Lloyd jams in some extraneous musical numbers, mostly sung by Ariel, and while they’re mostly competent they disrupt the flow significantly. Ariel’s final song painfully drags out one of the play’s best moments, repeating the same lines ad nauseam rather than coming up with new ones. The stage dressing is minimal, but nicely evocative, strewn with rubbish befitting Sophie Stanton’s interpretation of Caliban as a kind of mad bag lady.

While Caliban and Ariel are fun, it’s Prospero who anchors the play, and Harriet Walter excels in the part. She’s every bit the weary old scholar of Shakespeare’s text, but she’s much less spiteful than the usual interpretation. Strolling around with hands in her pockets, her contemplative attitude makes her louder moments stand out, such as her unhinged delivery of the ‘insubstantial pageant’ speech. (A rather beautiful moment involving video projections onto a cloud of white balloons, emphasising the otherworldly splendour). Her affection for Leah Harvey as Miranda is genuinely touching, and Harvey manages the shift from youthful joy to adolescent wonder impeccably. Between them they form the play’s emotional core, and it’s nice to see a Shakespeare production focused on a mother-daughter relationship rather than the Bard’s paternalism. Jackie Clune and Karen Dunbar are funny as Stephano and Trinculo, and Jade Anouka makes a fine Ariel, even if her rapping was a bit weak at the preview performance. The rest of the cast don’t make much impression, but to be fair these are hardly Shakespeare’s most memorable characters, and finding depth in Gonzalo is a challenge few actors have met.

The Tempest is a potpourri, then, but not without its charms, and, more importantly, not without relevance. The boldest choice comes at the end — in the original Prospero ‘abjures’ his magic, and returns to Milan, a moment many have read as reflective of Shakespeare’s own decision to retire. Lloyd’s ending goes beyond Shakespeare’s text — Walter delivers her final monologue, and then steps out of character, becoming a prisoner again. We then hear a set of messages from Walter’s friends and family, including the daughter she left behind when she was arrested. The message is clear: don’t give up. The light returns to the harshness of the prison, the voices fade into the whirring of a vacuum cleaner. The final impression is of resilience rather than resignation, and for that alone it’s worth applauding. It’s a wonderful subversion of Shakespeare’s text, and one that could only have been done with this cast and this setting. Because, let’s face it, after 400 years, the male angst version is played out.

The Oxford Revue and Friends – A review

This article first appeared on The Oxford Student website on 12 June 2016.

People who say Oxford is no laughing matter are very much not the target audience of The Oxford Revue and Friends, Saturday night’s showcase for the city’s hottest up-and-coming comics. Also featuring appearances from the Leeds Tealights and the Cambridge Footlights, as well as hot new stand-up Phil Wang, the evening felt like a promise of things to come – we were watching live what would likely end up on ‘best of’ compilation videos thirty years later. Fresh, witty, and raucously entertaining, this was a demonstration of the best UK student comedy had to offer, even if, at two hours, it perhaps needed a bit of a trim.

Phil Wang made an excellent host, cracking jokes about his own career (“it’s been six years, and I’ve just moved further up the bill”) and making easy banter with the audience. A rather mild introduction eventually gave way to some whip-smart jokes about racism (“it isn’t always black and white – there are shades of yellow too. I think I’ve just written a haiku”), and his affable stage presence helped to smooth the transitions between each act. The show’s first hour was split into two halves, with the Leeds Tealights and Cambridge Footlights respectively, before handing over to Oxford’s own after the interval.

The first half was overwhelmingly solid. The Leeds lot opened strong with a wonderfully grim bit about a girlfriend tied to the train tracks, followed by half an hour of similarly imaginative sketches. The highlight was a sketch involving a dude’s girlfriend catching him listening to Coldplay, (“It’s Arctic Monkeys!” “I would have preferred porn!). It perfectly captured the ludicrous yet pervasive power of music snobbery, and the performers delivered it with aplomb. The Varisty crowd were similarly good, with cleverly-written observational sketches about table football and improv comedy, although they were at their best when indulging their weird streak. Their best sketch was a slightly nightmarish dialogue about work experience in a chicken factory, delivered in an unnerving deadpan. Of the two acts, Leeds had the superior performers, while Cambridge had more refined and subtle sketch writers, which added up to an excellent showing overall.

The second half was a mixed bag. There was some seriously weak material towards the beginning, as some of the Revue’s newest recruits struggled with an overlong parody of student open mic nights, which had several good gags but lacked structural coherence. But once the old guard took the stage it was clear sailing right to the end, with clever scene after clever scene, including a genius riff on E4’s Skins and a Star Wars sketch worthy of Mitchell and Webb.

At two hours there were places where the show felt overlong – perhaps a ninety minute performance would have trimmed some of the fat – but this was a witty, subversive and thoroughly enjoyable evening. Well acted, creatively staged, and brimming with clever ideas, The Oxford Revue and Friends remains a highlight of the student comedy calendar.

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.”