Wednesday, September 29, 2010

52 weeks, 52 fringe venues: Venue #8 Lyric Hammersmith

"The Lyric Hammersmith isn't a fringe venue!" Dean scoffed. "That's like saying that the West Yorkshire Playhouse is a fringe venue".

I have to concede that he might have a bit of a point. However, I did set out my rules to start with: namely that I was going along with the definitions pronounced in Theatregoers' Handbook [2004 edition] and the Lyric Hammersmith is filed firmly under "Major Fringe Theatres". Though I guess given relative attention you could pull a stern face and argue that "regional" might as well be fringe in the London-centric coverage of theatre in England, thus making both the Lyric Hammersmith and the WYP fringe. You'd say that whilst pointing your finger as well.

Let's say: I'm filing all this away for future debate.

Anyway, the Lyric Hammersmith is a Victorian auditorium enclosed within an unattractive seventies building and supported by a snazzy and sleek modern entrance. If that sounds like a bit of an odd mish-mash then it is. I've visited the theatre a number of times since I arrived in London but, in contrast to what I've thought about some of the other venues I've visited so far, I don't really have a clear idea of what it is. I couldn't complete the sentence "the Lyric Hammersmith is...". Maybe the failure to be able to categorise it is all part of that.

Even though visiting the Lyric Hammersmith required me to use the tube for the second time in three days the pull of a new Out of Joint production was enough to have me leaving my tube-fear to one side. In Letters to George Max Stafford-Clark wrote one of the books that changed my theatre-writing life. I consider Talking to Terrorists as one of the two best productions I saw in 2005. From time to time I still think about the staging of the final moments of The Overwhelming. So - there is a lot of love in the Out of Joint room.

The Big Fellah sits nicely with the former of these plays, telling the stories of the men (and occassionally women) who live in or visit an IRA safe house in New York. Traversing over thirty years worth of history it's epic in breadth and yet never feels oppressively so. Everything you need to know about the history is in this room and Richard Bean never lets outside events dominate the stories of his characters. It is, along with the best of Stafford-Clark's output, a beautiful, complicated character piece that never makes its politics too easy or judges its characters too hard. Right and wrong, truth and deceit all get mixed up. There is, the play suggests, only shades of grey. Though The Big Fellah itself is anything but - though the threat of violence is ever present it is darkly, joyfully, funny. The scope of of the play means that not everything Bean alludes to is satisfyingly dealt with (notably the treatment of women within the IRA is picked up and then dropped) but there's something quietly ambitious about what it does achieve.

A decade ago, as I sat in an A Level History lesson, my teacher proclaimed: "Always remember that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter". The Big Fellah takes that idea and acknowledges all of the complications within it.

Fringe Quest Lowdown:

Production: The Big Fellah by Richard Bean (Out of Joint)

Type of space: 500+ seater main proscenium arch theatre plus studio space. Also large bar and cafe area.

Type of productions: Varied - new work, revivals, touring and inhouse.

Nearest Station: Hammersmith.

Seating: Two levels, traditional theatre seating, good sightlines from the stalls though, I've been told, leg room can be a bit tight. Once again - I am short so laugh in the face of this.

Condition of toilets: Plentiful and clean and modern.

Bar produce: Separate bar and cafe (the latter of which serves good pizza). £3.80 for a glass of house wine, £1.10 for a can of diet coke (with a glass).

Other comments: Wonderfully the bar of the Lyric Hammersmith has free wifi. Not so wonderfully using the District Line brought me into contact with an extreme early-evening example of unnecessary PDA and almost made me stab my eyes out. Oh well.

52 weeks, 52 fringe venues: Venue #7 The Tricycle Theatre

In theory Venue Seven should have been easy. The Tricycle is most definitely a fringe venue. Tiny Kushner is most definitely 'theatre'. The chances of me getting lost were small as I'd been there before. What I should have factored in, however, was the fact that my getting there required the use of the Jubilee Line. On a weekend. For anyone who doesn't live in London that might not strike the right amount of fear into your soul. But, let me tell you, FEAR. The Jubilee Line simply doesn't work on a weekend.

I'd factored in for the partial suspension of the line. What I'd not factored in was signal failure meaning I couldn't use the Jubilee line to get home. After a ridiculous route had been suggested to me by the TFL person present (bus to Waterloo, tube to London Bridge, train to Forest Hill - I do not think so), I sucked it up and took an overground route that took me home via Dalston. Dalston! That's bloody East London. And the Tricycle is in North West London and I live in South London. So - as dull as that list of place names might have been if you don't know London - travel. If we're going to look at what stops audience members then I'm thinking the Jubilee Line might be a factor.

As I approach double figures for '52:52' and the drip of ideas and thoughts is beginning to happen it seems that Fringe Venues need an identity. They need a specialism. They need the reason why I'm going to battle across London to get to them. They need to offer me something I can only see in their venue. I might not have seen any of the Tricycle's "tribunal plays" in their venue but they cast a long shadow. Any discussion of verbatim theatre in the last twenty years has to more than nod to this small venue in North West London. In the theatre ecosystem of Britain The Tricycle is important. And that's undoubtedly why I'd taken the ridiculous trip even before I started this challenge.

An unexpected outcome of 52:52 is that I'm filling up gaps in my theatre-going knowledge. And if the whole Cat on a Hot Tin Roof thing didn't make it perfectly clear there are more holes than knowledge in my relationship to American playwrights. So - I've never seen any Tony Kushner (though, to save some dignity, I have read Angels in America). Kushner is, it becomes clear, clever. Tiny Kushner, a collection of five one act plays, is also Political. And indeed political (see, that capitalisation really matters). This is the kind of programming that demonstrates perfectly the slot the Tricycle have carved for themselves.

The problem with Tiny Kushner, however, is that three of of the one act plays are pleasant enough if slightly inconsequential think pieces. All truth told: I'm not that interested in patient-analyst relationships. I'm even less interested in Freud. Kushner has, it is clear, a recurring interest in both. If it's one of the strengths of putting together these plays that it allows you to draw connections and parrallels between the work, its weakness is that Kushner's range narrows (if the characters aren't speaking to their analysts they're dead, in one case they're both dead and talking to their analysts). Even within these unpromising senarios Kushner can write a line - but it doesn't mask there's very little going on in them other than some lingustic and strutural gymnastics.

When Kushner has a story to match his dexterity and preoccupation with America Tiny Kushner soars. East Coast Ode to Howard Jarvis takes the (true) story of tax evasion by a group of city employees in New York and transforms it into a brilliantly idiosyncratic portrayal of personal desire. In Kushner's hands it becomes not a political quest but the story of countless, unnamed, individuals. Jim Lichtscheidl pounces on the material, bringing every one of the characters to life with charm, warmth and precision.

It's in Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy, however, that Kushner's writing feels truly urgent. We're in heaven and Laura Bush has come to read to a group of dead Iraqi children. It's not merely a polemic, it's an inspired - and deeply humane - portrayal of flaws, choices and missed opportunities. Laura Bush becomes an epic character for an epic story. Everything is not quite a simple as we might assume Kushner, with his storyteller's eye, suggests.

Fringe Quest Lowdown:

Production: Tiny Kushner by Tony Kushner (The Guthrie Theater/ Berkeley Repertory Theatre)

Type of space: Theatre, cinema and gallery complete with bar/cafe.

Type of productions: Predominantly known for its new work (political and/or with strong connections to the community surrounding the theatre). Both in house and receiving. Strong education programme.

Nearest Station: When the Jubilee Line is working Kilburn.

Seating: Auditorium on two levels, comfortably padded benches. Very minimal rake on downstairs level for all but the back two rows.

Condition of toilets: Good, though, as ever, there may be a queue.

Bar produce: One of the quirks of the building that, though occupying the same space, the cafe and bar are seperate - so you have to order food from one and drink from the other and pay seperately. Food solid and very well priced (you can have a meal for about £6), bar £1.60 for a pint of diet coke.

Other comments: Vogue calls the cinema at the Tricycle "Britain's most beautiful film venue", high praise indeed.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

52 weeks, 52 fringe venues: Venue #6 New Diorama Theatre

I suppose it was somewhat inevitable that at some point during my exploration of Fringe venues I was going to get myself lost. If I’d been forced to put money on it I would have said it would be at a venue which was north of the river because I have north of the river blindness and have no idea how any of the pieces fit together. And – yes, I ended up lost on my way to New Diorama Theatre. Because there was a building site where google maps was telling me that there should be road and all I could see was a Virgin Active and then Starbucks and then the wrong street. Until I turned round and saw that I had unwittingly gone past the New Diorama about four times. Which given it is branded in bright orange is impressive.

It isn’t a lie that the New Diorama Theatre is new. It’s shiny and sparkling and pretty. It’s located amongst equally new and shiny shops and, once I’d gotten over the indignity of being lost, this filled me with a little bit of joy. As a girl who opened a temporary theatre in a market unit I have big, invested feelings about the fact theatre shouldn’t be segregated. Theatre, commerce, trade – it all goes together. And if Starbucks is souless then a theatre isn’t. If more arts spaces were included in more new builds the world would be a better place.

There's also the fact that for all its shiny 21st century ease New Diorama isn't about the easy - it's about the new and the difficult and the long term development rather than the short term hit. Their manifesto is ambitious in a way that provides real heart to its glossy building. Even its tagline - epic stories intimately told - makes me happy. In short - it all makes me a bit dizzy and I'm judging myself for not having visited them sooner. Also, were it not for the fact that I suspect all that glass might make for a chilly winter, I'd be moving in.

In many ways SPARE is a perfect introduction to the ambition of the space. From its title onwards SPARE is a jigsaw puzzle of a production. Concerned with power, consent and abuse it boldly challenges you to do more than sit and watch. It demands you think.

SPARE’s central conceit – that the actors have their parts cast randomly each night resulting in a bewildering 40,032 different combinations – is only part of the puzzle. It’s a good puzzle to begin with though, working as both a comment on the notion that everyone has the ability to wield (or abuse) power and as a binding device between audience and performer. You know the actors are being made to work – though they do so with such ease of purpose that it’s easy to forget that this play is never quite the same – but then so are you. SPARE twists and turns as it gives you its fractured narrative, forcing you to match it step by step. There’s a mystery to be solved as you tie together the characters connections, building the web that connects them all. Slouch and you’ll miss something. Stay with it and you’ll be duly rewarded.

SPARE is not, as its Writer/Director Sebastian Rex notes, about engaging sympathy and understanding – it wants to challenge you. If this, with its non-gendered, non-specific outlook, brings an occasionally too-cold detachment from events it also provides the perfect arena for Rex to air ideas of power and choice. Nothing is easy, everything (and every relationship) is up for debate. Free from clutter you can actually hear what the play is saying.

Fringe Quest Lowdown:

Production: SPARE by Sebastian Rex (acting like mad)

Type of space: New build of glass and orange. One good sized studio space.

Type of productions: Aims to present work of theatre companies and artistic collectives across the full range of genres. Committed to ongoing development.

Nearest Station: Lots of tubes but since I use trains, St Pancras did it for me (ten minute walk passing the British Libarary in the process, swoon).

Seating: Orange flip seats, comfortable with good leg space and an okay rake.

Condition of toilets: Didn't check but I imagine they are as new and shiny as everything else.

Bar produce: Coffees, alchohol and soft drinks. £1.60 for my can of diet coke and they didn't offer me a glass. That hurt a bit.

Other comments: Did you know that of the 53 shows I went to during Edinburgh Fringe this year I got a miserable total of 2 free badges? New Diorama Theatre has a jar of free badges on their leaflet table. I shall be wearing mine with pride.

52 weeks, 52 fringe venues: Venue #5 South London Theatre

After the genre issues of Venue Four, Venue Five is bringing up something much more prickly. Yes, with South London Theatre I bring you - amateur dramatics (oh, and another website from 1997, it does seem to be a fringe by-product). Which might be a fairly innocuous phrase were it not for the fact that it comes with some baggage. It's baggage that I confess I carry (as the fact I've brought it up here would suggest). Am-Dram! See what that exclamation mark suggests? It suggests my (and, be honest here, maybe your) prejudices. I even know of a company who (to any fair description) are an amateur dramatic company but who prefer the term "semi-professional".

So - should an amateur company (and theatre) be included in my London Fringe crawl? Does the fact I'm asking that question say more about me than about them? Great swathes of the Fringe is populated by people doing work for free (I've worked for free, my friends have worked for free - it is what is done for few people could mount a fringe show otherwise), should I box "community", "student", "amateur" and "aspiring professional" differently? Equally I'd be ignoring the contribution which amateur dramatic companies make to various communities in London.

I did say I wanted this to make me think.

I confess I probably wouldn't have ended up at South London Theatre's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof were it not for the fact that I knew the actress playing Big Mama. I should also confess here: I had not previously seen or read Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I'm not sure it quite matches up to my never having read a Russian novel (don't judge) but I acknowledge: it's a gap.

I was struck, as I'm often struck with plays of this ilk, that it simply wouldn't have been commissioned today. Not only because of the demands it makes on casting (though, maybe, Mr Williams might be able to get away with that) but because of its length and pacing. Three Acts Mr Williams? Surely a nice tight 90 minutes will do. And, really, do you need to use the phrase 'cat on a hot tin roof' so much? And talking - these characters talk a lot. Part of it's simply a vogue we currently have here in the era of the one act play (though I'm happy that the appetite people have demonstrated for unashamedly big plays like Jerusalem, August: Osage County and Clybourne Park might remind everyone that one act isn't always best). But you need, as you do in Shakespeare, five minutes or so to 'get your ear in'. I've often said that books teach you 'how' you should read them, and plays teach you how you should 'listen' to them. And you need time to adjust when you're existing on a diet of one act new writing.

I quickly realised I was principally listening to the play rather than watching it, deciphering Williams's writing (which, in and of itself, is a pleasure). A choice of play from the canon it might be, but not an easy choice. It hardly needs saying - Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is hard to play and makes huge demands on its actors. And if that sounds like damning with faint praise then it's not intended to be. It's difficult and tense and riddled with emotions just below the surface - and that's true for any production. At times I was bored, at times I was totally, completely in the moment, at times I was submerged in Williams's words.

Did it ring with urgency? No. Did I regret spending my evening in its company? Absolutely not.

Fringe Quest Lowdown:

Production: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams

Type of space: A converted fire station. Two studio spaces plus a bar. Undoubtedly due to licensing arrangements it is a private members club so you either need to be a member or be the guest of one.

Type of productions: All amateur dramatics but a programme which takes in classics, new writing and, this season, something involving space vixens.

Nearest Station: West Norwood.

Seating: In 'Prompt Corner' (where Cat was) traverse setup with ample rake both sides. The other space is end-on, again with a good looking rake.

Condition of toilets: Fine, though only two in the women's which means, you guessed it, a queue.

Bar produce: Standard alcoholic no-fuss fare at incredible prices. Seriously, 60p for diet coke. All alcoholic drinks under £3.

Other comments: The building doesn't open until an hour before the show and there isn't really anywhere near to 'hang around' discreetly. So, erm, don't be too early.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

52 weeks, 52 fringe venues: Venue #4 Leicester Square Theatre

It’s only Venue Four and Leicester Square Theatre is about to plunge me into confronting a beast I’d hoped to avoid until later in the story. Yes, today I’m going to have to confront genre.

I’d purposely avoided discussing genre when I set out the rules of '52 fringe venues in 52 weeks', instead choosing to focus on practicalities of fringe and London instead. But I used the word ‘theatre’ in that blog post enough to give you an idea of where I was going with this. For example I wouldn’t try to pass off a music gig or a stand up comedian under the banner of the challenge (I say that now, wait until it’s July 2011 and I’m panicking). But on Friday night I saw Guy and Rik’s DIC at the Leicester Square Theatre which 1)is (largely though not entirely) a comedy venue and 2)a production which is a sketch show.

Having not explicitly designed my boundaries I need not be having this conversation but part of me doing this whole thing (other than getting to go to odd parts of London) is to look at some of the issues it throws up. And ‘what genre is it?’ is only a couple of steps away from the mind-numbing – and exploding - ‘what kind of thing do you write?’. Only I haven’t ever got a First writing about ‘what kind of thing I write’ whilst I have for genre (c’mon I have to have some remaining bragging rights. It’s that or my prize winning essay on language and the internet I’m afraid). So, given that Guy and Rik’s DIC, has a narrative centering around the Drop In Clinic of the title (but then the acronym is more satisfying) and characterisation and a plot – where is this on the ‘theatre’ scale? I’m not going to answer that question now (ha!) but I’m putting it out there as something I suspect I’m going to return to in the future when I have gathered more examples.

To return to the Leicester Square Theatre there is one little problem when it comes to people like me who arrive early for things – there’s no bar or foyer space proper to loiter. I’m going to make a confession here: I was in a stinky mood when I arrived. Now I mention this because this is my blog and you’re probably aware by now that sometimes I indulge in a little bit of rage. And Friday evening just happened to include some rage and ear-bending and stomping around Bloomsbury (which really should have a Virginia Woolf gift shop for such occasions). Thus arriving cold to Leicester Square Theatre and discovering that there is nowhere for me to sit...well, I could have been happier. Luckily the ushers let me sit myself and my grump in a corridor until the studio was open and could furnish me with vodka from the bar.

In the name of honesty I’m going to confess to knowing the Guy element of Guy and Rick’s DIC but the show did prove to be a suitable antidote to my mood. There’s something quite joyful about seeing two people on stage having to portray a whole range of characters with only their bodies and voices to distinguish them. At its best there’s a cleverness tied to the unexpected which propels the show forwards. Plus it has firmly managed to implant the phrase “smell my voice” into my lexicon.

Fringe Quest Lowdown:

Production: Guy and Rik's DIC

Type of space: Studio space. There's also a larger auditorium. Bars inside auditorium. Nowhere to wait in the cold.

Type of productions: Lots of comedy, though also cabaret, musical theatre and plays. And probably some things that don't sit easily in any of those categories.

Nearest Station: For those who use the tube Leicester Square. For those who don't Charing Cross.

Seating: In basement - individual seats, no rake. So sit at the front (unless you're tall, in which case get thee to the back).

Condition of toilets: Okay. Which, in the middle of central London, means not quite good enough.

Bar produce: Standard alcoholic no-fuss fare. Unsure of pricing as had drink bought for me. Though, in contrast to the assertion of the Box Office Girl, they do take cards for purchases over £5.

Other comments: Arrive about 20 minutes before your show and all will be fine.

52 weeks, 52 fringe venues: Venue #3 Southwark Playhouse

Last time I visited Southwark Playhouse I got a little bit of a shock at the discovery that the chair which, until a couple of months earlier, had been residing in my living room was now in the bar. When I say that I don’t mean some copy or Ikea identical, I mean the VERY SAME CHAIR, complete with marks from where Dean’s cat Jelly had put her claws into it. Now, once we followed the chain it was fairly simple how our living room chair had ended up in the bar of Southwark Playhouse (in short, when your landlady is an actress, London theatre circles are very small indeed). But, let me be clear, this did not stop the weirdness. Because I expect lots of things from Fringe venues, but not necessarily anything to do with my living room.

This time, however, the bar has had a little bit of an upholstery refurbishment and Streatham-Living-Room-Chair is no more. I’m not sure if I consider this a good thing or not. But, as much as I like the bar in Southwark Playhouse a lot it isn’t really the reason I’m here. As ever there has to be a play in here somewhere.

I enter the auditorium where the Boiling Frogs actors are hanging around on the stage chatting.

“Hello” smiles the one closest to me.

“Hi” I say back, trying not to make it sound like I am wondering what I am going to be made to do next. Though, obviously, I am.

“Would you like to get involved straight away?”

By being the first person into the auditorium – damn my obsessive compulsive time keeping – I have asked for this.

“Go on then” I smile. Because I’d like Actor to think I’m not phased by this. Though, obviously, I wonder what he’s going to make me do given my brain has been pulped by three hours of Rupert Gould.

“I need to build a ladder”. And indeed there are a series of wooden pieces on the floor.

“I don’t think you could have picked a worse person to do this”. For though I am a genius when it comes to lego construction (if I do say so myself) my practical ability to construct unknown pieces in to something that (most likely) will have to hold a human at some point is not exactly something I would brag about.

“First rule of acting – pick the person who is least likely to do it well”

I laugh. I like this actor. I like him even more when he decides to help me, what with the fact that I wouldn’t have a clue where to begin.

Then the Stage Manager approaches us.

“You’ve put it together back to front”.

We both look at the ladder. The pictures are, it is clear, the wrong way round. At least I can say that I did warn him.

We laugh.

“And that’s why we have a Stage Manager”.

Ladder assembled I shake hands with the actor and return to my seat where, because I am prompt at this unallocated seating lark, I have managed to acquire a seat with a cushion. There’s a fringe lesson in there right away: get in early. Or bring your own cushion.

Other unwitting audience members are brought on stage to build various props whilst some more are asked to write things on cards. Though what I do not know. If I were to write an essay-piece on this show this is where I’d be talking about Brecht and reminders that we’re in a theatre and what we’re seeing is a play. But I’m not (at least yet) so I’ll just let it hang there.

The most basic premise of Boling Frogs is that we’re deep in the bowels of a police station. Outside there’s a carnival going on. Inside a man has been arrested for holding an illegal protest. It is England in 2010 gone only slightly askew.

The Factory conspire so that every aspect of the production layers and re-layers the disconcerting sense of claustrophobia that engulfs us all. The cell (and stage) shrink before our eyes, the audience is pulled closer together, lights flicker, noise builds. My reaction to the sound of a drill in an offstage room might forever be pulsed with fear due to The Pillowman but I suspect even without this theatrical shorthand I’d have been bloody terrified.

What I’d talk more about in that theoretical essay-article – beyond the theory of Brecht – is complicity. In Boiling Frogs complicity matters a lot. On what we (both as individuals and as a society) choose to accept, what we choose to challenge, what we choose to ignore. We might be aware that this is fiction but at every turn we’re confronted by our involvement. Characters shout for help, cry for answers, look directly at us in some last glimmer of hope – and yet we, the audience, provide them with nothing other than our silent looks. We don’t get up and change the outcome. We’re static. Bystanders. And yet, as we made the props that litter the stage, wrote words on the cards offered, we helped make their world. As a call for action on the gradual reduction of civil liberties it’s a soaring battle cry.

My shorthand question for all new work is “why now?”. Boiling Frogs is urgently, noisily, passionately now.

Fringe Quest Lowdown:

Production: Boiling Frogs by Steven Bloomer (The Factory)

Type of space: Sprawling arches under London Bridge. Studio space and "The Vaults". Atmospheric (i.e. barely lit) bar.

Type of productions: New work by emerging companies and practitioners. Also strong educational and community remit.

Nearest Station: London Bridge (as you might imagine from it being under the arches)

Seating: Flexible show to show. Boiling Frogs configuration puts it in the round with very few padded seats. But then (see theory above) that's all part of the discomfort they're hoping to achieve.

Condition of toilets: Good. And better lit than the bar.

Bar produce: Didn't purchase anything on account of being whizzed up on coffee after seeing the matinee of Earthquakes in London.

Other comments: Seriously, go see Boiling Frogs. Then go see it again. And don't be surprised if your living room furniture ends up in the bar.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

On London

Today it is officially two years since I moved to London. I'm most definitely at the stage of entanglement with the city where I've begun to take it for granted. I take it for granted that, on a whim, I can go to the Proms, or I can go and queue for Wimbledon tickets, or I can see tickets being released via twitter and, 90 minutes later, be at the National Theatre watching Earthquakes in London.

Given I use the tube approximately twelve times a year I haven't developed some crazed knowledge of the transport system, but I do know walking routes over pretty much all of central London and much of its South East pocket.

I have favourite cafes in Hackney and Deptford and Forest Hill. I know where there are great cocktails in Brixton, where to find a cheap fry-up in Streatham, where to go charity shopping in Richmond.

I know the names of the bridges across the Thames and how to pronounce Southwark.

Questions from tourists rarely stump me.

I could confidently tell you my favourite views in London (but then I would have to kill you).

I know where the train doors open at my local station. I'm skilled at getting on to seemingly full buses.

I have places with memories so ingrained that they speak of those moments just as strongly as those of my past do.

In the last few months I've become more aware that (excluding some not-entirely impossible turn of events) London for me isn't forever. Things like travelling and prices and fact that here I can't see myself being able to afford my own flat for some time have begun to grate. I'm making the mental lists of places I might go next (though selected by my ability to pop back with regularity). Again excluding some twist of fate or chance or whatever you might like to label it, I'd suggest that I'm going to be here for a good couple more years though. And in acknowledging that, and acknowledging that I must do everything I can do in London during that time, I think I'm in a better place than even I was when I first arrived here.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

52 weeks, 52 fringe venues: Venue #2 Croydon Warehouse

I'm sitting in the bar at Croydon Warehouse and the voices on the table behind me are building. Then I hear:

"I not only had the idea I FUCKING BLOGGED ABOUT IT"
I snort out loud because not only is it totally incongruous, I also want the phrase on, if not a t-shirt, then at least a mug. Ear tuned to the conversation I realise the three men - one of whom has a grey ponytail which is almost as long as my hair - are talking about the Conservative Party conference.

Though I quickly deduce that Ponytail and his friends are hangers on with little chance of a private line to "Dave", listening to them is like listening to The Thick of It. In as much as they talk politics and say stupid things and think they have more influence than they actually do. Oh, and they say "fuck" a lot. Given I like The Thick of It a lot we can consider this a good thing.

See - I am merely two venues into my 52 weeks, 52 fringe venues challenge and already I have been plunged into unexpected (and undreamed of) pleasures. Listening to Tories who blog. You don't get that at the Royal Court.

Maybe I'm enjoying this even more because of our surroundings. The bar of Croydon Warehouse is a bit like a well worn jumper, much used but with holes in the elbows and an unidentifiable stain on the right cuff. However, lest you should get the wrong impression, this is a bar which offers olives and, when I entered, contained a man reading The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Croydon Warehouse - you have style. There's a new building in the offing, increasing the size of the auditorium and, I'm sure, fixing some of the space problems that using a converted Victorian warehouse brings and I hope the theatre gets its new space. But I also hope it keeps its character. I'm a hoarder afterall, I keep my holey jumpers.

What the theatre shouldn't be keeping is its website. Don't say I didn't warn you if you chose to click here. It looks like someone threw up over geocities in 1997 and they kept the result. I have one word: wordpress. If not for themselves, then for my retinas.

What they do better is new work - so, yes, I'm still on my bias and easing myself into this journey. They've even a grandly titled annual International Playwriting Competition.

The real reason I ended up visiting Croydon Warehouse so early in the process, however, was because of the show that was on. In Edinburgh Ovid's Metamorphoses was one of the shows that can proudly claim to have had the nerves-of-steel required to get past my London-demeanour and actually flyer me. That I sort of let them do this because they were young, cute boys in 40's clothing is neither here nor there. Nerves of steel. Even without this, though (and I confess I didn't make it to a single show I was flyered for) there had been good buzz about the show. And, as if they needed more of an and, with WBN I'm doing a long-term Ovid Reworked Project. I heart Ovid. I have read ALL of Metamorphoses. And that is many, many pages. I inform you of this fact because one of the paybacks for reading long books is being able to tell people that you have read them.

Only today I also tell you because I suspect knowing Metamorphoses intimately (and having worked with more writers than I want to count on their adaptations plus those three adaptations I've written) made me (once again) an annoying audience member. Because you're going to have to work to surprise me. And then I'm still probably going to look you in the face and go: well, what about this?

The reason that Ovid's Metamorphoses works is because of its staging. There's a wonderfully slick inventiveness to the production which immediately made me think of a pared down Kneehigh. The attention to detail is utterly charming whilst Lucy Egger's jazz-soaked music soars and talks of Ovid more eloquently than anything else in the production. The 1940's wartime England setting, with its overt sense of danger, proves an unexpectedly satisfying home for Ovid. Everything is on the verge of chaos, ready to fracture at any moment.

The reason I didn't love the show though? With the possible exception of the story of Theseus and the Minotaur it was the style rather than the story which was doing the work. Take away the slickness and what you're left with is a fairly straight telling of the stories. I think the reason that so many artists (in the broadest sense of 'artists') are drawn to Ovid is because of the kaleidoscope that you can view them through. Take the stories and tell me something I haven't thought before. Through the haze of charm I don't think I saw any of the stories in a new way.

If that sounds harsh for something that is unashamedly entertaining and ambitious (and a show which, had I been starring, would have probably given 4/5) then I think the show can withstand it. What I don't say with such good humour is the ending which whacked the audience over the head with ideas about climate change that weren't really supported by the way they'd told the stories. In the scoring guide I'd have docked them 0.5 for that.

What this did make me think about was that, two venues in, my writer bias has crept in. I've a huge mistrust of devised shows which don't credit a Dramaturg. It's not just that I want jobs for writers/ Dramaturgs but I think there's a reason or two why you ignore us at your peril. Whilst there was a tightness to Ovid's Metamorphoses that I can't dispute (it was too long, but then most things are) it lacked the inventiveness in the writing to match everything else going on. Me being me, that meant we'd never fall in love.

Fringe Quest Lowdown:

Production: Ovid's Metamorphoses (devised by Pants on Fire)

Type of space: Converted Victorian Warehouse, with cafe/bar.

Type of productions: New work, both inhouse and for hire.

Nearest Station: East Croydon, with it being, even at my pace, about two minutes from the station. Ironically from where I live in South East London it's easier for me to get there than to any central London location. Lesson learnt.

Seating: Individual padded seats on suitable rake. Heard woman behind me say that she was sitting there because the "lady in front is small". So you probably don't want to be sat behind a man mountain. But then, when do you ever want to be sat behind a man mountain?

Condition of toilets: Women's toilets = one disabled toilet. Expect to queue.

Bar produce: Got distracted by the Tories and didn't write down what my (soft) drink cost me, but I do remember that it didn't make me vomit.

Other comments: Spending your evening with characters from The Thick of It = optional extra.

Sunday, September 12, 2010


I umm-ed and err-ed about where exactly a blog post I wrote today should go. In the end I decided to put it over on the WBN blog.

But it should be linked here because DA formed my thoughts as much as anything else: On Why It's Time To Listen (or a love letter to theatre bloggers).

Plus, I guess, it's not every day your blog post gets re-tweeted by the man who founded the Tonys.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

52 weeks, 52 fringe venues: Venue #1 Theatre 503

[For the full lowdown on the '52 weeks, 52 fringe venues' challenge see here]

Before I start anything else I’m just going to throw in the fact that just as few minutes up the road from Theatre 503 is a charity shop which sells all its paperback fiction books for 50p. I could have bought some Iris Murdoch but, in honour of the start of a blog quest, I went for Julie and Julia. Having read a few chapters of said book, however, I should clarify that in this quest there will be both fewer mentions of mayonnaise and of my ovaries. I take this to be a good thing, but we shall see.

In terms of Fringe-shock Theatre503 is pretty much the equivalent of standing in the shallow end of the fringe pool whilst wearing arm bands. Residing above the Latchmere pub (good smelling Sunday lunch should you be tempted) it comes with awards and names. It also has a formidable writers development programme, which I mention if only for the fact that I like that sort of thing. And, also, because if I start this Fringe journey with any bias it is the following:

If the fringe is doing anything it should be new writing/performance and not the seventeen-hundredth production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream this year.

I equate fringe with ‘risk’. And there is very little with more risk than the ‘new’.

Theatre503 is all about the new and, maybe fittingly, I ended up watching PLAYlist, one of their pick ‘n’ mix evenings. Since I’m here and throwing all my biases on to the floor I should admit, if my obsession with listing didn’t give it away, I love making playlists. And 503’s particular playlist was always going to have special resonance with me since PLAYlist was created for Latitude 2010, using songs of acts on the lineup. Made-for-me. Especially when “Boy with the Arab Strap” was played into the auditorium pre-show.

The pieces themselves were all – at the very least – well made. I had my pedantic heckles raised by one that was supposedly set at (what I assumed) was Latitude but which smacked of the fact that, at least when written, the writer had never been to Latitude (some times I recognise I am a nightmare of an audience member). The two that really sparked, however, were Ben Ockrent’s The Other Side of the Fence and Colin Teevan’s Arse. Ockrent’s just had a beautiful conceit at its heart that was played perfectly and which, I imagine, worked superbly in the realms of the Latitude tent (no, I am not saying more, the conceit is everything and to reveal it would be to spoil the piece).

Teevan’s piece, however, took its song (Florence + the Machine’s “You’ve Got the Love”) and made the stage time as beguiling and epic as the artist from which its inspiration came. And, just for a further challenge, Teevan took on William Shakespeare (and, erm, the play I might have mentioned above) too. At its best theatre isn’t about the size of the stage you’re on or that there’s a pub full of people downstairs or even that you’ve only got the length of a song to express your thoughts – it’s about the ideas and the world you create. That world and those ideas can be huge. And in the sheer aspiration and verve of Arse Teevan’s world – and its single performer – was enormous.

Fringe Quest Lowdown:

Production: PLAYlist (various writers)

Type of space: Black box studio, above a pub.

Type of productions: New work (specifically new writing). Predominantly in house but can be hired.

Nearest Station: Clapham Junction (at my pace a good 15 minute walk . At anyone else’s probably 10). Should you be tempted (I wasn’t) the walk also includes an array of different takeaways.

Seating: Padded benches, with a suitably sized rake. Very comfortable, though limited leg room. I’m 5ft 3.5inches though, so I laugh in the face of such concerns.

Condition of toilets: Good.

Bar produce: Only had a diet coke as I’d been to a 30th birthday party the night before (£1.50). Food looks and smells good. Friend I bumped into post show had very acceptably priced glass of house white. Drinks can be taken into the theatre. There's also a meal deal for ticket holders.

Other comments: The only venue I know of which has reusable tickets. Good for their costs (and the environment), bad for the hoarders like me who like to obsessively keep their tickets. Also, no one so much as sniffled at me taking a large overnight bag into the auditorium.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

The start of yet another list

Back in Winter 2005 in G&D's in Oxford (where else?) I had a conversation with a Uni friend who was just about to start what would become "Way Off Loop", a quest to visit every Fringe venue in Chicago in one year. We'd considered whether a similar project would be possible in London and agreed that be it London or Chicago it was wonderfully insane.

As those who know me will be aware my desire to complete lists is almost as pressing as my need to make them. I've a long standing quest to read all the Booker winners (we're not talking about the fact that there are four winners on the list that I've started to read and failed to finish) and I've previously joked about the fact that one day, to complete my list of London theatres, I will have to go and see The Mousetrap (though maybe I should be more worried about We Will Rock You).

Then a few weeks ago, via the wonder of twitter, I found out about The London Theatre Project. Which is basically - one woman and a lot of theatres to catalogue. And that made me remember all about Baileys ice cream in G&D's and Way Off Loop and all the fringe theatres I have never been to. Especially since in the wake of The Great Big Edinburgh Fringe List 2010 I decided to make a list of all the non-Edinburgh shows I'd seen. With the exception of a healthy input from the Albany, the Arcola and SHUNT, if I were to take out shows by people I know, my theatre going had shrunk to a web of National-Barbican-Royal Court with special guest appearances from the Old Vic and the Globe. Which is, to put it politely, a bit on the shoddy side.

So, with a nod to Way Off Loop and The London Theatre Project, I'm going to attempt to go to at least 52 London fringe venues in the next year. I'm a bit late in blogging this but I decided to start the project as of 1st of September so that gives me until 31st August 2011 to complete the task.

There are inevitably some questions which the parameters raise:

Firstly - where exactly does London end? I'm not sure I know, but for arguments sake I'm going to say it finishes at the point when I can no longer use my oyster card. Though, obviously, if I get desperate I might argue otherwise.

Secondly - what do I define as Fringe? This one's obviously a bit more wobbly, and a subject to which I'm sure I'll return over the coming months. As a basic guideline to start me off I'm going to adhere to the split created in my much thumbed, if slightly retro, Theatregoers' Handbook. Thus the Young Vic and Menier Chocolate Factory are in. Obviously all fringe venues are equal but some are more equal than others so I'm going to take this into account and, maybe, come up with something to say about it.

Thirdly - does the venue have to be permenant or am I going to include site specific/ pop-up theatres? Easy answer this one: yes. I'm one of the self appointed Queens of pop-up theatre after all.

As part of the quest I'm going to blog each venue I go to. Having not yet written the first post I'm not sure what form this is going to take but I do know it's not going to be a standardised review. I'm going to touch on whatever I see at the venue and its quality, I might also touch on how good the coffee/vodka in the bar is. And if it takes me three years to get there then you can bet that I'm going to tell you.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Once Upon A Prom

Some times London is fab, not least when you get a text message saying "want to go to a Prom?" and the next thing you know - bam! You're at the top of the Royal Albert Hall and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales is doing their thing.

Of the four pieces, each very different in style and tone, I think it was the rather beautiful and heart string tugging 'Pictures at an Exhibition' which had me at hello.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

DA is mainly coveting #1

Good things come in threes and I see more good things than my twitter stream would, quite frankly, put up with. So I'm going to put them on here instead.

1. I first discovered Aspire the day that I first saw David Tennant in Hamlet. What can I say - that was a good day. Since then I've purchased items from their Stratford and Oxford stores as well as online (and I can confirm that they wrap all of their items in pink tissue paper, both in person and in the post). I even won a Cath Kidston washbag through a twitter competition with them. Needless to say I obsessively check their new items and I'm crushing over the Yumi Cameo dress:

2. Since I'm here and a Fever devotee, I wouldn't be saying no to the Fever Bunty Jacket:

Fever's gently classic styling makes me punch the air, not least because their clothing works for those like me who are somewhat on the short side. Possibly most importantly every item I have by them always generates the "Oooh, where did you get that?" question. As a tip - their sizing is a little on the small side so, y'know, give yourself some give.

3. I'm curating quite a collection of vinatge headscarves at the moment, only in the first proper marker of the post Edinburgh Fringe blues I managed to loose my original Brighton headscarf somewhere around Victoria. I'm looking for a replacement for it currently which, sadly, won't be this vintage Karl Lagerfeld number over on My Vintage. But, oh, it's beautiful.