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For Fest: Dickless (Edinburgh review)

dickless.jpg

Dickless delights in misanthropy. Lauren Downie and Tessa Jane Fairey take turns at performing Aisha Josiah’s one-woman play. Her characters are a playground to swing across, and Josiah arms them artfully, quips and pint in hand.

Saff has a lack of fear: of people, of sex, of words. She walks with a swagger and an undercut, her attitude large enough to fill every venue in Edinburgh. Taking us through her night of family feuds, boys and broken friendships, she is a master storyteller. At home, she gets in everywhere for free because of her face. Here, she holds the audience in the palm of her hand thanks to her words.

Oli is sleazy but charming. Even when he’s got himself into a right mess, his confidence oozes unfailingly. Though the gender issues thrown to him midway through the show offer a potentially potent platform for explanation, it’s not given enough breathing space. Like the wonderfully surreal animal slaughter sprinkled throughout, the extraordinary events of the night are simply accepted and downed with the next drink.

Downie switches character with aplomb, not just Saff and Oli but family members and friends too, painted with curious details that make their characters entirely believable, like the lovingly-formed Old Boy with his bubbling, fish-like uncertainty.

Dickless provides hilarity in the bleakest of moments. It is easy to overlook Saff and Oli’s dubious morals and fall in step with them as they leave chaos in their wake.

Original: Fest

For Fest: Dickless (Edinburgh review)

For Exeunt: Ageing at the Fringe

Cockamamy

A telecare system is a white plastic phone with a big red button. Often perched at the end of a bed or the arm of a chair, the phone can immediately connect someone in an emergency with a member of staff from a care team. The phones are designed to provide independence to older adults but for many, conversations on these telecare systems are their only point of contact with the outside world. “My gran used to ring them all the time,” says Louise Coulthard, “even though you’re only supposed to use it if you fall over or burn yourself. She just pressed it and rang for a chat.”

Edinburgh in August is frantic. Everyone is hungry, exhausted, and the streets almost sway with the weight of hungover students cloaked in rain and sweat, the shower in their too-full apartment having broken that morning. This hive of activity, so busy you almost get sick of pushing through bodies on the Mile, feels far removed from the image of someone sitting in solitude at home, pressing the emergency button of their phone just so that they can hear a friendly voice.

It often seems that the Fringe tends to have a focus on the young, with uproarious ideas celebrated and desperation oozing from keen, clever young things. So how do the two worlds merge? How does a piece that is so delicate, quiet and gentle, focusing on the fragility of older adults, navigate its way through the chaotic tangle of the Edinburgh Fringe?

This year, Theatre Ad Infinitum are bringing back their 2011 hit, Translunar Paradise,  a heartbreaking performance exploring an older man’s struggle to recover from his wife’s death. And numerous other shows are tackling the subject of old age at this year’s Festival, including three new plays: The GardenerDark Matter and Cockamamy. Each of these three explores a unique area of the ageing process, using different techniques to draw out the nuances of a less independent life.

As age decays body and mind, it becomes a race against time. In Dark Matter, director and co-writer Mayra Stergiou says, time is “a dictator and a companion”, doggedly pushing us through Alfie’s life to find what’s left of him. Time is not such a burden on The Gardener’s Frank. He is able to use his past, his skills and the things he loves. Although on medication, he is in much better health than the protagonists of our two other plays, both physically and mentally. Being in a better mental state allows him to use his past to his favour. A former teacher, he persuades the care staff to allow him to give a series of lectures on horticulture, the first of which we are invited to. “It’s nice to see him use the skills he used in his professional life in this environment,” Cownie says.In Dark Matter, Vertebra Theatre Company harness puppetry, visual imagery and microcinema to reconstruct meaning for retired astrophysicist Alfie. In Cockamamy, Coulthard uses her experience of caring for her grandma to create a bittersweet tale of love and loss. Cumbernauld Theatre’s The Gardener focuses on amateur gardener Fred, who has recently moved into a home after being unable to cope on his own following the death of his wife. Each play orbits around the feeling of isolation. Whether suffering from dementia or simply the baggage of old age, when it comes to the later stage of life The Gardener’s director Tony Cownie says, even if you are “surrounded by people who are good to you and kind to you, what you’ve lost is in the past. It is still a lonely experience.”

For Coulthard, time plays a different role. “Because gran kind of couldn’t really remember much of her past and wasn’t concerned for the future, it was always so present. Everything was just quite alive.” Coulthard’s play is heavily influenced by her own experience of caring for her grandmother. Just from talking to her on the phone, you can tell how much this piece means to her. Though her grandma was never that into theatre, living in the countryside where there weren’t a lot of touring shows, she was intrigued by Coulthard’s life as an actress. It will no doubt be an emotional and exhausting Fringe, but Coulthard is adamant that it is important to remember the funny moments too. “We did laugh a lot. Those moments of light get you through as a carer.” As suggested by the title, Cockamamy highlights the bemusing and hilarious situations dementia can lead to, drawing together the oppositions of pain and laughter.

Humour is also an important part of The Gardener, with a sense of fun a solid tool in Frank’s belt. “It’s just as much a part of life as tragedy or hurt is,” Cownie says.

I remember my grandma telling me that as she has gotten older, she is touched less and less. That realisation made me make a conscious effort to hold her hand and hug her more often. I tell Coulthard this and she recognises the feeling. She used it in her writing. Theatre is a form defined by its use of language, so the rejection of words is equally as suggestive as an acutely carved turn of phrase. “A lot of the time me and Mary [Rutherford, the actress playing Coulthard’s character’s grandma Alice],” she says, “we won’t be speaking a lot to each other, but we’ll be holding each other.”

Similarly, Dark Matter’s use of Bunraktu puppetry lends itself to a focus on movement rather than words. “It might be a cliche but with puppetry, we go against gravity,” Stergiou says. It makes every shrug or subtle look, every struggle, deliberate. Music serves as another form of communication in Dark Matter, with original music composed for the piece by Gregory Emfietzis. “Scientific research suggests that music is a great way to break through barriers of communication in dementia,” Stergiou says. “There are people that forgot their loved ones’ names but can’t forget a lyric from their favourite songs.”

It can be easy to forget the lives the elderly once lived. “There’s something about being hidden away in these homes,” Cownie says. By doing shows like these, he suggests, it’s uplifting to show all sides of a person, “to see that they still have spark, still have something to say, still have something to offer.” He pauses. “There’s a lot we can learn from them.”  Each of these shows is a song played, trying to reach back in time and grasp a bit more of the old life.

Old age and dementia will affect everyone at some point, whether first hand or through a relative. Cownie notes, “it is surprising that it is not a theme that more often takes centre stage.” According to the Alzheimer’s Society, one in six of us in this ageing population will develop dementia over the age of 80, and the disease is not discriminatory. It affects people of all race, class and gender.

“In the end,” Coulthard says, “my grandma kept wanting her mum.” Apparently common among dementia sufferers, the disease taps into a child’s first memory and maternal instinct. When performing the show, she often has audience members share this experience. Loneliness can have serious effects both on the carer and the sufferer and a demonstration of loneliness can help us feel less lonely. “It’s a shared experience,” Coulthard says. “A lot of people I’ve talked to say it’s really nice to know that you’re not alone.”

Original: Exeunt

For Exeunt: Ageing at the Fringe

Update

grad

I have recently graduated in Theatre and Performance Studies from the University of Bristol, with First-class honours (woo). I was also awarded the John Lavender Prize for outstanding contribution to the department of Theatre.

Much of my time this year has been devoted to writing my final year dissertation, on the topic of images of violence in the news. This blended my interests in theatre and journalism by linking performance theory with media analysis.

As I attempt to navigate the world without the safety harness of student loans, I will hopefully be doing a lot more writing. Some of this will be on theatre, some of this will not.

As of August 2017, I will be posting my writing/links to my writing on this blog, in order to keep a coherent collection of my work. To take a look at my writing for other publications before this date, please see my ‘Writing Elsewhere‘ page. Meanwhile, below are five pieces I have enjoyed writing on a variety of topics over the past few months.

Owen Jones and Kate Tempest: Wake Up and Love More – HuffPost Young Voices

Paper Aeroplanes: Reporting from the Calais Jungle – Crew for Calais

Walking: Holding- why we need radical softness now – A Younger Theatre

Preparing for Invictus – Volleyball England

The Grosvenor (a pub and a far right wake) – Bristol24/7

Update

NSDF 2017

NSDF

I think it was the moment we were pulled up in a fairylight-draped chariot in the rain, sofas screwed on and a bear head at the helm, with the sound of X-factor entrance music blaring, that I realised just what a ridiculous and incredible thing the National Student Drama Festival is.

(“I was walking along and I suddenly thought to myself- is this happiness?” – Best speech of the closing ceremony, Pavel Drábek)

Most students have never heard of NSDF. For those of us lucky enough to have been, it feels a little like falling down the rabbit hole.

*

NSDF is a week where students from all around the country perform selected shows to a group of visiting artists, judges and audience members. It’s a week of theatre, conversation, drinking and exhaustion. It’s a week of the unexpected, except that you can expect to be knackered by the end of it. It is, I reckon, one of the best and most thought-provoking weeks of the year.

At this year’s festival, I was working as Deputy Editor for Noises Off, the magazine that publishes a print edition daily and more frequent content online, responding to the shows, events and discussions.

Having been in Scarborough for the past however many years, the new setting in Hull gave the week something fresh. It also gave us an office right next to the bar.

This festival mentally pushes you to question choices, both theatrical and moral, with tricky conversations generally prompted by Chris Thorpe’s expert chairing of discussions. It makes you ask things you’d never considered before, like: “Should we have to out transgender actors?” or “Is it our place to say this?” or in our case, “Can we publish the word ‘cunt’ or is it okay anyway because it’s written as an anagram?”

The technicians and management team throughout the week are astonishing. With little sleep, they build and organise multiple venues, hundreds of people and very heavy equipment. This year’s tech team even found time to indulge our childish humour with increasingly extravagant Technician Impossibles, from making us a Hullywood sign with built-in hammocks to a life-size version of Chris Thorpe made of flapjack, and from a pixelated painting projected on the side of a building to the glorious chariot that took us to the closing ceremony.

*

There’s a list longer than the amount of bacon rolls we ate (a lot) of people I didn’t get to talk to, or wish I’d spent more time with. But I also met a bunch of exciting new people, had conversations I’d never have anticipated, cried at very bizarre times and saw shows I hope I’ll never forget.

One of those was Celebration. I’ve known Ben Kulvichit, one of the two cast members of Emergency Chorus, for several years. We first met through Twitter, he’s been to visit me at University and I once encouraged him to buy an octopus. Because he knew me before the festival, I was asked to take part in a section of his and Clara Potter-Sweet’s show, Celebration. They asked me to prepare a three minute speech about myself, “right now”, to be honest, and to perform it while they did a costume change.

Half an hour before the show I was told that an elderly resident in a care home, who I work with on my University placement, and who I’ve come to really care for, had died. He was called Dennis.

I didn’t want to mess anything up for Ben and Clara and there wasn’t time to get a replacement so I went in to the show ready to do my bit. In the rush of finishing a deadline and heading to the show, the reality of his death hadn’t really caught up with me. When the cue came to get up onstage, I stood, script in hand. The audience couldn’t have been in a jollier mood, from this mental, joyous, buffooningly beautiful show.

And then I decided to talk about Dennis.

I explained about my placement. I said there was this song we did, that Dennis always enjoyed. He could never quite keep up with it, or sing it exactly in tune, but he always really went for it. So I wondered if, instead of doing the speech I’d prepared, we could maybe sing that song together.

I broke down crying about thirty seconds in but we did it, and not just that, we did it in a bloody round. And then everyone cheered. I can only imagine how thrilled he’d be if he knew so many people were cheering for him.

That evening, and throughout the rest of the festival, strangers kept coming up to me to give me a hug. I’m so grateful this show gave me a chance to celebrate him. And now, hopefully, a bunch of other people will remember him too, even if just when they hear that song again, sometime in the future.

*

All of the fourteen shows had moments/ideas/concepts worthy of note and discussion. The paper and the idea of a live writer in Feat.Theatre’s Say It Loud. The helium heartbreak and the three and the a half seconds in Sad Little Man. The awareness of self and laughter at the wrong places in Caitlin McEwan’s Thick Skin. David Callanan’s tech in Theatre 42’s Nothing Is Coming, The Pixels Are Huge. The ensemble’s raw honesty in Leyton Sixth Form College’s No Human Is Illegal. The growth of the music and the genius sexist-joke tap dance in O Collective’s he she they.

(I didn’t fall asleep in a single one.)

*

Noises Off was an amazing thing to be a part of this year. Editor Richard Tzanov’s sarcasm and awful taste in music were a joy to work with. Designer Nick Kay is a dream, photographers Aenne Pallasca and Giulia Delprato extremely talented, and our writers are fantastic. We wrote when lots of other people had gone to bed, didn’t get much sunlight in the NOFFice and went a little bit mad attempting to learn the dance to Doin’ it Right.

Some of my favourite pieces from the week were:

Lily James’ Celebration review and Tinder date.

Florence Bell’s reflection on the week.

Phoebe Graham’s beautiful piece on he she they.

Eve Allin proving an old boy wrong.

Nathan Dunn’s simple request.

And of course, the week wouldn’t quite have been the same without Miriam Schechter’s poetic response to bad reviews.

 

*

The week felt more political than previous festivals I’ve experienced. With two plays about the refugee crisis, and various others alluding to political events, much discussion centred around rights, responsibilities and care. When the topic of content warnings were raised for Sad Little Man, discussion was heated. A lot of people in the audience have had personal experiences here. It is easy to forget the reality of people’s lives when you’re talking about everything hypothetically, or theatrically.

But there was also something about the festival that made it feel distant from reality. When the refugee camp in Dunkirk caught fire it took a long time for the news to spread, and the bombing in Afghanistan seemed a million miles away. For a festival attempting to be so fiercely current and political, the busy schedule almost didn’t allow for the really real world to seep through. People talk about the Edinburgh bubble. I didn’t realise it was a thing here too.

*

Someone said it takes a year to really feel at home at NSDF. The same people tend to come back, so returning means you’ll certainly have a ready-built base of friends, and it gives you time to work up confidence to chat to VAs at lunch, to ask questions at discussions, or to write what you really think in the magazine.

I hope anyone who went for the first time this year wants to come back. It’s an incredibly special thing to be a part of. I’m very grateful to have fallen into this rabbit hole.

NSDF 2017

Real Magic

This was originally a review for Forced Entertainment’s Real Magic which was performed at In Between Time Festival in Bristol. The show consists of the same scene repeated, with slight alterations, over and over. And over. And over.

The review was (politely) rejected from publication.

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Real Magic

I wanna hold your hand

A collection of thoughts about the refugee crisis, theatre and Valentine’s Day.

hands

Yesterday it was announced that half of the Calais migrant and refugee camp, known as the ‘jungle’, was to be knocked down. Last week the French authorities started the process by bulldozing the church and mosque camp. Both sites of comfort and hope were made by hand by people with next to nothing. To be separated from someone you love by thousands of miles, violent police and unsympathetic governments and then to have a remaining source of comfort destroyed- well, it’s just not very nice, is it?

The police outside the camp have a coldness to them. You can completely believe all the stories about them- that when it gets dark they attack the innocent. Reports have been coming out of injuries to those in the camp, with one charity documenting fifty incidents in the last week alone. When you’re in a life-threatening situation to begin with, the last thing you need is being beaten up by those who are supposed to be protecting you.

If this is a day for celebrating people, then I feel like we should spend some time thinking about the ignored. While most of us will spend our day either complaining about or celebrating Valentine’s day, there are millions of displaced people just trying to stay warm, dry, alive. It makes that box of chocolates feel a little superfluous.

***

There’s this bit in Jane Eyre (the BOV version that transferred to the NT) that I can’t get out of my head. It’s where Rochester kneels by her side and puts his hands on hers, and she recognises him. Like, she just knows. She can’t see him but can tell from the knobbles of his knuckles and the warmth of his fingers that it’s him. I thought that was pretty great, something to look forward to. That comfort, that understanding, just from the holding of a familiar hand.

***

When I visited the camp in Calais, a lot of people didn’t want their photographs taken, understandably. If their picture was seen by authorities on French soil, they would have proof that they had been in France. That would mean they’d have to stay in France. I took a lot of pictures of hands.

I made this video while visiting the camp. The poem, ‘Home’, is by Warsan Shire.They couldn’t have been lovelier to us in the camp. Though they had nothing, they offered us tea, smiles and stories. The media present to us the idea of migrants and refugees ‘swarming’, like a flock of violent animals coming to claim what we have to offer. The only major change came with the photograph of Aylan Kurdi on the beach, when even the most vile papers couldn’t find something mean to say.

The loveliest article: Me and My Syrian Refugee Lodger

All this contrast between violence and tenderness makes me think about the way we choose to show force in theatre. A few years ago I saw Kiss and Cry at the Barbican. It was, and I think remains to be, the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. It was all about hands.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P7L3ZSHyFLI

Last week I saw An Elephant in the Garden at BOV. Although it’s about the Second World War (and elephants and the circus and love and stuff), I came out unable to stop thinking about the refugee crisis today. An extract of the review:

This little girl, her mother and the elephant are all refugees, fleeing their home for fear of wars and violence. When Elizabeth and her gang are desperately hungry after a few days walking, it is hard not to think of those going with nothing for weeks in camps and boats and in the backs of vans across the world. We know the outcome of the Second World War. The end of the ongoing refugee crisis seems less certain. It might be a children’s show, but An Elephant in the Garden makes us see these refugees as individuals. It makes us sympathise, laugh and fall in love with them. Perhaps Reade’s adaptation of Morpurgo’s book is a sign that we should all be trying to do the same.

***

On a day when everyone is talking about home and love, strolling down the street holding hands and the comfort of it all- it somehow felt important. It’s just a horrible thought that all this- government decisions, civil wars, hostility and violence- means two people who love each other might not be able to hold hands again.

I wanna hold your hand