The Fantastical Adventures of [Not] Being With You

The Fantastical Adventures of [Not] Being With You 


Genre: Physical Theatre

Venue:  Blue Elephant Theatre 59a Bethwin Rd, Camberwell, London, SE5 0XT


Low Down


Blue Elephant Theatre does it again in its theatrical quest to bring provocatively interesting work before its audience. Its latest production by writer/ director Justen Bennett of Fantastical Adventures of [Not] Being With You presents a very imaginative piece about finding passion and companionship together with all the ‘bells and whistles’ of a love affair. It energetically explodes on the Blue Elephant’s modest stage, showing that the fringe is alive and well in Bethwin St, South London.  Similarly, Bennett’s play has a universal appeal that complements the theatre’s seemingly boundless imagination in choosing strong works that stretch the boundaries of its location.



‘If music be the food of love’ or, as is the case in Justen Bennett’s Fantastical Adventures of [Not] Being With You, searching for the right metaphor to describe love is a problem in itself, then prepare to view the experience as nothing by constant uncertainty. Paraphrasing a often repeated line in the play:There is a way it goes and there is way it doesn’t go. This is the way it goes!

The solipsistic statement is a dominating motif in the drama which, as a tightly focused play about the nature of ‘us’, shows  a pair of young lovers set up a world that is exclusively filled with just the two of them. Ironically, the theatrical nature of the presentation simultaneously demands that the pair continuously refer to the audience in order to relate to one another. At one time, the audience vocalises musical rhythms to assist in the presentation of a scene; at another time it hides a mobile phone and is asked to arbitrate to settle a disputed point by one or another of the pair.

The fact that Bennett chooses to characterise his pair of lovers as moving through their relationship with ‘audience participation’ like vaudevillian performers is key: the entire play is presented in an highly choreographed style showing the challenge of moving in together, of accepting and rejecting personal idiosyncrasies, of understanding personal boundaries, of arguing and making up and, above all, of deciding if its right or not stay together or move apart.

In keeping with the performance mode of the play, the dialogue is poetic and evocative.  Each word, phrase and breath in the dialogue is placed ‘just so’, to balanced and counter-balance the dance-like embraces, spins, tumbles and jumps through which the lovers move. Often what comes across as a monologue, the pair share and deliver alternative lines as a duet. At other times what seems to be conventional dialogue is recited chorally, as the perpetual motion between the couple compels their talking to one another to erupt from their attraction and growing conflict.

Justen Bennett’s direction is masterful, as are the skills of Movement Director, David Ralfe, and Fight Director, Ronin Traynor. The whole play danced before my eyes with a youthful energy that knew no bounds. Composer James Anderson’s score is good and strong in adding depth to the mood of the play.

My one reservation about Fantastical Adventures was its inability to pull back and tackle what I know from experience can be the most difficult aspect of a relationship, that is, intimacy itself: intimacy as the non-dramatic, unspectacular and steadfast private coming together. The omission baffled me, even while I went on appreciating the show’s sense of the theatrical. I concluded that the reason was that the play was only interested in revealing, regardless of gender, the impermanence of ‘young love’ as a narcissistic all-consuming phase of life in which ‘us’ is explored as ‘me’ + ‘me’.

That explanation still did not satisfy me, however, by the end because I did not get a sense of what had changed for the pair as they experienced the new learned boundaries of ‘self’ and ‘other’ in a deeply intimate way. I felt I would have liked to have known why these two characters were fated to play their particular roles as acrobatic showmen who seem unable simply to rest in each other’s arms.

For me, Blue Elephant Artist Director Jasmine Cullingford’s comment in the theatre programme calls up some interesting questions when it states,

People are just people, whatever their sexual orientation. Written by gay playwright Justen Bennett, we have chosen to stage this premiere …with two men, but it was written as a gender-neutral play and in future could be equally well presented with either two women or a man and a woman.

I noticed how equal Ryan Wichert and Max Wilson were physically in being the same build, height and weight. In another sense it has been argued by feminists that there has always been more equality between partners in a homosexual relationship than has ever existed in traditional marriage, not the least in the way that the economic history of women shows how they have gone from being ‘chattel’ to gaining their legal and political identities. What didFantastic Adventures show other than the two lovers who were entirely free to come and go as they pleased in their relationship? More seriously, if the play was to be enacted by a man and woman wouldn’t the fight scenes have to be implicated in the dark reality that domestic violence and the murder of women is still a ‘woman’s problem’ far, far more than it is anything else: a violence not done to her by strangers but by her husband or another male relative in her own home?

I look forward to seeing more of Justen Bennett’s work in the future.  Its entertaining provocations are stylishly realised. Blue Elephant’s choice to stageFantastic Adventures shows the diverse scope of its commitment to the production of great plays.

Reviewed by Josey De Rossi Thursday 21 June 2012

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Little Women

SPECIAL REPORT – UK’s Premiere Musical Production of Little Women

Many achievements surround the staging of Little Women as a musical at the Lost Theatre from 12 December to 7 January.  This report summarises the production’s critical reception and draws together what theatre reviewers suggest are the strengths and weakness of Little Women: The Musical.

The story of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, around a mother and her four daughters who fend for themselves while the man of the house goes off to the American Civil War, is built on an epic theme at least as old as Aeschylus’s Oresteia, a trilogy showing the effects of the Trojan War on the Greeks.  The consequence of war on whole families and communities is something which immediately resonates with the families of those presently serving in Afghanistan. It also lives as part of the memory of millions of families throughout the world thanks to WW1, WW2 and any number of smaller skirmishes in Asia, Africa and the Middle East since 1945.

Ironically, there is overwhelming evidence that the absence of men through war also works in favour of women’s political and social emancipation. Jo March’s desire to live independently and achieve recognition as a novelist parallels other stories of imaginative and gifted 19th and 20th century writers such as Jane Austen, Emily and Charlotte Bronte, Miles Franklin, Virginia Woolf. Similarly, the ‘sisters’ of these writers sought the vote, a right to an education and equal pay when they refused to go back to the kitchen after working in factories and taking on other male responsibilities during war time.

Viewing Peter Layton’s and Lionel Segal’s adaptation of Alcott’s novel near the end of its run on Thursday night (5th January) still managed to evoke for me a sense of how these strong women fought against being confined to a domestic sphere. I found myself believing in Jo’s struggle as that of everyman or woman aspiring to live a productive life.

The production’s press release sets an optimistic tone by declaring that Alcott’s novel, and by implication the new musical’s adaptation of it, as a “celebration of women breaking the mould and achieving success both in work and life. Such optimism ocaught the attention reviewers: with some judging the work as a little too “saccharine sweetness” (What’sOnStage) while others viewed the positive nature of the story as a key feature of the strength and resilience of the ‘little women’. For instance, Amy Yorstan of the British Theatre Guide noted that “It would be easy to criticise the show for its sentimentality, but the overarching themes of hard work and love are wonderfully optimistic and this is a solid adaptation of a classic.”

In due course, Layton’s & Segal’s adaptation is analysed by critics in terms of how uneasily the original story lends itself to the musical genre (Nina Caplan TimeOut and Paul Vale The Stage) and what style of musical might have more effectively realized a fresh interpretation of story.  Perhaps the most critical in this respect is Russell Lucas’s review in remotegoat when he declares:

I felt like I had seen it all before as nothing new was brought to the table. In short, I wasn’t engaged as a modern theatre goer. As it is no longer a road to success by putting ‘The Musical’ on the end of a famous story it is also no longer acceptable to have dream sequences to shoehorn in a ‘showstopper’ or sing ‘wiping the clouds away’ to cheer up a character. Let us also move on from light changes signalling a song and finally when a character dies let us not walk off into a smoke filled door representing ‘Heaven’ anymore. The techniques are old fashioned. The jig is up.

From my viewpoint, I believe the techniques used by Layton and Segal are perfectly appropriate in themselves.  Dream sequences and death scenes work dramatically! The power of musicals is that they are the perfect form to enable the story to be felt as, for instance, Les Miserables allows audiences to feel Victor Hugo’s story. It would be fairer to say of the development of a musical version of a complex story like Little Women, so entrenched in an American historical context of one of the bitterest civil wars of all time, that it should have made more of the musical genre.

As all critics agree, there is much to praise about the production: they particularly single out Nicola Samer’s direction; Charlotte Newton John’s portrayal of Jo March;  the clear characterisation of each of the four sisters; the clever songs;  the comic antics of Aunt Marsh and other cameo roles. Furthermore, the design concept works very well, though the scene changes need some rethinking.  Also, from where I sat, I know that the size of the bench on which Beth has her dying scene made her look stressed and uneasy for all the wrong reasons as she precariously attempted to stay on the furniture long enough to breathe her last breath.

A simple Google search reveals just how universally appealing the story of Little Women has remained with audiences since 1868, firstly as a novel (Project Gutenberg has it free to download), through at least three significant film adaptations in 1933, 1949 and 1994 and numerous play versions (including current productions in Ann Arbor Michigan and at the Gate Theatre Dublin). A ‘great’ musical of Alcott’s story, however, is yet to be achieved.  The production I viewed at the Lost Theatre holds enough integrity for its producers, cast and creative team to hopefully aspire for that accolade with Little Women.,%20director%20of%20Little%20Women