Circtacular at Drum Theatre Dandenong

Look at how much the children are enjoying what they’re doing. They delight in what they’re doing…in doing their best.  They’re not following what someone said, they know what they’re doing.  They own what they’re doing! Even the mistakes were beautiful mistakes.  They are glorious.  They are proactive.

Overheard audience member watching the show

I was lucky enough to view the creation of Circtacular by the creative team of staff and students of Wooranna Park Primary School, headed by Marianna Doherty and Debra Nugent.  Producing a whole school spectacular, which is also embedded in the school curriculum, is an amazing feat to achieve.  On the one hand, the work has to be entertaining and on the other, it must have an intrinsic value educationally speaking.  Speaking of the reactions around me, I believe that the finished theatrical production on Wednesday 5th September which the audience viewed achieved both distinctions: it was wonderfully entertaining and a true expression of the students’ work.

To begin my review, let me focus on the entertaining and engaging qualities of Circtacular, a ‘roadshow’ narrative in search of acts around Australia for an animal-free circus.  The pace of the spectacle was very good from the outset as the problem of the thoughtless animal trainer, Tom, had to be dealt with by Ringmaster Melbourne, Chairperson Ivanna and Head Animal Trainer Grace. They took up the challenge with zest and worked hard together not to be derailed by a trio of clowns (Jarrah, Milan & Skype) and a monkey (Alex).  What followed was a journey of epic proportions in which the whole continent was covered to find the talent they hoped would keep their circus alive.

As the circus executives and their caravan travelled the vastness of Australia, cruel Tom never missed a chance to try to foil the good guys.  However, in good pantomime tradition, his own misdeeds proved too silly to succeed.  Unfortunately for Tom, he had an uncanny way of giving himself away.  The character was played by Tess who brought the part alive with all her talents of disguise, fake accents and wacky schemes. You can imagine the audience’s relief when such a genius finally turned to the good side and rejoined the circus as an excellent acrobat.

The search around Australia was visually enlightening as the audience went from Melbourne to Dubbo, Sydney, Brisbane,  Hervey Bay, Longreach, Katherine, Port Hedland, Fremantle, Port Fairy, Torquay, Hobart and finally back home to Dandenong’s Drum Theatre, the site that staged Circus Oz’s spectacularly successful show in 2017.


The variety of acts viewed along the way was a feast for the eyes. There were animals played by prep students who showed the audience how much they loved their freedom. Then there were Brisbane buskers, performed excellently by Year 4s, who enacted a ‘dance battle’. The second group of Year 4s enacted a superb mime sequence in which every member of the troupe stayed in character throughout a routine which took the audience back to an era of silent movies.

The Year 5/6s took on a daring theme all about risking everything, symbolise by a forbidden red button.  This was followed by another group of upper primary students who gave the audience a touch of Aesop’s animal fables. Later in the show, a third group of Year 5/6s performed an absolutely stunning acrobatic routine.

Year 1s created the environment of Longreach and showed how a community can go from feeling drab to feeling fabulous.  There was a display by Year 2 students who showed what it meant to never to give up, even when the Ringmaster rejects you. As the program notes say, they ended with “a strong message about being brave” and having their voices heard. Year 3s enacted a magic segment in which black and silver dazzled the audience as the timing of each trick highlighted the magicians’ talent.

Other talent found around Australia included a marvellous choir in Adelaide whose performance of A Million Dreams was dynamically entertaining.  The choir modulated their voices with great skill. Another group of dedicated dancers performed an evocative dance to Pink’s What About Us. It was extremely well executed.

Educationally Speaking

We know that it’s important in a school production to include as many people as possible, to give the message that everyone in a school community is important.  But, speaking from experience, I know that this can seem a little false if the work which is needed to be done in a production is not really important. This is where the educational value of the school production becomes very important as the creative leaders of the show tap into the many talents of the children. Circtacular does this in very imaginative ways.

Firstly, by calling for the original work of children to imagine the acts in the circus, they enable students to face up to the big issue of treating animals with respect. What followed was that young people came to understand the relationship between ‘performers’ and ‘producers’ as they created costumes, props and stage scenery.  Senior students were also responsible for the script (Dylan, Filippos, Makayla, Joey, Jaidah, Alex, Sujay, Diya, Raghad & Skye)  and for devising the order in which the major characters appeared so that the narrative kept flowing along with the greatest interest. Students were also responsible for the stunning slideshow which served as the production’s backdrop. Beyond the stage, senior students assisted younger students with costumes, props and moving on and off the stage. They did this with a crew of committed staff members who worked tirelessly throughout the night.

The Brazillian theatre maker, Augusto Boal, said in the foreword of his famous book Games for Actors and Non-Actors (2005) that theatre is “the art of looking at ourselves”.  I believe that this maxim is wonderfully displayed in Circtacular. The production shows Wooranna Park Primary School looking at itself as a school community that values its students’ and staffs’ original ideas. It shows us a school looking at itself and asking how best it can come together for the good of students with diverse talents. When the finale arrives showing a chorus line of high-kicking dancers made up of staff members all involved in running the show, it is clear to all viewers that they had been watching a school at work and at play.

Undoubtedly, congratulations must go to Ms Marianna and Mrs Nugent but, I feel, they would be the first to deflect praise towards the ethos of their school, which continually looks to produce student-centred ways of working as a school community every day of the year. 

Told by an Idiot’s Get Happy at the Barbican

Our reviewer Josey takes eight-year-old Henry to Told By An Idiot’s latest production, a collaborative adventure-cum-panto-cum-circus show, with a giant egg sandwich thrown in. 

Marketing itself as “this year’s alternative Christmas treat”, Told by an Idiot’s Get Happy is positioned to achieve a distinctive style of children’s theatre. Having experienced the show with my co-reviewer Henry (aged eight), I have no doubt that what the company produces is a tour de force of zany and unexpected vignettes that enrapture both children and adults from the instant they step into the Barbican’s Pit Theatre, which is, for this occasion, arranged as a theatre-in-the-round.

Get_Happy_poster_jpg_230x300_crop_q85A white passage marks the route into another world: the usher reassures adults that they can take a more conventional route to their seats, but the rush of children towards the gleaming white tunnel caught my enthusiasm for adventure and I bent and shuffled behind with my eight-year-old companion towards a white shimmering curtain, draping the end of the tunnel.

On the other side is the full expanse of a circular stage, painted like a clock face, in striking aqua, black, white and yellow. The design created by Sophia Clist is cartoonish –half Quentin Blake half Dr Seuss, with no hint of fluffy nursery drawings. Around the circular space are striped cushions at the edge of the stage and low benches placed behind them. The seating arrangement is perfect for the way that adults and children will refer to one another’s reactions throughout the forty-five-minute performance as they watch individuals grapple and surmount difficult and inexplicable situations.

Pivotal to the whole experience is the sense of transformation, which Henry followed moment by moment, looking up and around at objects being flown down onto and across the stage. In some ways, Get Happy is a pantomime-cum-circus experience – forms which have a common ancestor in the Italian Commedia Dell’Arte. I refrain from boring Henry with how routines like the restaurant scene derive from comic lazzi, and anyway, he cuts to the chase with a more pertinent point: the show is fantastic, he says “even though there was hardly any words and talking”.

I agree with Henry. I have rarely come across such economical use of language. Paul Hunter (writer and director) creates scenes which undergo a surprising number of variations, controlled by a dreamscape sort of logic. The ensemble of four performers play to their strengths:  Elizabeth Flett as virtuoso violinist and all-around accomplished musician; Stephen Harper as the “sad clown” who – in Buster Keaton style – never gives up the will to overcome the seemingly impossible;  Sophie Russell as the astute and talented prima donna whose elegance masks a grittier determination and the superb young dancer and agile comic Michael Ureta who can effortlessly move from standing position to standing on his hands, perfectly stretched and balanced!

Each episode is an act of transformation and each scene moves seamlessly into the next: the paddling pool scene becomes the restaurant scene (complete with a table with a sawn-off leg) which then becomes the egg sandwich routine. Henry is called on to help pursue a tomato sauce bottle for the egg sandwich. His participation exemplifies for me as a drama educator the value of Told by an Idiot’s approach to children’s theatre. Like Get Happy‘s original use of the variety show episodic structure, the use of audience participation weaves in and out of the whole performance in many surprisingly novel ways, making the work seem more like a thing co-created by the children.

What is more, in experiencing the zaniness of its episodes, the young audience has a good chance of understanding how “get happy” may, in fact, mean many things: moments of gladness, trepidation, excited anticipation, delight, surprise, hope and sheer relief. Happiness can be complex, tense and joyful. Henry was emphatic that I give Get Happy five stars!

Date reviewed: Friday 13th December 2013

The Jungle Book at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre

Our reviewer takes Alannah (aged ten) and James (five) to a new version of The Jungle Book, with wonderful wild animals and a pretty convincing jungle for above a pub. At the Lion and Unicorn Theatre.

Attachment-1The Lion and Unicorn Theatre in Kentish Town is currently showing an all-new adventure inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. But be warned! It contains “freaky” bits, according to James (aged five), who accompanies me. Together with his sister Alannah (ten), it is their first experience of a London fringe theatre above a pub. The occasion is especially interesting to them as they are on a visit to London from Australia.

The show is co-produced by Giant Olive and Simon James Collier, with Adam Dechanel writing and Collier directing this new version as well. Their interpretation sensibly and imaginatively limits the children’s classic to the “young man cub” Mowgli’s journey out of the jungle to live back amongst mankind. This artistic decision arranges the narrative through a series of encounters with flamboyantly beautiful wild animals, which are all affected by the main predator of the jungle, the tiger Shere Khan.

The strongest part of the production, according to my co-reviewers, is the way the animals move: that is, in more sophisticated terms, how their movement is directed and choreographed by Simon Collier and choreographer, Stacy Victoria Bland. The anthropomorphic qualities of each character are effectively realised through Cory Roberts’ mask and costume design. For instance, the elephants are created as a form of military patrol and the exotic birds as a bunch of co-travellers on their way to other parts of the globe.

Such transformations get the children’s attention, as Chuku Modu’s entrance as the vicious Shere Khan provokes a sense of fear. However, it isn’t quite clear to me why the tiger leaves off mauling the baby-laden basket abandoned on a jungle track.  The moment is over in a flash. Nonetheless, the basket’s rescue by the panther, Bagheera (Samuel Treon), is credibly realised through the character’s sombre playfulness, as is the nurturing given to “young man cub” by the wolf pack.

Dmitry Ser is an engaging Mowgli, portraying the character with all the obstinacy of an adolescent. The rest of the ensemble of seven performers (Yiltan Ahmet, Augustina Amoa, Giuseppe Fraschini, Michael Gonsalves, Chuku Modu, Rishi Nair and Samuel Treon) take on nearly thirty characters between them. In the course of their performances they show their skill through inventively portraying each animal type through regional English accents and anthropomorphic gestures. In this context, it was hard to understand why Baloo the Bear is characterised through an American accent that sets up the character”s identification with the already existing Walt Disney movie rather than the newly imagined fictional world being created then and there on stage.

The production is also let down by clumsy stage entrances and exits that often break the magical mood which the performers conjure up on stage. As Alannah reflected, seeing an elegant snake walk backwards out of a side door definitely looks less than awesome. Despite rather cramped conditions though, set designer Cory Roberts manages to build in a sense of the jungle’s dynamic environment through the use of angled rises and lush green vegetation over a bamboo backdrop. But the stage can’t compensate for the real sense of confinement when the tall and athletic bodies of the cast work in their animal packs.  At one point I did wonder what the effect might have been if the audience was seated on either side of a traverse performance space. Alannah, for instance, reflected that she wished to have been in the jungle rather than just in front of it.

All this said, the children’s overwhelming desire to see more of the show affirms that the producers, writer and the creative team have definitely shaped a good piece of children’s entertainment here. And, in imagining how an alien child can be loved and nurtured by surrogate parent, they have given rise to a wondrous way of looking at what it means to belong to a particular place, live in a particular family or tribe from which an individual emerges to encounter the risks and dangers a new life.

Date reviewed: Thursday 5th December 2013


The Gruffalo at the Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue

Julia Donaldson’s story about a little mouse on an epic journey returns to the West End stage, with lively performances all around. Eight-year-old Henry helps our reviewer dish out the stars for this recommended Christmas treat for young families. At the Lyric Theatre.

16306_show_portrait_largeJulia Donaldson’s The Gruffalo has sold 10.5 million copies in 31 editions worldwide. Illustrated by Axel Scheffler, like all great stories it appears a beautifully simple one. It is about a mouse’s walk in the woods. Both author and illustrator have won numerous awards, including Donaldson’s appointment in 2011 as the UK’s Children’s Laureate.

Adapted for the stage by Tall Stories Theatre, the play of The Gruffalo has visited the West End for the past five years. It now returns to the Lyric Theatre, an occasion which was anticipated with excitement by my co-reviewers, eight-year-old Henry and his six-year-old brother, Elliot. As we take our seats we view an impressive golden rusty coloured forest, and Henry asks me for a pen and paper so he can record the production’s first star. He feasts on the spectacle – as do I.

As the lights dim and a gasp from the children in the theatre heralds the start of the performance, two men, dressed very plainly in grey working clothes, carry a small sleeping creature onto the stage. The cast of three – Susanna Jennings (Mouse), Tom Crook (The Gruffalo) and the Predators, played by Timothy Richey – is a strong ensemble, though very occasionally I felt that their ad-libbing was aimed at each other rather than the audience.

Henry was particularly impressed with Timothy Richey’s transformation from the second storyteller to fox, owl and snake. He thought the costuming was perfect in getting the sense of the different characters, and I too found the scripting and choreographing of the three roles clever, especially the anthropomorphic characterisation of the fox as a farmer-squire, the owl as a bomber commander and the snake as a hip-swinging Latin dancer.

Most impressively, I notice how this is part of an overall direction for delineating stage conventions from storytelling ones. For instance, the opening is performed as a kind of prologue that establishes the mouse-creature’s love of nuts. It is devised with all the banter of pantomime and the visual slickness of a magician’s act. This is not “the book” but a way of sharing the theme of the book with a live audience. Henry is completely engaged in unravelling the challenge facing the little mouse, who must face up to fear and risk in order to find her favourite food.

The real magic, however, happens as the dynamic storytellers continue to build and share Julia Donaldson’s text with the audience. Their grey workman-like outfits make perfect sense as they create the world of the story in which the forest and its creatures exist. The creative team of Creative Producer Toby Mitchell, Director Olivia Jacobs, Designer Isla Shaw and composers John Fiber and Andy Shaw inventively realise on stage the world built by Donaldson in The Gruffalo, while the script captures the rhythm of the original text.

The transformation of the main storyteller into the Gruffalo is all part of the constant transformations taking place which, thankfully for parents of children attached to the book, are anything but disappointing. Six-year-old Elliot checked out the authenticity of the monster on stage by unrolling the poster-cum-programme and scrutinising the bouncing mass of fur and purple spikes on stage against Axel Scheffler’s illustration. Luckily, the stage presentation passed the test.

Date reviewed: Saturday 23rd November 2013

Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain II

How Henry laughed! Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain II at the Garrick Theatre

Eight-year-old Henry takes our reviewer on a truth-seeking historical adventure. Birmingham Stage Company’s sensationally-scripted Barmy Britain II proves that satire for kids is in fine shape. At the Garrick Theatre.

The Garrick Theatre was buzzing with the energy of children, eager to see Birmingham Stage Company’sBarmy Britain II, the latest live performance of the popular television and Scholastic reading book phenomenon from Horrible HistoriesAs the wise child, Henry, aged 8, who accompanied me to the event pointed out, having followed HH since his seventh birthday, he knows that he can depend on its storytellers to give him historical facts which school books just don’t believe children can handle. Such wisdom at such a young age. I ask if he will help me rate the show afterwards. He seems unfazed by the responsibility.

After finding our seats in the stalls and, in response to Henry’s prompts, giving minute by minute announcements on when the show is due to start, we scrutinise the theatre left and right, floor to ceiling. When finally, not a moment too soon for Henry, the safety curtain rises, we view the stage set consisting of two long strips of material upstage ablaze with changing colour from stage lights. In front of the towering panels of light stand two ‘trees’, equidistant right and left of each other, loaded with props and costumes. Between them but further down, centrestage, is a multi-panelled cupboard/ cart-like contraption which becomes a source of wonder throughout the show.

I ask Henry what objects he recognizes on the stage. He points to one of the helmets hanging from the costume ‘tree’, upstage right. As natural as breathing, he then continues to say how the lighted panels, now bathed in a deep blue, look like ‘waterfalls of light’. I’m in awe of the description and ask if I can use it in my review!

Beams of dazzling magenta now frame the first performer, Anthony Spargo, of the duo who will play a host of characters between them. Spargo warms up the audience in traditional comic style, with witticisms and word puns. The laughs come throughout his routine of flinging out body parts of scalp, lungs and heart, to signal how the show will be ‘hair-raising’, ‘breath-taking’ and ‘heart-stopping’. He has Henry’s attention, his knowing smile says to me, ‘Yes! You are being as horrible as I know you can be’.

The contract between Anthony and audience is a done deal and the children cheer on the total irreverent hypothesis that Britain it a barmy place and its history proves that it’s so when suddenly and without warning, arrives the second performer, Lauryn Redding, dressed as a City of-Westminster traffic warden. She demands that our irreverent clown and his unlicensed cart ‘move on’. The wrangling between the duo cleverly introduces how the telling of history is mixed up with the social permission to speak in public and how history is contentious and complex.

The rest of the hour-long show consists of representations of key English historical figures: Queen Boudicca, Richard I (the Lionheart), Queen Bess and Queen Victoria. In between the VIPs, the audience also sees representations of ordinary people such as the barrow wheeler of medieval times who goes from house to house collecting the dead during the Black Death and the ‘Groom of the Stool’ of the Tudor era, responsible for wiping King Henry VIII’s bottom!

Terry Deary and Neal Foster craft a sensational script, which is also directed by Foster.  It is punchy and engaging, using many pantomime conventions: cross-dressing, the arrangement of popular songs with adapted lyrics, mock fighting and audience participation. Sound effects, either in the choregraphed action or within the scripted dialogue, never miss a beat and the use of dance styles such as rap, make the routines a wonderful way for the audience to travel between past and present.

Looking at Henry’s smiling face, I know he’s weathered the shocking yarns extremely well. On the other hand, I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed when Henry beckons to tell me he gives the show four stars. Only four stars, I ask? He explains, ‘I didn’t like how the smoke was trying to cover up when they were changing their costumes. I could see through the smoke’. I probe a little.  What was so bad about that? Henry sticks to his point about how the smoke, for him, inadequately covers up the actors changing, barely obscured by smoke gushing from the smoke machine.

I have my own reason for giving the show four stars too due to what I feel is the show’s poor ending.  For me, it seems to abandon the dramatically interesting critical stance maintained throughout, for a fairly facile conclusion which attempts to say that our current leaders seem worse than the barmy characters presented in performance. What can the audience do with this historical comparison? Are Deary and Foster seriously putting forward that hundreds of years of English leaders who have worked for justice and democracy amount to nothing in human history?

I would have liked, in keeping with its pantomime style, a reprise that underscores the themes established by each of the Horrible Histories during Barmy Britain II. Each historical vignette was perfect in itself, beautifully constructed and presented by two extraordinarily talented young performers. In the end, I applaud their dynamic realisation of the fun of putting on a critical view of the past to better understand and interact with it in the present.

Date reviewed: Saturday 12th October 2013

London Stories

BAC-london-stories-33web_viewEpic storytelling: London Stories at Battersea Arts Centre

It is not like any festival I have ever attended, this festival of personal stories experienced intimately between the storyteller and just myself, plus another audience member. The revelations it brings about the power of stories will stay with me, possibly forever.

Battersea Arts Centre’s London Stories: A 1-on-1-on-1 Festival is uniquely positioned to become a most powerful form of participatory theatre. The idea is simple: begin with a sprawling building, like old municipal offices; invite in local people who feel they have life-changing experiences to tell about living their messy, complicated lives (that’s pretty much all of us), and organise ushers and staff to direct the moving traffic of paying audience members from story to story around the building.

The festival begins matter-of-factly enough. The audience stands at the foot of the marble staircase of the BAC, waiting to be called into the show. But then the black drapes barring the entrance onto the stairs serve as backdrop for BAC Artistic Director, David Jubb, to welcome us with a short explanation of how the A4 coloured card is our “ticket” and timetable for the evening’s performance of six stories from six storytellers. David further explains that we will experience the stories with three different audience members only (i.e. we share two stories with the same person), who are most likely to be no one we know. He informs us that the stories are performed all over the building, on the ground and first floor and in the basement, and quickly reassures us that we will receive assistance at every turn. I note how many of us are studying our coloured timetables with the same anxious look I feel I’m showing: “Right, what is it that he just said? Where do I go?”

With the curtains drawn, most of the audience walks up the staircase. A small group, of which I’m a member, is asked to move around to the right of the stairs and reach the first floor by an alternative route. I arrive before two seats outside a door displaying the title of the first story listed on my coloured card. The usher directs me to sit and wait to be shown into the room. This becomes the established pattern: the journey to the storyteller’s location, the short wait before entering the room, followed by the extraordinary intimacy of sharing a story with just a stranger.

What strikes me first on encountering the storytellers is their rawness and nervousness: these are not professional actors but well-rehearsed presentations. In this sense, the stories seem simultaneously both theirs and not theirs, created as they were through three weeks of workshop rehearsals and shaped for the purposes of this festival.  But nonetheless, I feel myself “just” listening: I’m listening to someone who like me has confronted illness, the death of a parent and the ethical dilemma of not knowing whether the way you acted was the best you could have done.

The storytellers I listen to, whose names I carry now in my memory as Hannah, Eleanor, Susannah, Lakeisha, Jane and Conrad, bring me into their lives. The “arts centre”, however, is their silent partner, making it possible for me to hear their voices. Each location with its “staged setting” supports their efforts to communicate their truth: for one story I sit in a dark space on one of only with three chairs: one occupied by Susannah describing her mother’s hospital bed.  For another I sit on the edge of one of two single beds with Jane sitting opposite me telling us of her love for her troubled husband whom she watched jump to his death, and  in another I sit on a bench in a passageway, looking at a young man, seated on a doorstep, telling how he has so far risen above the fate of men in his family who all seem destined to end up in gaol.

These are not just people chatting self-indulgently about their lives: these are storytellers practising an epic art form. I feel the stories like revelations. I feel their words hit my skin and I see my emotional responses flow back to the storyteller affecting the emotional tone of what is being said. I can only find compliments for any workshop rehearsal process which has given them the clarity with which they have shaped their stories: the economic use of language, the calling up of original metaphors and verbal dynamics are completely artful.

Wisely, the artistic director has designed a “spill out” room as the last destination, a space to just sit and have a cup of tea (free of charge) and speak about or write responses on card. David Jupp stands before us again, inviting us to place our written responses to individual stories on the artfully decorated boxes, which he calls “monuments” created by each storyteller. He reads a poem assembled from the workshops by the storytellers working as a collective.

The importance of London is held before us; lots of cities have a river flowing through them, but only London has the Thames. So I reflect on how the stories I have heard were told as if they flow through their London locations, carving out their unique path in the life of the city. The poem hits me as I recognise the edgy, messy wonder of the place.

Another revelation dawns on me. This is the first time I’ve experienced my role as an audience member as essential in the dramatic performance. It is the first time that I am not just part of “the audience”. Remarkably, the three audience members with whom I shared the experience did so as respectful strangers. Nonetheless, I remember them as vital to my experience of the stories: in one story I cried, so too did the other person; in another story we had agreed that, as older women and mothers, we wanted to take away our young storyteller’s conflict with her father. Interestingly, there were many exchanges of short, sharp expressions of “this is great theatre” between us. In the end, listening to stories about my fellow Londoners at the Battersea Arts Centre reveals how “inventing the future of theatre” is being realised there.

Date reviewed: Tuesday 17th September 2013
Other reviews

Miranda Sings

Miranda Sings & Artful Talent: At Leicester Square Theatre

The phenomenon which is Miranda Sings at Leicester Square is the only show in the vicinity originating from being a YouTube sensation. Colleen Ballinger is a comic genius for creating the world of Miranda, the “relly tallented” star of the bite-size screen.

Miranda Sings, as its creator Colleen Ballinger tells The Times in 2010, is written as a character study of the girls in her college who “believed they could make a career out of putting videos on YouTube… clueless to the fact that they were terrible. The characters were so ridiculous, I wanted to make one of my own.”

And so a brand is born when Ballinger creates her talentless alter ego, Miranda, the presenter of over 200 YouTube videos of helpful hints, pop songs and voice lessons that have been viewed by millions online. The Miranda Sings brand also includes regular tours of Ballinger’s cabaret show around the world in venues like Leicester Square Theatre.

As I take my seat, however, I am only too aware that I am not a member of her YouTube generation, whom she refers to as her “Mir-fan-das”. On the other hand, I am not “hater” either, the term Miranda uses on her detractors who often leave obscene comments online for her to read. Instead, as a critic whose own children are part of her generation, I’m content to sketch out something of what I hear and see in Miranda Sings, as I would after returning from visiting a foreign country.

The first thing that strikes me in the show is how well the audience seems to know every detail about Miranda. I notice this as soon as the opening act gets underway and the presenter, Jason, mentions details about her that mean nothing to me but that are received with rapturous applause by the crowd. This is followed by an invitation for audience members to come up and show off their impersonations of her. Three hopeful candidates appear, all wearing her distinctive red lipstick, and perform her mannerisms in pulling faces, dancing badly and speaking in spoonerisms. During all this time, the communication between audience and presenter reminds me of friends who are sharing their common knowledge about someone they love.

The show then moves onto the second phase of warming up the audience when Colleen Ballinger herself comes out as Miranda’s understudy. Of course, I don’t get the joke at the time so I simply note how the young American performer possesses a magnificent voice. Her enactment of the popular comic song “Taylor, the Latte Boy” is wonderful.

The crowded auditorium, by contrast, is noisy with anticipation as Colleen begins to transform herself into Miranda. Applause explodes at every moment as she clips back her hair and covers up her elegant black lace dress with Miranda’s graceless fashion statement of tracksuit pants and bland long sleeve shirt.

The transformation sets the scene for Miranda to begin to share her unremarkable life through audience involvement, song and dance. For instance, an audience member is asked to read the mother’s part in a script she has written on her mother’s happiness at her birth. After this the audience is enthralled by a ridiculous song in which Miranda plays her baby self with her head through a hole in a bassinet.

I notice that the show is structured not like a variety show but more like a meandering river: the audience floats along through a slide show of Miranda’s childhood and teenage years, stopping to come ashore for intermission after the story of her first and only love. I see heads nodding as if to say “that’s right” and “yer, we know”.

In the second half, the subject moves from autobiography to Miranda explaining her recent successes. We are introduced to her dancers and, as she’s in London, she announces that she’s written a special tribute for the English on how Christopher Columbus discovered Britain! The room erupts at the ridiculousness of the announcement and the use of cardboard hats for props.

The ironic sense of history I feel at that moment makes me feel particularly old. However, the audience has no problem with it. They understand the effort she has made in sharing with them their common heritage of popular musical, films and the like: they are the children of London and Hollywood, of Peter Pan, Mary Poppins and celebrity Royal families. In that context, her ignorance of historical facts seemed infinitely forgivable when compared, for instance, to the righteousness and violent attitudes of her critics, whose hate mail Miranda also shares with her audience.

The final number is a magic trick in which her assistant puts a sword through her throat. Remarkably, Colleen Ballinger’s voice is heard every time the sword moves in and Miranda’s voice returns when it moves out. The audience seems to know that this is a signal to end the show. Farewells and standing ovations are made and given and then Jason invites loyal Mirfandas to form a line and meet Miranda in person. All but a few rush to do. However, I know it’s time leave.

A final irony for me exists in Colleen Ballinger’s relationship to her own talent. Only a good musician and singer could so consistently create the cacophony of sounds she makes alongside the notes of perfect pitch. Only a very good performer has the skills to move so consistently out of step and create the range of spoonerism in her language, more prolific than the original Mrs Malaprop in Sheridan’s The Rivals. 

As I look back on the multitude that remains to see more of her, I know it will take me some time to fully understand what I have witnessed. In an intellectual sense, I know the parentage of her comic style: of her big clown-like red lips, of her bungling imperfections in Charlie Chaplin’s humble fool and of her contrived ugliness in the pantomime’s ugly dame. But she is none of these. All I know from seeing Miranda Sings is that between the hundreds of video clips and this “cabaret” exists a new kind of performance making whose talented creators have shown themselves worthy of this critic’s serious consideration.

Date reviewed: Thursday 12th September 2013


CELL at the Little Angel Theatre


Living with MND, not dying from it: CELL at the Little Angel Theatre

The message of the play is that people live with MND rather than simple die from it. I hope Smoking Apples and Little Cauliflower Theatre have a chance to fully develop the living which their central character does with the condition. At the Little Angel Theatre.

Little Angel’s Hatch 2013 Festival is a showcase of work-in-progress performances by new and established puppetry performers and companies. The two companies in the mini-festival I viewed were Smoking Apples and Little Cauliflower Theatre, who combine to stage CELL, the story of a man who goes from being diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease to becoming wheelchair bound. Like the most famous MND sufferer, Stephen Hawking, he comes to rely on a computer-generated voice. That voice is effectively the narrator of the show.

The production is an apt subject for a drama using the art of hand-held puppets. The distinction between the human movement seen in the energy and craft of the puppeteers make each movement by the puppet seem extraordinary. The contrast seems even sharper as I watch the characterisation of a man incrementally becoming less able to move. I note the beautifully contracted puppet as a fitting representation of “everyman”.

Awareness-raising theatre can easily deteriorate into didacticism. Thankfully in CELL the talent and intelligence of co-creators Matthew Lloyd, Molly Freeman, William Aubrey-Jones and Carly Mc Connell avoids the problem. This is mostly because they focus on imaginatively solving how the central character of their drama comes to live with MND. Again, this too might have succumbed to banality except that in choosing to show the quirkiness of a lone man living with his goldfish, the audience is able to watch everyday things slightly off-centre. Turning the life of the goldfish into a metaphor itself, the audience uneasily comes to understand the limits of experience on all of us.

The arrangement of the story shows the man living between his hobby of trainspotting, his home with the goldfish and his dealings with doctors and hospitals. This is effectively done with probing beams of light and the use of shadow puppetry upstage. Then comes a voyage on the Eurostar which takes the narrative to another level. The use of music and lighting is strongly suggestive of a man eking all that he can out of life.

This is not to say that this isn’t a work-in-progress: there’s more to be done on building the narrative and characterising the central figure and other roles in the drama. In particular, I believe that there’s more to be done in showing the progression of MND. The differentiation from first diagnosis to wheelchair seemed to me seemed still too generalised. If anything, like the computerised voice, the final grip of MND seems too uncontested.

Similarly, the events in and between the three locations which the character visits on his Eurostar journey seems very static and time-filling instead of revealing why the character chose to go on the voyage: was it a quest or just a holiday? Its purpose wasn’t clear and only a vague causality is implied between “living with MND” and “going abroad”. Nor does the drama seem to take into account that mobility is so much riskier when not in your usual habitat: why wasn’t this the case for central character in CELL?

I appreciate from the notes written online in the production’s rehearsal journal that the development of the second puppet is still very embryonic, but again dealing with essential motivation did not seem present. It took me some time to understand that the second character was not just another man who was meant to be a “healthy” body, reflecting back to the central figure his desire to be well again.

Nonetheless, this is potentially a very engaging and worthwhile drama of a life embraced by the challenged with motor neurone disease. The final message of the play emphasises that the best course of action is to see yourself living with MND rather than dying from it. If that is the case, then I hope Smoking Apples and Little Cauliflower Theatre have a chance to further develop the living which their central character does with the condition.

Date reviewed: Saturday 7th September 2013

Perilous Escapade

The Perils of Boris & Sergey: Perilous Escapade at Mimetic 2013

Journeys, quests and sweaty puppets were brought to life by Flabbergast Theatre’s Perilous Escapade about two leathery characters, Boris and Sergey, who enter as the “Dynamic Duo” and sadly part in the end. At Mimetic 2013.

Journeying was very much on my mind as I made my way to Enfield to view Perilous Escapade in the Mimetic Festival at the Dugdale Centre. The challenge of the quest structure is hard to resist dramatically, and the writers of Flabbergast Theatre’s puppet play spectacularly squeezed every metaphor and physical allusion out of the form as they move their two leathery characters, Boris and Sergey, from “Dynamic Duo” type entrance to their sad final parting.

At the same time, the play also discards the form in the style of a satirical meta-movie about two characters on their way to nowhere. I could swear that the Muppet movies had something to do with the shenanigans on stage, but then again it could have been Kill Bill or even The Princess Bride. Allusions come thick and fast in the ninety minute show: BatmanStar Wars, James Bond, the Greek myth of Charon and the River Styx, Dante’s Inferno… well, perhaps not Dante.

They mostly all work in this extravaganza of two brothers, one good & one bad, arriving before us from who-knows-where. In no time at all, and through a moment of childish play, the bad brother Sergey kills the good brother. From then on, the dead brother, who neither knows or acts like he’s dead, is on his way to free his bad brother from, of all places, hell, where he is imprisoned for murdering him. To take this journey, he not only doesn’t believe he’s dead, but he also doesn’t believe his brother has murdered him.

I’ll admit that by this time in the play I became lost myself in the multiplicity of switches between real and fictional places in Boris and Sergey’s journey. Nonetheless, I was enjoying the considerable skill of the four puppeteers who worked the two characters: in fact, the whole sense of stagecraft was a wonder in itself. Steve Spencer and Dylan Tate both displayed a great vocal range in characterising Boris and Sergey, respectively. They have huge presence, though I felt that there’s still room to improve their timing of working with an audience rather than just at them. The two silent “legs” puppeteers, Elaine Hartley and Samantha Arends, were focused and exact. I found remarks to them of “bitches” by Sergey a bit gratuitous: I mean, if there’s to be in-fighting between puppet and puppeteer then it needed to be carried through completely with the “legs” responding in some way to the abuse. The remarks seemed pointless, in the wrong sense.

However, with metatheatrical allusions coming thick and fast, I was swept along by the company’s manipulation of the gritty puppet personae, the stage blocks and the dramatic use of soundtrack and lighting. The show seemed, in so many ways, to be a perfect constructivist’s heaven, with the sole purpose of being an end unto itself. The action scenes were terrific, with every tiny movement choreographed to perfection. I can vouch for the truth in the company’s 2010 manifesto that “Flabbergast was set up to make uncompromising and exciting physical theatre in a belief that all theatre should be engaging and sweaty.”

Yet with all of the technical knowledge on display, I yearned for more understanding of storymaking in particular. It was jarring for me to see such a potentially insightful theme as the journey to hell treated in such a flippant way. I just didn’t believe that it was a perilous escapade at all. The idea of danger, risk – indeed, of losing your soul – was continually sidetracked into a childlike fantasy of “let’s all pretend” and “we all know that this is just a puppet show”. I left the theatre wondering if the energetic puppeteers had really any idea of what they were playing with – for many the journey to hell and back is lived out daily.

Date reviewed: Saturday 27th July 2013


Something There That’s Missing

A play for our time: Something There That’s Missing at Theatre503

Something There That’s Missing is a play for our time, reflecting personal cultural negotiations with love, and lots of laughter. At Theatre503.

Anh Chu’s Something There Thats Missing was previewed for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival at Theatre503, staged by We Flew Big Theatre Company. Conceptually strong, it examines the world of “hopes and dreams” intertwined with the practical, often mundane, world of doing the actual work of realising personal ambition.

Joy moves to London to write her first play, a fantastical coming-of-age story about adventure-seeking Mei Li, who enters the supernatural Chinese metaforest. The idea of metaforest is imaginative, particularly when we get to meet an eccentric orange hippo. However, the idea needs more use of stage design and digital technologies, because it is through mixing imagined and real landscapes that Joy realises so much about her hopes to write and produce her play in London.

“Working” and “dreaming” form the central conflict for Joy Lo, Chu’s auto-biographically inspired central character who has come to London in the hope of writing and producing a theatrical success in the UK capital. What makes the character absolutely engaging is the fact that, as a Chinese-Canadian, she is forced to negotiate her plans in the face of irreconcilable cultural and personal differences. This is realised on stage comically through her Skype conversations with her practical and materialist Chinese mother back in Canada.

The play organises the action in short episodic bursts that show Joy in dialogue with her alter ego (a small Chinese doll), her mother and her friends. Alongside these more realistic scenes are the scenes which represent the dream world of the Chinese metaforest, in which a young heroine, Mei Li, is on the hunt for the Elixir of Life and the Pink River. This doubly imagined place has quasi-Chinese painted bowers, a giant panda head and a very non-Chinese orange hippo with the Chinese name of Po. The multiple locations connect the three main locations in the drama of London flat, Canadian home and hospital ward in which Joy is operated on for a brain tumour.

I remained unconvinced throughout the performance on whether the third location of the hospital ward was at all necessary to make sense of the main theme of writing and producing a play in London. I suppose it could work with more careful integration into the narrative and setting. As I saw it, director Lydia Parker does well in giving the narration a coherent shape through identifying how the company’s two other performers, Siu-See Hung and Julie Cheung-Inhin, should be differentiated from Joy’s persona, even though they are clearly her inner voice. All three actors were focused and purposeful. Parker also integrates layers of audio-visual technology, particularly the use of the great soundtrack by sound designer/composer Fisayo Karunwi.

This is a complex piece in which, I suggest, the technology is essential. So much of what I missed in the performance was connected to Anh Chu’s imaged landscapes, like the Chinese Metaforest. If a production ever had a rationale for mixed media use, thematically this production manifestly has it. Placing an image on stage “as if” it was as real as the physically present actors seemed to me to be as crucial as placing bodies in the acting space itself. Similarly, the strength of the music is vitally connected to the transitions between the live performances and the virtual projections.

Despite the gaps in getting the technology to work and, I argue, an overly complicated narrative that was at time very confusing, the intelligence of the basic story is in every sense a story for our times: of how so many of our families have migrated for economic reasons into the English-speaking world of former British colonies but, nonetheless, remain culturally attached to those non-English parts of ourselves. Paradoxically, into that diversity Anh Chu invites us to see how economic reasons are not enough to fully realise “hopes and dreams” in any culture.

Date reviewed: Sunday 21st July 2013