Namatjira at the Southbank Centre, London

This play, which tells the story of Albert Namatjira, the first indigenous Australian painter to win international acclaim, premiered in Alice Springs in late 2009 and has since toured Australia. Now, this fascinating story comes to London. At the Southbank Centre.

27_big_hartThe production at the Southbank Centre of Namatjira by the Australian theatre company, Big hART, grows out of the company’s twenty-one-year history of producing theatre for social change. As a theatre historian who has followed the company for a great deal of that time, I have observed how it employs the arts to engage participants from every walk of life. To do this, its projects enable communities to learn skills in a variety of art forms (film, theatre, music, text, and new media) in projects that run for an average of six years. Most of all, the company strives to understand the complex challenges of Australia’s most marginalised communities, showing how complex problems require complex solutions.

The London season of the play is inspired by the fact that at the height of Albert Namatjira’s career he is presented with the Queen’s Coronation Medal in 1953 and, in turn, presents a painting on meeting the monarch in Canberra in 1954. On the day of the London opening, the Namatjira family, represented by grandson Kevin and granddaughter Lenie, together with actor Trevor Jamieson, Derik Lynch and artistic director/ playwright Scott Rankin are given a private audience with the Queen and Prince Phillip, who have since become collectors of Namatjira paintings by both Albert and his son Oscar.

While clearly political and didactic in its aims, however, the ninety-minute two-hander is equally uncompromising in its intentions to create an entertaining theatrical experience. An evocative play set against a gigantic backdrop of Namatjira’s painting of ghost gums and distant MacDonnell Ranges, the drama raises questions about what it means to acquire fame and fortune when a culture is confronted with inequality and injustice.  As the audience enters the auditorium, the immense physical landscape, now transplanted to the Southbank’s Purcell Room, is alive as it continues to be drawn by Kevin and Lenie Namatjira, who are water colour painters in their own right, as shown by the thirty works by them for sale in the Queen Elizabeth Hall foyer.

Further downstage, four other figures are visible: a young aboriginal man (Derik Lynch) sits staring out at the audience, a violinist is downstage right (Nicole Forsyth) and centre stage left portrait artist (Robert Hannaford) paints a seated Aboriginal man (Trevor Jamieson). Jamieson plays many roles, arising from his portrayal of Albert. Later, Jamieson introduces each of the participants to the audience and jokingly points out that Forsyth and Hannaford are not Aborigines. In the centre of the stage stands a large rock slab, reminiscent of the MacDonnell Range geography. It will be transformed in the drama into a lookout point, an altar and a morgue slab. Through the transformation comes a growing realisation that it is a human necessity that draws people together.

The story begins at the turn of the 20th century as Elea is given the Christian name of “Albert” by the missionaries. Later, it is the young man’s encounter and subsequent friendship with watercolour painter and WW1 veteran Rex Batterbee that brings him to the attention of Melbourne art circles of the 1930s. The story leads on to show how even though Namatjira never stops painting (he produces 2000 paintings in his lifetime) and supports over 600 people within his community, at the time of his death in 1959 he not only returns to being penniless but dies a tormented man because of being ceaselessly called upon to give his family money. Furthermore, as Australia’s only Aboriginal citizen (Aboriginal people received Australian citizenship in 1967) and therefore the only Aboriginal permitted to buy alcohol, he is prosecuted and imprisoned for supplying his people with “grog”.

The story then goes further than these facts and explores the anomaly of finding Germans preaching Christian love to Arrernte Aboriginal people within an English-speaking dominion. Within this context, it reveals how the most innocent of gestures by missionaries of replacing Elea’s Aboriginal name with Albert arises out of a careless, well-meaning cultural imperialist belief that indigenous people are sub-humans, part of Australia’s rather odd flora and fauna of kangaroo and koala bear.

Arguably, the main strength of Namatjira is Rankin’s dramaturgical knowledge: this fuels his playwrighting and the play’s designs by Genevieve Dugard (set), Tess Schofield (costume), Nigel Levings (lighting) and Jim Atkins (sound). In Namatjira, Rankin focuses on the storyteller’s monologue interspersed with dialogue from a second actor. Trevor Jamieson and Derik Lynch take on a least a dozen roles between them. Interestingly, Derik plays female roles of Albert’s wife, the Melbourne female art aficionado and the young Queen Elizabeth. The subversiveness of cross-dressing is layered on an inverse of comic mocking of painting blackfaces in the “Black and White Minstrel Show”. Jamieson works the joke beautifully as he asks the audience if they like his portrayal of whitefellas. He also provocatively asks whether he should have painted his face white. Furthermore, Rankin builds interest through dozens of transitions between narrative episodes, songs and comic routines.

In the midst of all the complicated story lives Albert’s friendship with fellow painter Rex, who survives the killing fields of France in 1916 to return to Australia as a “cripple”. Rex also gallantly moves to understand his country from the point of view of Aboriginal people. The juxtapositioning of the two characters, both enacted by Jamieson, shows their relative challenges caught up in global events. Both show that it’s not enough to have vision and talent as painters but that human beings require a culture in which the value of human life is understood in complex and detailed ways: geographically, culturally, economically and artistically. Indeed this is what it means to live life with a Big hART.

Date reviewed: Thursday 28th November 2013

Masi Maidens at the Bargehouse

Indigeneity in the Contemporary World

Theatre historian Josey De Rossi, who has studied the effects of European cultural imperialism on indigenous art forms, guides us through some of the themes raised by this unusual cross-arts project. At the Bargehouse.

I arrive at the Bargehouse sufficiently early to view the four floors of installations and displays by contemporary artists from North and South America, Australia, the Pacific and South Africa, before the performance of Masi Maiden begins. This is EcoCentrix: Indigenous Arts, Sustainable Acts, and the collection is the result of the IndigeneiEcocentrix_E-flyerty in the Contemporary World Project led by Professor Helen Gilbert of Royal Holloway, the University of London which is funded by the European Research Council. Professor Gilbert is also its curator, assembling the works of indigenous artists with international reputations, such as Australia’s Bangarra Dance, Quechua filmmaker Irma Poma Canchumani and Canadian-based Tahitian artist Peter Morin.

As I move about the different rooms, I see examples of traditional indigenous art forms finding ways of sustaining artists and communities, for instance, how filmmaker Irma Poma Canchumani’s finely etched gourds (pumpkin-like shapes) are transformed into storyboards through the use of the detailed carvings as the ‘scripts’ for the films that she produces.

By the time the performance begins, I recognise that Masi Maidens is the work of internationally established author and Pasifikan artist, Rosanna Raymond, and her co-performer, Fijian/Canadian performer, Katrina Talei Igglesden. The performance is also a living version of Raymond’s visual arts installation in EcoCentrix of ‘ObserVAtional Outlooks Through the DNA of the Atua Tagaloa’.

This transformation from visual arts installation into performance takes the audience on a journey of exploration, sharing with them what it means to be culturally and genetically linked to an indigenous ancestry. Specifically for Raymond, of Samoan descent, and for Igglesden, of Fijian ancestry, this is shown through the Polynesian traditional craft of making and designing Tapa Cloth from the bark of the Mulberry tree. Women throughout the Pacific bring to the craft their own ‘spark of life’ or ‘mauri’ as they create location-based original patterns and earthen-colour schemes.

Rosanna and Katrina choose to manifest the ceremonial cloth as full body drawings: effectively showing the creative potential of the Tapa cloth tradition working with the context of the performance as a living symbol of cultural exchange between performer and audience. I notice, however, that the elaborate patterns covering their bodies don’t look like stage makeup but ‘naturally’ complement the performers’ own Polynesian appearances.

The performance, in fact, begins outside the Bargehouse and, like a religious procession, moves through every room on all four levels of the Bargehouse. For this, the performers use styled actions and sounds that at first seem like stereotypically tribal incantations. However, their specific interactions with various spaces soon change this impression.

When the two performers finally arrive on the third-floor performance space, they enter from the stairwell side at the back of the large room. They break into a gliding form of goose-stepping that is perfectly synchronized. More impressive still, the contrast between Rosanna’s white stringy tunic and Katrina’s red-earth feathery one seem exquisitely balanced in every way: the performers are earth and sky, mammal and bird, the dark and the light.

Then, in the centre of the performance space, Rosanna begins to speak like someone presenting a very personal and particular truth of her lived experience as a Polynesian woman. Her poetic language builds into an epic tone as it resonates with her stylised movements and gestures. Sometimes she uses familiar Haka gestures and at other times Katrina uses equally identifiable bird-like movements but mostly, the words and movement remain highly original.

They end by affirming the complementary nature of the two personae share, after which there was a post-show talk. I would have liked more of the performance and for it, and for the exhibition, to be left to speak for themselves. Running at just 30 minutes, there were certainly enough ideas to make a much lengthier performance. At least there’ll be plenty more similar events to look out for at the same venue in 2014.

Date reviewed: Wednesday 13th November 2013

Billy the Girl

Caravans and Heroines: Billy the Girl at the Soho Theatre

Katie Hims’ Billy the Girl presents superbly drawn characters, faced with the paradox of living ordinary lives through times of big change. Direction, design and sensitive portrayals of difficult characters, combine in a moving story of about starting again. At the Soho Theatre.

Katie Hims’ Billy the Girl, produced by the visionary theatre company Clean Break, sets up a parallel between the treatment of women in our prisons and in the wider community. In Billy the Girl that wider dialogue presents the challenging topic of how a released prisoner begins to imagine a new life for herself. This idea of starting over again (and again) is something which, Hims’ play makes clear, affects us all.

Billy-The-GirlTheatre with a social message is often delivered in a presentational style. That is, in a style strongly influenced by Brecht, both through his plays and through his theory of alienation. It is now commonplace to see ‘theatre for change’ adopting overtly theatrical means to jolt the audience into awareness through songs, signs and other non-naturalistic staging conventions. I argue, for instance, in my review of Crowning Glory, that Somalia Seaton makes use of such staging devices throughout her play using film projections and the dramatic monologue.

However, on watching Billy the Girl it is possible to see that while not blatantly political, its more realistic style of drama effectively personalises the role of the disenfranchised in our society. In a nutshell, in letting audiences empathise with clearly difficult and unattractive characters, like the life-worn mother Ingrid and the prison-hardened young woman Billy, the playwright gives us the power to affect a change in ourselves, through identifying with similar circumstances in their lives.

We meet three richly detailed characters: a mother, daughter and sister, all facing the paradox of living ordinary lives and facing a time of crucial change. Their shared bredth of experience is affecting. Amber appears the most troubled person of the three as her mother and sister project their belief that she is the most ‘normal’. I found it deeply moving that she tries to solve her dilemmas by striving to become invisible – we first see her at the beginning of the play hiding in the caravan – and that, ironically, this invisibility leads her into crime; she is an adept shoplifter.

Lucy Morrison’s direction of three fine actors, Danusia Samal, Christine Entwisle and Naomi Ackie, explores the humanity of three women as they interact with the justice system. At first this is most obviously through Billy but, as the narrative unfolds, we see that all three live in a network of struggling men and women who rub up against the legal system everyday.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the play is how it materializes the individual’s handling of boundaries and off-limit zones – an important theme in a piece about the value of freedom. For instance, looking around the stage I note the interesting way it explores the relationships between mother, daughters and sisters through the physical boundaries such as the back door of the house that is off-limits to Billy and the gate which connects the family to the wider world. Poignantly, Ingrid’s mobile phone only connects her to her overweight, depressed and dysfunctional sister, Madge.

The caravan performs the role of treasure-chest, gut and womb. It also functions in theatrical terms as a dressing room and back stage area. But whatever metaphor it conjures up, its centre stage positioning is highly effective in investing the dialogue with meaning beyond what is happening on stage. Set designer Joanna Scotcher, together with lighting and sound designers Katharine Williams and Becky Smith, deserves an award for such an economical and imaginative use of space.

By the end, an epic journey has linked the photo of a little boy called Billy, found in a chocolate tin in the caravan, to the final moments of the play, in which a girl, also called Billy, brings out the gift of chocolate to share with her mother. The characters have an integrity and vulnerability which speaks beyond their own story, revealing how we all tentatively build our hopes of starting again.

Date reviewed: Friday 1st November 2013

Crowning Glory

Women v Hair: Crowning Glory at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East

51YymvmlHpL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_This story of race, gender and hair will see you laugh, cry and fume, as an unflinchingly honest portrayal of black women dissipates the myth that we live in a post-feminist age. Explosive drama. At the Theatre Royal, Stratford East.


If you attached a Geiger counter to Somalia Seaton’s Crowning Glory, it would break the dial. The drama radiates energy, each part colliding and moving ever outwards to encompass a monumental blast that explodes the myth that we live in a post-feminist age.

Seaton presents the play as an entertaining kind of Brechtian Lehrstucke, or “learning play”, showing that the black woman’s struggle to tame her hair (with scarves, wigs and a multitude of hair products) is part of the core of her existence. The play’s seven characters present a series of first-person narratives, sometimes stylized as poetic verse, which are broken up by third-person commentary, also delivered by the characters. I found the effect utterly engaging. The contrasting personal and public worlds in which Seaton’s women exist are called up beautifully.

For instance, there’s “Pickyhead” (Toyin Aydun-Alase), part mother, part fidgety little girl, craving to be let out to play. Her monologue comically shows how it is the black mother’s fears for her “ugly” daughter that set in motion a lifetime of worrying about self-image, and what is acceptable.

Then there’s “Bounty” (Rebecca Omogbehin), a highly educated woman who gives the audience her private reactions to her public argument with other black women who criticize her for successfully integrating into a white European lifestyle. Other stories by the mixed-race “Halfbreed” (Allyson Ava-Brown), “Panther” (Lorna Brown), “Haircomb”(Sheri-An Davis) and “Bal-Ead” (T’Nia Miller) also show the public and private dimensions of women who are questioned, insulted and abused for their African looks and hair.

The play shows how many contradictions are at work here. It suggests that African women are more likely to suffer from put-downs and mistreatment from their own families, and that as young girls mature into womanhood, they often face rejection from black men who see them as less attractive than the smaller and more petite white girls they pursue.

However, Seaton shows us that women can grow stronger through adversity, through physical self-assertion and mental resistance to imposed images. So, while the play begins with the little girl “Pickyead” it ends with the Amazonian figure of Bal-Ead, dressed in red and black lingerie, who confronts her husband’s disapproval with dignity and strength.

This all-woman ensemble is very well directed by Dawn Reid, while Nick Barnes’s set design is highly inventive in underscoring the themes of the play, with multi-level angular platforms giving the effect of different kinds of pathways climbing ever higher. At one point, the levels turn into the shelving of a hairdresser’s shop comically displaying wig-wearing mannequin heads.

The play makes use of projection and film, disrupting the live performance with snippets of real women talking about their lives, their hair and the idea of beauty. Other filmed excerpts are fictional, as cast-members portray either self-advertising clueless women, giving make-up advice on YouTube, and or opinionated men, vocalising their judgements on women.

Although Seaton goes some way in revealing the shallowness of the idea that white women bear some ideal of beauty, and are more liberated than their black women, she reserves her sharpest barbs — in a play about race and gender — for black men.  There is not an enlightened, sensitive black man in sight. Even Michelle Obama appears in the filmed projections without her husband. Black men are consistently referred to as wife deserters, absent fathers and crude lovers, whose egos seem unconstrained by family rules or social expectations.

That such men exist is indisputable, but the one-dimensional view of them doesn’t sit well with the ironies, contradictions and humanity of the rest of Crowning Glory. I feel that Seaton could rework her presentation of them to incorporate some of the subtleties of character which make her female characters so appealing.

Date reviewed: Tuesday 22nd October 2013


Land of Our Fathers

The holy ground of the working class: Land of Our Fathers at Theatre503

Engaging from the outset, the play hits the audience with a mining disaster only seconds after an explosion that traps six miners. The fact that it is 1979 adds even greater tension. At Theatre503.

There are locations in every country that are invested with special significance because they symbolize a profoundly important event, like a battle or a religious experience. Arguably, English and Welsh coalfields, with their direct links to bringing about the Industrial Revolution and Britain’s ascendency as a global power, have come to signify both locations of bitter class warfare and places that call up mythologies about the character of the British working class.

So far, the most notable literature representing the lives of the miners who face almost perpetual danger underground has been the subject of such works as D H Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, George Orwell’s The Road To Wigan Pier and, more recently, playwright Lee Hall’s The Pitman Painters. Now young playwright Chris Urch’s Land Of Our Fathers brings the coalmine once again to our attention, as he locates his first major work set in a collapsed mine site in South Wales.

Engaging from the outset, the play hits the audience with a mining disaster only seconds after an explosion that traps six miners. The fact that it is 1979 adds even greater tension as the audience listens to allusions of Margaret Thatcher’s impending political victory in the men’s conversations throughout the play. With ironic acuity, the playwright sets up another kind of disaster for the men, even if they manage to survive their current life-threatening crisis. It is this double threat which Chris Urch expertly crafts as his six characters face their lives on the brink of ending forever.

The result is the portrayal by an ensemble of six actors of characters trying to name what will be lost if they and their way of life disappear forever: the personal is political and visa versa. The cast is exceptionally strong and realise this intention with stunning truthfulness: Clive Merrison portrayal of Bomber is unforgettable in its understated way of showing a highly flawed yet honourable man; Patrick Brennan’s Chopper shows the ethical contractions of a Union leader who grows into the realization of the “poisoned chalice” he drinks from in order to fulfill his personal ambition; Paul Prescott’s Hovis is exemplary in playing the foreign Polish worker who, despite his brutalizing war-time experiences, retains a gentle humility; Kyle Rees as Curly is perhaps the most overtly entertaining as his oversized personality demands an end to the troubles the men find themselves in; Taylor Jay-Davies as Chewy works well as a freer spirit in opposition to more conservative characters and Joshua Price’s Mostyn is suitably innocent and awkward as the latest recruit.

The mood of the play is superbly created by designer Signe Beckmann and lighting designer Hartley Kemp. Viewing the dramatic action in the glittering black cavern makes me feel as if I am looking at a giant dirty pore of a living organism referred to as “the mine”. The trapped men continually indicated areas above them where other men with drills are supposed to be coming from to rescue them. At other times, they speak of other passages and caverns that might be reached by digging. These spaces within the mine hold the tantalizing, unreachable promise of release. Then somewhere, way above, exists a kind of promised land of homes, shops, pubs, families and friends. The audience comes to appreciate that it is the place from where the men draw their motivation to return each day to the punishing work underground.

To show this even further the playwright uses magnificent Welsh choir singing and Union camaraderie. Yet this is perhaps the most poignant irony built into the structure of the play, because rather than creating a compelling sense of the coalfield as a edifying source of human struggle, the tribal loyalty of belonging shows up how the miners censored each other’s ambitions and expectations in order to keep each man working in the mine. This is powerfully presented, for instance, in the arguments between the two brothers, Curly and Chewy, who begin the play in conflict due to Chewy’s decision to leave mining and go to Art School in London.

This is made even more powerful as the dialogue shows the depth and breadth of the men’s relationships through surprising twists and turns in their overlapping histories. For instance, Bomber and Chopper share a long friendship tinged with many betrayals, which involves Chopper’s difficult choice to abandon Mostyn’s young mother when she decides to keep and bring up their baby on her own. This is then connected in the drama with Mostyn’s sense of independence as his mother’s choice to give him life is linked to his own courage to come to know his father. One of the most moving monologues in the play is when the Mostyn tells Chopper that the fantasies of childhood are over and that he is prepared to accept the fact that he has been rejected by him because “…there’s nothing you could possible give me that I don’t already have”.

The monologue, which comes at the end of the play, feels like a declaration of independence of a younger generation who has nothing to gain from their fathers or from the “land of their fathers”. What the play shows is that it is more than broken bodies that are inflicted in the underground mines, it is a way of life in which intelligent men have no scope for further education and so also often break their minds and spirits in sticking to such harsh work. The ghosts of absent and alcoholic fathers who die on retiring from their mining work haunt the men, leaving their widowed mothers struggle on in dire circumstances.

The play ends halfway between truth and myth, with the vision of release, and symbolically a new life, remaining thwarted up to the very end. This is a great achievement by a young playwright with wisdom far beyond his age, whose understanding shows that the emancipation of workers from exploitation is still a work in progress.

Date reviewed: Friday 20th September 2013

Where the White Stops

Know where they’re going: Where the White Stops at Battersea Arts Centre

Where the White Stops by Antler Theatre was a wonder to behold. To say the performance was heroic is literally true as the troupe of four – Daniela Pasquini, Nasi Voutsas and Jasmine Woodcock-Stewart and Daniel Ainsworth – enacted a beautifully imaginative and energetic piece of physical theatre in costumes fit for the North Pole in sauna-like heat conditions! At Battersea Arts Centre.

As the title infers, Where the White Stops is set in a mythical snow-clad land of “The White”, which is not only bitterly cold and wind-swept by icy blizzards, but is also home to the odd savage beast and several mountainous cliff edges. The story revolves around Crab, superbly played by Jasmine Woodcock-Stewart, whose deliberately odd crustacean name is in keeping with the wacky tone of the piece. Crab is determined to see more of the world than “The White” and so her journey, true to form, enables the audiences to live through various tests of courage, wisdom and perseverance.

At all times, the company moved with discipline in the role of storytellers and the many characters involved in the dramatic action. Remarkably, as unbearably as the heat oppressed us, they continued to evoke the quest for survival in their frozen wilderness. Daniela Pasquini’s Princess was dangerously “sweet”; Nasi Voutsas, as Crab’s mute companion, brought to mind the speechless strength of the clown Harpo Marx; and Daniel Ainsworth’s impersonation of Crab’s “you’re-really-too-young-to come-on-an-adventure” character was just hilarious. Yet, it was also his character that shows us the face of death in the play.

Each performer proved why the company are worthy winners of the “IdeasTap Edinburgh Underbelly Award”Overall, they didn’t miss a beat or cue. They worked as a well-seasoned ensemble that generously engaged the audience in a reciprocal exchange of wonder and awe, and, in particular, an understanding of the magic of a well-constructed story.

It would be interesting to see if Antler Theatre has further plans to develop the work after Edinburgh. The “coming of age” quest, which had its ascendency (as live theatre) in nineteenth-century pantomime extravaganzas at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, employing 400 extras, continues to inspire film epics that take audiences through Middle Earth and to Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The four performers of Antler Theatre clearly don’t come anywhere near creating the size of the spectacle in either of those, yet the troupe’s obvious understanding of the form injected surprising moments of sheer visual splendour – for instance, through the use of single directed light beams, rope to depict climbing up a mountain face, and stylised movement to mark the packing  up of the previous night’s camp.

My personal favourite was the physicalising of the effect of the blizzard on the central characters marching through snow: beautifully detailed, intelligent observation of human versus blizzard! This is a young company who know where they’re going.




Genre: Drama

Venue:  Theatre Royal Stratford East Gerry Raffles Square, Stratford, London, E15 1BN


Low Down



In the most straightforward sense, Rikki Beadle-Blair’s new workGutted has all the hallmarks of a classically crafted piece of ‘epic theatre’.  Its episodic structure is linked as tightly and economically as any Brechtian drama.

The play’s characters from South London are the Prospect family.  They are consciously working class, a perspective tying them directly to the epic ‘political’ theatre form that borrows much from Marxist views on class warfare. And as Brecht brought together class and crime on London streets in Threepenny Opera, Rikki Beadle-Blair makes similar links within the lives of the four Prospect brothers through their encounters with petty car theft and going to jail.

The playwright’s use of Brechtian techniques is also seen in the iconic naming of characters: the surname ‘prospect’ is a clue, as are the Christian names ‘Matthew’, ‘Mark’, ‘Luke’ and ‘John’ as radical forms of truth bearers, like their namesakes, the four writers of the Christian gospels.  Through these names the playwright sets up a sense of they can be identified as essentially storytellers. They are characters in a play, they both directly address the audience and speak naturalistically to one another and to other characters in the drama: to their mother Bridie, their wives and girlfriends.

In this production, Rikki Beadle-Blair is also its director, designer and composer. He shapes each detail of the narrative in a performance space flanked by tall mirrors, with four simple projection screens suspended halfway between the back wall of mirrors and centre stage. The projections are mostly photographs of the four men as boys, taken in school uniform / school photo form or taken with their girlfriends. I notice the clean look of the characters in the photos in comparison to their more crumpled appearance on stage. One panel of the four screens displays text naming or commenting on the scene below. The non-naturalistic performance space is mostly bare, with occasional tables and chairs moving on & off stage, whenever there is a need to define locations such as a restaurant or a backyard house party.

The story around the Prospect boys shows the everyday happenings in their lives: it begins with Matthew, a professional footballer, in a rehab clinic. As the family assemble in the hospital reception area to pick him up and bring him home, where they’ve organised a ‘welcome home’ party, the story moves between the present and the past to reveal to the audience the events which lead to this point.

The extraordinary thing is that while at a conscious level you view the ordinary happenings of the four men, their mother, their girlfriends and wives, something else happens in the telling of their stories. They are changed and you are changed. The personal is political.




While it would take more than the length of this review to describe the wonder of what I saw performed on stage, I will describe the areas ofRikki Beadle-Blair’s Gutted which I came to admire the most.

To begin with, I couldn’t help being impressed with playwright’s use of ‘working class’ language. It seems to me to be done in the most remarkably poetic way, especially through its swear words and its use of silences. The authenticity of a so-called ‘limited’ working class vocabulary is completely re-thought! This is not a play for the faint-hearted, the dialogue sparkles with swearing. Unfortunately, it means that schools, for instance, will not be able to bring students under-16 to see it. Ironically, it is the most well-crafted play which any teacher is likely to show young writers about the use of language itself.

It is also ethically above reproach as it comes from the playwright’s exemplary respect and empathy for his characters.  It is not possible to see the Prospect family as anything other than worthy of admiration for the gallant way they make the small but life changing difference to situations that we come to discern in the play as child sexual abuse and physical violence.

At the same time, there is no hint that as an audience we are put in a position to deal with the abuse and violence in anything but an appropriate way. Remarkably, this is because the need to change is not removed from the Prospects but clearly seen to be their individual and collective responsibilities.

For instance, Matthew’s relationship with his girlfriend Lucy is dangerously dysfunctional as it lives on the cusp of gratuitous sexual wish fulfilment & the abuse of young boys. It is Matthew and Lucy who end their relationship and come to understand that ‘some people shouldnever be together.’ She is too broken for him and he for her: neither have enough personal strength to deal with each other’s pain and dysfunction, while, thankfully, they are not so damaged that they don’t know that they are in danger of becoming even more dysfunctional if they continue being with one another. At the end of the play, when his mother, Bridie, invites Matthew to bring Lucy to breakfast with the family, Matthew prophetically and simply states “I can’t Mum. Lucy can’t make it.”

The line drawn in the play between right and wrong is paradoxically continuously interrogated and at the same time immutable. Therefore, while the audience observes how Lucy and Matthew end their relationship for good reasons, it also moves on a journey with brother Mark’s relationship with his wife Janine, John’s with his Muslim girlfriend Sunai, Luke’s with the transgendered Frankie and Bridie with the boy’s deceased father Eammon, a drunk and child abuser. Each relationship is in some sense iconic and therefore placed on stage so we can realise through them the truths around ending abuse and moving towards fulfilling a need for human intimacy and belonging.

The radicalness of the play, however, is in its ability to position the audience to see the ‘bleeding obvious’ and more. Mark must deal with Janine’s physical punishment of their five year old twins and John must deal with his lack of respect for women and his misuse of the Qu’ran through his relationship with Sunai. Most importantly, Bridie must acknowledge that her silence enabled her husband to harm her children and make their life hell: especially for her first born Matthew, whose exceptional skill as an athlete brought him to the attention of the local football club, Millwall, and onto whom the father transfer his aggression as well as his own desires.

In a most wonderful irony, Luke’s relation with the transgender Frankie seems to be the happiest and most straightforward of all the relationships presented. Luke simply understands Frankie’s vulnerability and the hazardous life ahead for her. He will be her knight protector. Frankie understands Luke’s need to make sense of the seemingly ambiguously moral situations in his life. She is more than able to set him straight about what really does and doesn’t matter.

There are many more elements of Rikki Beadle-Blair’s Gutted which are impressive, not the least is the play’s sense of humour.  It is hard to imagine that a play that deals with child sexual and physical abuse in such a candid way should give rise to such deep and genuine laughter as you hear in the audience throughout the performance. Like everything else in the play, it is not haphazardly or savagely done at the expense of anything or any one but arises from the truly incongruous, ridiculous and inappropriate moments in the Prospects’ world. At times, laughter is also the only response other than despair.

The levity in awful situations is alongside some of the most moving monologues I have ever heard in performance. Matthew’s eulogy at his father’s funeral hits the mark in revealing the regrets of a young man who knows he deserved better than what his father metered out to him. Death now ended any chance of changing that relationship:

I suppose I’m supposed to forgive him. And suppose what I’m supposed to do today is ask you lot to forgive him too. It’ll take you a while. But what the hell, think about, yeah? I will. Tell you what – next time we’re all together – next wedding, christening, funeral – whoever’s forgiven him by then… speak up, yeah? … Cool

Matthew also describes his father as the Irish boy who came to an England in which landlords put the sign ‘No dogs, no blacks, no Irish’ in their windows, teachers mocked his Irish accent, kids threw potatoes at him and the school caretaker spat at his face in front of the whole assembled school. He goes on to say that he father lived his life hating dogs, blacks and the Irish worst of all. But as a son, he know it was his hatred of everything, including his own Irishness which diminished him ….

Dad was a cunt. Everybody here knew him, yeah? Worked with him, drank with him, was related to him, met him. Then you know. Dad was a cunt. And now he’s dead, And it’s time for me to step up and be a man.  How the fuck do I do that? We never got round to that little chat.

The capacity to love is expressed in Gutted in real terms. Love means understanding and respecting the vulnerable, including areas of vulnerability within yourself. Fathers should protect their children.  So Mark steps up and does just that for his own children when their mother hits them: and he will do it even if that means losing the wife that he loves.

Nor should mothers be absolved from facing up to their own selfish and cruel reasons for keeping the status quo. Bridie’s characterisation in the play is a revelation of a woman’s responsibility in living in a kind of dream world in which she continued to apply mudpacks, have her hair done and wear fur coats even while her sons are being beaten and abused by their father. Yet her doing so also gives her sons a living example of how to keep going despite the presence of pain: all they needed to do was call on her.

Experiencing Gutted gives me a renewed appreciation of the meaning of ensemble. The Prospects played James Farrar as Matthew Prospect; Frankie Fitzgerald as Mark Prospect; Jamie Nichols asLuke Prospect Gavin McCluskey as John Prospect and Louise Jameson as Bridie Prospect were in every sense a tour de force. Their control and presentation of the crafted and nuanced working class South London dialogue was magnificent. But this was a play which also redefined the meaning of a minor role: Dominique Moore as John’s partner, Sunai; Jennifer Daley as Matthew’s girlfriend Lucy; Sasha Frost as Mark’s wife Janine and Ashley Campbell as Luke’s girlfriendFrankie each defined their roles with every attention to detail. Ashley Campbell adds much to the meaning of the play through his role as Moses, the imprisoned black kid that converts John to Islam.

If I could give Gutted more than 5 stars I would! It is an exceptional play, worthy of comparison with Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem in showing a view of contemporary life that is screaming to be seen and understood. While Butterworth gave us a view of the indigenous English dispossessed from his and her own land, Rikki Beadle-Blair gives us a view of how individuals and families are implicated in creating dispossession in contemporary urban settings. But that’s only half of it, as different qualities of the same characteristics –  a mother’s touch, a father’s embrace and a young person’s talent – are shown inGutted to also have the power of changing the world for the better.  I hope that the playwright, cast and crew get every chance to show the play globally!

Reviewed by Dr Josey De Rossi Thursday 2 May 2013

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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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A Lady of Substance

A Lady of Substance 


Genre: Drama

Venue:  Tristan Bates Theatre  1a Tower St, Covent Garden, London, WC2H 9NP


Low Down



Jon Cooper’s play straight from Manchester’s 24:7 Theatre Festival sets up a collision of cultures: classical European sensibilities of art and poetry versus contemporary hip hop African and Caribbean language and music and a ‘generation gap’ between the hopes and aspirations of contemporary youth and the spent promises of a seemingly more privileged generation who were given a good education to make something of themselves.  A Lady Of Substanceexamines these issues from the perspective of the legacy of the emancipated woman: what can they pass on to younger women through their fears, vulnerability and paradoxes that show how having equality under the law with men exposes a host of other more subtle and pernicious inequalities they deal with as part of their every day lives. The two roles of Jasmin and Cassandra are played by Tia Bannon and Joyce Greenaway respectively: with both performers giving evocative performances throughout the eighty minute production.

All that seems before the middle aged Cassandra and the sixteen-year-old Jasmin when Jasmin chooses to break into Cassandra’s house through an unlocked back window. The place is littered with packing boxes, though there is furniture and other things around which clearly seem to be still in use: a comfortable sofa, a few shelves on which sit poetry anthologies and a hi fi system. However, when the audience first spies Jasmin moving about the room, drinking alcohol and playing music, it might have assumed like I did that she was in her own home. It is only when on hearing a door open and seeing Jasmin duck behind packing boxes that I realise she has possibly arrived unwelcomed into the space.  This is confirmed when Cassandra returns, pre-occupied with the burden of carrying her orange Sainsbury’s bag full of vodka, whiskey and wine bottles. She sits on the sofa and begins drinking, after curiously placing two different glasses before her on the coffee table as if she was pouring drinks for two people. A noise from amongst the packing boxes disrupts her drinking and propels Jasmin into her life.



The pun on the word substance in Cooper’s title relates to the way the play characterises Cassandra and Jasmin as users of drugs and alcohol and how, in turn, drugs and alcohol relate to psychological and cultural contexts: Cassandra through her use of alcohol to calm her fear of failure as a writer and Jasmin in using cocaine to fill the void of her parents’ inattentiveness towards her. What proves even more interesting is the way Cooper develops their stories through placing the finality of death into these responses and then ties it to both their relationship with having an artistic imagination and developing personal relationships: this is made clear for Cassandra through the death of a partner and for Jasmin, the death of her mother.

Death complicates Cassandra’s and Jasmin’s worlds and, ironically, simplifies the choices before them as women, daughters, potential nurturers and partners. Cooper’s brilliance can be seen in the way that he presents the roles of ‘wife’ and ‘mother’ as looming parts of the drama that are continuously reconfigured in terms of the action before us as we watch Jasmin and Cassandra elicit a sense of responsibility from one another.  The role of parent and child is exchanged between the two as the alcohol and cocaine is passed around, posing questions for the audience about what should a sixteen year old and a middle aged woman be excepted to do and know. The issues are drawn up with even more contemporary nuances, given the fact that Cassandra’s long-standing homosexual ‘marriage’ to her partner is for all intension equated to that of Jasmin’s parents commitment to one another.

At the same time, the contrast between Jasmin and Cassandra is exploited at every level of the drama.  The actors play off each other to distinguish the subtle differences brought about by their age, class and race. Its as if the pair hold the ‘type’ of character they imagine the audience is viewing when they see them physically,  and then redraw each part of themselves from the inside out: Cassandra, her white, middle-class educated self and Jasmin her black, urban savvy, working class persona. In this context, the alcohol and cocaine act as a kind of bacchanalian re-mixer of typical behaviour in which a middle-class poet gets to rap and a black teenager gets to speak in the style of Western poets. Director Samantha German is able to call out and shape two very fine performances from Bannon and Greenaway: her attention to every detail and use of iconically important objects, such as the Cassandra’s baseball bat and Jasmin’s overburden under-shoulder bag, is beautiful to watch.

I came away impressed by the depth of Cooper’s characterisations. Nonetheless, the play left me feeling dubious about three aspects of its construction. The first was a silly practical matter that kept coming to mind as I watched the actors drink the alcohol and snort the cocaine. Could anyone remain even half as coherent and insightful as these two characters did with that amount of chemicals in their bloodstream? I quickly dismissed the idea and reminded myself that this was theatre and a suspension of disbelief was needed to operate.  However, the unaffected actions and speech of the two characters did still worry the mother in me who only recently moved from being someone with three teenage daughters and seeing them move through the party and pubs phase of their lives. Cassandra surely shows that for some, the phase remains a lifetime addiction. So, I couldn’t see why the production pulled short of exploring ‘substance abuse’ through speech and movement. Secondly, the almost instantaneous development of warmth and friendship between Cassandra and Jasmin also seemed a little unreal. Perhaps it was just that there wasn’t enough time expressed in the play between their first meeting and the subsequent series of events that follow. If we are to believe in the characters as hard cases of one kind or another – Cassandra as the disillusioned artist and Jasmin as the hardened street kid – then the warmth that comes about almost from the beginning is simple unbelievable.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the production is the idealism expressed through Jasmin who, for me, on occasions sounded like a spokesperson for a whole generation telling us how they have had to almost parent themselves while their parents got on with being overwhelmed with their lives: how their parents’ generation was totally unprepared with dealing with death and other disasters and had little appreciation for all the opportunities which they had been given in their lives. Tia Bannon speaks Jasmin monologues with such conviction that I literally wanted to stand and applaud her then and there. But the truth is even harder I suggest for Jasmin in the real world, the dangers so much more lethal and the lack of care so much more hurtful. Come to think of it, perhaps Jon Cooper did me a favour in seeing a strong, intelligent, resilient, resourceful and courageous Jasmin. It is enough to know that she might exist.

Reviewed by Josey De Rossi 23 March 2012

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Staged in Tristan Bates Theatre  ‘Plays by Young British Writers’  until 14 April.

The Death of Norman Tortilla

The Death of Norman Tortilla 


Genre: Drama

Venue:  Tristan Bates Theatre  !a Tower St, Covent Garden, London, WC2H 9NP


Low Down


One sparsely furnished uninviting room, plastered with images from popular gossip magazines; one old man (Norman Tortilla) sitting in his armchair, fixedly gazing to his left at presumably the pictures on the wall opposite; one very athletic, good-looking foreign care worker (Jack) who comes like clockwork to bathe and put clean clothes on Norman and one frightened but conniving young woman (Tandie) whose past misfortunes continue to impede her progress. This is the setting and the characters who are brought together in the play and who become the focus for the audience in confronting some extremely difficult questions about the human yearning for intimacy, leaving a sense of legacy and creating relationships which can sustain individuals in times of need.




In the first silent moments of the play the lights come up on an old man looking decidedly solitary and shabbily dress. The hundreds of faces on the collages mounted on the surrounding walls and cupboards make him look even more isolated. The effect was also for me slightly absurd, created by an incongruity fuelled by my prejudice that gossip magazines are mostly read my young women and bored housewives. The mismatch seems to tie in with the effeminate characterisation of Norman as an ‘old queen’. However, after a while that part of his character seems to be rendered as a mere comic device to soften and humanise his presentation. I imagine for a minute what Norman would seem like without the kind comments he makes from the ‘pop’ psychology he sources from the magazines about the lives of Peter Gabriel, David Beckham and other celebrities.

Clearly, the play has grabbed me as I continue to be disconcerted about Norman Tortilla’s character and situation. This doesn’t stop me however wondering about the hypothesis on which the drama is based. For instance, why would a man with such a rich imaginary life, full of beautiful celebrities, whom he defends vociferously, be so incapable of any kind of relationship with anyone? Indeed, how could such an entertaining ‘drama queen’ attract no interest from anyone? Is there a connection with Norman’s as a ‘drama queen’ and the need to record his life? Is that what he can’t remember? These are just some of the questions which remain unresolved for me as I watch Robert Gill’s animated and entertaining performance of Norman Tortilla as a spritely, protesting, obsessed creature claiming that someone…anyone… write down the events of his once promising life.

The questions keep coming at me about his situation.  What does this vainglorious, solitary man require care? Should I assume he’s just demented or mentally deranged? If so, which reference to his mental state did I miss? This brings me to me consider the other characters in the play: Jack the ‘Slav’ care worker and Tandie the Switch Gas girl: Jack as a sporty, muscular type of East European with an antipathy for Norman and later Tandie, and the lusty Tandie the with a eye for Jack and an opportunistic attitude towards Norman.

All my questions lead me to more general questions the drama’s intended form. Should I view The Death of Norman Tortilla as absurd or just plainly cruel? There are many absurdist elements in the play: beginning with Norman karate kick that knocks out the very hearty, muscular Jack for over ten minutes, just in enough time for Tandie’s desperate entrance, her instant lust for Jack’s body, her plan to help Norman to tie him up in his armchair and then share a well-deserved cup of tea cake! Nothing, however, prepared me for the act of cruel that Jack exacts on Norman near the end of the play (which would not be fair to reveal). Jack’s behaviour throughout is the antithesis to that of any genuine carer: as a character, he seems inspired by the terrible stories of abusive carers recently vented in news reports on old people’s homes. His pushing and shoving around of Norman certainly calls up a social criticism about the quality of care to the most vulnerable. Moreover, nothing changes in the play except through acts of cruelty. Norman, Jack and Tandie take turns leading each other around through one violent act after another with no gains in the end: the message seems to be that there are worse things than death, as Jack story of the Nazi concentration camp reminds the audience.

The final moments of the play leads me then to see the play as a piece of ‘theatre of cruelty’ in which actors place before the audience the very difficult truth about alienated characters represented through age, social isolation and sexual abuse. I’m not totally convinced why Jack should have been characterised as an East European. The implications that he should be the carer in a system in which the English population is judged by him to be ‘shit’ seems to be almost another drama at work around Jack as the main character.  Watching Norman Tortilla was for me like entering a Chamber of Horrors. I sat the whole time wishing that some small act of kindness might appear and relieve the cruelty before me on stage. The power to create that atmosphere was remarkable for such a young playwright, however, it was the questions of form which remained for me unresolved no matter how willing I was to come to know Norman Tortilla.

Reviewed by Josey De Rossi 23 March 2012

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Norman Tortilla is billed alongside Jon Cooper’s A Lady Of Substance