Vixen – Saturday 3rd June

I love opera. It’s far from a secret, but it’s not something I talk about much because I don’t have many people in my daily life to discuss it with. But I love it. The way the score, the orchestra, vocal gymnastics, costume and set come together to tell a story is always fascinating and often sublime. When I was at uni I studied everything from Mozart’s Le Nozze Di Figaro,  Handel’s Semele, and Beethoven’s Fidelio to Tippett’s The Knot Garden, Schoenberg’s Erwartung and Berg’s Wozzeck. But since leaving uni, most of the opera I’ve seen as been at the Royal Opera House or the Coliseum, and usually with my parents who favour the classical style, so while I’ve loved each and every production in its own way, the operas I’ve seen have been exclusively traditional – I’ve seen at least 3 productions of Bizet’s Carmen and a lot of Verdi and Mozart.

So when my most opera-savvy friend, Phil (who is himself a singer with the ENO) said that there was a production called Vixen coming up which was essentially immersive opera, I HAD to go.

Based on Janacek’s classic opera Cunning Little Vixen, Vixen is a modern take, translated into English and set in the present day. Instead of being a fox, Vixen is a young homeless girl on the streets of London, just trying to survive. While the translation and modernisation of the text wasn’t 100% successful for me, the production wouldn’t have worked in the original Czech with surtitles, and it didn’t detract from the experience – though I can’t pretend I didn’t giggle when I heard the phrase “Maccy D’s”. That’s probably a first.

Wearing headphones which are playing some of the background and pre-recorded music and seamlessly blending it with the live music and singing, the audience follows the cast – which includes a small live orchestra of violin, flute, saxophone, oboe and melodica/pianica – through three main sets. The musicians are brilliant, all multi-cast as the supporting characters/ensemble as well as playing much of the score, from memory, and often while moving.

Unsurprisingly, the star of the show was Vixen herself, played by Rosie Lomas. Diminutive and childlike in stature, with a powerful and haunting voice. Fragile but tough. While I wasn’t completely convinced by the updating of the text, the setting really worked – though it’s not an opera I know, I can’t imagine the traditional setting having as much impact as this production. The issues Vixen faces are very real – rejection, abuse, love, crime, and of course, homelessness – and the production makes it very clear that Vixen is just one of thousands of anonymous victims of these issues, and they all deserve better.

Is it truly immersive? It doesn’t hit all 5 senses like a Punchdrunk show, but honestly we (by which I mean my fellow Punchdrunkards and I) need to stop comparing everything to Punchdrunk, and it did draw me in and make me feel like I was in Vixen’s world, even if I wasn’t an active part of it like at Temple Studios or The McKittrick. But more importantly, it was so good I don’t care.

If you don’t think opera’s your thing, give it a go – it’s concise, relatable, and excellently produced. If you do love opera, you shouldn’t need any more convincing.

Vixen is on at The Vaults until 10th June. Info and tickets here.

The Neath – Thursday 23rd February

Wow… it’s been a while. The last month has been completely mental at work, so I’ve rather neglected writing – though handily I took some notes at a few bits and bobs so I’ll be writing them up eventually.

First up, I got together with my theatre chums for The Neath – one of the key immersive events at the Vault Festival, which came with quite a buzz about it, a simple but rather clever little website, and a production team with a decent pedigree (The Crystal Maze and Time Run for starters). So everything was looking good.

An immersive bar, with Azazael as the landlord, The Neath is a place somewhere between the mortal realm and hell, filled with regulars with stories to tell, where we would have to confess our sins, complete mini-quests, and find seven goblets (one for each sin) in order to gain our collective freedom.

Overall, the theming and styling were good, and the performers were incredibly committed and strong improvisers – though I did hear a couple of folk complain that some of them were intimidating or aggressive. Which brings me on to the next point – the level of expected participation was high. The concept worked, but only if you were brave, as it really required you to seek out answers, go on quests, and initiate conversations. I’m not too shy with these things, and have long advocated Punchdrunk’s “your bearing shapes your fate” mantra. But after someone had found a goblet and been pulled on stage to confess her sin, where she loudly and proudly announced she’d slept with a married vicar, I wasn’t particularly keen to find the next one.

The other issue I had, was that the audience size was a touch too large – we spent a lot of the evening literally queuing up for a series of one-on-one experiences. Ideally, it needed more to do and see that wasn’t one-on-one.

And really, in my opinion, it was a little too expensive for what it was – especially as as soon as it started you were ushered to the bar to buy drinks. I do appreciate that the ticket price (£25) allowed you to return as often as you wanted throughout the run, but that probably also impacted on audience experience – the later in the run you visited, the greater the potential returning audience members, therefore the longer you’d be queueing for your experiences. And returning visitors would have a better idea of how it worked, know who to talk to, where to stand etc and potentially rob new audience members of those experiences. A ticket around £15 with no return visits would have felt more appropriate.

It had real potential, and (especially as I work in events and look after budgets and ticket sales) I totally understand the commercial pressures – we’ve all seen shows we loved close because they weren’t financially viable – however on this occasion it felt like they’d sacrificed audience experience, and for me it was a step too far.

Sorry. I really wanted to love it.

Happy thoughts – Thursday 23rd February

  • I was meant to be working on site at one of our events tomorrow morning, but I’ve managed to find someone to cover for me. I’ll still be going into the office, but after such a late finish last night, the prospect of an extra hour in bed is AWESOME.
  • Went to a thing called The Neath tonight – part immersive theatre, part bar. Not sure I could entirely recommend it (I’ll try to write it up while my memories are clear), but it gave me and my theatre chums a chance to catch up and that was a bloody delight!
  • In the pub before The Neath, I bumped into one of my suppliers from work – he’s one of the ones I get on well with socially and we usually have a boozy catch up at a networking thing a couple of times a year, so was nice to see him. But more importantly, sometimes it’s really reassuring to be reminded that even somewhere as densely populated as London, where you can feel so alone, you’re never too far from a friend.

Happy thoughts – Tuesday 7th February

  • I don’t really sleep enough during the week. Usually I count myself lucky to get about 6 1/2 hours, and often it’s less than that. But last night – after my terrible night’s sleep on Sunday – I got to bed early, put on an eye mask to block out all light and promptly passed out for 7 1/2 wonderful hours. It doesn’t sound like much, but it was glorious. And what made it that little bit sweeter, was waking up briefly about 4am, already feeling like I’d slept quite a lot, and realising I had a further 3 hours of shut-eye to go. Bliss.
  • I finished my book today. Well, my play. I’ve been re-reading Macbeth – inspired by my trip to NYC and Sleep No More – and much as I love Shakey Bill, it’s not the easiest thing to read, especially on the tube where there are lots of distractions. But I enjoyed it possibly more than any other time I’ve read Shakespeare, probably partly due to my recent trip, but this time I managed to absorb the narrative while also letting the language dance around in my head, and it was a completely different experience to reading it when I was younger when I had to really think about the meaning of every word. Plus, you feel super smart when you read Shakespeare in public, and it occasionally attracts the odd admiring glance.
  • Booked tickets for the immersive Great Gatsby – it’s sold out at the Vault Festival, and I missed the boat, but my little theatre group (plus a few extras) all managed to get out collective sh*t together and agree on a date and book quickly. So now we’ve got something else to look forward to in the coming months. And now I need to find a flapper dress…

Happy thoughts – Saturday 4th February

  • Sometimes it’s the little things – we had the simplest bruschetta for lunch, made with some leftover sundried tomato and olive bread that I bought in the reduced section for 34p yesterday – and it was bloomin’ delicious!
  • Went to see some comedy this evening, and it was so good to just laugh. It included a couple of comedians we’d heard of (off the telly) but the surprise of the evening was the final act, Spencer Brown, who was exactly our cup of tea.
  • And sometimes it’s the big things. One of my closest friends was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in her early twenties, and her best friend Ruth was just the most incredibly supportive friend throughout. She started making care packages for cancer patients – full of little treats and useful bits to help them through their treatment. Their story was turned into a video and featured on BBC Scotland’s The Social today, and it made me so bloody proud – watch it for yourself below – not to mention amazingly grateful that Mairead is now cancer-free. I’m honoured she was one of my bridesmaids when I got married.

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Northfields – Friday 3rd January

I booked this show on a bit of a whim. Unable to get tickets last night for a show at Vault Festival, my friend Chas, whom I’d been hoping to see there, suggested we go to Shrink Theatre’s Northfields tonight instead. I was initially hesitant – having been ill earlier in the week and spending a lot of time travelling yesterday then out last night, I had been quite looking forward to getting home early and spending the evening getting reacquainted with the sofa!

But I’m so glad I went. After a mad dash across London to get to Plaistow from work, I met Chas in the foyer, bumped into my new theatre buddy Sabrina that I met in NYC, then got ready for an evening of immersive theatre.

I’ve seen some brilliant small immersive productions, and some less successful ones. Many of them use immersive as a buzzword and aren’t actually immersive at all, some are just a little amateurish, and some are genuinely great. Northfields, I’m pleased to report, was pretty great.

Here’s what the website says:

Set in the late 1970s at the cusp of mental health reform, Shrink theatre present an immersive theatrical journey through an institution on the verge of closure. Delve into the lives of our residents and staff, and take your place in the system during this pivotal time. Will Northfields provide the care you require? And what do you know about running a hospital?

Reflecting on the NHS past and present, we challenge you to think about the treatment of mental health both medically and socially, then and now. How much has really changed in 40 years?

I didn’t do much research other than reading this – Punchdrunk did always teach me to go in blind! – and I wasn’t sure it would live up to this. I tried not to get my hopes up, as it promised to be intelligent and inquisitive, but it really was. And it was entertaining too.

On arrival, you’re asked to form 2 queues – we figured from the items on the table we were going to be split into staff and patients. I joined the patients’ queue, and sure enough was given my hospital wrist band and sent off into the infirmary’s communal lounge area. We were led through a day in the hospital, – assessments, taking our medication, group therapy, mealtimes, etc. Along the way we met a few other patients, and we crossed paths with the staff (both cast and audience) at various points.

The characters were well developed, and each patient had a distinct story which made them all incredibly sympathetic, and exposing the unsuitability of the “one size fits all” approach to treatment in the 70s. Matt and Soapy were charismatic, but also incredibly sad when their vulnerability showed – even though I knew what Matt had up his sleeves, I still had a little pang of sadness when he looked me in the eye and showed us. Martha’s horrible treatment by the very people meant to understand her – both patients and staff – was awful to witness and raised important questions. But it was Em that I was most intrigued by, a nervous soul with sad, tortured eyes. His performance was subtle but powerful as he silently and gently tried to cope with his reality and help the people around him. Despite usually being in the background, overwhelmed by much more dynamic characters, I kept finding my eye drawn to him as he curled up into a protective ball, twitched in reaction to something, put pencil to paper, or reached out to someone and by the end I was feeling really rather attached to him.

I spent less time with the infirmary staff, but I imagine if I’d followed that path I would have seen more of the stresses and strains of running the hospital on a shoestring with limited resources, and as a result I would have felt more sympathetic to the staff – though we did get glimpses of it from a patient’s perspective. They clearly weren’t all monsters, just struggling to cope. Chas actually stayed to see if he could get a ticket for the evening’s late show to follow the other journey – I probably would have stayed with him if I weren’t still feeling a bit ropey and keen to get home to the sofa!

Overall, it was powerful, sensitive, intelligent, and incredibly well executed. Highly recommended.

Tomorrow’s its last night – if you’re at a loose end, go. They deserve a sell out for their finale. Find out more and book tickets at http://www.shrinktheatre.co.uk/northfields

Happy thoughts – Friday 3rd February

  • One of my oldest chums is a proper writer and blogger – not like me! – and she gave my Happy Thoughts series a little shout out after publishing her own list-based post this week. However, the thing that actually made me happy wasn’t this, but NIGELLA BLOODY LAWSON (who appeared on her list) picking up on her blog post and tweeting about it. I have the cleverest pals! If you want to check out her work (which is WAY more professional than mine) head to A New Essex Girl or read her weekly column on Standard Issue.
  • Went to see an immersive production called Northfields tonight. It was a small production in deepest darkest Plaistow, so despite having read a couple of good reviews, I was scared to get my hopes up. But it was actually very well done. Set in a struggling institution in the 70s, it was an intelligent look at mental health, the NHS and social stigmas. I’ll review it in full shortly, but it was really good!
  • Absolute highlight of the day however, has to go to the moment I entered the venue for Northfields, and after saying hi to my friend Chas who was waiting for me inside, heard a familiar voice behind me and it was only my new theatre pal Sabrina that I met in NYC in the queue for Sleep No More (then spent several further evenings with her in the queue and Manderley)! It’s a small world, but a wonderful one.