My Brilliant Friend – Saturday 18th March

Turning four novels into one play was going to be difficult – usually it’s the other way around, where short stories turn into full length plays. Or look at the current trend for serialising books into as many films as possible – although that’s usually driven by potential profits rather than treating the original text with integrity.

When my theatre chum Emma asked if I fancied My Brilliant Friend, I wasn’t sure. I haven’t read the books, the story of a complicated friendship over many decades in post-war Italy didn’t exactly sound like a barrel of laughs, and then there was the timing issue – the play was split into two parts, the idea being you see them either on consecutive nights, or as the matinee and evening on the same day. We opted for the latter as Emma lives outside London. And then we made the decision that I’m still undecided on – we went for the pit cushions – literally cushions on the floor – rather than traditional theatre seats.

Our bums did not thank us, but our view, right in front of the low stage, was excellent. The play was not immersive in any way, but we felt like we were part of the action.

However, our bums were the only parts of us that felt like we were there for 6 hours. Fast-paced, intelligent, and funny, the play was actually brilliant and by the end I felt truly invested in the stories, having been observing their lives for hours, and I could have watched longer (had I been in a comfier seat).

We went to see the play largely as it featured 3 Punchdrunk alumni – we follow the cast around a bit as it’s a good way of discovering new productions, and they tend to choose interesting projects. The cast included Adam Burton, Ira Mandela Siobhan, and Emily Mytton from the Punchdrunk fold, and they didn’t disappoint. The two leads were played by Niamh Cusack and Catherine McCormack – both excellent – and the rest of the supporting cast were brilliant too.

We joined Adam and Ira as well as a couple of the other cast members in the pub for a drink afterwards, and it was really nice to hear them talk so positively about the production – they were clearly very proud of it, and hopeful that it would get an extended run or tour at some point in the near future. If it does, I highly recommend going to see it.

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.

Happy thoughts – Thursday 2nd February

  • Spent the day out of the office, for a meeting in Oxfordshire in the morning then visiting the site of our next event in Warwickshire in the afternoon. It does sometimes feel like we can’t afford to take a minute away from our desks, but while I spent nearly 6 hours travelling today, it was also really good to get out and meet people face to face and get excited about new ideas and the vision for the event rather than be bogged down in spreadsheets and deadlines.
  • Had the loveliest meal and catch up with my theatre partner in crime Emma. She actively encouraged me going on about my recent trip to NYC (so she can live vacariously through my ramblings), and we always have a good old Punchdrunky nostalgia-fest when we catch up, so it’s always great to see her and not feel judged for my obsession. Topped off with seeing Mark Rylance in Nice Fish – it’s an odd little play, but utterly charming and he was excellent (obviously).
  • Also booked tickets for another show tomorrow (Northfields by Shrink Theatre) with another of my theatre chums. I’m exhausted from being ill earlier in the week but it’s closing soon so it’s my only chance to see it, and it sounded like one I couldn’t pass up!

One Festival 2017: Programme B – Friday 20th January

I booked tickets for the One Festival on a bit of a whim. An actor/writer acquaintance had posted about it on Facebook, and I decided it would be a nice thing to do to fill a soggy Sunday afternoon last weekend. Then I ended up out a couple of hours later than intended last Saturday and it didn’t quite happen… But the idea of going appealed, so I decided to go to the next performance instead.

The venue – The Space – is a lovely wee venue, with a fairy lit bar upstairs serving the ubiquitous craft beer and a decent looking menu. It’s intimate but not claustrophobic, with around 50 seats in the performance space, and the set was bare – every play used just a chair, and the odd handheld prop.

The One Festival features plays performed by just one actor, and has grown over the last 5 years to its current size – 5 programmes, each featuring 4 or 5 different plays. We saw Programme B, which had a bit of a heroes and villains theme.

First up was Quiet Night in, written and directed by Robert Elkin and performed by Amy Gough.  Full disclosure – the aforementioned actor/writer chum (whom I met at The Drowned Man, of course) was Robert Elkin. Having not seen him for a couple of years (and not knowing him all that well), I was a little nervous about laughing in the right places, making sure we didn’t offend him. But I needn’t have worried – it was written with real affection and amusement running throughout. There was obviously a lot of Robert in Sophie (the character), and Amy was such a charismatic performer. It was one of the longest pieces of the evening, but it never dragged and while the concept was farcical (a dinner party where all your ideal guests – dead or alive – turn up) it was utterly charming, with real heart. It was funny, it was sweet, and it had an ending I think most people – especially Londoners – can relate to.

Next, we had Gypsy Queen, written and directed by Sepy Baghaei and performed by Lauren Barnes. A fantastical tale of betrayal and the extremes to which it can drive a person, it was nicely written, but better performed – Lauren gave it a real serene, poetic, ethereal quality. It was a shorter piece, but well judged.

After the interval came Spit or Swallow, written by Jonathan Skinner and performed by Jennifer Oliver, who was excellent – it’s not easy to act that subtle, two-glasses-of-wine-too-many kind of drunk. The entire piece was an extended double entendre, so could have gotten old quickly, but Jennifer was engaging and funny, and it was, again, well judged time-wise to keep it short and sweet.

The penultimate play was Villain, written and performed by Steven Shawcroft, and directed by Jodie Botha. It felt very much autobiographical, with Steven playing an actor who desires to be a great performer like his idol, by playing villains to the point of becoming one. In a very strong and largely funny line-up, being the only piece which didn’t really utilise humour meant it had a big job to do to navigate a change of pace – especially after the overtly funny Spit or Swallow. It didn’t entirely succeed – I think due to having a less accomplished performer than the other pieces – but it was pretty well written. Perhaps a fresh take on it by an actor less close to it could bring out the nuances of the script.

Last up was A Comic Book Ending, written and directed by Elliot Baker and performed by Ross Virgo. Another longer piece with lots of humour and a very strong actor, this was the perfect matching bookend to the opening play. Ross had buckets of charm and enthusiasm, and gave a very physical performance which had us all going along for the ride with him. It felt fresh and original, and there’s no denying it was a real crowd-pleaser.

All in all, the night was hugely enjoyable, and very well programmed. Not to mention an absolute bargain at 5 plays for £12 – and you get discounted tickets if you go see more than one of the 5 programmes. Plus we got 2 drinks at the bar for under £8 and in London, that’s a bloody miracle!

The One Festival is on until 29th January – find out more and book tickets at https://space.org.uk/events/