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.

Light – Friday 2nd June 2017

I went into Light, by Theatre Ad Infinitum, knowing nothing, other than it was on its third run at the Battersea Arts Centre, so it should at least be alright. And I think that’s maybe the best way to see it, so I’ll keep this brief to avoid spoilers as I heartily recommend you try to see it if you get the chance.

Set in the future, it taps into very relevant topics around the use of technology and surveillance, while having a touch of the Rogue One rebel mission about it. Performed entirely in mime, with only some occasional sparse dialogue displayed in surtitles, it never struggles to communicate the narrative. The word “mime” probably conjours up twee images of men pretending to lift suitcases that won’t move, or be trapped in invisible boxes. Well put that image into said invisible box and crush it – mime is better described as physical theatre and done well – like this – it can be brilliant. The costumes and set are minimalist, with an electronic soundscape score, lots of darkness, and some very clever, intricately choreographed, handheld lighting, ensuring you focus on the action, of which there is plenty.

It’s atmospheric, thrilling, and makes mime seriously cool. Go see it.

Light is on at the Battersea Arts Centre until 17th June. Find out more here.

 

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.

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 – Monday 20th February

I’m still ill so I’m struggling for good stuff today – all I did was go to work (which was pretty tough given that I’m so achey even my eyeballs hurt), then come back and watch many many episodes of Shameless. We didn’t even get to watch The Walking Dead as it was a bit too late being uploaded to Now TV. So instead I’m going to focus on looking forward to stuff when I’m (hopefully) feeling better.

  • Seeing an old uni pal for dinner on Wednesday as she’s in London and gathering a few folks together for dinner. Haven’t seen her in about 8 years I’d guess, so really looking forward to it!
  • Seeing my theatre chums on Thursday for an immersive production called The Neath, which is on at Vault Festival and looks ace.
  • Finally made a (vague) plan for birthday drinks in a couple of weeks, and though it’s nothing big or special, it will be nice to see whatever pals make it along!

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…