The Hunters of Ghost Hall

Sussex Playwrights Reviews: The Hunters of Ghost Hall

Most Curious Productions
Written and directed by Tristan Wolfe
Music by Adam House
Sweet Werks 1

We’re in the round in this small black box; black drapes, black floor, blackout. Then a torch clicks on.

The play mainly unfolds in the near dark with torches, then in the unreliable glow of an ancient generator in a possibly haunted house.

We meet a ghosthunting TV director, her maybe fake medium and a couple of treasure hunters, as they creep about this strange location, alone or in twos, each pair at first unaware of the other.

As one leaves another slips in, though just as in a farce, those changeovers do need to be simultaneous to keep the pace tight.

Torches are well used, respecting the audience’s need not to be targeted while conjuring up the TV staple of the detectives searching a house with only atmospheric torchlight. They’re at their best when actors shine up on their own or each other’s faces, creating glowing features and flickering hands in the gloom and huge ‘what was that?!’ shadows on the walls. This effect wants to dial up, as it can be difficult watching vague shapes moving in the dark.

James Bennison’s comedy background delivers the entertaining fireworks as the theatrical TV medium Zac who’s going through some interesting purloined snack-related experiences.

As AJ, Akasha Goodenough creates and sustains that essential growing sense of tension and unease throughout, a stranger in this unknown environment, her senses on high alert.

Whenever we meet Lena Hill’s Bonnie and Mel Newton’s Kit, that wary tension dips – we have less of a sense that they are in a strange, dark unknown place, as both appear physically and vocally relaxed and at ease, two friends bantering and bickering through together.

The play features the most committed use of sound we’ve encountered in any Brighton Fringe show this year. From the start, Adam House’s score delivers mood music, eerie singing, the creak of an old house settling – all the haunted house favourites. The play is scored throughout like a film soundtrack, with live thumps and bumps. At busy Fringe venues, sound can leak in from other shows (my Edinburgh death scene featured the Chariots of Fire theme from the show next door). Here, there’s a music show upstairs – but the faint singing just threads into the soundtrack and becomes part of the unsettling effect, and it’s all most effective. There’s a card on your seat if you’d like to download the soundtrack.

On a writing note, it’s not always clear what each character is looking for – perhaps time for another draft to tighten and clarify plotline, with a more definitive ending.

Having seen an extract for Sussex Playwrights in the larger space of the New Venture Theatre, it’s clear that the play would expand well into a larger site-specific location, an old house, perhaps opening out in a promenade version, that could use the discoveries that torchlight can make.

Some clever laughs and creepy moments – especially for those who’ve never liked dolls …

At Sweetwerks 20-26 May 21.15

Philippa Hammond

The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Probably Unmasked Theatre’s best outing yet for its trademark full use of the Rialto Theatre space

Unmasked Theatre
Rialto Theatre

Adapted and directed by Luke Ofield and Pip O’Neill

New Writing South Best New Play Award 2019 Shortlist

Tolstoy’s late novella is here adapted for the stage in a new play written and directed by Luke Ofield and Pip O’Neill, and currently shortlisted for New Writing South’s Best New Play Award 2019.

A judge and his family move to a smart new home and all’s marvellous. Until a deftly-staged fall sets off a spiral down to the inevitable conclusion.

Kevin Cherry takes a commanding lead, a fussily precise control gradually stripped away as the dreary inevitability of dying begins its creep. He’s not going gently; raging, questioning and fighting as the dull debris of dying piles up around his central writhing figure.

The family are getting on with being alive, perhaps more urgently now – parties, snogging, dressing up for a posh evening out – because they know they’re helpless.

Time’s fluid – we begin and end at the end, with Ivan’s funeral and we delve back through time to his decline, back to his own childhood, then snap back to his death. The writing preserves a sense of its nineteenth century Russian origins, matched with its present day setting. At the end of life, Ivan delves into some huge solo themes, while the twenty first century life of online gaming, social media and phone-addicted teens whirls around him regardless.

Sarah Widdas is warmth and truth personified as practical wife Praskovya needing a night at the theatre in a gorgeous frock, Bronte Sandwell’s a sweet daughter Lisa flitting and flirting about, and George Todd endears as young Vasya – all’s normal in these teens’ world (apart from this dreadful thing happening in the corner), and there’s great support and range from Matt Turpin and Bradley Thomas, doubling a fleeting cast of friends and doctors.

One of the highlights of the piece is Liam Murray Scott, doubling as smarmy hearty Schwartz, practical diamond Gerasim and unlistening Doctor Jones. He’s an assured and powerful actor who makes this look easy.

Probably Unmasked Theatre’s best outing yet for its trademark full use of the Rialto Theatre space – energy and movement, in-scene set changes, speaking from the audience plus a raised spotlit dais at the back, Ivan’s stage for his death scene. He’s part of the family, yet separate and above them, blue-lit and isolated.

A couple of polishing notes – The dais sometimes meant others turned their backs on the audience to speak to Ivan, which meant we lost clarity, projection and subtext. The play’s more about those affected by death than dying itself, and if they remained looking at us we could see the truth of what was going on beneath their socially careful words as they perform the trying task of chatting to a dying man. I’d like a little more volume and articulation from some – the Rialto’s an intimate space, but still needs those voices to hit the back walls.

In the end, this was exactly how my father’s last few months happened in my family. It’s something we’ll all experience, and we have no training in how to deal with it. The programme apologises for not including a trigger warning on the promotional material. It wasn’t necessary. Audiences have always understood the value of catharsis.

Philippa Hammond
Sussex Playwrights Reviews

Tiptree: No-one Else’s Damn Secret But My Own

Rowe’s fluid writing fleets through glimpses of an extraordinary life

Written and performed by Jenny Rowe
Directed by Nicola Haydn

James Tiptree Jr was the pseudonym used by the American science fiction author Alice B Sheldon. For years this persona fitted in with the male-dominated SF world; where ‘what if … ‘ was the norm, yet including women in those worlds was not.

An actor who hooks our attention and holds it in her hands for an hour, Rowe’s a great storyteller and master of the pause where it’s most effective. Her performance is pacy and upbeat, sometimes very funny, as she transforms into the 70+ Tiptree with ageing makeup and a cigarette-roughened patrician Hepburn drawl; laconic, ironic and wry.

Poking fun at the society she came from and lived through, Alice was always a little at odds, a little bit off. An American in Africa, a girl needing protecting but not being given a gun to do it herself, a bisexual woman in a conservative world of debutantes and finishing schools, a woman in a series of men’s worlds, perhaps none more conservative than the world of American SF.

We know the horrible truth from the start, that this is Tiptree’s last hour before she joins her husband. Rowe’s fluid writing fleets through glimpses of an extraordinary life in that universal solo show agreement between performer and audience – the performer is alone, but talking to us. Whoever we are. And we’re fine with that; we’ve done this before.

www.JennyRowe.co.uk

Philippa Hammond
Sussex Playwrights Reviews

Four Thieves Vinegar

Intriguing period drama with a bleakly comic flavour, shining a light on an astounding period of London history.

 

Image: Thomas Everchild

Four Thieves Vinegar
By Christine Foster
Director Margot Jobbins
FourTails Theatre Company
Rialto Theatre

We’re in a tiny, cramped claustrophobic prison cell in the sweltering summer of 1665, the Black Death raging outside and coming ever closer, in a deftly suggested setting of wood, straw and sturdy barrels with a lightly sketched-in soundscape.

It’s rightly cramped and privacy is non existent – the privy takes pride of place and the cast must edge and sidle around furniture and props. There’s a few anxious moments there, plus a great audience heart-in-mouth ‘is he really going to … ???’ build-up to look out for.

There’s an authentic feel to props and frocks, though all the clothing layers do suggest dank chill over stifling heat – maybe fewer layers, more filth, more sweat as the production develops? I’d like a little more greyish light at edges and a more defined sliver of sunlight cutting through, but the natural tones and expressive faces are well offset in this plain black box space.

We never get to leave this hole, but there’s a giant, horrifying world out there, its darkly infernal images only told of and conjured up by Foster’s swift writing.

Char Brockes’ Jennet Flyte is an intense little bird quivering with zeal, curled around her secrets and ablaze with hope, even in this hell.

Liam Murray Scott is alchemist Mattias Richards, driven and poised above all this, secure in his scientist superiority, brushing aside his current situation with an abstracted arrogance that ultimately cracks and breaks.

Director Margot Jobbins’ Gaoler Holt shows pathetic cheery pride in her dreadful little kingdom, clinging resolutely to her fantasy future to the last.

Sorcha Brookes as Nurse Hannah Jeakes blends grim humour and a tough ability to make the most of every opportunity with a rough tenderness and raw vulnerability that’s most moving.

Intriguing period drama with a bleakly comic flavour, shining a light on an astounding period of London history.

Four Thieves Vinegar can next be seen

24th and 25th May at Hillside Barn, the Green, Rottingdean

1st and 2nd June 1pm at the Rialto Theatre, Brighton

Details

Philippa Hammond
Sussex Playwrights Reviews

 

Risqué!

Risqué’s an amusing little warmup for our 2019 Fringe theatre-going month.

Sussex Playwrights Reviews

Risqué!

Directed by Murray Hecht

‘Comic sketches with a twist!’

Eight short sketches by Timothy Coakley performed by Sascha Cooper, Stewart James Barham, Sally Jones and Dave Lee.

All very sweet natured, firmly in the 70s Carry On/Up Pompeii genre, it’s all there; nob gags, double and single entendres, naughty chat lines, swingers and strip.

While some sketches could benefit from a light trim and a pace and volume boost, each piece neatly segues into the next on an efficient two-chair on-off setting (perfect Fringe setup).

Standouts include a darker little detour down gaslighting alley, a rather charming moment as two swinger strangers confess their deepest darkest desires and Cooper’s energy and pop.

Risqué’s an amusing little warmup for our 2019 Fringe theatre-going month.

On at the Rialto Theatre 6pm Brighton 3-5 May 2019

Philippa Hammond
Sussex Playwrights

 

The Favourite

Our take on the arthouse hit of the year

The Favourite

Director Yorgos Lanthimos
Writers Deborah Davies and Tony McNamara

(If you’re not keen on the language in this review – then you may not have seen the film!)

I wanted to adore it. The trailer and critical response suggest a fast, funny period gem. Well – the funny bits are mostly in the trailers for this arthouse hit that swings from one unsettling extreme to another.

Emma Stone as Abigail, fallen cousin of the Queen’s current favourite lady in waiting Sarah (a brittle and chilly Rachel Weisz), claws her way back up from the depths of degradation, being wanked at and shoved into the shit, beaten and burnt as she regains gentility through a takeover of the Queen’s affections.

Jaw droppingly stunning locations lit with windows and flame, and a gorgeous wardrobe in midnight and white elegance with flashes of red are jolted with grossout moments – open sores, a jaggedly stitched wound and some grotesque whores, plus all three leading ladies get to do a puke scene.

Men are sidelined, amusingly ineffectual eccentrics in giant wigs, no real threat to anyone, while women of all classes are ghastly, powercrazed untrustworthy bullies.

So much is surprisingly jarring – that soundtrack (a repetitive honk that after a while had me trying to think of other things to take my mind off it), those graphics (impossible to read the credits), that twirling fisheye lens effect (yes we get it, they’re under surveillance and constant scrutiny) and the superb attention to visual period detail faltering with linguistic anomalies, including characters saying ‘OK’ and addressing the Queen as ‘Queen Anne.’

Olivia Coleman’s terrific in a BAFTA-likely performance as the pain-wracked Queen. She holds nothing back, the camera lingers on her suffering face and body, her petulant outbursts and the unimaginable depths of her grieving for her seventeen lost children.

So, a mixed response. With shades of Barry Lyndon and The Draughtsman’s Contract, it looks fantastic (with Sandy Powell on wardrobe you’d expect that), and it lays bare the ugliness under the opulence. It’s a study of how having is not the same as wanting.

Philippa Hammond

Jack and the Beanstalk

‘ … fresh, funny and fast traditional panto.’

Jack and the Beanstalk

Hilton Metropole Hotel, Brighton
Produced by David Hill & Lucasz Wojcik for EB
Directed by David Hill
Written by Keris Lea

Something of a novelty for Sussex Playwrights Reviews – our first panto! And our first experience of the Hilton Metropole Hotel as large scale Brighton theatre on a pretty packed last night, its hefty exhibition hall spaces transformed into a full proscenium arch venue with raked seating, and dodgem cars and refreshment stalls in the adjacent hall.

David Rumelle gives us a proper pantomime Dame Trott – now, we’re all connoisseurs, aware of a tradition that goes back centuries and we know EXACTLY what we expect. This Dame’s instantly engaging, full of warmth and fun, with little innuendos in the cheeky seaside postcard style for the parents and never too ‘adult’ content.

Lush vocals and sweet chemistry from Molly Scott as Princess Danielle and Shaun Mendum as Jack, Richard Dawes working the crowd and the stage with hyperactive bounce as Silly Billy, and that Frank’n’furter vibe from Alasdair Buchan’s baddie Fleshcreep had lasting impact.

Some nice technical features, especially the ‘awwww…’ moment snow effect, a neatly integrated E-Biggins as the onscreen King and the clever inflatable beanstalk. The backdrop is a giant screen with each scene projected onto it, which did mean that where the brightest element on stage is the backdrop, the performers themselves sometimes looked a little insignificant. Maybe the characters’ lighting needed pumping up a little for balance, and the show would benefit from more of the smoke and fireworks effects.

It’s written by Fairy Nature actor-singer Keris Lea, who has great family panto credentials. This show bursts with energy and verve, with a riotous ‘if I Were Not Upon The Stage’, an audience participation ‘Baby Shark’ with children on stage, a great hysteria-building it’s-behind-you routine with a ghost, plus some manic water pistol action. The story was over pretty early in the second half, meaning the later set pieces seemed rather tacked on and would have felt more effective woven throughout the show.

The classics are all present and correct – the dancing panto cow, the hissable villain, the snappy routines, quickfire crosstalk – another great reminder we were watching accomplished performers tapping into traditions we can trace through music hall, and much further back, and by joining in we were part of that tradition ourselves.
And of course, the bang up to date references – social media, reality TV, pop songs and a little light politics, including a green theme – and the actors’ imminent unemployed status.

Costume hits included a ten feet tall muppet-style Giant, an intricately insane Dame wardrobe, and a rather gorgeous shimmery leafy gown and fairylit staff for Fairy Nature.

There’s great support from triple-threat actor singer dancers and a charming children’s troupe, and I only realised it was a live band tucked away up on the balcony when I noticed the tip of a guitar head moving. Logistics don’t always allow of course, but I’d have loved to have had the band integrated into the show, down the front where the musical director could interact with the performers.

In all, a big Christmas treat for the whole family – adults far outnumbered kids at the last performance, which just shows we’ll never grow out of enjoying well-produced, fresh, funny and fast traditional panto.

Next production for Christmas 2019: Peter Pan.

Philippa Hammond