Posts Tagged ‘Battersea Arts Centre’

Review – Light – Theatre Ad Infinitum at the Battersea Arts Center

February 7, 2016

While “the surveillance state” seems like a loosy goosy premise to organize a play around, I’m pleased to say that Theatre Ad Infititum’s Light takes the core nightmare of the society we live in – one where we expect our communication with others to be private and yet now know that most of our communication is routinely monitored by this and other governments. It clear to see what a government on a mission can do to destroy a person’s life – I mean, there are people in Guantanamo to this day who have had no charges brought against them – and the distance between our current situation and a living dystopia is probably little more than the flick of a switch away.

The style of Light is very much like a silent movie (say by Guy Maddin) – all dialogue is broadcast in text above the stage, and the movement is highly stylized to increase the emotional effect of the action. Scenes are “set” with circles of light that might only have a hand or a face in them – so our gaze is guided from moment to moment onto very specific things. The performers often hold the lights and move them around to achieve this effect, and also seem to “throw” LEDs (in red and green) that are meant to show people “sharing” their thoughts with each other (although it could just as easily be people sending text messages and getting them on their phones). The nightmare at the core of this is that now our “receiving devices” are internal instead of external (phones), and these implanted devices are required by and monitored by the state. The plot is a bit about a rebel group trying to free people from the tyranny of surveillance but also about how this surveillance state came to be.

As a theatrical experience, I found the intense sensory assault (there is quite a bit of noise and we’re also occasionally blinded, then reverted to near full darkness) engaging: I liked having my focus so strongly guided. I’m also a science fiction fan, and I found the Matrix-like elements of the plot very enjoyable – in fact, the way this play rode the edge of reality made it feel much more plausible than a story about us being used as batteries. Finally, at 70 minutes, it was pretty damned snappy, with just about 5 minutes of tightening needed. And, boy, my 12 quid ticket could not be beat. In short: it’s excellent, so do try to go, if for no other reason than to see one of the best and most original lighting designs to ever grace the London stage.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, February 1st, 2016. It continues through February 13th.)


Review – This Is How We Die – Christopher Brett Bailey at Battersea Arts Center

June 9, 2015

Amidst the glowing reviews (‘Mesmerising’ – The Guardian; ‘Leaves you speechless’ – The Times), I’d like to add one that will NOT be on the BAC’s website: “70 minutes of pure wank.” That’s an excerpt from my longer review, in which I shouted over the phone at my husband: “It left me feeling gross and sticky and wanting to stab him to death with a plastic fork to make it stop.” He said he thought I wouldn’t like it and I didn’t listen but at least he didn’t rub it in.

Sometimes one man shows tell stories. Sometimes they’re comedy. Sometimes it’s just spoken word. And sometimes it’s someone who’s fallen in love with the sound of his own voice and uses it as a weapon to assault the audience. Can you escape? Barely. Is it interesting? Never. I found myself unable to distinguish the words as they ran together, avoiding narrative, punctuated by the pops of his fricatives against the microphone (“Is that a microphone in your pocket?” “No, it’s a joke I’m going to repeat several times despite the fact that it wasn’t funny the first time.” “Oh, wait, is the joke on me?” “Yes.”)

Sometimes the words briefly coalesced into images then fluttered away, either on the bumper of a car that crashed into his story or on a priest’s head zipping madly into the sky. To add insult to injury, this overly long evening ends, first with a blast of light to the eyeballs (such a sixth form theater school stunt) then with a blast of sonic oppression which only alleviates by changing our pain from merely mental to aural as well. AT LEAST THEY WEREN’T SCREAMING THE WORD JISM OVER AND OVER AGAIN BUT THEY MIGHT HAVE WELL BEEN. SOMEONE HAND ME A WET WIPE AND PASS ME THE SPORK, I’M GOING IN FOR THE KILL AS SOON AS I GET THIS SHIT OFF MY FACE.

(This review is for a performance I sadly paid for the night of June 9th, 2015. If you still want to see it, don’t blame me. We probably can’t be friends anyway.)

Review – Shelf Life – Lotta Quizeen at the Battersea Arts Center (then theSpace at Surgeons Hall, Edinburgh)

August 5, 2013

Idly poking through the inbox of my Webcowgirl Twitter account, I found this strange message from @domesticbits: “Wonder if you fancy a bit of domesticity?” Well, yes, of course I do, as the “counter culture housewife of the nineties” (per A.J. Epstein): but the link attached was for a show of some sort at the Battersea Arts Center. “Mrs Lotta Quizeen uses the rituals, responsibilities and realities of domesticity (traditionally dismissed as women’s work) to entertain, educate and amuse you.” Hmm! It sounded like an ironic/comedic/poking fun kind of thing – with a feminist slant I thought would appeal to my weekend houseguest (and me). I admit, I wasn’t sure who “Fanny Craddock” was, but I figured what with my exposure to Julia Child and Martha Stewart I could probably bridge the cultural gap.

As it turns out, this show was far more confusing for an American than I expected: the constant jokes about her missing husband Johnnie sailed right over my head, and I’m still puzzled about the tiny moments of spotlit song (“I love being a housewife and keeping things tidy” seemed to be the theme). But rather than try to slot it into my cultural references, I just enjoyed what was going on, and found myself having rather a lot of laughs during a a 50 minute show that was packed as tightly as a nun’s (lunch) box. (This bad joke would not have been out of place.)

A lot of what happened was participatory, starting from when we were greeted as we entered (wearing name tags: I was “Vixen” as I was still pretty excited about the previous night’s trip to see Saucy Jack), then served sweeties at our neatly dressed tables by our charming (and bodacious) hostess. She talked a bit about her view of being a good homemaker, with interesting asides into Britishness, Europe, and rather more than the occasional double entendre. As the event continued, we were roped into a series of housework related, audience-staffed competitions that became more and more hilarious as, to be blunt, they lost their hold on double entendre and became just rude. I couldn’t restrain myself from getting in on the action and dipping my finger into the creamy topping of a banana pudding: “It’s clear why you’re married!” Mrs Quizeen announced. We were all losing it by the end: young gay men, elderly couples, middle-aged theater goers, and burnt out bohemians alike. I have to imagine that in the bustle of the Edinburgh fringe festival this will be a popular show, as it’s such a change from passively watching plays or plain old sketch comedy. Lotta Quizeen has a unique thing going and, well, I’ll never be able to fold a napkin without giggling again.

(This review is for an Edinburgh preview performance that took place at the Battersea Arts Center on Saturday, August 3, 2013. Lotta Quizeen’s Domestic Bits will be remounted at the Surgeon’s Hall in Edinburgh from August 12th to August 17th.)

Review – Midnight’s Pumpkin – Kneehigh at Battersea Arts Center

December 17, 2012

Ah, Kneehigh – for you and me, it is the love/hate relationship. But for all that I loved Brief Encounter, how long will the name keep enticing me to come back and see shows that are not just lacking in theatrical magic, but vile or … worse …. boring?

Well, it hasn’t happened often enough yet, because I went ahead in July and bought tickets for their latest show, Midnight’s Pumpkin, billed as a family friendly Christmas time thing sort of based on Cinderella and for prices higher than I would have paid if I’d waited (see for details). Ah well, still, it’s not like £20 is going to kill me …

Anyway, the deal is the big space at Battersea Arts Centre has been transformed into an in the round performance area, with a big open space in the middle that you access via a series of changing rooms. For extra fun, we’re encouraged to put on costumes (after the first interval) and to become a part of the ball. I found the invitation to dance quite enticing given the music they were playing … all sorts of disco and 80’s tunes (in fact, the evil stepfamily’s post-interval dance to “Temptation” by Heaven 17 was one of the highlights of the evenings for me) not so suited to the under 10 crowd but likely perfect for their parents.

But I digress. The play, itself, is a variation on Cinderella: our heroine is, actually, called Midnight, and the narrator is a pumpkin she grew. Rather than being a repressed girl in tattered clothes who spends her time cleaning a mansion, she’s a short, geeky teen (with big glasses) whose big-hearted but somewhat clueless dad thinks a pre-made family of older, fashion-obsessed sisters is just the thing she needs to get past grieving over the loss of her mother. There are also some cute mice that move the action along and keep getting confused about her name, and a band, which accompanies songs that the various characters sing (all forgettable).

For me, one of the big mysteries of this show was Prince Charming. Played as a completely egotistical jerk who is promoting his bride search on Facebook and Twitter, he seems like the perfect opposite of a good companion for Midnight: we want her to escape and be happy, but is being with this cretin actually a win for such a sensitive soul? I found myself rather hoping for a different ending, in which the prince is turned down and perhaps chooses to marry one of the two sisters, both of whom seemed well suited to him (except for their inconveniently large feet).

This, however, was not to be. Midnight wants the prince, and the moment in which they recognize their love for each other was the best in the show: she is suspended from a hoop from the ceiling, doing aerial acrobatics, occasionally touching down for some pirouettes in her lovely red pointe shoes. Then a shower of silver glitter falls from the ceiling. Aaah! Just lovely! And Midnight is not just cute and petite but massively strong and graceful! What a heroine!

But, ultimately, not enough to save this show from being fairly mediocre, at least if you’re over 12. I suspect that between the dancing, the audience interaction, the costuming, the lightheartedness, and the supporting food and drinks, that if you have a kid this might be a fine evening. But for me, my buttons were not pushed, and the contrast between the vile attitude of the prince and humanistic inclinations of Midnight were too strong for me to overcome them in the interest of Making The Required Narrative Happen. If her fairy pumpkin’s advice can be to not wear synthetic underwear, surely he could have gone off piste enough to warn her against marrying egotistical jerks?

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, December 14th, 2012. The show continues through January 13th.)

Analysis – Sensory Deprivation Theater (Sunday Morning at the Center of the World, Rotating in a Room of Images, And the Birds Fell from the Sky, London Snorkelling Team) – various venues

April 18, 2011

I realized Saturday afternoon that I’ve been doing a rather odd thing lately: I’ve been actively pursing theater that uses sensory deprivation as part of its gimmick. For two of these events, part of the Battersea Arts Center’s One on One festival (menu 5, “Immersive,” April 6, 2011), I wasn’t aware that I was going to be bumbling around in the dark in a room full of strangers; in the third (Sunday Morning at the Center of the World, Southwark Playhouse I was given the option of blindfold/no blindfold and chose the path of less visual insistence. I found the three of them … unusually stimulated my brain.

Let me explain. First, I am a bit of a control freak. Well, that’s not true, really, but letting strangers blindfold and touch me, putting myself in a situation where I can’t see who is coming toward me and yet know that they are there and they are going to interact with me, that is way out of my comfort zone. In fact, it makes me feel unsafe and a bit scared. But then, I do like having my boundaries pushed, and I see the One on One Festival as really enabling that, in an environment that’s safe enough … I think … that I could go with it. Mostly. At least I knew I wouldn’t get hurt. Probably.

Anyway, with Lundahl and Seitl’s “Rotating in a Room Full of Images,” I wasn’t actually blindfolded – I was in a pitch black room with headphones feeding me information. My eyes told me very little, and what my earphones said wasn’t always true … and I found myself listening harder, trying to pick up “real” noise that told me about my environment. I was also “listening” with my feet, which picked up vibrations from the wooden floor. This piece was often about there being people you couldn’t see near you – close enough to touch you – close enough for you to walk into if you just took two steps backwards. And this was creepy, because in pitch black you just could not tell they were there.

However, for much of the event, you were actually being led around very gently by the hand, and I had no sense of fear about the person who was holding my hand. It was a very trusting experience. They tugged me gently forward, I took steps into the dark. While the occasional lit bits of the event were certainly artistic, the real “experience” for me was letting go enough to be able to follow a total stranger when you could not see a thing anywhere. And I loved trying to expand my senses to “feel” the room, whether it was big or small or … the whole thing was probably only ten minutes but it felt like it went on for ages. It was cool.

I was kind of prepped for it in a way by Il Pixel Rosso’s “And the Birds Fell from the Sky.” It forced me to give up my desire to see my environment almost immediately, as it involved putting on goggles and headphones, making me feel even more isolated from what was going on around me than “Room Full of Images.” But “Birds” had a different goal: it wanted you to experience a world that was not there. I had to have trust to follow the person who walked me to my “car,” but after that I was mostly just following instructions, reaching out my hand when told to (to take a note, to receive a gift), turning left and right. My fear of the world on the edges of my vision – and, indeed, in front of me – was erased, as the sensory overload of the video-playing goggles made my brain too busy to process that I was actually totally cut off from the world of my normal senses. I think that this was kind of natural, however, as the eyes are so much what people rely on; even knowing the movie being shown was totally not real (I was not in a car driven by insane clowns), I was able to relax into the experience, with the “performers” enhancing it with what I fondly think of as Smell-o-vision: misting alcohol at me when the clowns were drinking, some kind of perfume when the girl clown was close (I think), and some other things. Externally, I was cued to open air by a fan blowing a breeze at me and stepping onto a brushy, grass-like carpet, and I was able to take these on as part of the world of the movie I was in. Stepping away, I could see two other people on the same “journey,” while a performer carefully leaned over them and made sure that her misting came at just the right moment; it all seemed very tender, somehow.

This meant that two weeks later I was quite ready for “Sunday Morning at the Center of the World,” and when they asked “do you want to experience our radio play with a blindfold on” I readily said yes. This meant that as this poem-type-thing was read, I pictured the bath being taken from a few feet away, smelled the coffee, recoiled from the alley cat that brushed against my legs, and took the crackling noise I heard in the air to be two blue plastic bags floating overhead “on their way to Tooting Bec.” While there were actors present and many unblindfolded people watching them, I think I gained more than the “straight” audience did from being able to let my imagination create all of the images of the talking dead and the cursing sparrows and the evil cat that swatted at passers-by on its own. And I very much enjoyed the many gentle cues (including raindrops) the actors added in to make it all “real.” It all went on a bit long (and there wasn’t really any character development or plot, it was pretty much just a poem about a Sunday morning in Earlsfield), but I enjoyed it and found it all very rich, more so unsighted than it would have been otherwise.

Interestingly enough, just a few days later I saw what I thought was going to be a musical comedy but was in fact an imaginary radio show (“The Island”), in which the London Snorkelling Team pretended to be the rather sad and untalented guests of a backwater radio show. This was also very much an exercise of the imagination (as we were “moved through time” and witnessed a visit from God), but I loved the buy-in that what we were seeing was really supposed to be a radio show – it just put me in the right mood for all the rest of the silliness.

Overall, I find that in this set of shows, the more the performers moved away from technology, the richer the audience experience, though, for me, the experience of trust was just as important as the stimulation of my imagination. As several of these shows involved a very high actor to audience level (“Room” had about four people doing the show for just one little me), they are obviously not the wave of the future, but I found that stripping away my control and cutting down on the senses I could use was a great trigger for my imagination and rather freeing. I’m glad I was able to do these … but I don’t think you’ll be seeing me in a blindfold again unless we’re playing Pin The Tail on the Donkey.

Review – 2011 One on One Festival, Challenging Menu – Battersea Arts Centre

April 1, 2011

My number one arts experience of 2010 was the One on One festival at Battersea Arts Center, so when they announced they were doing it again in 2011, I was beating down the (internet) door as soon as tickets went on sale. This time rather than picking one thing you want to see and a few maybes, you picked off of menus. I avoided the one I’d done before (with Free by Ansuman Biswas) and instead picked a menu with a group that had received a lot of good press in the past.

I’ve been thinking about what to write about this event and I’ve decided that I can’t, in the middle of the run, talk too explicitly about the performances lest I ruin the element of surprise. Instead, I want to talk about how I felt during the event. This is about what I experienced internally rather than what I saw and did.

I approached the whole thing with a series of fun and (as I saw it) a lack of expectations other than that I wasn’t likely to be physically hurt. During the course of the three performances on my “meal card,” I wound up experiencing trust being built and then played with, social norms flouted and updended, and reality warped. I also lived through a performance that hit one of my biggest phobias, which was especially hair raising because I had had an hour long gap between it and my previous performance and had killed time visiting with other people (mostly total strangers) at the bar and was soused and rather more emotional than usual. Note to actress: no, I don’t usually sit on top of chests of drawers, but it seemed like the right place to be at the time.

What I found most interesting about this night was that it messed with my perception of reality. I was not alone in this; I talked to several other audience members who participated in one of the pieces I did and they all were questioning what had really happened. Had they just made a friend? Had they found a lover? Had they been betrayed? I was surprised they thought that anything had gone on besides a predetermined interaction between an audience member and an actor; the reality of what the actor said was non-existent, as they were “acting.” Those who thought they had made a connection with the person underneath the actor were mistaken; our reactions were just as predetermined as their actions.

But in the intimate setting of the One on One festival it is hard to tell the difference. This sense of confusion, of something “real” happening, was heady; but it made me wonder: was this actually unethical theater? We were paying to feel something, but I couldn’t help but feel that if the creation of an emotion or connection between an actor and an audience member was done so effectively that people, say, wanted to wait afterwards to talk to the performer to see if they “meant it,” the performance, and performer, was walking a dangerous line. Ontroerend Goed, Ansuman Biswas, you may be in dangerous territory.

As for me, well, I like dangerous territory, and I did, of course, choose the menus marked as most extreme. I’m not afraid to be personally challenged and I have a pretty clear idea of where the line is drawn between myself and a performer. I still find it really unpleasant to be in a situation where a childhood fear of mine is the center of the experience, but I was willing to let myself be kidnapped (if unsuccessful – I note someone else who was screamed as her “assailants” hooded her). I also very much liked how the organizers set this up so it wasn’t a “one”ly festival – it was, in fact, very focused on getting the audience members, who saw most things by themselves, to interact afterwards, what with the badges saying what you’d been to and then the addition of new games that try to nudge you to play with strangers. Overall, it was a great experience, one I highly recommend, though you will get out of it what you bring to it. Me, I will be bringing myself back next week – it was so good I had to try it all over again.

Review – The Red Shoes – Kneehigh Theatre at Battersea Arts Centre

March 10, 2011

It’s easy to rant about bad shows and rave about good ones, but what do you do about a show that leaves you walking away just feeling flat? Kneehigh has stood tall in my estimation since the first performance of theirs I saw, Brief Encounter, which displayed a knack for creating theatrical magic that left me gobsmacked and truly swept away. I love shows that let the audience use their imagination to fill in the gaps, the “Empty Space” aesthetic, and they really seem to get it …

… but not for this show. Four hardscrabble actors in dingy undershirts and BVDs, with dark circles under their eyes, attempt to make this show fly under the watchful eyes of a Jane Avril-like drag queen narrator. We have a stage that is not much more than some doors and a platform overhead; the props are rarely anything more than suitcases (cunningly labeled “Red Shoes,” “Shoemaker,” or whatever character is going to need clothing next) and costumes. The actors mug, scowl, flirt, smile, leer, and generally do their best to push their personalities forward from rude mechanicals who are only given purpose by the narrator.

The tale that is told is the basic Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, full of isolation and alienation but with the original emphasis on vanity stripped out. Kneehigh’s “Girl” is lonely, her free spirit beaten down by her blind, adoptive mother; her indulgent shoes are a minor show of personality in a life otherwise focused on drudgery and obedience. When they weld themselves to her feet and she is forced to dance night and day, well, we can see she is suffering, but why has she been chosen for so much pain? Why do the people in the church turn their backs on her? In this rendition, we are left confused by her exlusion from society; it seems it can only be due to her being poor and feisty. And while it’s creepy that the shoes haunt her to the grave and beyond, there seems to be no reason for them to do so, for them to seem so bent on punishing her – and what is the final knock-down-drag-out fight with her and the angel/devil/”spirit of the shoes” about?

Going back and reading the story summary, I think the reason why I wasn’t able to engage with this story was that it was presented too much in black and white (and red); it seemed to be very much about evil shoes rather than the evils of vanity (admittedly not something modern audiences feel much horror for), and didn’t create an alternate version that I could engage with. And, despite having fine theater-craft, it was also just plain old ugly; bald actors, dirty clothing, clunky shoes, just not a moment of uplift and beauty in the whole thing (excluding the music). It was almost like, given the choice of serving us a sandwich with a rotting filling and a layer of burning horseradish relish, we just kind of got a bit of stale, moldy bread; not enough to get violently worked up about, just enough to go “ick” and then turn away. This wasn’t a horrible show, but it lacked soul and felt too much like something that had gone through the Kneehigh digestive process rather than being birthed in joy. I’m not sorry I saw it, but I feel I can clearly advise anyone who hasn’t got tickets that they’re not missing out on much. With Umbrellas of Cherbourg settling in for a nice long run at the Gielgud, there’s most likely a much better option available.

(This review is for a performance that took place on March 9th, 2011. It continues at the Battersea Arts Centre though April 9th. As a side note, when there was music, I could barely hear anything the narrator said over the endless chatter of some 6th formers two rows behind me and the crisp-packet-crinkling nightmare directly at my back, which I thought was due to being slightly deaf in my right ear; but my companion said she also couldn’t hear the narrator much of the time, so this was more due to the acoustics and miking in the venue and not so much to insanely rude audience members. That said: I’d much rather not go when the BAC’s sold a bunch of tickets to school groups as these people appear to have not been told that manners are different when watching a play as an audience member rather than when watching TV at home.)

Review – The Animals and Children Took to the Streets – 1927 at Battersea Arts Centre

January 6, 2011

Based on my experience watching 1927’s last outing (Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea), I wasn’t in too huge of a rush to get tickets for their latest show at the Battersea Arts Center – some animation, some acting, some people wearing vintage clothes, yawn – so I waited and waited and put it off long after The Animals and Children Took to the Streets was announced but was finally enticed by a friend of mine saying she wanted to go, and, gosh, there the BAC is just up the road from her and she’s leaving soon and I want to spend time with her and … oops, the show sold out.

This leads us to last night, when R and I were sitting in the lobby of the Battersea Arts Center about an hour and a half before showtime. Any chance of getting returns under normal circumstances was rather hamstrung by the complete brokenness of the BAC phones during the day, so being first on the list was our only hope. I was hungry – the onsite caf was only serving nachos and mac ‘n cheese – and the third member of our party, Miss Booglysticks, had finally gone from waffling (“Do I really want to go just on a hope”) to taking a cab (ouch!). BUT as I sat in a nearby kebab shop waiting for my lamb cubes to cook through, good fortune struck and three seats very magically became ours (and needed to be paid for in cash rather quickly). We (and our hot drinks) were in!

Now, for a show that is both sold out and ending in four days – wait, three – I wouldn’t normally bother doing a write-up, but because I’d gone to the earlier show, I actually really want to talk about how things have changed between this production and the last. In short – and I find this a bit difficult to say given my reputation as a surly curmudgeon who only goes to shows so she can complain about never getting her money’s worth – I found with this show that 1927 has lived up to the potential they showed two years ago. The quirky joy of Paul Barritt’s animation is now more seamlessly fused with the live acting – at times it seemed to be handling all of the lighting duties on stage, though I know it was added to at times – and the live actors also found themselves buried within the crazy collage of his work. The potential of animation to let you do the impossible – like have an actor have their head come off and be tossed around like a football, to create an elevator that goes up and up, to make a space an actor can run through block after block – was revelled in.

But there was more. First, this had a far more coherent through-story – a bizarre tale of a semi-fictional reality based in a tenement (the Bayou, though it kept sounding like the Bio) where the children have gone completely feral, much like the cockroaches. Second, the songs and music were both catchy and eerie – I remember thinking the music wasn’t fully formed before, but the singing, the lyrics, and the instrumentation (including a güiro played as if it were nails being filed) for Animals and Children worked together perfectly to accent the story and the characters. Finally, despite being forced to interact with the animation (i.e. slapping “flies” as they went past, lobbing an animated rock at a window), the actors made it all feel as effortless as any other cue they might have effected requiring standing or moving in coordination with another person or action on stage. This did not feel like a case of the performers serving the animation – 1927 really has the entire package operating as a whole now.

Most importantly to me, the performers created big, fun characters that were a treat to watch – strange curtain twitching ladies wearing leopard spotted house robes; a Robert Smith-like caretaker with dreams of escape; a sneaky, sleazy “lady” spiv and her pre-teen Stalinist daughter; a helpful young woman and her (animated only) daughter; ticket girls and bureaucrats and ice cream men. All of this was done by only three people? I am shocked. And, to top it off, the backgrounds for the scenes were done in a lovely Russian/Rodchenko style/homage that unified the show and cranked it up one more notch on the artistry thermometer. It was just really damned good.

All that, only £16, I got to take my hot chocolate in with me, and it all wrapped up by about 9 PM. To be honest, when I came out I was so excited I forgot to check my watch and was instead babbling on about the show. So go get in line, people, you’re going to be sorry you missed this one if you don’t have tickets – as near as I can tell from their website, the BAC show is the end of the line for the tour.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, January 5th, 2011. The final performance will be Saturday, January 8th. I’d say book now but it’s a little late!)

Review – One on One Festival – Battersea Arts Centre

July 9, 2010

Theater festivals normally scare me off, but the One on One festival at the Battersea Arts Center held real promise for providing a unique experience. A series of short … experiences … in which I was the only audience? Alerted by the BAC twitter feed (and Jake of A Younger Theatre‘s enthusiastic tweets), I grabbed a virtual copy of their program and perused the options.

The variety of options available was remarkable. While some seemed very lighthearted (Emma Benson’s “Me You Now,” in which you sing a song with the performer), others very “unique performance just for you” (Stan’s Cafe “It’s Your Film,” a live cinema experience), I was more struck by the ones that seemed to be taking a trip deep into the psyche, in the realm where interacting with other people by yourself opens up questions about personal boundaries and pushing yourself (or the actor/s) beyond the comfort zone. The most shocking of these was “The Pleasure of Being: Washing Feeding Holding” (by Adrian Howells), which utterly terrified me with its premise of being bathed by a total stranger. Other way-beyond-the-comfort-zone options were “2 Free” (Ansuman Biswas) (“The performance will be released only to the extent that decide. Exactly what happens will be determined by your fear and desire. Performance involves nudity of the artist and adult language”) and “The Smile off Your Face (Ontroerend Goed) (“You are blindfolded,you are in a wheelchair, tied up. It’s about experiencing”). Fine, I thought as I read through the program: I’m not okay with being bathed, but I’m not going to be totally cowardly, I wanna push myself. Where are my “preconceptions of social behavior?” Am I bothered by being in a room with a naked actor? I mean, hey, I made it through Hair, and there had to be 40 naked people on stage for that.

The booking process allows you to either let BAC select your options, or to call and “select your own journey,” which I think still means you only get to pick maybe one show and then only if it’s not already full. I called, of course, to make sure I’d have an evening in which my boundaries were pushed, and was relieved to find out that for the really edgy ones, no one was being dropped in unless they requested it (whew!). I was able to suggest a few more things I might have been interested in as well as what I was absolutely NOT (no bathing!). Then it was time to settle down and wait for the festival to roll around (as I booked on June 10th, I had a lot of time to wait!).

One month later … I showed up at BAC (two bus stops up from Clapham Junction rail station and really just not that hard to get to) at 6:45 and almost immediately kicked myself for getting a lame pasty at the station instead of getting a £4.50 quiche in the venue bar. It was a lovely summer evening; the steps outside were covered with performers and picnickers, while inside people were running around practically vibrating with enthusiasm. The BAC staffers were all dressed in black with little upside down watches hanging off their shirts, giving the event a bit of an Alice in Wonderland sort of feel. The otherworldliness was enhanced by the ghosts of productions gone by that filled the venue – I could practically see the carnival-masqued Punchdrunk revellers in the shadows, and the bee tilework on the floor kept making me flash back to being pulled into a dark room and served absinthe by a strange little man with a Poe-like story to tell. Meanwhile, half the tables in the foyer were reserved for performances, some with the most intriguing artifacts on them: one said, “If you sit here, you’re agreeing to take part in a secret mission” (of 30 minutes duration); a nearby chair said “if you sit here, you will be kidnapped” (for 15 minutes). It seemed very much like the unexpected was bound to occur.

I settled down with my ticket and the venue map to figure out what was going on. I had a normal paper ticket, but also an “appointment card” listing the performances I was scheduled for. My start time was 7 PM, but my first “performance” wasn’t until 7:15. In total, I was booked for four shows, from 7:15 until 22:25, with a break time built in for nearly an hour at 8 PM. There were also various non-ticketed events happening, about seven at my count (on my day). The first one to check out, I thought, was listed on the map as #7: “The butler – a private drink just for you.” I found the spot – a closet with a black cloth strung up halfway in and three holes cut through at face and hands levels – and had my first participatory, one-on-one theater experience: having a £6 capirinha mixed for me by what seemed to be Jack the Knife. It was, I thought, a nice warm-up for the evening to come, though, truth be told, on a warm evening the reader would be advised to make sure to keep herself well-hydrated in general. (I had two water bottles with me that I almost entirely emptied before the night was over. There was free water at the bar, though, but I dragged mine with me, choosing not to use the coat-check as I was worried I’d lose my map since I had no tickets.

My first “experience,” at 7:15, was “The Face Game.” I waited a bit, the gatekeeper knocked on the door (to warn the performer), then I was let into a room in which a man stood with his back to me. “We’ve got one minute,” he announced. “Do you want to play the ‘try to see my face’ game?”

“No,” I said, wondering what the other options are.

“Um … okay. We’ll just stand here then.”

“Okay, then,” I countered, “let’s play the face game then.” I proceeded to bounce around the room, ducking and swerving and making false leaps, trying to catch him facing the wrong direction, but unwilling either to touch him or to, say, quickly slide between his legs and look up. My minute was up; I had not succeeded, and I left. (Note that other people were let into this that hadn’t been booked for it, as it really was a very, very quick performance. It’s worthwhile to ask if there might be room to squeeze you in if you’ve got some time on your schedule.)

I then went downstairs to where Abigail Conway was performing “On the Dancefloors” as I very much liked the idea of getting some dancing in (plus I’d get to choose the song!). Unfortunately I’d misread the map and tonight was a “by appointment only” evening, so up the stairs I went to the “Recreation Room” and Sarah John’s “Below” (“It’s a film for those who like to watch and a scene to perfom in for those who like to play. Or is it only a girl singing a song?”) which only had a 5 minute wait. I sat and drank some water until my turn, when I was led, eyes closed, into a large room, where I opened my eyes and … well, I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you. There was a girl, there was singing, there was a mirror, and what exactly happens in that room kind of depends on you, doesn’t it?

Anyway, five minutes later and I was done, too early for my next performance (7:40), too late to do Tanie El Khoury’s secret mission or be kidnapped. I went ahead and headed across the hall to the “blue zone” and sat outside the “council chamber showers” waiting for “2 Free,” which, truth be told, I’d pretty much forgotten I’d booked (I was hoping to preserve an air of surprise and mystery for the night). I was given a plaque to read (it said that my event would last thirty minutes, as measured by an hourglass, and that I’d get a 5 minute warning when it was getting to be time), then I was handed a lit lantern, my overturned hourglass, and let into a room that contained nothing but a chair.

Well, there was a little bit more. There was a sign on another door that said I could take as long as I wanted to hang out and chill in that room, but when I was ready I was to go into the room behind the sign and follow the instructions on the back of that door (and, I think, it said you could leave whenever you wanted, at any time). I didn’t even bother sitting in the chair; I swung open the door and found …

Holy “falling down the rabbit hole, Alice:” a naked man, blindfolded, gagged, with his wrists and ankles bound. Clearly, I was no longer at the National. The sign on the back of the door said something like, “Take your clothes off and then remove and/or move the ties as you see fit; you may leave at any time.” There were two hangars on the back of the door.

So, dear reader, what happened next? It seems really unfair to color the experience you might have by giving you the details of my own in overly great detail. Later in the evening I found exactly one other audience member who had done this piece (also a woman) and we compared notes; both of us eventually stripped and (as it turned out) took advantage of the shower in the room next to the very small alcove (it has a nice fluffy towel in it and she, like me, was really desperate to cool down). The shower room had no curtain per se but did have a nice fluffy towel to dry off with and a somewhat mysterious glass bottle with oil of some sort in it. Biswas did not speak to me (when allowed to by the lack of gag); he did, however, speak to her. I remain mystified as to what the piece was trying to accomplish or where the performer expected it to go; however, it was good (for me) that the performer was a slight, slim man whom I found utterly non-threatening; the weirdest bit was trying to figure out what to do with all of that time.

After that was over (I went for about 20-25 minutes, not the fully allotted time) I actually needed to chill out for a while, and went to the bar to just do nothing and let my brain empty. I had a full hour and more to kill, but then I found out that there was a surprise glut of open spaces as a large school group had cancelled, so I went back to the front desk and signed up for two more spots in the available time (and surrendered by 10:25 slot: sorry, Barnaby Stone, but the jet lag was getting to me). Thanks to this, I was able to go to “Headlines,” “I Vow to Thee My Country,” and “On Dancefloors.” “On Dancefloors” was a total blast and perfect to clean my head: I got a shot of rum and danced with Abigail to Lady Gaga while disco lights flashed. Then I went to “Headlines,” which was a little mystifying: I hadn’t been following the news, so listening to two people go on as if (in the first room) they were the harassed brother of a murderer and then (in a second room) the harried police chief of a small town just didn’t much resonate to me, though I thought the acting in these roles was quite strong and easily fell into my role as journo and then commisioner of police. (I expect these stories change from day to day but am not sure.) The whole thing emphasized to me the bizarre nature of the UK press, in which seemingly small stories get blown out of proportion with 24 hour media coverage; in the US, that kind of thing seems the exception (i.e. for OJ Simpson).

Next up on my normally scheduled list of events was Emma Benson, who had a tiny little room off of the long corridor where Thom Shaw was doing his “Drag Mountain” performance (couldn’t get a slot, alas). I went up the little staircase and was let into a room beautifully outfitted with floor-to-ceiling tree trunks and a table with candles on it. I sat down and she showed me three songs we could sing together; “Puff the Magic Dragon,” “Love Me Tender,” and “Let It Be.” I chose the Beatles, as, while I knew the first two, I felt pretty confident I could sing harmony on the third. She visited with me a bit, then asked me about where I liked to sing; I started, she joined in pretty much immediately, and then we rather joyously made our way through a song that I normally consider sappy but which, in this case, as a song sung with a stranger, as we looked into each other’s eyes and I tried to do the harmonies right just by ear, was really just a glorious experience. Emma also seemed to get a bit of a performer’s high off of the experience and said she’d not had a singing that went like that before, and asked if I sang in a band or anything; maybe she was just making it all up but my God, I felt like we were totally hitting it. Woo!

The evening wound down pretty quickly after that point. I visited “You Me Nothing,” which earlier I’d been told “lasted as long as the person wanted it to;” this is because it is a small chair in an empty room in which you sit by yourself, only really good if you want a chill-out (I did) and some space to yourself, but otherwise a bit dull. I finished with “I Vow to Thee My Country,” which I wasn’t able to really engage in; I wasn’t able to buy into the performer’s premise (“make a vow of how you will show your commitment to your country or your people”) and got more pleasure out of reading the other people’s vows and judging them as “with it” or “cop out.” My favorites were: “I will pick up trash on the beach and on the streets” from someone in Brighton, and another one in which a Scotsman vowed to go see his country perform in the next world cup “and support my country.” Awesome!

Then it was hometime for me, and a tired girl I was, too. Overall, I thought this was a really exciting evening and well priced at £22. I’ve described how it went as best I can, but I don’t think I can just say uniformly that “you should go;” this will suit some people but not others. I, however, thought it was great, and, all things considered (especially that the performances change almost entirely with about three different “sets” of performances) I would really like to go back.

(The One to One Festival continues until July 18th with 7 and 8 PM performances and matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 2 and 3 PM. I advise you pick the earlier time slot so that you can see more shows.)

Review (sort of) – Kneehigh Theatre’s “Don John – Battersea Arts Centre

April 25, 2009

I am not really in a mood to write about this show.

At the very end, a bit of “Don Giovanni” is played. I felt a little bitter about being reminded about one of the most fantastic, surprising moments of any live performance I had ever seen in conjunction with this one, especially because on the surface, you might think “Don John” and “Don Giovanni” had something in common.

But they don’t really. One is a great work of art. The other is a well-designed, emotionally empty bit of theatrical time killing. I made it through intermission. Sometimes it was pretty to look at. But I’ve already written more about it here than it warrants. I will, however, remember hearing this song for the rest of my life:

(Don John continues through May 9th, 2009 at the Battersea Arts Centre, which really is a gorgeous venue. They serve a mean double vodka cran to boot, but 5.50 seems a bit steep, really.)