The Band

The Band by Tim Firth – The Lyric, Theatre Royal Plymouth

I have a lot of feelings about The Band. So I’ll start with the positives. The production values are high, all of the staging looks incredible and there’s some pretty powerful pyrotechnics to appreciate. The cast are very capable performers and crowds around me all seemed to be having the time of their lives. Similar to Jersey Boys, it’s a play that allows people to engage with theatre through something they’re already familiar with. The storyline was decent as well, far better than some other jukebox musicals I’ve seen.

That’s the good stuff. And I did have a good time watching The Band, there were just a few elements of it that sat very uneasy with me. For instance, there is a lot of fat jokes. Like, too many. I’m aware that, being fat myself, I tend to be more sensitive to this sort of thing than most people are. That said, I still think that it was lazy and cheap writing. The Band features characters who are working class, older female characters, characters who are fat, characters who are gay. It should have been a representational slam dunk. But they kind of fucked it, as far as I am concerned. They had a real opportunity to offer some positive representation for people who very rarely see themselves reflected onstage. There were some characters for whom this was achieved, for instance the presentation of working class people was positive. I just can’t look past those fat jokes. They happened so often and were usually centred around ‘lol, fat people like to eat’ or just straight up ‘lol, look, they’re not slim’. Basically the kind of comments that school bullies have been peddling for years. Seriously Firth? That was the best you could come up with? Having a less than slim character doesn’t need to be a plot point to address, it doesn’t have to be their only character trait. Which for one of the not slim characters, it wasn’t. However, for another, we learned essentially nothing about her life except that she used to be slender and then comfort ate her way to fatness. So predictable, so dull. Not all fat people are fat cos they’re sad, FYI guys. Many of the more cruel jokes are uttered by that character herself, seemingly to make the laughter ok. I don’t feel like that’s good enough. If I were to suddenly start making loads of sexist jokes that wouldn’t be empowerment, the fact that I’m part of the marginalised group doesn’t make it ok if I am feeding into toxic ideals that other people already hold – it’s hindering the cause and my being female wouldn’t change that. Same here re: fat jokes. The jokes were not made to question the idea that fat bodies are inherently inferior or funny. It wasn’t some form of smart satire to question beliefs. It stuck very much to the status quo. At one point the character talks about how she became fat. It’s played for pathos little else. The jokes continue, except the other characters decide they won’t make them anymore (she can belittle herself, they don’t need to). There’s no character development except her now deciding to go on a diet (she’s slimmer of the week now guys!). The final scene involves one character making a fat joke, and our bigger character excusing this because it means she can then make jokes about the other character being a lesbian. What?! I don’t understand what point that is supposed to be making. Sure, it’s good to be able to laugh at oneself and not take life too seriously, I’m just not sure these are the traits to be making that point with. Particularly when numerous people laughing at these jokes are very much laughing AT and not WITH.

It was super frustrating for me because the rest of the musical was great, far better than I was expecting it to be. It should have been a fun night of nostalgia but I left feeling pretty mopey really. For many, these jokes will have been a tiny aspect of the play that had little impact on the rest of the story. Which I feel is kind of the problem, it normalises it. I feel that the writers could have done so much better. The cast were really talented, this could have been a great show and a really positive thing for a lot of people. I’m not angry lads, I’m disappointed. And I do mean lads there, it’s another all male creative team presenting female experience.

This became a huge kill joy rant, apologies! I’m aware that a lot of people saw this show and had a really lovely night out and I’m pleased for them. There was a lot of talent involved here and a lot about the production that is positive and worthy of admiration. I found it very difficult to appreciate that at the time though, being somewhat blindsided by the aforementioned elements.

Sunked

Sunked by Chris White – The LAB, Theatre Royal Plymouth

As part of this Easter’s LAB season, writer and performer Chris White brought Sunked to Theatre Royal. The play skilfully blends poetry, music, spoken word, and James Cameron. Opening with the audio of a phone call from his co-star, informing Chris that he’ll no longer be performing the play, we get off to an awkward start. But it works, making Chris even more endearing. Chronicling his attempts to raise the Titanic while avoiding the wrath of James Cameron and Celine Dion, the play’s nicest moments are Chris discussing his relationship with his mother. The bizarre other additions are a lot of fun to watch but this familial relationship is the play’s heart. Chris is an incredibly talented wordsmith, I particularly enjoyed the section involving some Beautiful South references. I challenge anyone to see this and not leave feeling buoyed.

Slight tangent here – but I saw a previous review that suggested the use of swearing undermined the performance. For me, swearing isn’t inherently offensive. It’s dependent on context and nothing in the context of delivery here seemed offensive. Swearing in my opinion can enhance a message rather than undermine it, which I felt it did here. I understand that different people have different thresholds for offence, I was just very surprised that anyone could feel offended by such an amiable performer. It seemed a strange critique of a wonderful play*.

I guess don’t see it if you’re sensitive to usage of ‘bad’ language? You’d be missing out though. Chris White is an interesting, engaging performer, sure to have a bright future ahead of him.

*I should note, the rest of the review was on point. Just one lil section on swearing that confused me.

49 Donkeys Hanged

49 Donkeys Hanged by Carl Grose – The Drum, Theatre Royal Plymouth

I was very excited to see 49 Donkeys Hanged as I’ve been involved in the production since I first began my placement at TRP. I should stress that by involved I mean I did some low level admin type stuff for it. But I’d read the script ages ago, seen the design models develop and read all the rehearsal reports. I thought it was shaping up to be something special and I was right.

The Drum has had all of its seats removed, replaced by scattered hay bales to draw us into the strange world of Bosanko Farm. The play is a promenade piece, so you can follow the action around and get as up close as you want. Some chose to sit on the strewn hay bales but for me, the ability to move around and change vantage point made for a great experience. Inspired by a headline Carl Grose saw whilst traveling in South Africa, the play takes place on a run-down farm in Ventongimps, Cornwall. The characters are closely married to their Cornish environment with local references and in jokes aplenty – unsurprising given that Carl Grose himself is Cornish. We follow the tale of Stanley Bray, a struggling farmer mysteriously compelled to commit the strange task of hanging 49 donkeys. He is as confused about why as we are. Bray’s wife, Joy hasn’t left the house for 30 years following the disappearance of their son Bobby. The two threads of the plot come together in a surprising twist, raising questions about storytelling itself and who really owns our histories.

Despite the gruesome title the play is hilarious, with particularly strong comic performances from Will Hartley as Carl Grose and Ed Gaughan as Stanley Bray. The Drum is choc full of atmosphere and music provided by Dom Coyote (roving the audience as Randy Williams) will be caught in your head for days.

It’s such a fun piece, highly recommend you see it!

49 Donkeys Hanged also had a writer’s response evening.  Following Thursday’s performance Theatre Royal presented three short response pieces. The evening came about following a call out to local writers. Eleven responded and were invited to see the play, with 48 hours to write their own ‘response’ piece. Writers chose to interpret the idea of a response in many different ways, from introducing the characters to new environments, suggesting what may have occurred in the future for Grose’s characters, to creating entirely separate pieces inspired by the play’s themes. From these submissions, three were chosen to be performed by the 49 Donkeys Hanged actors.

The chosen pieces were some of the ones who had opted for entirely separate stories. The three plays were very impressive, particularly given the limited turnaround time the writers had. It was interesting to see what people perceived the play’s strongest themes to be. The writers chosen were Sam Parker, Mich Sanderson and Alex Robins. By chance, all three of those chosen have been involved with TRP’s LAB company scheme, which I think demonstrates the strength of the talent TRP is nurturing. It was a great end to the evening and something I really hope we continue to do.

 

IdeasLAB

IdeasLAB – The LAB, Theatre Royal Plymouth

IdeasLAB is a sort of scratch night offered by Theatre Royal Plymouth. It allows local creatives to showcase early stage work and get a feel for how it could develop. I saw 4 fifteen minute extracts, all of which were impressive in their own way. It was my first experience of filling out feedback forms for a show. I have a feeling most of my feedback was essentially useless, I’m not great at deciding what I think spur of the moment. I really enjoyed the night though. It’s a great example of what TRP is doing to help develop talent in the area. It was also another chance for me to experience something new. I’ve never attended a scratch night or anything like it before but it’s something I’ll be doing a lot more often now!

The pieces I saw were:

Efferus Collective’s Pithed – a dance piece inspired by the case of a woman who lost all sense of proprioception. It was unsettling at times, with some great live drumming to accompany it.

FullRogue’s WILD SWIMMING A Brief and benighted history. – an extract from a play (I think!) discussing gender roles throughout history, told through the lens of a couple on a beach, possibly going for a swim.

Chris White and Poppy Pedder’s KIN – inspired by Black Mirror this short play presented a dystopian future where humans are permanently linked to someone, their KIN. It presented how loneliness can creep in, even within a close relationship. Despite dark themes it was funny throughout.

Alex Robbins’ Bear With Me – Ostensibly the story of a writer getting his leg caught in a bear trap and coming to tell us the tale. It blurred the lines between truth and fiction, what was performance and what wasn’t. And featured some honey eating bears.

I’ve added in those fairly dry descriptions of plot because the pieces were all in their very early stages. I figured it’d be a bit of a dick move to be writing reviews of them. I’m really looking forward to seeing how all of the pieces develop from here.

La Forza Del Destino

La Forza Del Destino by Verdi – The Lyric, Theatre Royal Plymouth

I don’t really know what to say about this. The Welsh National Opera is clearly formed of some very talented individuals. The power of their voices is impressive and the orchestra all sounded great. I loved the set design. But I was also bored stiff for the majority of the performance. Even with surtitles (which weren’t always working) and the programme’s synopsis I struggled to follow what was happening. There’d be wild applause for some sections, more muted applause for others and I couldn’t tell what was any different. I had no idea what was eliciting the extra cheers. This is the first opera I’ve ever seen, so I have a feeling a lot of me not enjoying it stemmed from me not understanding the conventions of opera. I’m glad I saw it, as it’s something I’ve never experienced before. I just didn’t especially enjoy it, which made me feel very guilty as I feel like it’s something I should have appreciated more. The whole experience made me feel like a bit of a rube really! – Through no fault of the WNO I might add!

Cathy

Cathy by Ali Taylor – TR2, Plymouth

Cardboard Citizen’s brought their production of Cathy to TR2, a brief stop on their current tour of the show. As it was being performed in a rehearsal room this version of the play was stripped back and basic, but still packed an emotional punch.

Originally written as part of Cardboard Citizens 25th anniversary celebrations, Cathy is inspired by Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home. Unfortunately, the issue of homelessness is still as pertinent today as it was in the 60s. For this performance the majority of the audience was formed of TRP’s engagement groups, such as Our Space. Our Space is a group for adults with multiple and complex needs, stemming from issues such as addiction, homelessness or social isolation. The aim of the group is to forge healthy social interaction, build confidence and encourage engagement with the theatre. I’m not always keen on outreach groups being made to watch plays that detail struggles similar to what they have experienced (the Exeunt article I’ve linked below explains why in much better words than I could come up with). However, in this case the attendees were aware of what they would be watching and had opted to attend. Cardboard Citizens also facilitated a discussion afterwards too which made things inclusive.

It’s testament to the show’s writing that the majority of the audience identified with what they’d seen, with many stating they had experienced a lot of the play’s events themselves. Cathy is the story of a mother and daughter who, after missing a couple of rent payments, find themselves in increasingly desperate situations. The current housing system for those in need is portrayed in all its inadequacies. It’s definitely not easy viewing. Some wry laughs here and there but overall the play is as difficult to watch as you would imagine with its subject matter. That’s not to say you shouldn’t see it! It’s great piece of work with stunningly realistic performances from all of the cast. The set design is interesting too, with what appears to be giant Jenga blocks being moved around to form each new environment, symbolising their transient homes. It’s a piece worth seeing, particularly for those who struggle to comprehend how a person could end up homeless.

http://exeuntmagazine.com/features/trouble-outreach-work/

Sunset Boulevard

Sunset Boulevard by Don Black/Christopher Hampton/Andrew Lloyd Webber – The Lyric, Theatre Royal Plymouth

I don’t think I like musicals. Or at least, I don’t think I like more traditional musicals like this one. The kitsch and the camp of Rocky Horror, Hairspray and Little Shop of Horrors all appealed to me in the film versions so they seem like something I might like onstage (and did like in the case of Hairspray). I really didn’t engage with this show though. I found myself drifting into day dreams and not paying attention for quite long sections, which of course meant that I wasn’t following/understanding the plot. It just couldn’t seem to hold my attention. I think part of me not enjoying it stems from not being as keen on the style of music used. There was also slight issues with the backing music being louder than the vocals at some points. All the action happens through songs, there’s little to no dialogue so being unable to hear a few sung lines here and there has quite a big impact. The plot of the show sounded right up my street so I thought I’d enjoy this more than I did. I’ll have to get my hands on a copy of the film instead I think!

I’d like to add a disclaimer that me sort of hating this show is not a reflection of the show itself. Quite a few people who saw it commented on what a quality piece it was and had nothing but praise for it. The performances seemed strong (Danny Mac won awards for his portrayal of Joe Gillis) and the vocals were impressive. The set was gorgeous too. I think it’s more a case of it just not being to my tastes. It is a weird experience knowing I really didn’t enjoy something but being essentially unable to explain why.

I’ll continue seeing musicals that come to TRP though, I think it’s important that I keep an open mind and it’s good to see as much as I possibly can.