Monday 16 December 2019

Theatre Review: Living Spit's Odyssey at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

Bristol comedy duo Living Spit returns to the Tobacco Factory with a unique rendition of Homer’s Odyssey. This home audience knows what to expect by now from Howard Coggins and Stu McLoughlin at their best, based on shows such as Adolf & Winston or Elizabeth I—Virgin on the Ridiculous: knockabout hilarity and bawdy jokes, supremely inventive storytelling and silly songs, audience interaction and plenty of dressing up with bad wigs.

Living Spit’s Odyssey is different, though, as the endearing duo are joined on stage by jazz and blues singer Kate Dimbleby and professional musician Sam Mills. Dimbleby takes centre stage as Penelope, waiting in Ithaca for 20 years while her husband Odysseus is away fighting in the Trojan wars and serially delayed on his epic journey home.

Penelope’s house is reinvented as a nightclub, because, rather than sitting and weaving for two decades, this 21st century version of an empowered Penelope has been entertaining her many suitors with song—her smoky tones layered to a crescendo on a vocal looper. It’s a strong opening number that she insists on finishing, despite the untimely interruption of a triumphantly returning Odysseus—played by Coggins and accompanied by McLoughlin’s Anonymous Minion 1—proclaiming, swearing and desperate to regale her with his exploits and explain his multiple detours.

Before a sceptical Penelope, Odysseus and his Minion then re-enact their travails—stopping off at the land of the Lotus Eaters because the ship’s crew wanted a proper poo in privacy, then trapped in a cave by the cyclops Polyphemus as they seek to exchange their plentiful supply of wine for a much-needed truckle of cheese. Supporting this narrative, Mills proves to be a versatile actor as well as musician, stepping in to play a dish-plying waiter in a Chinese restaurant and Polyphemus’s swivel-eyed lone surviving sheep.

There’s plenty of laugh-out-loud creativity in the simple rotation of dishes in the restaurant, the use of torches in the dark cave to create multiple characters and the panto-like retelling of the crew’s disastrous appropriation of Aeolus’s bag of winds. The songs are warm and witty and the foursome makes effective use of ingenious costumes and props and Katie Sykes’s simple circular set. But there are also moments between episodes where the comic momentum seems to flag.

The second act is much slicker, as Odysseus resists being turned into a pig by Circe thanks to a hilariously simple delivery from Hermes. His vivid sacrifice of a soft-toy goat and sheep draws gasps from the audience; he encounters a very lively Land of the Dead and evades the sirens’ call, only to be trapped by the nymph Calypso—an amorous McLoughlin dressed up in best shower-curtain style. There is even pathos as Penelope expresses doubts about her husband’s enduring love, accompanying herself on the ukulele, and Odysseus sings a torch song, joined by his wife in an unexpectedly moving duet.

While Living Spit’s brand of raucous playfulness has always been underpinned by structure and skill, this collaboration brings a new and hitherto unseen sophistication to their performance. Dimbleby is not only a singer and musician but also an accomplished raconteur; their contrasting styles meld successfully to bring greater depth to the show’s musicality and emotional breadth to its larky storytelling.

Reviewed on 12 November 2019 | Images: Camilla Adams

Wednesday 4 December 2019

Theatre Review: A Taste of Honey at Theatre Royal, Bath

This review was first written for British Theatre Guide

When 19-year-old Shelagh Delaney’s debut play A Taste of Honey opened in Stratford East in 1958, it raised more than a few eyebrows. Written about social deprivation in working-class Salford, as experienced by a teenage girl whose liaison with a black sailor leaves her pregnant, its raw humour and bleak regional cadences catapulted her into the ranks of kitchen sink dramatists. She became a female counterpoint (whether she liked it or not) to Look Back in Anger’s John Osborne.

Ahead of her time—and doubly so as a young woman—Delaney challenged the conventions of the day, but fast-forward more than 60 years and her storyline no longer holds the same capacity to shock. Satiated as we are by Shameless-style grit, it’s crucial to remember that it is rooted in the likes of Delaney. Yet, despite director Bijan Sheibani’s commendable efforts to enliven the narrative with a three-piece band and dynamic-though-marginal set changes, this National Theatre interpretation still feels like a product of its time—primarily a revival of historical interest.

That’s not to say that there aren’t good performances here. Precisely because we are no longer outraged that teenaged Josephine (Gemma Dobson) is about to give birth to a mixed-race baby, or that she has taken in her gay art school friend Geoffrey to live with her, there’s a greater focus on her relationship with her mother Helen (Jodie Prenger). This emerges as the story’s core; a balancing of pain, humour, anger, judgement, and love that many a mother and daughter over the years—rewinding back in time from the likes of Greta Gerwig’s 2017 film Lady Bird—will recognise.

These are women to whom life has handed nothing, perennially bonded despite the demands of Helen’s new husband Peter (Tom Varey), and doing what they can to survive. Prenger breathes life and glimpses of humanity into a mother who might easily be a monster, her singing revealing a yearning undertone that would otherwise be lacking.

Dobson’s Josephine appears initially shrill, but her school uniform in the opening scenes reminds us of her extreme youth. She matures as the narrative unfolds; though her short-lived romance with Durone Stokes’s sweet-talking but feckless sailor Jimmie is sketched in the briefest of outlines, her friendship with Geoffrey—played with engaging effervescence by Stuart Thompson—helps her navigate the daunting prospect of parental responsibility.

Hildegard Bechtler’s gloomy set captures the breadline existence of its inhabitants, but the frequent fluid movement of walls and furniture by a chorus of characters is a distraction. Though the sudden influx of strangers at scene changes suggests the claustrophobia of tenement living, it becomes visually over-busy.

David O’Brien’s three-piece jazz band neatly captures the mood in the prelude to the play’s opening and emphasizes the ebb and flow of emotion throughout; Prenger’s vocals and Thompson’s post-interval rendition of 'Mad About the Boy' are highlights. Yet even with this musical underpinning, whole flights of dialogue seem to flag; it’s hard not to conclude that, although honouring Delaney, this production of A Taste of Honey ultimately does little to illuminate her legacy.

Reviewed on 28 October 2019 | Images: Marc Brenner