Young Bastard Syndrome

twoman

Matt Trueman wrote an article in The Stage about the supposed decline in theatre blogging. I’ve sort of jumped randomly into the subsequent debate at various points, although I often feel as someone who is both occasional theatre blogger and full time Marketing and Press Officer I sit uncomfortably within these kind of debates.

There are changes in the theatre blogging scene, for sure – people find new things to do, move on, get jobs, etc. The faces and the styles change and the platforms change, too – a tweet storm is as valid as a blog post, an instagram is as valid as a blogpost, I bet people do actually snapchat reviews. It’s not happening in the same way. Plus, Matt’s arguably the establishment now, and so he runs in different circles and reads different things – Meg Vaughan, possibly the patron saint of sweary theatre bloggers, sums this up in her response article.

Eve Allin also wrote a response, and it is great. I’ve felt in the past like I just couldn’t break into blogging – there was ages (AGES) where no one read anything I wrote, and even now negative stuff gets loads higher stats that pure praise, which I sometimes find dispiriting. But, I owe a shoutout to some people who did retweet and share stuff I wrote, because it meant I kept going.

I don’t think Matt’s article is meant to be negative; he’s inviting people to share blogs with him (even if the tone of it slightly betrays that). It’s worth analysing and dissecting why there is a perceived decline in theatre blogging – and I think there are so many reasons for it (conflict between being in the industry and commenting on it, the structures of theatre and everything in general, the finite amount of time we each have on this planet etc etc), but the thing that has struck me about this all, which is really highlighted in Eve’s piece, is that maybe we’re just generally absolute shit at reaching out and inviting new bloggers to join the debates?

And, look, I’m not the establishment, I’m still new really, and my lack of ambition to turn this into any kind of career (seriously imagine having to review like 4 pantos) means I am unlikely ever to be (nor want to be), but somehow people sometimes read my stuff here and on twitter and I like that, because I like blogging and theatre and sticking it to the patriarchy. So, in praise of Eve, in praise of so many more, and in response to the idea that blogs are declining in theatre, here’s some posts from a range of bloggers I’ve loved in the last year or so:

If you have anything you think should be added here, tweet me @rcurtis0914 

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The Children

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The Children is the perfect Christmas show for 2016, because it feels like the grimmest version of A Christmas Carol that could be conceived.

In A Christmas Carol, there are three ghosts: The Ghosts of Christmas past, of Christmas present and of Christmas yet to come.

In 2016, there have been a series of events that have led to what seems like a worldwide feeling of uncertainty and dread – it’s difficult to tell fact from satire as new battle lines are drawn between ideologies.

In The Children, Rose is all three ghosts responding to and revolting against the strange feelings 2016 has spawned.

She arrives in a dank present (set in the not too distant future), a ghost from the past. She is an old lover, an old friend, and she stirs up emotions that have long been dormant in the small cottage of Robin and Hazel. She is Robin’s Belle – the what might have been – and Hazel’s quiet rival.

Rose shows them what is happening now. She is fiercely intelligent and beautifully seductive because of it. She shows them the dead cows and the dead crops and the polluted water and the inability to use a working flushing toilet. For Robin and Hazel, she makes them question and rediscover their present and their responsibility – but for the audience she is already the ghost of the future.

Finally, she reveals that future to Hazel and to Robin, and it shakes them into reluctant  action. She is the ghost that shows them how the future for them – for their children and for all the other scared, shattered children – could be, and they take action in the present. They don’t wake with joy in their hearts and share turkey or break bread with the poor, but they take responsibility. Resigned.

There is joy in it, briefly – but it is joy as deliberate respite, almost as choice – a dogged refusal to allow everything to be marred by the world outside the decaying door. Self-conscious yoga, self-conscious dancing, self medication. It’s the same joy that 2016’s Christmas will bring – a reason to take a break from never-ending bad news, the sheer relief of being allowed, very briefly, not to care, and the wonder that that for now is still just a little bit possible.

In twenty, in fifty years time, will we look back and feel responsible? Will the safety pins and solidarity tweets have been enough, or will we feel the same pangs of guilt and step aside to allow a new generation to take the reigns and hope for better? It does not feel unlikely that the world is about to turn in on itself or erupt, and like the World Wars of our grandparents’ lives, will we look back and wonder how it came to this? This is what resonates with me, as I sit and watch Rose put on her brave, stern face – what more can I do now, so that I am not needed later?

And so The Children is the perfect show for Christmas 2016. It is a bleak, blistering look back at a year of turning points and towards an unknown. A ripped up ghost story. It isn’t a celebration, but with what lies beyond the New Year, we don’t know for certain that we should be celebrating anyway.

Royal Court

A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer

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The first thing I properly read about A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer was James Varney’s review from the run at HOME.

I first saw Bryony Kimmings in Credible Likeable Superstar Rolemodel. I LOVED it. My experience of theatre(/performance art) was still in its infancy, really – and it’s one of the shows I remember so vividly, remember feeling so fucking fired up by, that it feels like one of the ones that shaped what I think this whole thing is for and why it can be so important.

It was also one of the first shows I remember knowing throughout was consciously, aggressively feminist. Back then, I don’t know what that meant for me. It probably wasn’t until I started working I really realised how important feminism was. Back then, I don’t think I’d really learned how to check myself at least a bit.

I moved to London, and That Catherine Bennett Show started. Here’s where I think I fell a bit out of love with Kimmings. See, I felt like this show – which I didn’t even see – didn’t fit the project. I felt like having the name ‘Bryony Kimmings’ stamped on all the copy meant that it somehow wasn’t trying hard enough to really make CB a big star, it was to further Bryony’s work as an artist. It meant I started to think Kimmings was self-centred – even arrogant.

Which is bullshit, and if you read Maddy Costa’s review, CB didn’t need to be a big star, because Kimmings was making someone else the star.

Bryony Kimmings later started a debate on artists and getting paid. While I’d still stand by some criticism of this (£75 still seems loads on a night out, mostly), what I was actually doing was ignoring her point and deeming her as egotistical. She says she’s good like 20 times in her initial blog.

I’ve been thinking about Candice. She won Great British Bake Off last week. More power to her. Initially, though, she was my least favourite contestant. I thought she was being too ambitious, too show offy, a bit smug. Maybe she was – but so were Andrew and Tom, and yet I didn’t really fucking dislike them from the get go (also, baking an enriched dough in 2.5 hours is bullshit no matter who you are).

When I stopped slagging Candice for doing the wrong thing with her face or obviously being in it for a book deal just like everyone else, I realised I probably hated her because she is an attractive, intelligent and skilled woman, and fuck I hate that. I mean – I don’t. I want to see women succeed. But I’ve been conditioned to hate other women. There’s that Ani DiFranco line – ‘everyone harbors a secred hatred for the prettiest girl in the room.’

Well, Bryony Kimmings might be the prettiest girl in the room for me. She became part of my artsy-type frame of reference at the wrong time. So I hated her. She fell into the deep dark corner of my brain reserved for disliking other women for no reason other than they conducted themselves in a fashion my indoctrinated ideals disapproved of.

I’ve gotten better at feminism since last seeing her work. Better at being supportive. Seen a lot more RashDash, read some non-fiction, gotten more comfortable with my own mediocrity and learned to check myself to make sure I wasn’t being a secret misogynist. But Kimmings was trapped already – I’d decided I disliked her long ago, and the fire of my dislike for her was fuelled by James Varney’s review. I went in expecting to hate the show.

So, A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer is sort of terrible. You know, the music just isn’t great and the lyrics are a bit clumsy – a bit Bryan-Adams-esque with predictable rhyming patterns, or with lyrics so completely out of keeping with the music that they feel written for performance poetry rather than big-belt-out numbers. There are ocassionally funny moments, but it almost feel likes the whole show is uncomfortable making jokes given the subject at hand, so never quite commits. The first half is dull – each character has a bit of a turn to sing their story, and so structurally it feels really flat.

It is also – and this is the big storm of Varney’s review – a bit ethically questionable. You can read his for the real vitriol, but it did stick in my mind for much of the second half. It’s the difficulty that Kimmings’ voice from above *finishes* their stories, that the creators of this show have the full and final say on how the real stories are twisted and reframed, that while you watch you can sense every single tiny movement has been precisely choreographed to yank on your heartstrings. It’s also the difficulty that you’ve paid for a ticket, and so the NT is profiting from cancer patients’ suffering – though this is perhaps unfair, as maybe I don’t have enough insight into the creative process or budget to claim this.

Kimmings makes auto-biographical work – that’s her whole thing. I don’t want to be pissy about a woman making a work about herself when I’ve basicalled jizzed all over Peter McMaster’s entirely auto-biographical 27 or a group of male veterans getting their rocks off in Minefield. To dismiss Pacifist’s Guide as a bit self-centred for inserting Kimmings into the story feels to me like saying women’s stories don’t need to be told – the story of the mother isn’t necessary. Here, I think it works, though not perfectly. In the specific is the universal and all of that.

It’s flawed as fuck. But the reality is that during the last ten minutes I was biting back tears. That last bit – where you can shout out the names of people who have been lost – fuck. It’s so choreographed, so perfectly, perfectly manipulative and unapologetic in being a bit obviously sappy – but it worked for me. I wanted to weep.

I’ve been thinking about Emma Rice. A woman who took The Globe, gave it a gentle shake up, smashed box office records and then got dismissed in a terrible PR line about shared light. She got so much criticism for not doing things ‘right’ – and let’s be honest here, I didn’t rave on her Midsummer, though still feel quite keen to defend her practice. She was being the hero the Globe needed but not the one the establishment deserves right now. She is gone because she took a miniscule risk with light, and I think that says a lot about how much we trust women to uphold or create a legacy.

In A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer, there are fissures of charge, of a tingling electricity, low murmurs of solidarity, a genuinely diverse cast and the most perfect cancer costumes that could possibly be conceived, all packaged in a show that is underwhelming. But in a post-Rice-at-The-Globe world, I want to stand and celebrate feminist performance artist Bryony Kimmings being given the room and support to fuck up at the National Theatre in association with Complicite. There are poor judgements, a format that doesn’t quite fit the subject – but it’s a tough sell of a subject taken on by an artist graduating into a new scale of work and it all happened at the National. It set next to David Hare and Peter Schaffer. Down the river at the Globe, they took a wee risk and backed out. At the National, they let Kimmings take the Dorfman and the result is questionable, but still worthwhile. I hope they give Kimmings The Globe and she burns it down.

National Theatre

Equations for a Moving Body

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It is a little less than a week since I watched Equations for a Moving Body and I just went for a run. I use the term ‘run’ loosely, because I’m new to this – I was doing a mix of running and walking but I did it. Then I went to the gym and smashed some weight training (again, gently).

As my feet hit the ground and my heart sped up it felt good. As I pushed against the weights it felt good. I felt strong. It was hard and it was hot but I feel strong.

Normally, when I work out (which varies from ‘hardly ever’ to ‘a few times a week’ throughout the course of a year), it is a chore. It’s hard. I suppose the way it made me get out and run says more about Equations for a Moving Body than anything else I could write, but what was amazing was how good it made me feel.

Hannah Nicklin did a triathlon when she turned 30. Through Equations of a Moving Body, she methodically breaks down the training and the triathlon itself, peppering it with the science that makes your body and mind work, as well as the people who supported her through it. The heart is a muscle; train it and it gets stronger. I wept through it.

Hannah has rooted a show in fact, in science and in psychology and I wept, because she has constructed something gorgeous, strong and tender.

We are storytelling animals. We create anecdotes and chapters in our own lives. Hannah set her own milestone when completing her triathlon. Hannah’s triathlon was a headline in her story, dedicated to those who helped – but for her.

I’m quite hefty. When I exercise normally it’s not for me. It’s for the people who make comments, who shout things from their car windows, who write articles about being big being wrong. It’s not for me, it’s begrudingly giving in.

After watching Equations for a Moving Body and after going for a run, I felt strong. Someone shouted something at me from their car window and I didn’t even care. Hannah’s triathlon was hers – her story to tell, her achievement. My body is mine and I want it to be strong. I want to feel good. In my story, I want to be as strong as Hannah. For me.

Northern Stage at Summerhall

 

The Glass Menagerie

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During my first year of university the student theatre company I did stuff with put on both A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie. Sometime during the latter, there was a conversation between me and 4 other women – I think – about whether you identify more with Glass‘ Laura or Streetcar‘s Blanche; my affinity is firmly in the hands of Laura, and that has meant The Glass Menagerie has become one of the few *texts* I really like. I have some doubts as to whether my affinity with Laura is born from much more than the fact I just once talked about it, but when I was watching John Tiffany’s production I found a great deal of myself in Laura.

I’ve never seen the same play more than once, I don’t think. Or, at least, I’ve never seen the same play, then seen a different production of it at a later date. Except The Glass Menagerie. The first was a student production in 2011, the second Headlong’s version directed by Ellen McDougall in November 2016, and then this – John Tiffany’s version at the Edinburgh International Festival.

The student version was good, if I remember. It set the foundation for me watching it the next time, more than anything. Here, I decided I liked this play, which paved the way for me to have far grander opinions about a play than I’ve had before.

When I watched the Headlong version, I was taken aback by how quickly having previous knowledge of a play made me an insufferable cunt. I was full of shit about character depth and vulnerability and what it was all *actually* about. I think I might be better at shows where I’m going in with minimal knowedge because I am not such a smug nob about the whole affair. Also, it’s not like I’d read the text. I’d seen a student show of it four years ago, ffs.

I did hate the Headlong one, though. I’m a bit concerned that having prior knowledge of a play – and therefore some idea of what will happen and the bits I think matter – actually turned me into a massive traditionalist. Suddenly I didn’t care for the artistic flourishes and unusual interpretations – I just wanted it to be a Laura that I felt connected to. While I do think there were issues with that show, including that a lot of choices (such as giant shoe to symbolise disability, putting crepe paper on lamps to demonstrate tidying up) were shallow and didn’t seem to be grounded in anything other than a desire to be quirky, I don’t think I ever engaged with it. I sat, distanced and judgmental, waiting to pounce on all the things they’d done wrong.

(in a lot of respects they actually did it right – it’s a “memory play”, everything’s hazy, and so there is license to fuck with it. But I was too busy being a stone cold arsehole to think about that at the time)

When watching John Tiffany’s The Glass Menagerie, I started with that same full-on-arseholery as before. I *knew* a thing or two about this play, don’t you know. But it went and sucked me right in. It didn’t find the things I knew and present them back to me, it found a whole new meaning, one I longed for and loved and so sat completely in awe of it all.

Firstly, what I really adored here was the way in which the relationships between Amanda, Tom and Laura was tender and loving as well as tense as fuck. Tom and his mother laugh and joke. Whereas I’ve normally seen Tom as a pure emo in a permanent state of angst, Tiffany’s Tom is frustrated by his circumstance and responsibility, and so he lashes out ocassionally – he is not just in a permanent state of hating his family. This adds so much charge to his real moments of rage – he is the boy who’s parents voted Tory and now he can’t buy a house, he is the boy who worked hard at school but £9k fees are a bit steep, he is the man who can’t afford care for his family and so his life is theirs to keep. In smaller doses, Tom’s anger seems to matter so much more.

Then, there’s Jim, Laura’s first “gentleman caller”. Jim has been turned not into a charming out-of-reach hunk, but the personification of the mainsplain. He meets Laura and within moments of meeting her tells her exactly who she is and what is wrong with her, all the while talking himself up and waiting to accidentally treat himself to a self-entitled kiss. Tiffany teases Jim into a fragile, arrogant bellend, the perfect encapsulation of modern masculinity. Laura, meanwhile, is shattered when the different pressures on her collide: look feminine, look strong, be successful, become a wife, do not celebrate the person you are. For a show that sticks to the period the text was written in, this feels like it is being viewed through a clear, modern lense. Memory, with modernity to colour it.

This Laura really was my Laura. This is not a Laura I can identify with because she is lonely and awkward, this is a Laura I can identify with because the men of the world keep explaining to her why she is wrong, why she shouldn’t be lonely and awkward and why she should be fixed. This is a Laura who gets told to fix herself by the same people who are breaking her. This Laura is the Laura of all the girls at Fringe shouting at the top of their lungs in their fighty feminist works. This is my Laura.

King’s Theatre

 

How to Win Against History

I loved How to Win Against History. I’ve seen (and sort of written about) it before, though – so we all knew I would. Instead of trying to think of new things to say about this sparkling star of a show, I decided to help them become totally mainstream – by going full fan art! I wholeheartedly encourage all others who loved the show to make some fan art, too. I might do a bit more while I wait for the glorious release of the soundtrack #camphamilton

Includes Henry Cyril Paget dressed as a horse and a sword made of Swarovski diamonds.

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(no idea how to make scans look not total shit, and I can’t digitally colour stuff… but I might try to work on it and update in future)

Assembly George Square 

Nel

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*spoilers, for sure – if you’re fussed*

Nel is SO NEARLY a brilliant show. It’s funny and inventive, endearing and a bit silly. But, during a Fringe full of feminists getting their rocks off and sticking it to the patriarchy… I sort of feel like Nel is letting the side down.

Not completely, of course. Scratchworks Theatre are an all-female collective who have made a show that depicts women in different roles, allows them to be powerful, timid, funny, smart and daft through an hour. It shows women being successful in their careers. It shows women being unsuccessful. It shows them being clumsy. It shows women without men without it being a big deal. It’s a bit like Bridget Jones without being too obnoxious.

It SO NEARLY ticks all the boxes while also being a really enjoyable show.

(There is also a danger here that I am telling people off for being BAD FEMINISTS. I am not, I really hope I am not. Scratchworks Theatre have made a fab show with good intentions, I just had some problems with it, and I hope that by writing this sort of thing I’m not tearing them down too much, and maybe just offering helpful feedback? Sorry sorry sorry if this seems a dick move.)

Nel falls into traps and tropes.

Nel is timid. By day, she is a foley artist fooling about with coconuts and juggling balls to make movie sound effects. This, alongside some folksy, warm singing, is also the tool used to provide the soundtrack to the actual show. By night, Nel likes to stroke her cat (stroking a hot water bottle to make the sound of a cat is genius, by the way) and read a book and be on her own. The other people in her life mistake this comfort in solitude for unhappiness and try to change her, and so she dutifully changes herself.  To make others happy.

And herein we begin to encounter problems. Nel’s lifestyle change is accompanied by a new jacket and shoes, tying her appearance quite firmly to her standing in the world, and her sense of self completely to the comfortableness of her footwear. In a show that otherwise has successful, funny women peppered through its script, it still says women are what they wear.

It goes some way to exploring this through the pressures put on women – the pressures to meet someone, to be popular and to be successful. It’s nearly a depiction of the difficulties of femininity (but fun, because I realise that sounds dry as fuck, which this certainly isn’t), but it ties too much to Nel’s new appearance rather than any change in temperament.

And then… well, look. I’m a timid person. If you met me during Fringe you might even choose to describe me as painfully awkward (you likely didn’t meet me at Fringe because I was probs trying to avoid speaking to people sorry). There is minimal reason for this, I am just a bit timid at times.

There is no tragic accident in my past that lead to me being timid.

So, when there’s a flashback to Nel’s childhood (which is told with a brilliant puppet-type-thing that essentially involves hanging a parka backwards over someone’s bum – it’s proper great), and we see that both of her parents are killed in a tragically clichéd car accident. That’s when I got frustrated.

This creates the idea that people need a reason to be timid. It creates an excuse for Nel to be timid, meaning without an excuse it would be weird if she wanted to be on her own. Which, y’know, is sort of bollocks. In the end, of course, Nel is gifted with a piece of knitwear and realises she’s great the way she is (another unfortunate instance of self-tied-to-wardrobe but tbf it is a cracking jumper), timid or not. If this had been a show about how it is totally fine to be a bit shy despite societal pressures, then I would’ve LOVED it. I want that show – that’s the kind of show I love because it’s reaching out and holding my hand and saying ‘it’s Ok’. Nel is so nearly a celebration – she is so nearly my Bridget Jones – it just falls slightly short in a quest for backstory. But because Nel’s timidness is rooted in tragedy, it as though it is a negative side effect to be accepted rather than a cause for celebration.

Pleasance Dome