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A Younger Theatre: Nothing Incidental Or Curious About Gielgud’s Renewal (10/03/15)

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There’s nothing particularly curious as to why The National’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has recently announced a renewed run at the Gielgud Theatre until 24 October. With seven Olivier Awards and now a sell-out production more than earning its keep on Broadway, Simon Stephens’ adaptation of Mark Haddon’s critically acclaimed book about an autistic mathematical genius is the gift that keeps on giving. But that doesn’t mean that Graham Butler, the actor playing protagonist Christopher Boone at the Gielgud, has started to relax too much, even though it’s now almost a year on since first picking up the phone and finding out he’d won the tremendously hard fought for part.

In fact, when I ring him for a chat about the renewed run, he’s only just finishing off being given notes on last night’s performance by Director Marianne Elliott – even though he’s now more than eight months into the role. “We don’t just rest and let it go stale,” explains Butler. “All of the physical movement has to be tailored to each new actor – there’s no set instructions – and I think that’s why it keeps things feeling constantly fresh”. It sounds like hard work but Butler disagrees – to an extent. “It is tough but I think it’s good to be reminded of the challenges – otherwise I think in the long run we’d be thinking “Oh I can’t wait to get home!” Instead I still feel really excited about coming to work.”

The excitement of everyone onstage in The Curious Incident is infectious throughout the performance, even when acting is only half their job. Many of the cast, including Butler, have to make intense moments of physicality seem like nothing. Since last May there’s been a strict exercise regime ranging from “sit-ups” to “squats”, which the “whole company do” and which helped ease everyone into the extremely active production. “I remember thinking at the beginning – well this feels exhausting!” admits Butler, “But like anything you begin to become immune to it, so now it feels relatively easy. I remember a friend saying “Oh it doesn’t seem that physical”, but that’s the point – we work that hard in order so that the audience aren’t just watching us move – they’re following the story.”

The narrative itself is one which has captivated thousands, with Stephens’ adaptation becoming so popular as to be added to the GCSE English literature schools set text, making it the only modern play currently performing in the West End to be part of the post-1914 drama and prose selection.

Butler remembers quite clearly where he was when he joined the success story – even though it was at the end of an audition process so predictably intense it’s surprising he remembers anything at all. “The final round was a movement audition and I was told “If you can get through this, you’ve got the part”. So I spent hours learning some of the choreography, and into the room came the Director and the Producer – who watched me sweating and panting away…When I eventually left it was late in the evening and I was making my way to the Globe Theatre. Just as I arrived I got a phone call saying “You’ve got the part”. But I couldn’t really celebrate – I just collapsed!”

Butler’s dedication in the auditions and the show itself partly illustrates the surprise huge popularity of the production and the enthusiasm to be a part of it – not just in the UK, but also now across the pond on Broadway, too. With its distinct British sense of humour it might have seemed a show unlikely to translate to our American cousins and beyond, yet in the several months that Butler has been performing as the boy with a gift for numbers and a problem with social norms, he’s been amazed by the huge variety of people who come to watch the performance. “I think there’s just something about this play and the original book that’s really universal” agrees Butler. “Being in the West End we have the privilege of getting people from all over the world in to watch and generally the same positive reaction is had by all. It’s such an amazing reaction to have a play in the West End be so adored.”

Indeed, as the new run confirms, even when a theatre’s actual architecture threatens to physically shut down proceedings, there seems to be nothing that can stop Mark Haddon and Simon Stephen’s flyaway success. As for Butler, he won’t be relaxing even in-between performances. The actor is also learning how to play a zombie for the second series of Sky’s A Penny Dreadful – a whole new kind of physicality just waiting to be learnt.

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A Younger Theatre: It’s Not Blackouts For Dickie Beau (23/02/2015)

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It all started with Judy Garland. The American starlet may have found it impossible to escape her cracked past until her untimely death at only 47 years, but Judy Speaks, a series of bitter audio recordings by the troubled actress was the key to helping one artist move on from their usual cabaret act and ultimately create Blackouts – a reflection on icons, infamy and identity in the 21st Century.

That artist and performer is Dickie Beau, who through Blackouts, which premiered in 2012, has brought Judy and many more poignant voices on tape to life through astounding mimicry and interpretation. Back then he never knew how far those first performances of Judy Speaks would go – “When I listened to those tapes I immediately knew that there was something that could be used powerfully in performance there,” says Beau, “When I came to put it together it was inconceivable not to use her voice. I spent a lot of time on the drag scene so the lip syncing thing seemed to come naturally. I wasn’t sure anybody was going to be that interested in what I was doing – but I guess I was wrong!”

Now with a show at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre and a tour throughout 2015, Blackouts and Beau have grown to incorporate a full host of voices and personalities – including the last ever taped interview of one Marilyn Monroe.

“One reviewer described it as being like a queer Krapp’s Last Tape which I think is quite an apt description – I love that description,” says Beau, and the comparisons with Beckett are noticeable – especially in the exact timings of Beau’s work. “There is a musicality and a choreography to it all…the way that I work is that I edit and rewrite the material often, so there’s logic to the decision that’s made that make it easier to remember – so by the time I come to rehearse it I’ve usually got a good memory of how it flows.”

But even before the hours of repetition and practice sometimes just acquiring the tapes can take a lot of effort. In order to be able to perform Marilyn’s last interview, Beau had to fly to New York to meet the interviewer Richard Meryman – and then convince him to be able to use the tapes. It was a long process which almost didn’t come together – at first Beau was only allowed access to an interview with Meryman rather than the Marilyn tapes – but over the course of his stay in the Big Apple the artist eventually convinced the journalist enough so that now Blackouts features both Meryman and Monroe throughout – and Beau’s own interview with the journalist has become a “glue” for the entire performance.

Richard Meryman’s very recent passing only adds another layer to Beau’s study of immortality and infamy. For the artist himself the performance is “quite bleak and autobiographical” and “specifically about the question of where the icons that I look up to end and where I begin, and how much of me is made up of who they were and how much of them have been absorbed as part of my entity.”

The interweaving of past and present and real and recorded is one that opens itself to lots of Beckettian contemplations such as these, and one that Beau looks set to continue to explore through Blackouts and beyond. “Sometimes it does start with the voice and then something flowers out of that, then other times I have a theme and then I go trawling for voices,” Beau says on how he first initiates his performance ideas. Only time will tell what new icons will become part of Beau’s repertoire, a collection haunted by the distant voices of celebrity and fame, but one which is very much its own work of art.

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A Younger Theatre: I Never Told A Joke In My Life, Tristan Bates Theatre (18/02/15)

Solo performer Chris Williams channels the greats, and more importantly the not so greats, of comedy in I Never Told  Joke In My Life at the Tristan Bates Theatre, giving us a (mainly intentional) comical insight into all the things that can and have gone wrong in the world of stand-up.

The title for the show is a quote from late great alternative comedian Andy Kaufman who often took glee in bemusing and downright irritating his audience at every turn. Williams doesn’t quite reach the heights of this American legend, but the show is full of bizarre surprises and surreal turns much like the early comedian’s work. It’s a list show with a difference as Williams explains all the ways he could mess up his act, and invariably ends up doing some of them himself – he could vomit all over people’s shoes, he could force the audience into a mass sing-a-long, he could freeze with terror and forget all his lines or, like magic comedian Tommy Cooper, he could simply pop his clogs live onstage.

It’s a simple concept that grows in awkward pauses and absurd twists as the short performance continues. Perhaps the funniest moments are when Williams, a little like Kaufman, deliberately gives volunteer members from the audience (and one or two sneaky ‘plants’) awkward and ambiguous tasks to complete and then leaves them standing in front of us, confused and uncertain, not sure as to what they’re supposed to be doing next, if anything. Their increasing despair in their unplanned yet pointless involvement in the act raises several chuckles and creates an anarchic tension that Kaufman himself would no doubt revel in.

Williams tries to introduce moments of darkness amongst the awkwardness too which, whilst perpetuating the atmosphere of detachment and alienation, don’t quite slot in as well as the moments of spontaneous offbeat absurdity, although do add some grounding for all the lighter, sillier moments. Unless you know your comedians too sometimes it’s hard to recognise which real life epic fail Williams is relating to – could short archive clips of different failed performances be used to highlight and earmark each section more? As it is, the concept itself is a compelling one, if not yet completely fully formed. However, with some fine tuning this intriguing and original performance piece on all the seemingly endless ways you can tell a joke wrong should soon have them laughing in the aisles, even as Williams stops speaking, drops the mic, and abruptly leaves us all in awkward shared hilarity.

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A Younger Theatre: Intoxicated Antics With Drunken Chorus (10/12/14)

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Alcohol and the British public get on like a particularly sozzled house on fire, but why keep the melodrama of one too many until the end of the night? Contemporary performance company Drunken Chorus (Chris Williams and Sheena Holliday) know that no good things come in moderation, which is why they’ve returned with their third instalment of Drunken Nights – a series of live performance nights set in, you guessed it, UK pubs.

Nearing the end of its programme of events taking place both at the George Tavern in London and the Wagon and Horses in Lancaster, the project has already showcased some intriguing spectacles. Each artist – handpicked by both Williams and Holliday from numerous entries – is given ten minutes in the pub to do whatever they want. Crucially, this isn’t pub theatre scrunched up into a corner or hidden away in a dank upstairs alcove. Instead, each night the premises are taken over by the performers – much to the surprise of some unsuspecting walk-ins just looking for a quiet pint.

So far the nights haven’t as much tipsily stumbled over the line of madness as stampeded across it, braying and toothlessly hammered up to the eyeballs. Giant shrimps and disco freestyle dance-offs have been just some of the acts on show, and with one night still to come at the George Tavern even trying to expect the unexpected is going to be difficult.

One of the artists performing at the George is Pablo Pakula, Co-director of performance company Accidental Collective. For his slot at the George Tavern, Pakula will be adapting previous elements of his work-in-progress piece based around masculinity: “Masculine Expressions of My Creative Prowess”. “The pub is a quintessential male landscape and I was drawn to the idea of drinking as a moment of joy and celebration, but equally drinking as a lonely, bitter activity with a shot of whiskey by the bar,” explains Pablo. “So adapting my previous arrangements to the space at Drunken Nights was something I was really interested in doing.”

Whilst providing a night of unexpected theatre and off-beat comedy for free then, the event’s main aim isn’t just to entertain the punters, but to also help develop new and emerging talent just like Pablo.

“We looked at other nights that were happening in pubs and there were opportunities to go out and perform, but you maybe wouldn’t get paid or there maybe wouldn’t be much that you could get out of it,” explains the event’s Artistic Director Chris Williams. “So we wanted to create an event for pubs where artists get the opportunity for support and feedback too.” This means that at both of this year’s pub venues each of the live artists performing will be competing to receive a career-changing package of development support from established artists – and even residencies at Rich Mix in Bethnal Green and Live at LICA in Lancaster in early 2015.

For artists on the bill like Pablo, Drunken Nights is therefore a fantastic opportunity to showcase work to the professionals, and so quite rightly, “everyone participating is hoping that they will be selected for the next stage of mentoring.” “The fact that this isn’t just a one-off night – of which there are many already – is unique,” continues Pablo, “and to actually have the opportunity to have your work programmed in such a space is one I’m very glad to be a part of.”

In the future such opportunities might not just be limited to Lancaster and London too. As Williams explains, ideally over the coming years Drunken Chorus will seek extra venues in different cities to add to the programme, to “build up a network of venues and spaces.” So, with a plethora of pubs across the country, there’s plenty of scope to bring big breaks to a whole host of fresh UK talent – and big belly laughs to punters and pub landlords alike.

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A Younger Theatre: Well If You Read It In The Papers (03/12/14)

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They say that truth is stranger than fiction, which surely means that the Deptford Lounge will be getting some odd looks this month – and for a fair few more after that as well. You see, at the beginning of every four weeks in the Lewisham community hub, right up until September 2015, Ampersand Media will be putting on Storylines – a play devised entirely from that day’s newspaper stories. Whether it’s “Cameron Self Combusts From Own Hot Air” or “Russia Elects Cobweb” – whatever the news, the cast will be there to interpret and perform it – with a little help from newspaper readers and Twitter followers from around the world, too.

For this isn’t just about devising a fresh, constantly evolving theatre production – for Artistic Director Mark Stevenson –  it’s also about creating a genuine interaction with the production’s audience, almost so that performer and theatre goer are one and the same. As well as a bimonthly newspaper discussion group at the Lounge where ideas are developed, everyone on Twitter is encouraged to tweet @Ampersandmedia with their ideas. In other words, suggestions from far flung places in the world could end up being performed in a space in Deptford.

“An online viewer in America wrote a scene about something and then five minutes later that scene was up on YouTube – he was amazed by the fact that his ideas were being put on on a stage in London,” explains Stevenson. And whilst Storylines started out as a format as far back as 2004 at BAC and The Deptford Albany, it’s today’s technology that means the production can fully realise its aim of being a truly “social” play.

This also means that, just like in the news, no topic is out of bounds when it comes to devising what that month’s production will cover. Because of this, each play’s form and style is also always completely different. From female sterilisation to cats in bins, Jeremy Clarkson to Nigella Lawson, anything and everything could be on show.

“The previous month in Deptford we ended up doing a play about TV-inspired killings – which wouldn’t have been our first choice!” says Stevenson. “There was a woman who got obsessed with Breaking Bad and ordered ricin to kill her Mum, but as the story developed it turned out her Mum had kept her locked in her room for ages. So we started experimenting with video and Skype formats for that play, because she was trying to reach out from her room and connect to the world. In the middle of the show a member of the audience would be handed a phone, and the actress would be in a cupboard somewhere calling them and asking for their help to rescue her…Whatever subject matter we get we interrogate, so it’s never just a straight up word for word performance of the headlines.”

So whilst getting interactive is a key part of Storylines it’s also strangely about reflection, even if it’s in an immediate way. “If you look at the story about Charles Saatchi seemingly strangling Nigella Lawson, two days after that story broke it had gone out of the news cycle, but that was still happening in the world and in their lives,” Stevenson explains. “It was still something that needed to be thought about in society – and I believe that theatre is an excellent collective means of doing that.”

Much more than just a play for newshounds and Question Time fans then, Storylines seeks to reach a community – whether a global social media crowd or an intimate theatre audience – and create an ongoing dialogue about the real stories and news affecting us all right there and then. In other words, as Stevenson puts it, they hope to “think out loud – but think out loud together” – so prepare for some truly thought-provoking performances coming to Deptford for every first week of the month.