The Umbrella Organisation

The Umbrella Organisation

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Beetles from the West, Hope Theatre - Review
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My EQView feature this week is a review of Beetles from the West at the Hope Theatre, a new play that delves deeply into the complex issues of masculinity, men’s health, and prostate cancer. It is an exceptional new play, very powerfully performed, very much from the heart. It is the best of what the fringe has to offer and I am awarding it a maximum five shining stars!

My EQView review of Beetles from the West at the Hope Theatre can be found here:
http://eqview.com/beetles-west-review/

‪Cut and pasted from the EQView website:

BEETLES FROM THE WEST - REVIEW

Beetles from the West is a new play that delves deeply into the complex issues of masculinity, men’s health, and prostate cancer.

As you enter the theatre, you walk in on a tense scene. A young man and a young woman are in a hospital waiting room, the young man is pacing the room, and you can cut the air with a knife. Your eyes are drawn to the clock on the wall, as the hands crawl around slowly. You are thrust into the heart of the action before the play has even started.

When the play begins, you learn the two young people are Boyd and his girlfriend, Jenny, who are waiting to hear news about Boyd’s father, who has been rushed to hospital. After what feels like an eternity, a young doctor enters the room to explain what is happening. Boyd’s father is very ill. The doctor is awaiting test results, but it appears likely Boyd’s father has prostate cancer. The doctor needs the test results to confirm the diagnosis and to see how far the cancer has spread.

This news hits Boyd like a bombshell. His father is the one who has brought him up and who has always been there for him. Boyd’s father is his rock and the firm foundation on which his life has been built. Boyd looks up to his father and idol worships him. His father was a soldier, and he has always been tough, fit and strong – he has never been sick in his whole life. He is a giant in Boyd’s eyes and invincible. Boyd is very suspicious of the diagnosis – he simply cannot believe his father has cancer.

As the news sinks in, Boyd’s initial denial turns to anger. He is angry with his father for ignoring the warning signs, for not talking to him about his illness, and for not seeking medical help earlier. And Boyd is angry with himself for not noticing something was wrong. If only, if only …

Throughout the play, each of the characters is given a monologue, and each of the monologues is a vivid memory from their childhood or from their teenage years, which gives us a real insight into their characters and their relationship with their fathers. The monologues are very tender, moving and powerful, and allow us to see into the character’s soul, enriching our knowledge and understanding of the character. The monologues added real value to the play, making it a much more rewarding experience.

Beetles from the West explores many of the complex issues surrounding cancer. At first, Boyd says his father is a soldier and he will fight cancer and win. But cancer should not be seen as a battle to be fought and won, because this diminishes those whom it kills, implying they are weak. Some cancers are passed down through the generations, and cast a long shadow over the lives of children, who worry about their genetic inheritance. Despite all the recent scientific and medical advances, the C word continues to strike terror into people’s hearts and remains a disease that is greatly feared.

One of the play’s real strengths is the portrayal of the relationship between Boyd and Jenny. As they wait for the test results, they pass the time by playing a game of monopoly. This enables us to see the dynamics of their relationship, which is very modern, and grounded in equality. Boyd and Jenny have a strong, loving and fun relationship. We see the genuine love they have for each other, even when put to the test under stressful circumstances. We know Boyd’s dad really loved Jenny as a daughter, because he welcomed her into the family, and asked her to look after his son.

Jenny’s monologue gives us an insight into what makes her such a strong woman. As she recalls her childhood and her teenage years, we learn her father had clinical depression, and Jenny had to care for him and support him as best she could. It was almost as though she were the parent in that relationship, taking care of her father, not vice-versa. This is the mirror image of Boyd’s relationship with his father during his formative years.

The doctor returns to confirm the devastating news – it is cancer, the cancer has spread, and the illness is terminal. Boyd’s father has been living with the illness for a long time. He has been experiencing problems, but has kept these hidden, not sharing his burden, not talking to anyone, and not seeking medical help. This has meant the disease has taken root, has spread, and is now terminal. Boyd’s father will die, and this death could have been prevented, if his father had only sought medical help sooner.

Boyd is devastated to learn the diagnosis and the prognosis, and the news is even harder to bear knowing his father could have had a very different outcome if he had only spoken to someone or sought medical help earlier. Boyd is grief-stricken, holding on to Jenny for comfort and support.

There are two incredibly powerful performances in this play – from Ryan Penny playing Boyd and Shian Denovan playing Jenny. Both actors are exceptional in their individual roles; bring real depth and warmth to the relationship between Boyd and Jenny, making it very believable; and perform their monologues from the heart. They were both outstanding.

Beetles from the West observes the classical or Aristotelian unities for Drama – unity of action, a play should have only one main plot/storyline; unity of place, a play should occur in a single physical place; and unity of time, the action in a play should take place over no more than 24 hours. The play’s focus is on the prostate cancer diagnosis for Boyd’s father and its effect on Boyd and Jenny; the play takes place in a hospital waiting room; and the action takes place over one afternoon. This makes the play much more hard-hitting and immediate.

In summary, Beetles from the West was an exceptional new play, very powerfully performed, very much from the heart. It contained important messages about masculinity, men’s health and prostate cancer, highlighting the need for men to talk about their health problems, and to seek medical help when needed, without seeing this as a sign of weakness.

I think this is what theatre should be all about – sharp new writing, powerfully performed, immediate and impactful, tackling current social issues, and seeking to make a difference. This is the best of what the fringe has to offer and I am awarding it a maximum five shining stars!

Beetles from the West by Falling Pennies Theatre Company plays at the Hope Theatre (Islington) until Saturday 23 July.

Follow the links for more details:
http://www.fallingpennies.co.uk/
http://www.thehopetheatre.com/productions/beetles-from-the-west/

Hamlet, Almeida Theatre
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First image: Hamlet starring Andrew Scott @ Almeida



Details:
http://www.almeida.co.uk/whats-on/hamlet/16-feb-2017-22-apr-2017

London Pride - Saturday 25 June
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#United4PrEP

I marched with the Terrence Higgins Trust and the HIV lobby today at London Pride. We were campaigning for PrEP to be made available on the NHS.





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Odd Shaped Balls, Old Red Lion Theatre - Review
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My EQView feature this week was a review of Odd Shaped Balls at The Old Red Lion Theatre, a new play which tackles the complex issue of homophobia in sport. Short, sharp, and powerful – it packs a punch! The writing was sharp as a pin, Matthew Marrs gave a truly exceptional performance, and the very clever set simply took my breath away. One of the best fringe shows I have seen in a long time. 5 shining stars!

My EQView review of Odd Shaped Balls at The Old Red Lion Theatre can be found here:
http://eqview.com/odd-shaped-balls-review/

‪Cut and pasted from the EQView website:

ODD SHAPED BALLS - REVIEW

Odd Shaped Balls is a new play, a one-man show, which tackles the issues of homophobia and sexuality in sport, and the pressures of intrusive press and social media attention into the private lives of our sporting heroes.

The play opens with a win for the Chiltern Colts and promotion to the Premiership. James Hall is one of their star players, popular with his coach, his team mates and the fans. As the team celebrates its promotion down the local pub, you get a real sense of the macho locker room culture that exists, orientated around drinking and women. Premiership rugby stars are expected to be straight, and to either be a womaniser or to have a beautiful girlfriend/wife in tow.

James’s personal life at this point is … complicated. He has a steady girlfriend, but he has also embarked on a relationship with a man. With the team’s promotion to the Premiership, media interest in the players rises. Stories start to circulate on social media that James is in a relationship with a man, and there is a danger the press will follow the lead and break the story.

James’s life is turned upside down overnight, as he has to consider whether he is going to make a statement and go public, and what he is going to say. He also has to deal with the repercussions of the breaking story and his “outing” with his girlfriend, his parents, his family, his teammates and his friends. Is he gay?, how long has he known?, has he been living a lie?, and why hasn’t he said anything sooner? are questions now directed at James by his nearest and dearest. James’s instinctive reaction is to run and hide, but he knows he has no choice but to stand and fight. He does a media interview and confirms the story.

James and his coach decide to try and ride out the storm, and James plays in the match on Saturday. Whilst progress has been made, homophobia still lurks in sport and rugby, amongst players and fans. James’s forced disclosure puts him under a lot of pressure, and his performance is under the microscope. Homophobic chants emerge from the terraces, making James lose his concentration and focus, and putting him off his game. At the end of the match, the coach decides he has no choice but to rest James for the next few matches. James can no longer play the game loves and he is cut off from the world he knows. Realising everything he has lost, James breaks down and cries.

The play explores the idea of whether it Is possible to be a successful out gay rugby player, or whether you have to hide your sexuality if you want to succeed in the game. Times moves on, James overcomes his baptism by fire, and is able to return to the game, recover his form, and succeed again. James asks people to judge him by his performance on the pitch in the game that he loves. James emerges from the scandal as someone with integrity, who is true to himself, and who can be a role model for others coming up through the game.



Sport in general, and rugby in particular, holds absolutely no interest for me, but I was gripped from start to finish by this play because of the quality of the acting and the storytelling. The production only runs for an hour but it packs a lot of content into its short running time, and explores complex themes with sensitivity and depth.

This is a one-man show and the play rests on the very broad and capable shoulders of Matthew Marrs. Marrs is exceptional in this piece, playing all the characters – James, his Dad, his coach, his teammate, his boyfriend, his girlfriend, the press pack, and everyone else! He changes, chameleon like, from one character to the next in the blink of an eye, but you are never in any doubt which character he is playing. And each character has real-depth. Despite the serious subject matter, there is a lot of comedy in the piece, and Marrs is able to capitalise on all these comedic opportunities. Marrs’s performance is a real tour de force.

I also have to give a special mention to the very talented set designer as the set was ingenious. The theatre space was very small, and yet the set incorporates a pub, a locker room, a living room, an office, and a rugby pitch – all the key locations needed for the play. It was an incredibly clever set, and was one of the best set designs I have seen on the fringe circuit.

If I have a minor gripe with the production, it was the lighting, which was a bit too frenetic for my taste. I found the constant lighting changes distracting, and it made it harder for me to focus on the content of the play.

In conclusion, I thought Odd Shaped Balls was stunning. The short play explored the complex issue of homophobia in sport with real depth. The piece was short, sharp, and powerful – it packs a punch! The writing was sharp as a pin, Matthew Marrs gave a truly exceptional performance, and the very clever set simply took my breath away. One of the best fringe shows I have seen in a long time and I have no hesitation in awarding it a maximum 5 shining stars!

Odd Shaped Balls is playing at the Old Red Lion Theatre until Saturday 25 June 2016.

Follow the link for more details:
http://www.oldredliontheatre.co.uk/odd-shaped-balls.html

EU Ref: Brexit
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Just because ... !
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The Sins of Jack Saul, Above the Stag - Review
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My EQView feature this week was a review of The Sins of Jack Saul at Above the Stag theatre, a fabulous new musical telling the real life story of Jack Saul, the rent boy who scandalised Victorian London. Unmissable!

My EQView review of The Sins of Jack Saul at Above the Stag Theatre can be found here:
http://eqview.com/the-sins-of-jack-saul-review/

‪Cut and pasted from the EQView website:

THE SINS OF JACK SAUL - REVIEW

The Sins of Jack Saul is a new musical, currently playing at Above The Stag Theatre, which tells the true story of Jack Saul, the rent boy who scandalised Victorian London.

The story begins at the end, with Jack Saul’s death in Our Lady’s Hospice, run by the Religious Sisters of Charity – in fact one of the Nuns welcomes you into the theatre! Jack’s departed soul then encounters the Devil, who promises to commute Jack’s sentence of an eternity in Hell if Jack can show him a good deed he has done.

Jack reflects on his life, his humble origins and early life in Dublin, his rise to fame and notoriety in Victorian London as a rent boy to the Establishment (aristocracy, politicians, the military, city financiers, and the very rich), and his rapid fall from grace, back into poverty and destitution in Ireland. Jack’s life may not sound like a barrel of laughs, but his story is told in a very entertaining way, packed with songs, love and laughter, and this draws you into the musical. Jack tells his own story in his own words, and the musical empowers Jack with a voice.

Jack is born and brought up in Dublin, and the musical gives you a flavour of the tensions in that City between Catholic and Protestant, and rich and poor. Jack is a poor Catholic but a serious relationship develops with a rich Protestant soldier, Lieutenant Kirwan. They are happy and in love, but the social and class divides between them are too great. When Lieutenant Kirwan decides it is too much of a risk and he may be found out, losing his lands and wealth, the relationship ends. Jack leaves for London to seek his fortune, in search of the streets paved with gold.

When Jack arrives in London, he realizes it is not so very different from Dublin, and his opportunities are limited in the same way as they were at home. One of the professions open to him is male prostitution and so he plies his trade on the “Dilly”. Jack, showing true entrepreneurial spirit, writes his memoirs, setting down all his sexual adventures and exploits. This resulting memoir, “The Sins of the Cities of the Plain”, became an infamous work of pornography.

The musical then focuses on No 19 Cleveland Street, one of the establishments Jack was working in. Cleveland Street rose to real notoriety when, following a police raid, it was found to be employing telegraph messenger boys to provide sexual favours and sexual services, to clients including Lord Arthur Somerset (equerry to the Prince of Wales), the Earl of Euston, an MP, and numerous top military personnel. Even Prince Albert Victor Edward, “Prince Eddy”, heir presumptive and grandson to Queen Victoria, was rumoured to be a client. And Jack Saul was right at the heart of this scandal.

In the wake of this scandal, with his notoriety at its height, Jack returned to Dublin. Heart-breakingly, his mother and his brother turn their back on him, shamed by his profession. His mother dies shortly after, the shock being too much for her. She had wanted her Jack to have a respectable job, like being a butler or a gentleman’s servant, wearing white gloves and living in a big house. The reality of Jack’s London life could not have been more different. And if you want to find out the Devil’s assessment of Jack’s life, you need to see the show!

This is a musical and the songs are a lot of fun, and they enable the audience to join in and participate. They include “I always wanted a man in uniform”, “It’s a fine life on the Dilly”, “Pornography”, “A Sovereign boy” and, my personal favourite, “Poses plastique”. In what could have been a very dark story, the songs add humour, and lighten the darkness.

All the actors in the production are excellent and so it would be wrong to single out any one performer. Having said that, I am going to give a special mention to Felicity Duncan, because she plays all the female roles, everything from a Nun to Jack’s mum! Every single character she plays is fully realized and has real depth. For one actor, to bring such a wide range of characters to life, and all in the same production, is a real achievement.

Jack Saul was a real person and I appreciated and respected the way in which the musical covered all aspects of his life – his parents, his family, his first love and his work, as well as the scandals. It brought Jack fully to life, with all his hopes and dreams, highlighting his determination to succeed, his resilience, and his humour. This was an in-depth exploration of Jack’s life.

The Sins of Jack Saul is by the same creative team behind last year’s smash hit Fanny & Stella – written by Glenn Chandler, music by Charles Miller, and directed by Steven Dexter. What both productions have in common is they uncover hidden LGBT lives in Victorian London, and bring them to the stage in a memorable, entertaining and fun way, by empowering these colourful characters to tell their own life histories. Both productions stay with you after you leave the theatre, imprinted on your mind.

The Sins of Jack Saul is a fabulous new musical, telling the real life story of Jack Saul, a rent boy in Victorian London. It follows his rise and fall, from the slums of Dublin, to the bright lights of London, and back again. His name forever associated with an infamous work of pornography, and the notorious Cleveland Street Scandal, this musical enables us to get to know the man behind the myth, and lets Jack tell his own story in his own words. Unmissable!

The Sins of Jack Saul plays at Above The Stag Theatre until Sunday 12 June.

Above The Stag Theatre is an award-winning theatre in Vauxhall, London with a focus on producing LGBT-themed theatre including new writing, musicals and revivals. It is the only full-time professional LGBT theatre in the UK. Follow the link for more info:
http://www.abovethestag.com/

Volunteers Week
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The Chemsex Monologues, The King's Head Theatre - Review
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Photo credit: Dionysis Livanis

My EQView feature this week was a review of The Chemsex Monologues by Patrick Cash at The King's Head Theatre. The Chemsex Monologues is a rare beast – a piece of new writing that informs, educates and entertains. An incredibly powerful, moving and funny piece of writing, superbly performed throughout. Highly recommended.

My EQView review of The Chemsex Monologues at The King's Head Theatre can be found here:
http://eqview.com/chemsex-monologues-review/

‪Cut and pasted from the EQView website:

THE CHEMSEX MONOLOGUES - REVIEW

The Chemsex Monologues is a powerful piece of new writing by Patrick Cash, which played at the King’s Head Theatre last week, exploring the notorious chemsex scene.

The Chemsex Monologues is my preferred style of theatre – a small and intimate theatre space (so the audience is immersed in the story and the action), minimal props and a sparse set – a single chair. It is down to the actors to inhabit their roles, to engage the audience, and to deliver the performance. And all four actors in this piece (Richard Watkins, Denholm Spurr, Charly Flyte, and Matthew Hodson) delivered very powerful and moving performances.

The actors take it in turns to deliver their monologues, and there is only ever one actor onstage at any time. All four actors were able to command the stage, moving around so they were including everyone, speaking to everyone, and making eye-contact with everyone. They transfixed me and held my attention.

The Chemsex Monologues is a clever piece of writing because the four characters have interlocking and interconnecting stories. As the piece plays out, each monologue adds a new layer, and you get multiple points of view on each character and each story. Each monologue is one piece of the jigsaw puzzle, and as the evening goes on, you start to construct a picture as you fit the different pieces together. The piece starts and ends with the same character too, so it feels as though you have completed the circle.

The Chemsex Monologues explores the chemsex scene by focusing on the stories of four individuals (Unnamed narrator, Nameless, Fag Hag Cath, and Daniel), who have been exposed to the scene in different ways. Each character comes onstage, in turn, and speaks directly to the audience, telling them their story.

The Unnamed narrator and Nameless are typical of young gay men caught up in the chemsex scene. One of them will be able to indulge and then escape, but for the other, the chemsex scene leads to addiction, mental health problems, brushes with the police, and even the death of his boyfriend. The Unnamed narrator takes Nameless to Dean Street to get help, but it is unclear whether Nameless will admit he has a problem and accept the help offered. Once the chemsex scene has got its claws into you, it is hard to leave it behind and escape.

Fag Hag Cath could be a comedy character in the way she presents herself. But as she tells her story, you see how much she cares about her gay best friend, Steve, and how much his friendship means to her. As Steve gets more involved in the scene, taking more chems, his physical appearance deteriorates, he takes Cath and her friendship for granted, he says the most hurtful things about her, and he no longer goes round to see Cath’s toddler daughter, Grace. So the chemsex scene changes Steve completely, ruining his health, and robbing Cath of her best friend, and Grace of her favourite uncle.

My favourite character was Daniel, brilliantly played by Matthew Hodson. Daniel is in his 40s, a sexual health worker, laden down with the tools of his trade (condoms and lube), gearing up for another Pride Parade, and new to the chemsex scene. He is at his first chemsex party, but he is fully-dressed and much prefers a glass of red wine to the chems. His lack of enthusiasm for the chems may be because, as a sexual health worker working in a clinic, he will have witnessed only too often the damage wrecked by chems on young gay lives.

Given its subject matter and content, this piece could have been dark and depressing, but the writing and the playing are very skilful, there are many funny lines and comic moments dotted throughout the piece, and this keeps the audience engaged and entertained. As you listen to their individual stories, you get to know the characters, and you empathize with them, because they are flawed and imperfect like you. And through these individual stories, you develop an understanding and appreciation of the chemsex scene, of its many attractions and its dangerous pitfalls.

The Chemsex Monologues is a rare beast – a piece of new writing that informs, educates and entertains. An incredibly powerful, moving and funny piece of writing, superbly performed throughout. Highly recommended.

The Chemsex Monologues played at the King’s Head Theatre (Islington, London) from 17 to 21 May 2016.

The Chemsex Monologues has finished its current run but I am reliably informed it will be back!

For more information about The King's Head Theatre, follow the link:
http://www.kingsheadtheatre.com/

Bug, Found111 - Review
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My EQView feature this week was a review of Bug at Found111, starring James Norton and Kate Fleetwood. Bug got under my skin, it unsettled and disturbed me, left a real imprint on my psyche, and will no doubt give me nightmares for weeks to come! Claustrophobic, intense, dark, chilling, heart-stopping – Bug packs a real punch. Highly recommended.

My EQView review of Bug at Found111 can be found here:
http://eqview.com/bug-review/

‪Cut and pasted from the EQView website:

BUG - REVIEW

Bug is set in a motel room in Oklahoma City over one summer. Agnes is holed-up, in hiding from her violent ex-con ex-husband, seeking solace in drink and drugs. A stranger, Peter, arrives.

So far, so simple. But the simple structure of Tracy Letts’s play hides a very dark nature. The play takes on a myriad of complex social issues including vulnerable adults, loneliness, isolation, fear, paranoia, mental illness, drink and drugs, physical and emotional abuse, and … Bugs!

This Bug revival is playing at Found111, a new theatre space for London, housed in the former Central St Martins School of Art at 111 Charing Cross Road. This is my second visit to Found111 and, once again, this theatre space is pitch-perfect for this play. The theatre space is small, intimate and cramped – you are “in” the motel room with the actors. It is played in the round, and this draws you in and makes you feel part and parcel of the action.

Bug opens with Agnes (Kate Fleetwood) in a motel room, indulging in drink and drugs, to forget her troubles and the fact her ex-con ex-husband has tracked her down and could show up whenever he needs a place to stay. She meets Peter (James Norton), an ex-soldier, who appears to be a loving, kind and gentle giant, in direct contrast to the abusive, violent and aggressive behaviour of her ex-husband. Agnes and Peter, two isolated individuals, embark, very tentatively, on a relationship. The play could be about the healing and redemptive power of love.

But, unknown to Agnes, Peter has his own baggage and his own problems, which soon become apparent. It all starts innocently enough. Peter starts seeing Bugs. Just one Bug at first, but their numbers start to swell. Agnes cannot see them at first, but Peter’s absolute insistence that they are real becomes increasingly hard to fight. Although Peter is suffering from paranoia, which may be a result of his wartime experiences, Agnes is forced to give in to Peter’s reality. Together, they try to rid the room of the Bugs.



Things take a much darker turn after the interval when Peter’s mental state deteriorates and he explains the Bugs are not coming from outside. Peter believes he has brought the Bugs into the motel room because they were implanted into him by the State when he was convalescing in a military hospital. The only way he can be free of the Bugs is to cut them out of himself.

A couple of scenes that follow are deeply disturbing and excruciating to watch, and I found myself squirming in my seat, putting my hands up to my face, and peeping through my fingers. I am almost certain it is the most distressed I have felt watching a play. This was down to the quality of the acting, and was heightened by the intimate theatre space and the close proximity of the audience to the actors and the action on stage.

Peter is a totally different person when he is in the grips of paranoia. His behaviour becomes much more confrontational, challenging and uncontrollable, and he is transformed from a gentle giant into a very frightening presence in the small motel room. He resembles a pressure cooker waiting to blow. The danger is heightened by the physical contrast between James Norton, who is very tall and well-built, and Kate Fleetwood, who is thin as a rake.

As the play unfolds further, we learn of the tragedy in Agnes’s life – the past she drinks and indulges in drugs to forget. Her son went missing when he was a little boy, and Agnes doesn’t know what happened to him, or whether he is dead or alive. This means she is still constantly searching for him, even though so many years have elapsed. She confides her story to Peter.

Sadly, whether consciously or not, Peter is able to exploit this element of Agnes’s personal history, to weave it into his paranoia, to explain why they have both been selected by the State to be implanted with Bugs, and why they are being watched and are under surveillance. Agnes is willing to believe anything that may help her find her son and she is in love with Peter so, once again, it is easier to buy into Peter’s reality than to fight it.

Things come to a head when Dr Sweet, Peter’s doctor from the military hospital, the same doctor Peter claims has implanted him with Bugs, arrives at the motel room to take Peter back into hospital. As Agnes and Peter believe they are being overrun with Bugs, and with the forces of the State breaking down their door, Agnes and Peter make one last stand, and follow the only means of escape they see open to them.

There is an ensemble cast of five, and all of the performances were extraordinary, but special credit has to go to James Norton and Kate Fleetwood, who both gave incredible, impassioned, powerhouse performances. The impact of this play, and the final knockout punch it delivers, rests on the performances of the two lead actors, which were flawless.

Bug got under my skin, it unsettled and disturbed me, left a real imprint on my psyche, and will no doubt give me nightmares for weeks to come! Claustrophobic, intense, dark, chilling, heart-stopping – Bug packs a real punch. Highly recommended.

Bug plays at Found111 until Saturday 14 May.

For more information about Bug, follow the link:
http://found111.co.uk/bug/

For more information about Found111, follow the link:
http://found111.co.uk/

The House of In Between, Theatre Royal Stratford East - Review
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My EQView feature this week was a review of The House of In Between at Theatre Royal Stratford East, a new play exploring the hidden lives of the Hijra community (India’s third gender) in modern day India.

My EQView review of The House of In Between at Theatre Royal Stratford East can be found here:
http://eqview.com/2016/04/26/the-house-of-in-between-review/

‪Cut and pasted from the EQView website:

THE HOUSE OF IN BETWEEN - REVIEW

The House of In Between, currently playing at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, is a new play written by Sevan K. Greene, exploring the hidden lives of the Hijra community in modern day India.

Hijras are India’s third gender. In past times Hijras were revered across Ancient Asia and Arabia, and in modern day India they try to follow their ancient customs and continue with their traditional way of life. They live in Hijra communities, earning their living through dancing, entertaining, and bestowing blessings on newlyweds and newborns. But Indian societal attitudes towards Hijras are changing. Hijras face prejudice and discrimination, and can find themselves shunned, reviled, and excluded. Hijras are also vulnerable to abuse, rape and murder. This increasingly dangerous world has driven many Hijra communities underground.

The House of In Between opens in a Hijra Household, where all the Hijras are rehearsing their latest song and dance numbers, presided over by the matriarch Uma. This is a great way to open the play as it gives you an insight into the individual personalities of each of the Hijras, you see how each character relates to the others, and you obtain an understanding of the pecking order in this Hijra Household. From the opening scene, you get a real sense the Hijras are a tightly knit clan/family – each Hijra has a role, they all help and support one another, and together they are greater than the sum of their parts. But the harmony in the Hijra Household will soon be shattered by the arrival of a stranger.



Later that evening, a stranger named Dev arrives at their door asking for help, and Uma decides to allow the young man into the Household. This one simple act sets in train a series of events which could lead to the break-up of this Hijra Household and the ending of their traditional way of life.

In a changing world, with their traditional sources of income drying up, you saw how the Hijras often had to rely on begging and sex work to make a living. You also got a real sense of how, shunned and rejected by mainstream society, Hijras had to live life in the shadows, with their communities driven underground. Dangerous alliances had to be made with corrupt policemen and criminals in order to survive.

As the play explored a Hijra’s life in more depth, and specifically the life of this Hijra Household, you understood this was a marginalised group of people, a vulnerable community, trying to carry on ancient traditions, but living in a modern world where their culture, traditions, communities and lifestyles were increasingly under threat. The clash between India’s ancient traditions, and the new modern India, was highlighted.

Although the play’s plot had strong Bollywood influences, and became more melodramatic as the play went on, using many of the clichés of a mainstream Bollywood film, the play nevertheless gave an insight into the life of the Hijras, their Households, and their communities in modern day India.

The standout performance was Gary Wood playing Shakti. Shakti was this clan’s star performer, the most beautiful, the most desired, the best dancer, and the Hijra “wife” to their most generous client. But Shakti knows time will take its toll, her looks will fade, and her clients will move on to fresh meat. When she notices this beginning to happen, hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and the clan starts to fracture and fall apart.

Shakti is intelligent and independent, and she is also a rebel, asserting her position in the clan, and being the most demanding in terms of making her own choices and decisions about her work, and keeping as much of her own money as possible. This brings her into direct conflict with Uma, the Head of the Household, and Shakti’s independence means she runs the risk of being thrown out of the House. Wood brought an independent spirit and a feisty nature to the role, and a great deal of femininity, sensitivity and vulnerability to the part, and you would have to be very hard-hearted not to empathise with Shakti and her plight.

There were very strong supporting performances from Esh Alladi as Uma, Ashraf Ejjbair as Amrita, and Akash Heer as Pooja, all giving very convincing performances as Hijras. But I felt casting Lucie Shorthouse as Dev was a missed opportunity. Shorthouse was unconvincing as a young man and, if it is obvious from the beginning that Dev is a young woman disguised as a young man, the play does not work as well, and loses some of its power and impact.

In terms of the staging of the production, I have to give a special mention to the Indian music, songs, and dance, featured throughout the play. They were threaded through the production, were part and parcel of the play and the story it was telling, and all these elements really enhanced this theatre experience for me.

In summary The House of In Between is an engaging play, with a thrilling storyline, bursting with Indian music, song and dance. It gives you a real insight into, and appreciation of, the hidden lives of the Hijra community in modern day India. All credit to the Theatre Royal Stratford East for staging a new play about India’s third gender, a marginalised group whose voices are so rarely heard.

The House of In Between plays at the Theatre Royal Stratford East until Saturday 30 April 2016. Follow the link for more info:
http://www.stratfordeast.com/whats-on/all-shows/the-house-of-in-between/

Haram Iran, Above the Stag - Review
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My EQView feature this week was a review of Haram Iran at Above the Stag theatre, a play inspired by the short lives of Ayaz Marhoni and Mahmoud Asgari, where I was transported to Iran to experience life under a religious dictatorship where English books are haram (forbidden).

My EQView review of Haram Iran at Above the Stag Theatre can be found here:
http://eqview.com/2016/04/13/haram-iran/

‪Cut and pasted from the EQView website:

HARAM IRAN - REVIEW

Haram Iran is a new play inspired by the short lives of Ayaz Marhoni and Mahmoud Asgari, written by Jay Paul Deratany and directed by Gene David Kirk, which has its European Premiere at Above the Stag Theatre in Vauxhall.

In 2005, two Iranian teenagers, Ayaz Marhoni and Mahmoud Asgari, were hanged in Justice Square in Mashhad, Iran. Facts about the case are scarce and are heavily contested. Some believe the teenagers were hanged for being gay. But the formal charge brought against them was the rape of a 13 year old boy.

Haram Iran imagines the lives of Ayaz and Mahmoud in the years leading up to their arrest, imprisonment and hanging. It tells the story of two teenage boys, with very different interests and family backgrounds, who meet and get to know each other, and form a deep bond through conversations and sharing confidences.

Right from the very beginning, Haram Iran draws you into this story and this world through the two lead characters, Ayaz and Mahmoud. Ayaz loves books and Mahmoud loves football, and a school tutor asks Ayaz to help Mahmoud with his academic studies.

The two young men come from very different families. Ayaz’s mother, Mrs Marhoni, is an educated woman, having been a student in Paris before the Iranian Revolution. She feeds Ayaz’s mind by giving him English books, which she has loaned from a bookseller who has a secret hoard of forbidden books in his basement. She wants her son to be able to think for himself.

Mahmoud’s family appears to be much stricter and more conventional. Obedience is more important than independent thinking. Mahmoud’s father enforces discipline within the family by regular beatings, which Mahmoud readily accepts as part and parcel of daily life. There are many things that Mahmoud just accepts, without questioning, until he starts spending time with Ayaz.

The first half of the play focuses on the nurturing relationship Mrs Marhoni has with her son, Ayaz, and the blossoming friendship between Ayaz and Mahmoud. As time goes on, Mahmoud actually prefers to spend time talking about books with Ayaz, rather than playing football with his old friends. As their friendship deepens, and they spend more time in each other’s company, gossip and rumours start to surface.



Watching the play, what struck me was how restrictive Iranian culture and society had become after the Revolution. So many things were “haram” meaning forbidden. Books written in English were haram because they could contain dangerous ideas and, being written by infidels, were a corrupting influence and evil. This state of affairs saddened me because, before the Revolution, Iran had been one of the most progressive nations in the Middle East.

From the conversations between Mrs Marhoni and Ayaz, and between Ayaz and Mahmoud, you got a real sense of what it was like to grow up in, and live under, a religious dictatorship, where freedom of thought and expression was suppressed, and you were told what to think, feel and say. You saw how books telling of life on a desert island, or life in the West, were a means of escape and refuge. The books opened a door onto a world which promised a better life.

The second half of the play was much darker, focusing on Ayaz and Mahmoud’s arrest, imprisonment and hanging. Floggings, torture, false confessions, sodomy, rape and cruelty all formed part of the prison experience. The nightmare of an Iranian prison was embodied by a sadistic jailer who made their lives hell.



The trial scenes, where a woman’s testimony counts for next to nothing, where false confessions are given undue weight, and where evidence is deliberately manipulated and/or fabricated, is soul-destroying.

You are left in no doubt, that in a court of Sharia law, the dice is loaded right from the start. The judge’s mindset is one of absolute certainty, leaving no room for doubt. The predetermined verdict is returned speedily, and that verdict is guilty. The ending you have been expecting since the beginning is shocking, brutal and bleak.

Regardless of what crimes Ayaz and Mahmoud did or did not commit, they were under 18 at the time, and should never have been hanged.

Viraj Juneja plays Ayaz in his professional theatre debut. Juneja was excellent in the role and succeeded in engaging and charming the audience. He portrayed Ayaz as a passionate young man; a kind and caring friend; thirsty for books and for knowledge; who dreamed of escaping to a different world, a better world. I was really taken with, and moved by, his sensitive and nuanced performance.

Silvana Maimone plays Mrs Marhoni, Ayaz’s mother, and I was excited to see a lead female role so strongly written and so powerfully acted. Mrs Marhoni is the one who introduces Ayaz to English books, who wants his imagination to fly and his mind to be free, who encourages his friendship with Mahmoud, and who steadfastly stands by her son throughout his imprisonment and trial. I loved the line where the jailer says she should be ashamed of her son and hide her face in shame, and she declares she is very proud of her son, uncovers her head, and says she will walk in the sun. Maimone really brought Mrs Marhoni to life and it was a joy to see such a strong lead female role so powerfully delivered.

Finally, I have to give the set a special mention. It conjured up the look and feel of the Middle East, even though we were underneath the Arches in Vauxhall, and also managed to convey the prison by cleverly incorporating chains and a metallic tint into some elements of the set. It definitely succeeded in transporting you to a different culture, society and world.

In summary, Haram Iran is worth seeing to get a sense of what life is like living in a very different culture, in a different society, and under a very different regime. A regime where you are told what to think, what to read, what to say, and how to behave. A regime were books are banned. A regime were so many things are haram (forbidden). A regime which hangs minors after a pantomine trial. I left the theatre with a lot to think about, and it definitely made me more appreciative of, and thankful for, the life I have.

Photography: Gaz Photography

Haram Iran plays at Above The Stag Theatre until Sunday 1 May. Follow the link for more info:
http://www.abovethestag.com/whatson/haram-iran/

Above The Stag Theatre is the UK’s only full time professional LGBT theatre. Follow the link for more info:
http://www.abovethestag.com/

The A Word - Preview
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rakspatel


My EQView feature this week was a preview of The A Word, BBC One’s new family drama about a 5 year old boy (Joe) who is diagnosed with Autism, and the impact of his condition and his diagnosis on Joe and his family. A rare gem that is not to be missed!

My EQView preview of The A Word can be found here:
http://eqview.com/2016/03/22/the-a-word/

‪Cut and pasted from the EQView website:

THE A WORD - PREVIEW

Last week I was privileged enough to see a preview screening of Episode 1 of The A Word at the BFI Southbank. The A Word is BBC One’s new family drama about a 5 year old boy (Joe) who is diagnosed with Autism, and the impact of his condition and his diagnosis on Joe and his family.

I loved the first episode, I’m really looking forward to seeing the characters and the storylines develop, and so I wanted to promote the drama series to EQView readers so they don’t miss out on a real treat!

The A Word is a drama, about a regular family (Mum, Dad and two children), who have a little boy, Joe, who is different. The drama opens with the family gathering for Joe’s birthday party. The party is a typical children’s birthday party, complete with a children’s entertainer (a Mermaid!), a birthday cake, presents and party games. But as the party goes on, it is clear that there is something different about Joe, the birthday boy. He is in his own little world, listening to his favourite music on his headphones, not joining in with the party games, and finding it hard to mix with the other children. Both parents do their best, and try to paper over the cracks by making excuses, but people realize Joe is different. For his family, of course, Joe is simply a very special little boy.

The drama is not just about Joe, it is about his whole family unit, and so we meet and get to know all of his family – his parents, his sister, his uncle and aunt, and his grandad.



Lee Ingleby and Morven Christie, paying Joe’s Mum and Dad, were an absolute joy to watch. They were a loving couple, who loved their son very deeply, and simply wanted the best for him. Both parents had built a special relationship with their son and knew how to get the best from Joe.

I also enjoyed getting to know Joe’s uncle and aunt, who return to the family home to try and rebuild their marriage after an episode of infidelity (which everyone knows about and references!). It is Vinette Robinson, playing Joe’s aunt, a doctor, who starts a conversation about Joe’s difference within the family, and is the spark to getting Joe assessed properly. She does this in the midst of trying hard to rescue and rebuild her marriage, and forge a new life for herself in the countryside, having fled City life and its temptations.

A special mention has to go to Christopher Eccleston, playing Joe’s grandad, Maurice. Maurice is old-school, a man’s man, blunt and direct, someone who likes to call a spade a spade, someone who likes to see himself as the head of the household. I liked Maurice’s genuine commitment to ensuring his grandson got the right help. Maurice brought a lot of comedy and humour to the piece and I absolutely adored this character.

The scene where Joe is finally diagnosed with Autism, and given the label “Autistic”, was heartbreaking to watch. You could feel how tense his Mum and Dad were during the assessment and you could also sense them willing Joe on to succeed in the tests. They just wanted Joe to be “normal”. Both parents had known something was not quite right all along, but the certainty and the finality of the diagnosis, and its implications, were devastating. All their hopes and dreams for Joe are shattered. And the news has the potential to tear them, and their family, apart.

The drama is set in the countryside, in the Lake District, and the Lakes and its environs play a strong role in the drama. On the one hand, the setting could be a rural idyll, where strong family and community bonds come into their own. On the other hand, this is also a small town community, with small minds, where everyone knows everyone else’s business, and any form of difference is looked upon with suspicion. For a little boy like Joe, who is different, the Lakes could be a paradise, but they could also easily be a place of danger.

In summary, I saw the first episode of The A Word, and I was completely captivated by Joe, his family, and the setting. I was drawn into all of their stories, and I am really looking forward to seeing the characters and the storylines develop over the coming episodes. A rare gem that is not to be missed!

The A Word is a 6-part family drama series, screening on BBC One on Tuesdays.

The first episode screens tonight (Tuesday 22 March) at 9pm and will be available on the BBC iPlayer immediately afterwards.
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Indian Summers, Channel 4
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So glad this is back on our screens for a second Series!

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Grantchester: The Secrets of its Success
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My EQView feature this week was about the ITV series Grantchester, explaining why I love it and why it is one of the best crime dramas on TV.

My EQView feature on Grantchester can be found here:
http://eqview.com/grantchester/

Cut and pasted from the EQView website:

GRANTCHESTER - THE SECRETS OF ITS SUCCESS

Grantchester Series 2 begins this Wednesday and I wanted to write a feature about why I love Grantchester so much and what made it, for me, one of the best TV series in 2014 (when it first aired on ITV).

Grantchester, for the uninitiated, is a crime series/murder mystery series, set in 1950s Grantchester, Cambridge, England, post Second World War, where the crime solving team is made up of a Vicar, the Reverend Sidney Chambers, played by James Norton, and a police officer, Detective Inspector Geordie Keating, played by Robson Green. The strong bromance between the two leads is undoubtedly one of the draws of the show.

Here, in no particular order, are the key elements of the show, which make it what it is:

Bromance

The beating heart of Grantchester is the strong male friendship, the crime fighting partnership, and the bromance between the Reverend Sidney Chambers, a Parish Priest, and Detective Inspective Geordie Keating, a police officer.



Unlike the Holmes and Watson partnership, neither is the cleverer one, Sidney and Geordie are very well matched intellectually, they just bring different skills to bear when it comes to solving crime. Geordie is the focused detective, pounding the streets, chasing down the leads, and looking at the evidence, whereas Sidney is much more intuitive, and gets his breaks because people are more willing to trust him and confide in him. You need both men, working together in harmony, to put together all the pieces, and solve the crime.

One of the real delights of the series is this growing friendship between Sidney and Geordie. When Sidney first appears on the scene, Geordie sees him as a nuisance and inept, an interfering busybody out of his depth. But as Sidney persists and stays the course, he wins Geordie over, gaining his admiration and respect. Sidney comes to relish their adventures together and the thrill of the chase, and Geordie comes to rely on his crime-solving buddy. Down the pub, downing pints together, they bond over beer and backgammon! They become firm friends and open up to each other, Sidney even revealing to Geordie at the end of Series One why he is haunted by his War memories. By then, we are in no doubt that Sidney and Geordie have a very special friendship and a deep bond binds them together.

Crime Series/Murder Mystery

There is a long tradition of crime series/murder mystery dramas for the weekday evening slot on British TV, and Grantchester is very much in this tradition. I am a real sucker for trying to solve a fictional murder in a beautiful English village, with a host of intriguing characters, all of whom have a dark secret to hide. Everyone fancies themselves as Sherlock Holmes, so it is always fun to see if you can identify the murderer and solve the crime before the TV detectives do.

Grantchester

Grantchester, the Cambridgeshire village where the story is set, is a character in itself. The best murder mystery series are often set in seemingly idyllic English villages, in small communities where everyone knows everyone else, their business and their family histories, and where busybodies abound and gossip flourishes. The Parish Church, where Sidney is based, lies at the heart of the village and, in the 1950s, it is where the community congregates every Sunday to talk, to exchange news, and to share successes and failures. Grantchester, the beautiful village surrounded by the English countryside, and the dark secrets and murders buried deep within this idyll, make for an intoxicating mix.

Ironically, being a Londoner, I was really looking forward to the episode set in London (episode 5) but I felt Grantchester lost something of its soul in moving out of its home setting. It is definitely at its strongest when the action is set in, and around, Grantchester, because then the episode is populated with all the familiar characters we know and love, all of whom are key to Grantchester’s success.

The Shadow of War

Grantchester is set in 1950s England, in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, and the shadow of war looms large over all of the characters. Both Sidney and Geordie are war veterans, haunted by what they did, and the sights they witnessed, during the war. Sidney, as a leader, holds himself personally responsible for the death of one of his men, and he drinks to forget. The fact Sidney has his own personal demons to fight, that he drinks to forget, and his darker depressive side in general, make for a much more interesting and believable lead character.



War memories feature in every single episode in Series One and this shows how much War permeated everyone’s lives and memories, men and women. Whilst Sidney is haunted by the personal part he played in the War, Mrs Maguire is equally haunted by the sons she lost and the husband who never returned.

Sidney’s Women

Sidney and Geordie, firm friends, have very different home lives. Sidney is a bachelor, living on his own, whilst Geordie is a married man, with a wife and a house full of children. There are a number of women in Sidney’s life, much to Geordie’s envy!

First there is Amanda, the woman we all think Sidney should be with. Amanda and Sidney are very good friends, they are happy in each other’s company, they understand each other, and they make a handsome couple. But Sidney is only a Parish priest and all he has to offer Amanda is friendship. Amanda grows tired of waiting, and accepts Guy’s marriage proposal. Guy comes from a good family and can offer her a better life. At the start of the first episode we see how happy Sidney and Amanda are together and yet, by the end of the episode, Amanda is engaged to another man. She is the one that got away. As Series One draws to a close, Amanda’s wedding day is fast approaching, and we are left wondering if Sidney has left it too late or if he can come good and save the day.

Having lost Amanda to Guy, Sidney dates Hildegard for most of Series One. He gets to know Hildegard in the first episode when he is investigating the murder of her husband, he is the only Priest who will agree to take the funeral of an alleged suicide, and the two become close. Amanda and Hildegard are chalk and cheese, they are very different women, with very different personalities, and very different histories. Who is the woman Sidney is destined to be with?



Last but not least, the icing on the cake, yet another woman enters Sidney’s life when he and Geordie have a night out in London. Sidney is drawn to the alluring jazz singer in the nightclub, Gloria, and spends the night with her. He realizes his mistake in the morning when he wakes but, nevertheless, there was something about Gloria which attracted him to her, and this provides a hint there is something missing in his relationship with Hildegard. It also makes Sidney more appealing as a character because it proves that he is only human, and has the same frailties as the rest of us.

Mrs Maguire

Mrs Maguire, played by Tessa Peake-Jones, is the Mrs Hudson of Grantchester. She is the Rectory’s housekeeper and tries very hard to take care of Sidney and, much more importantly, to keep him on the straight and narrow. She never misses a chance to remind him of his Parish duties and tries to keep him out of trouble but, like Mrs Hudson, under that very tough exterior there is an equally soft centre, a heart of gold, and there is no disguising the motherly love Mrs Maguire feels for Sidney. They have a typical mother-son relationship, where they clearly care for each other, yet still can’t help winding each other up. What I like best about Mrs Maguire is that she is never backward in expressing her opinion, whether Sidney asks for it or not, and her fabulous catchphrase “What the Dickens?!”

Leonard

Leonard, played by Al Weaver, is the Curate who joins Sidney’s parish during Series One. At first, he is just light relief, a comedy character, with a funny moustache, who gives the most boring sermons, sending people to sleep. But as the Series goes on, Leonard comes into his own, and we see him for the kind, caring, and considerate person he is. He is an outsider, and he is gay, and we journey with him as he struggles to reconcile his faith and his sexuality, and to accept himself for who he is. Leonard is a sensitive soul, trying to make his way in the world, struggling with his faith, his sexuality, and his conscience, and it is impossible not to empathise with his character.

Dickens

Dickens is the black labrador puppy given to Sidney by Amanda when she accepts Guy’s proposal of marriage. Dickens is supposed to fill the void left in Sidney’s life by Amanda’s abrupt departure. At first, Sidney and Mrs Maguire are not sure they can cope with a dog, but Dickens rapidly steals everyone’s heart and becomes part and parcel of Rectory life. As viewers, we see Dickens growing up during Series One, and quickly becoming Sidney’s faithful and constant companion. Dickens is a firm favourite amongst Grantchester fans, many of whom prefer him to his human co-stars!



Big Themes

Finally one of the things I love about Grantchester is that, although it is set in the seemingly cosy world of 1950s Cambridge, it never shies away from tackling the hot topics of the day, issues that remain just as pertinent today.

Both racism and homophobia are explored in Series One of Grantchester. We see the underlying racism prevalent throughout British society in the 1950s, which means people will always assume a black man is the thief, and the difficulties experienced by mixed race couples and mixed race families. And we see how difficult it was to be a gay man in those times, and how homosexuality had to be kept hidden, a dark secret in the closet, and the damaging impact this had on gay men, their lives and their families.

So that’s my Grantchester Series One round-up and I hope my feature will inspire you to join me in watching Grantchester Series 2 when it begins on Wednesday.

Grantchester Series 2 begins on Wednesday 2 March at 9pm on ITV.
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