The Night Before Christmas, Soho Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Recent years have produced countless claims to the “alternative” Christmas show, promising respite from glitter, jingle bells and cries of “he’s behind you”. Soho Theatre’s offbeat contribution is one of the few to really deliver on this promise. Sure, all the hallmarks of the festive season are here, but this is no cosy, tinsel-decked affirmation of the sentiments we hear spouted from all directions at this time of year. Anthony Neilson and Steve Marmion’s show, while pumping out the laughs at a breathless rate, also recognises that – whisper it – Christmas can sometimes be a bit shit.

This is a bitter recognition for Gary, a one-time City boy who is now flogging knock-off toys and spending Christmas Eve alone in his warehouse. Or at least he was alone, until a man claiming to be an elf broke in, pleading innocence and begging to return to his sleigh. As Gary is joined by old mate and fellow substance abuser Simon and single-mum prostitute Cherry, the unlikely trio apply scepticism, snark and suspended disbelief to the problem of the red and green clad man tied up alongside the fake Furby Booms and dust-gathering Gary Glitter outfits.

Every last detail of this Crimbo car crash is a calculatedly crappy alternative to the festive magic promised by parents and advertisers alike. Snow is replaced by showers of polystyrene packaging; fairy dust is swapped for cocaine; instead of a red-faced, rotund Santa, we get an elf with track marks up his arms. Yet, for all the detritus of broken dreams and long lost childhoods, Neilson and Marmion still tease us into believing. Against logic and evidence, we’re desperate to tell ourselves that this dishevelled figure in his pointy hat is not a quick-thinking junkie but a bona fide resident of the North Pole.

This is thanks to the stubborn ambivalence of tone that is courted throughout, repeatedly upending an audience’s expectations. Craig Gazey’s “Elf” is a lesson in ambiguity, answering the interrogations of his captors with responses that are by turns assured, desperate and downright bonkers, yet always governed by reasoning that somehow makes a strange sort of sense. Elves don’t deliver the presents, apparently – they “enhance” them. Remember how much fun you had as a kid with all the cardboard boxes and wrapping paper on Christmas Day? That would be because the elves’ magic won’t work on synthetic materials; the plastic presents confounded them, so they enhanced the packaging instead.

Touches like this demonstrate all the surreal ingenuity of Neilson’s writing at its best, complemented by the wacky, determinedly shoddy songs he has written with composer Tom Mills. The lyrics are all clumsy festive schmaltz, the singing unapologetically atrocious. And it’s oddly brilliant, slicing right through the queasy sentimentality that reigns elsewhere. But even with the satire, we are rarely on solid ground. The myth of Christmas is dismantled, the magic of childhood abandoned, and still this production manages to inject a surprise dose of that addictive Christmas feeling.

The result of all this tonal variation, however, is a number of sharp and sometimes jolting handbrake turns. While the pace of the first third is zippy and sitcom-esque, throwing out joke after joke, cracks begin to appear when the emotional tenor shifts. Neilson turns out to be a gag-machine to rival the best panto writers, but the momentum of these early exchanges is tricky to maintain and the show visibly flags somewhere around the middle – a bit like Christmas Day itself.

Despite its flaws, though, the dark humour and brilliantly bizarre flourishes ultimately rescue the piece, just about keeping it on that tightrope between worn cynicism and childlike delight. For anyone who has ever suspected, like me, that Christmas as an adult is two parts nostalgia and one part alcohol, The Night Before Christmas nails both the joy and the disappointment that the festive season can involve.

Photo: Sheila Burnett

Rosie Wyatt

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Originally written for The Stage.

Rosie Wyatt loves to look audience members right in the eye. In Bunny, a solo show about a teenage girl increasingly out of her depth, she offered an intense portrait of adolescent swagger and anxiety, breathlessly delivering Jack Thorne’s narrative directly to the audience. In the absence of connection and intimacy available to her character in Blink, she instead gazed outwards, finding points of contact with spectators; even delivering a script-in-hand reading, her stare can penetrate right through a play.

“It’s just about being really honest and genuinely telling a story,” Wyatt explains when we speak, quickly adding, “not acting talking to the audience, but actually talking to the audience. That sounds like something really simple but it is very different.” With care, she discusses the unique demands of direct audience address, in which “the audience are your other character”.

“If you act a traditional scene with dialogue, you’re always looking at how you’re affecting that other person and what you want to do to that other person in the scene. When you’re talking right out to the audience it’s the same thing: it’s what do I want to do to the audience, what am I trying to tell the audience?”

This way of relating to an audience was initially developed while performing in Bunny, Wyatt’s first job out of drama school. Thorne’s blistering monlogue went to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2010 – where it won a Fringe First – travelled down to London for a run at Soho Theatre, and eventually ended up in New York as part of the Brits Off Broadway season. “It couldn’t have been a better start for me really,” says Wyatt, describing herself as “incredibly lucky”. “You can’t ask for more from a first job: for it to be able to give you your debut, your London debut and then your New York debut.”

But it must have been intimidating to take on a one-woman show straight out of drama school? “Yes, petrifying,” Wyatt says with a laugh. “It was an amazing experience because I got this showcase that was just me, but it was also incredibly exposing and scary.”

This showcase certainly opened doors; “it got me in front of people and got me to meet a lot of people,” Wyatt says. The play’s success quickly led to her second job in the Paines Plough tour of Love, Love, Love, and she says that even her casting in this year’s national and international tour of One Man, Two Guvnors can be traced back to that first job. Other gigs to follow the acclaim of Bunny have included roles in Mogadishu, Blink and most recently Virgin – all new plays.

Despite this impressive track record with new writing, Wyatt reveals that her passion for acting has much more traditional roots. “I sort of fell in love with the theatre because of Shakespeare,” she tells me, recalling the regular trips she used to make to RSC productions while she was a sixth form student in Stratford-Upon-Avon. “I hadn’t really known about the world of new writing until I stepped into it doing Bunny,” Wyatt admits. Now, however, she describes working on new plays and originating roles as “the biggest joy” of what she does, adding, “I feel very happily placed in the world of new writing”.

The other notable feature of Wyatt’s career to date is the amount of touring work she has taken on. As well as the tour of One Man, Two Guvnors, which visited destinations such as Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong, Wyatt has taken to the road with Bunny, Love, Love, Love and Mogadishu. “I don’t think it gets any easier,” she says of the touring lifestyle, “but I think what you do is learn your way of doing it that keeps you sane.”

What she relishes, however, is the opportunity to constantly perform in front of new audiences. “Every play I’ve done, you find that you get different responses in each city,” Wyatt says. “That’s so interesting and that’s something that I feel like I’ve been really lucky to get to do.” While these regional and cultural differences can sometimes be challenging – particularly when elements of the humour in One Man, Two Guvnors got lost in translation – Wyatt explains that “you just learn to always bring to it the same energy and always give that best version of the performance that you would want to give”.

Wyatt will soon have the opportunity to travel again as she returns to Blink, which is going out to India before opening for a second time at the Soho Theatre in December. Phil Porter’s off-kilter romance, which Wyatt first performed in at the Edinburgh Fringe last year, tells the story of an unusual relationship between two shy outsiders – not the most obvious export. Wyatt confesses that she’s got “no idea how they’re going to engage with our little love story”, but she is excited to return to the play.

“I think actually the experience of re-rehearsing something having had some distance and some time away from it is really quite valuable,” she reflects. “Returning to a script you already know but with fresh eyes is really useful and makes for an interesting production. In a script as good as the one Phil has written, there’s always more to be found and more to get to know about these two characters.”

Photo: Sheila Burnet

Billy the Girl, Soho Theatre

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Clean Break have forged a strong reputation for shining a light on the criminal justice system, offering vital female perspectives on stories that are often hidden. Katie Hims’ new play for the company, however, suggests that the most difficult aspect of incarceration might not be prison itself, but the challenge of adjusting to freedom.

The eponymous Billy is fresh out of prison – not for the first time – and determined to turn her life around. Brandishing fruit and rhapsodising about her new fitness regime, Billy has a “positive mental attitude”. Unfortunately, her positivity fails to extend to the mother she goes home to, for whom the return of her wayward daughter is the last thing she wants. Banned from crossing the threshold of her family home, Billy instead finds shelter in the caravan pitched up outside, from which she does battle with the past and tries to cling onto hope for the future.

Hims’ play is essentially a family drama, tightly focused around Billy, her mother Ingrid and her younger sister Amber. At its best, it explores the complex, fraught and occasionally tender relationships between the trio, all of whom defiantly refuse to conform to straightforward definitions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Billy teeters between infectious optimism and a dangerous urge for self-destruction; Ingrid is vulnerable one moment and manipulative the next; Amber is an apparent angel who goes shoplifting when she should be at choir practice. There is certainly love somewhere between them, but it is surrounded by the detritus of blame, resentment and regret.

This messy tangle of personalities and emotions would be material enough for a rich exploration of life after prison, but Billy the Girl is restrictively wedded to a structure of secrecy and revelation. The play tantalisingly brushes against moments of raw emotional truth, before frustratingly abandoning them in favour of the punch of a final twist. This denouement, while satisfying the narrative arc that we have come to expect from plays of this kind (damaging secrecy, dropped hints, climactic confession), feels unnecessarily contrived – a trick calculated to inject a fresh burst of drama rather than a revelation that feels truthful to the characters that have been so carefully crafted.

Rather than the uneven plot, it is through these characters, convincingly fleshed out by Hims, director Lucy Morrison and the cast, that the play really compels. Billy in particular is relentlessly, almost exhaustingly captivating at the centre of events. As played by Danusia Samal, she seems to feel with every last sinew, investing both hope and despair with unsustainably explosive energy. Christine Entwisle’s Ingrid is her polar opposite, each movement sighing with the fatigue of the years, while Naomi Ackie as Amber ricochets between the two, cheerfully but frantically attempting to reconcile them.

The emotional baggage heaved on stage by the three characters is reflected in Joanna Scotcher’s detailed, conspicuously cluttered design. The back garden of Ingrid’s home, dominated by the structure of the caravan where Billy takes refuge, is full of stuff. At first glance it seems straightforwardly naturalistic, but as the play goes on the boxes upon boxes that crowd the stage make their presence increasingly felt; this is no normal backyard mess, but rather a space that resonates with the conflicted states of mind of the women who populate it. The caravan too is loaded with meaning beyond its practical use, becoming a self-contained but flimsy symbol of escape – suggesting movement while ironically rooted to the spot.

Speaking as part of a panel discussion after the show, Hims explained that it was important to her that the play, despite all its heartbreak, should offer a hopeful note. This is evident both within the plot and – more successfully – at the level of character. Whatever its other flaws, Billy the Girl offers us three female protagonists with humour and resilience; characters who are allowed to be vulnerable without ever feeling like victims and who come messily, complicatedly and brilliantly to life on stage.

Sharing Space: Kieran Hurley

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Kieran Hurley has a confession to make. The writer and performer, whose shows include HitchBeats and Chalk Farm, wishes he was in a band. As we chat over the phone about the love for music that has suffused so much of his work, he laughingly describes himself as a “frustrated bass player”. It’s not a unique frustration; playwright Simon Stephens has spoken of his youthful ambition to be a songwriter and once described himself, Sebastian Nübling and Sean Holmes as “three middle-aged men who all wish we were in the Clash”. Hurley even suggests that this band mentality is somehow inherent in collaborative forms of theatremaking:

“I was speaking to someone about this, a fellow theatremaker, and he said that any of us who have ever made theatre in a kind of devised way were just people who wanted to be in a band at school but weren’t really musical. I think there’s a way in which that maybe comes across in some of the work that I make that I perform in.”

This is certainly evident in Beats, the rave-meets-storytelling show that Hurley is about to bring to the Soho Theatre following a second run on the Edinburgh Fringe. For the show, which narrates the coming-of-age story of a young boy in Scotland against the backdrop of the 1990s rave movement, Hurley is joined on stage by a DJ, blending his words with a pulsing score of techo tunes – or, to be more accurate, “mid-90s ambient electronica and a bunch of acid house”. As Hurley explains, the music was an integral part of the piece from the word go.

“With Beats it felt really obvious straightaway that this was going to be a piece that was going to be performed by me and a DJ,” he says. The process of making the show began with Hurley and DJ Johnny Whoop in a rehearsal room together, listening to records and teasing out the narrative. Hurley remembers that there were times when he would find himself “writing to the music”, steering the narrative to meet the emotional pitch of a particular track – “the two were really symbiotic”.

It was also music that provided the first seed of an idea for the show. Hurley recalls thatBeats was born from an interest in the Criminal Justice Act of 1994 – a piece of legislation outlawing public gatherings to listen to music that consists primarily of “the emission of a succession of repetitive beats” – and an intriguing statement included in the sleevenotes of Autechre’s Anti EP. In this note, the group explains that the track ‘Flutter’ has been deliberately programmed to contain no repetitive beats; under the prescriptions of the new law, it could still be legally played at public gatherings.

“I just thought this was a really creative, playful, mischievous response to a really absurd law,” Hurley says. He was equally intrigued by the political echoes of the rave movement and its offspring, which started as a hedonistic movement but became increasingly politicised in the wake of the Criminal Justice Act, feeding into the direct action of Reclaim the Streets and the party protest movement. Hurley therefore describes the impetus behind Beats as a marriage between “a kind of interest in rave culture alongside an interest in direct action activism”.

Although the setting of the show might have attracted some initial doubts – “people were like, ‘why are you doing a show set in the 90s?’” – this choice to focus on the recent past has proved artistically fruitful. As Hurley recognises, there is something fascinating about a time that is not far enough in the past to be considered historical, but is also decidedly divorced from the present. “Certainly that kind of distance is interesting,” he reflects. “It allows you to look at a time and get stuck right into it in a particular way, in a way that’s not always as easy to do with what’s going on immediately around you.”

As well as looking at a particular cultural moment, one that Hurley insists is “ripe for further mythologizing”, Beats uses the context of the rave as a way of exploring ideas of shared space. For Hurley, the show is about “young people claiming space and what that might mean, even when it’s not politically framed” – a theme that he also identifies in Hitch andChalk Farm, which are about an anti-capitalist protest and the London riots respectively.

“The discussion of rave culture is a vehicle for a discussion of sharing space communally – the political power of being able to share space together and look each other in the eye,” Hurley continues. “And theatre is a wonderfully analogous form for exploring the power of community and shared space, because it’s what it is.”

For this reason, the context of the theatre space is vital to the dynamic of the show. “I am dead, dead clear that this has to be a theatre show and happen in a theatre,” Hurley says. “The reason the DJ is interesting, the reason the form is interesting, is because it’s happening in a theatre.” Within a theatre space, there is a certain tension between the real and the imaginary that does not exist at a live music event, a tension that Beats exploits. As Hurley explains, “what the piece can’t do is recreate in real terms the particular type of collective attention that a live music event or even a rave might contain, which is its own beautiful, amazing thing, but what it can do is gesture towards a description of that with a kind of collective attention that we have in the theatre”.

While Hurley might be emphatic about the necessity of performing Beats in a theatre context, the piece has nonetheless – as intended – attracted a young and often non-theatregoing audience. Seeing the show last year during its brief run at the Bush, my thoughts turned to A Good Night Out and John McGrath’s call for a popular theatre. Although his demands, which were in many ways specific to the context of writing in 1979, are not directly translatable to now, there is something in the atmosphere of the gig or the rave that seems to at least partly transcend class boundaries. Perhaps the very attraction of the band for theatremakers like Hurley is that popular music has a way of cutting across divides that theatre often struggles with.

Hurley is clear that it is the music in Beats that is bringing in a broader demographic, arguing that simply the presence of a DJ gives people “a hook to hang something on”. However, this new audience and its differing expectations has brought with it new difficulties for Hurley, difficulties that he is determined to grapple with. “If I’m going to be serious about saying ‘I like the fact that this show might appeal to people who might not normally come to the theatre’, then I have to be able to contain their presence in a way that’s not just about chucking them out because they’re shouting throughout the whole show. That’s been a really interesting challenge.”

In being mindful of his audience, Hurley is also deeply conscious of how his politics translate into his work. He says that he’s “not really that interested in a kind of agit-prop polemic”, although he is adamant that “all theatre is inherently political”. Instead of pursuing a model of theatre as manifesto, the politics in Hurley’s shows finds its expression through storytelling, a form that he confesses to being a little obsessed with.

“I’ve got a whole bunch of opinions about stuff,” Hurley says, “but my work isn’t just a vehicle for me to lecture on that; it’s got to be about a deeper, more complex point of connection and exploration, I think. So that’s where the whole human story comes in.” In a piece like Beats, which is ultimately a personal story about one young boy and his experiences, the narrative is “shot through with some political thinking about the world, but it’s not trying to be polemical”.

While nodding to the long tradition of storytelling – “I think that we, human beings, have always needed stories” – Hurley is firm in refuting any idea that the story form is conservative. The linear storyline is often associated with naturalism, but as Hurley points out, stories are not restricted to this one limiting incarnation. “I don’t think that stories have to be bound up with particular forms,” he says. “What sometimes happens is that narrative and story get conflated with stage naturalism, so people might feel that to reject naturalism is to reject stories.”

This rejection is one that Hurley refuses. Instead, as Beats emphatically proves, storytelling can take various different forms, feeling at once ancient and astoundingly new. Or, as Hurley puts it with typically eloquent simplicity, “stories can look like lots of different things.”

Photo: Niall Walker.

HAG, Soho Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

It’s not all that often you hear the witch’s side of the story. Wicked aside, fairytale baddies rarely get a chance to set the record straight – a chance that forms the promising premise for The Wrong Crowd’s creative upending of traditional narratives. The company have set their sights on Baba Yaga, the fearsome child-eating woman who pops up throughout Slavic folklore, at times a villain and at others a helping hand. In HAG, however, it is Baba Yaga herself who is in control of the narrative.

In reimagining this folkloric figure, however, The Wrong Crowd are careful not to fall into the trap of replacing one archetype with another and trading evil villain for misunderstood saint. Instead, their version of Baba Yaga offers a complexity not often found in fairytales, where there is little room for grey between the stark extremes of black and white. She might still gobble up children – often with lip-smacking glee – but there’s more to this hag than simple bloodlust.

Writer and director Hannah Mulder’s tale weaves a colourful new tapestry from the many threads of Baba Yaga’s appearances throughout the stories of the Eastern Slavic world, lightly hinting at never fully revealed depths beneath the witch’s terror-inducing exterior. In the hands of performer Laura Cairns, Baba Yaga is predictably, enjoyably cantankerous, but Cairns also allows for moments of quiet stillness, in which an implicit sadness creeps into her portrayal of this formidable figure. The decision to hand Baba Yaga the narrative reins, meanwhile, immediately colours an audience’s perception of the character, as she speaks out to us from her fireside and invites us into her dark but strangely appealing world.

As in their first show, The Girl with the Iron Claws, The Wrong Crowd also provide a refreshingly tough and resourceful heroine, who might not steer entirely clear of common fantasy tropes, but at least offers a welcome alternative to the Disneyfied princess or helpless damsel in distress. Sarah Hoare’s spirited Lisa is lumbered with all the misfortunes that tend to befall fairytale protagonists: a dead mother, an absent father, an evil stepmother complete with two suitably vile daughters. Unlike Cinderella, however, Lisa doesn’t wait around for a fairy godmother to decide her fate; instead, angry and alone, she runs to meet it, walking right up to the doorstep of the universally feared Baba Yaga.

From Lisa’s fairytale heroine credentials to the three tasks that she is subsequently set by a curious Baba Yaga, HAG follows many of the narrative conventions that it simultaneously upturns, always acknowledging the tradition in which it places itself. It’s hard not to wish for something a little more subversive, but there is an indisputable charm to this simple and familiar mode of storytelling, one that the show is perhaps wiser to embrace than to deny. Mulder also takes the opportunity to insert slices of modern wit – Tom McCall’s fastidious underworld bureaucrat is a particular treat – although the desire to engineer gags is occasionally at the expense of narrative sophistication.

While the story has its flaws and ultimately leaves us wanting more from its intriguing narrator, the visual aesthetic – a clear priority for The Wrong Crowd – is undeniably enchanting. From Baba Yaga’s captivatingly strange appearance to the string of glowing skulls that encircle the stage, Rachael Canning’s design is deliciously dark, with more than a hint of Tim Burton. Gorgeous as it is to look at, however, HAG left me – like its protagonist – still hungry for something more.