Features Published 23 April 2018

In Defence of Some Unfairly Maligned Shows

Exeunt's writers pick some shows - from brave experiments to commercial mainstays - that they think deserved a better critical reception.
Exeunt Staff
Victory Condition, Royal Court. Photo: Tristram Kenton.

Victory Condition, Royal Court. Photo: Tristram Kenton.

Victory Condition
Two apparently unrelated monologues, both about extreme, horrific acts of violence In Some Sense, delivered in the confines of the ultimate IKEA flatpack home. Listen. Chris Thorpe’s play was never going to jive with certain broadsheets. I think it’s about apathy and violence and emptiness and distance – the irony! It actively looks to push you away with that monotonous delivery but the writing underneath is some of the most beautiful I’ve ever heard onstage. It inverts our understanding of violence and sensationalism in the modern age – it sandwiches horror between boredom and beauty. I can’t even begin to describe it accurately – it’s just that good. It pisses me off to no end that it got savaged by the press because that just suggests that no-one bothered to listen to it properly or actually tried to engage with it. It encourages this new type of audience engagement – it acknowledges that you will zone out and it pushes you to sit in this kinda meditative, liminal state and let the words wash over you. (Ava Davies)

Andante by Igor & Moreno

‘Andante’ by Igor & Moreno. Photo: Alicia Clarke

When I wrote about Igor and Moreno’s Andante in November, soon after seeing it, aghast at Judith Mackrell’s review and wanting to make sure an alternative response also existed, I thought about it as a work inhabiting the experience of memory: the ways in which smell triggers nostalgia, particularly for childhood; the ways in which the body in memory can become intangible, shrouded in mist. What I notice as I think on it now, five months later, is the feeling in my body as I remember: a warmth, a fondness, eyes misting over just a little at the image of Eleanor Sikorski turning, turning, a solo tracing circles, the cyclical time John Berger wrote about that capitalism has tried to erase, leaving only the linear time of progress and propulsion, but which once allowed a defence against death. Performance is ephemeral, sure, but a review as negative as Judith’s, or Debra Craine’s in the Times, which I haven’t read in full because why the fuck would I subscribe to the Times?, but which was summarised in its standfirst with the words “disconnect” and “soon becomes boring”, such reviews will make performance ephemeral in other ways: they act as one set of gatekeepers telling another set of gatekeepers, this work will be impossible to sell. Judith also wrote that Igor and Moreno “sever[ed] the connection between audience and stage”: but that connection happens two ways, and if the work becomes obfuscatory, surely there is an invitation there to the audience – particularly the expert audience, particularly the critical audience – to think about the work of connection that is required from themselves. (Maddy Costa)

Common at the National Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson.

Common at the National Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson.

There’s always the feigned attempt at objectivity when someone says, “well, I liked it but I know it’s not technically any good,” so I try and avoid it. Which is why I’m so insistent that Common was good. I didn’t just like it. Sure, it wasn’t perfect; there were plenty of things that could and probably should have been different, but the critical reaction to Common infuriated me to the extent that I was ranting loudly to my friend on the Olivier terrace during the interval: “on what fucking planet is this one-starrable!?” I seem to remember screaming as he tried to finish his cigarette in peace.

When we saw it, several weeks after the reviews, it had clearly continued to change and settle. But the core ideas, the core elements must have been there on press night, and it seemed like they were dismissed, instead of actively engaged with. The language was so so so good. I loved it. The stacks of nouns and dovetailing of swear words into the most brilliant insults I could never have devised (and I’ve tried.) And then there was the translation of folk horror to the stage and Anne-Marie Duff’s brilliant performance focusing all the nuttiness… It succeeded entirely on its own terms; a revenge story in the age of enclosure via a new twisted language. My friend enjoyed it too, and I’m like 90% sure he wasn’t even stoned at the time.

I’d also like to take this opportunity to say I think Mamma Mia is better than they would have you think. (Harry McDonald)

Jubilee at the Lyric Hammersmith. Photo: Johan Persson

Temi Wilkey and the cast of ‘Jubilee’. Photo: Johan Persson

The name of Chris Goode’s play (a reimagining of Derek Jarman’s 1978 film of the same name) sounds somehow celebratory, and my spirits lifted to hear it was finally coming to London, after a really positive buzz at Royal Exchange Manchester. Then the first reviews landed. There were complaints about unnecessary nudity (?!?!?), about it not making sense (?!?!?), even about the uncomfortable seats (?!?!?) – which somehow co-existed with the theme that despite these abrasive factors, it wasn’t ‘punk’ enough. As though ‘punk’ somehow crystallised in 1979, and can only be found in piles of dusty records or at the bootleg t-shirt stalls of Camden Market. The legacy of commercialised punk is horrendous, and finding a way out of and around that through queer culture is the best thing Goode possibly could have done with Jubilee. It was a rare, fiercely won platform for queer and non-gender-conforming performers of colour. And where a lot of platforms for marginalised performers end up having this sort of “We’re human too, please accept us”, education-based message, it was so refreshing to see a show whose spirit was “Fuck you, we’re not going anywhere”. Plus, with a stage so full of sparring, flaming shopping trolleys, simmering weirdness and attractive naked people, how could you possibly be bored? (Alice Saville)

‘Blackta’ at the Young Vic, 2012. Photo: Keith Pattison

I think this was one of the first shows I saw at David Lan’s Young Vic, a theatre and a tenure that did so much to cultivate my weirdo sixteen-year-old self’s nascent fascination with plays. Nathaniel Martello-White’s play about being a black actor in the industry is this furiously paced quasi-comedy, quasi-really-not-a-comedy that reminds me a little, when I look back on it, of Alice Birch’s Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. It’s got the same fury and energy and physicality and anarchy that’s evident in the text but that’s really difficult to translate to stage. That might be why it didn’t get the reception it should’ve gotten – the staging felt a little too distancing – but to be honest, that’s also probably down to a proliferation of old white middle class men dominating mainstream theatre criticism – a problem that still persists six years later. Bridget Minamore tweeted a few weeks ago about being the only black critic at the Royal Court’s Black Men Walking press night. What’s changed? (Ava Davies)

‘Gundog’ at the Royal Court. Photo: Manuel Harlan

When I first tried to defend this play to Alice Saville [compiler of this feature] I called it a ‘shit-covered sheep show’. So let’s be clear, I love shit-covered sheep shows. I live for shit-covered sheep shows. The recurrent criticism of Gundog – which wasn’t universally panned but got some damning reviews – was that it was unremittingly bleak. Which, in turn, was precisely why I loved it. I don’t know if the ‘unremittingly bleak’ crowd have been to the British countryside recently, but they might be surprised to learn how little it resembles a Joules advert. Between foot-and-mouth, BSE, TB, the collapse of the British wool industry, the struggles of the British milk industry, the entirety of the industrial revolution, the hideous climate, and the realities of a lifestyle that involves dealing with a sizeable amount of dead creatures and brutally physical drudgery, life in the shires ain’t all that pretty. Gundog captures his reality so precisely people assume it’s a dystopia, but it’s not. It’s just mud-splattered rural poverty. And Vicky Featherstone’s production had mud – lots and lots of it. Plus a cast including the brilliant Ria Zmitrowicz. What’s bleak about that?! It’s a play that deserves all the rosettes the country show can pin on it. (Rosemary Waugh)

The London cast of ‘Les Miserables’

Les Miserables
Can I just set the scene? I am 13 years old, sitting in my parents’ attic in the middle of the night, huddled over a tiny TV/VHS player. The film in question: the 10th Anniversary Concert of Les Miserables. And I am rapt. I watched the whole thing (I’d told myself I was only going to watch as much of the recording as I’d read of the book, but those 200 pages turned out to be about 5 minutes of the prologue), then rewound and watched some parts again.

I certainly recognise that Les Mis has its flaws—I recognised it even then, furious over the eleventh-hour comedy turn by the Thenardiers, never quite sure why Eponine showed up in the epilogue (love that soprano/alto harmony, though). But you’re not supposed to think too hard about this musical. You experience it by feeling, and it is a masterclass in that respect. The music is stirring, the characters are vivid, the songs make for Olivier-winning solos in the shower. Just hearing that bum-BUM at the beginning of the overture sends shivers down my spine. Be as cynical as you like, but we’ve seen plenty of musicals try and capture that same Epic Mood and fall flat (see: The Pirate Queen. Sorry, Boublil and Schoenberg, I’ll defend that one next time). This kind of popular appeal is dismissed as cheap and easy, but it’s not actually easy to do.

I think we’ll rediscover the wonder of Les Mis one of these days, when it’s freed from its semi-calcified West End state and unchained from licensing demands of replica productions. Put it in blackboxes and bars and basements, let every production to find its own way to that feeling, to that awe of discovery I had over that concert VHS, and we’ll see what this show really can do. (Hailey Bachrach)

‘The Scouse Nativity’. Photo: AB Photography

Royal Court Liverpool’s Scouse pantos
I like to bang the drum for theatre outside of London and especially anything that hails from  Liverpool. I feel that I don’t really need to plead the case for anything from the Everyman and Playhouse (about which I utterly biased as they frame my PhD research), the Physical Fest of the Unity or ever the wondrous work of  Kazamier ProductionsLiverpool Lantern company or the Ken-Campbell inspired Impropriety (though I have just plugged them ALL). Instead.. hear me out.. please ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I invite you to reconsider the Royal Court Liverpool’s annual Scouse Panto. The Royal Court Liverpool is called popular in a way that awful folk who take little Tristan-Sparkle-Kale and Annabella-Dylan-Pops to the Tate as a Christmas treat intend as an insult. In a period where everything is pushed to be globalised, the theatre is stoically local and none more so with their annual panto.  Past gems include Little Scouse on the Prairie, Scouse of the Antarctic, Pharaoh to cross the Mersey and my No.1 favourite The Hitchhikers Guide to Fazakerley. According to Catherine Jones in The Stage, over 42,000 came to see their latest (The Scouse Nativity, I think they’ve finally  run out of pun steam). These shows are such unashamedly good fun with familiar faces popping up every year, costumes that make zero effort to be tasteful and proper rude jokes. Not double-innuendo-make-it-safe-for-Tarquin-jokes. Rude, with bare bums and everything. They represent a different sort of theatre experience, one that doesn’t try to excuse a daft night out with a moral at the end. They celebrate the city, the vernacular and a particular spiked sense of humour with no safe rounding of the edges.Plus all this, and you can sit in the stalls with a gin and a three course meal (YES IT’S A DINING THEATRE) for less than a bag of gluten-free, organic artisan Malteasers in the West End.

** I exaggerate, but to be fair not by much

** I also wait every year in joyous anticipation of celebrities behaving badly in pantomimes. 2017’s prize must go to Tina Malone who was ‘led away in handcuffs’ from Barrow-in-Furness’s Sleeping Beauty for cocaine possession and reportedly making jokes about “her little bag of snow” on stage. But ultimately, nothing will ever beat Amy Winehouse being physically removed from the Milton Keynes Cinderella for shouting ‘he’s fucking behind you’ and kicking the theatre manager in the balls.  (Francesca Peschier)


Exeunt Staff is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine



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