REVIEW: The Engineer’s Thumb at Little Angel Theatre

This article was first published on A Younger Theatre. To see the original review, please click here.

Dotted Line Theatre’s The Engineer’s Thumb appears as part of the Firsts Festival, a season of puppetry premiers by emerging companies. It is produced by, and takes place at, Little Angel Theatre, and follows on from the company’s INCUBATE and HATCH programmes. As the moniker suggests, this is very much a season of new work. The five companies selected perform their pieces only twice for the festival, and the work has a raw, new, developing feel. It is certainly more than a scratch night, but without the benefit of a full length run, also not quite a complete performance. It is therefore in this spirit that it shall be reviewed.

The story follows the tragic (and at times horrible) journey of young engineer Victor Hatherly (Michael Imerson), through his apprenticeship, unemployment and first commission. Imerson shares the role of Hatherly with a twelve inch puppet, and handles the part with a wide eyed innocence that is subtle, warm and truthful. The piece is based on a short story by Arthur Conan Doyle, originally a Sherlock Holmes tale, though he is skilfully edited from Dotted Lines’s production, and in the original effectively provides a frame for the chilling tale of the Engineer.

The Engineer’s Thumb exploits its homemade and patched aesthetic to create moments that are brilliantly inventive. Designer Alison Alexander has created a sharp and delicious world. This was this element of the show that most stayed with me. On the last day of his apprenticeship, Victor is treated to a farewell speech by his employers. Realised beautifully by a pair of wooden pliers sporting a wire wool moustache, and what appeared to be a customised wrench, this is a witty and occasionally hilarious scene. The three puppeteers skilfully transform a machine invented by the life-size Victor into his sometime employers.

Dotted Line Theatre also bill themselves as a company using “light manipulation”, and not for nothing. One of the most difficult elements of gothic horror onstage (a part of many Victorian stories and certainly a penchant of Conan Doyle’s) is how to genuinely frighten the audience. More than once, The Engineer’s Thumb is genuinely scary, and this is largely down to the company’s simple yet masterful use of light. The second part of the show sees Victor exploring a terrifying house, and a room-sized hydraulic machine. Almost all of this is lit by a rickety hand-held lantern, apparently made from a tin can. It allows the mysterious Colonel Lysander Stark (played beautifully by the towering Matt Hutchinson) to loom terrifyingly out of the dark, and the delicate, exotic Elise Stark (Clare Rebekah Pointing) to appear alarmingly suddenly.

However, this is far from a perfect show (and certainly not expected to be). The light does not always work, and sadly some gorgeous Victorian profile shadow puppetry does not quite read. The show also felt a little neither here nor there on sound: a permanent soundscape is provided by Jo Walker, which occasionally works, but is also repetitive and irritating. The company make some beautiful, if small, live sound and are all fine actors. When recorded sounds and voice overs take over, it left me feeling a little short changed. The script also felt, at times, at a distance from the period and the introduction, in which Victor is looking for work, felt laboured and over long. However, there were some rueful smiles of recognition in the audience when Victor loses a commission from a faceless local council because “the funding simply dried up”.

Overall, this is a lovely piece of work, a little, glittering, intimate, Victorian curio. Puppetry and object transformation are both excellent: satisfying and well judged by director Rachel Warr. The play with scale between them is also well used, as Victor literally diminishes in size following his terrifying employer Stark up the stairs.

I would like to see it with a full run – Dotted Line has enjoyed success in Edinburgh before, and I think this would do well there, not only because of the homemade and fashionably stitched together aesthetic, but because what this show really needs is an audience. The Firsts Festival does a great job of creating Edinburgh in miniature, of and for puppetry companies and enthusiasts, but The Engineer’s Thumb would really benefit from a good, solid month’s run, and a rich and varied audience to talk about it, develop it and unpack it as only Edinburgh can. I certainly hope to see more from this company – one to watch.

The Engineer’s Thumb ran from 20 – 21 March at Little Angel Theatre

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Mixed media (collage). Snips from Jacques and quotes from Kirkegaard.

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REVIEW: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner at the Old Vic Tunnels

This article was first published on A Younger Theatre. To see the original review, please click here.


Fiona Shaw performing The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: arguably, two national treasures sharing the stage at the Old Vic Tunnels. Having seen Shaw’s delicious performance of The Waste Land (if you haven’t seen it you can watch an excerpt here), I was prepared to be impressed. I wasn’t disappointed.

Under the direction of Phyllida Lloyd, Shaw half-recites, half-performs this 50 minute rendition of Coleridge’s 1798 poem. The Old Vic Tunnels proves an apt space: dark, eerie, and with the regular rumbles of overhead trains providing a liminal soundscape, the setting is an excellent compliment to Coleridge’s haunting verse. Shaw builds an anticipatory atmosphere in the pre-show, wandering around looking for a companion, an audience. She tries a pair of hats on a couple of ordinary punters before seemingly randomly selecting Daniel Hay-Gordon, the dancer who accompanies her verse with movement to tell the Mariner’s story. The atmosphere Shaw cultivates before she begins to speak is one of the finest parts of the piece. Replicating the Mariner’s compulsion to tell his story, seeking his audience (“The moment that his face I see / I know the man that must hear me”), Shaw draws out the essence of the poem: the need to narrate, to change, to tell.

Shaw’s performance, overall, is hard to fault. Her handling of the verse is sure, her lightness of touch is a delight. She makes use of the regular rhythm of the verse while maintaining a distinct freshness, as if she, and we, are coming upon the lines for the first time. She brings to life the raconteur, picking up and discarding characters and trading them with Hay-Gordon to elucidate the narrative. Her physical journey is also strong – the “throats unslaked and black lips baked” of the mariners appear before us in Shaw; the struggle and pain of the journey seems etched in her every limb.

Hay-Gordon is also excellent: compelling, and utterly physically commanding. Kim Branstrup’s choreography is largely very strong, simple, and deliciously unpretentious. Hay-Gordon’s albatross combines dance with physical shadow puppetry and is one of the standout moments of the piece. Similarly, he darts around the stage in a gravity-defying personation of the crew, dropping down one by one.

And yet there remains something unsatisfying about this work. My suspicion is that there was a certain tension missing in the piece due to its lack of relationships. Arguably, Rime of the Ancient Mariner is all about the relationship between the Mariner and his audience – the reading audience, aligned in the frame with the wedding guest. While there is a kind of relationship between Shaw and Hay-Gordon, it is in constant flux as they change and trade characters, and there is far greater focus on Shaw and the language than on Hay-Gordon’s physical storytelling, so he feels somewhat underused. The pre-show was so strong because of the intense connection between Shaw and the audience, and this went largely unmaintained in the body of the piece. There is one wonderful moment when the audience, illuminated by the red light of an outdoor heater, become the “crimson shadows” of the Mariner’s vision, but this connection is broken all too soon.

In many ways, this is a beautiful piece of theatre. Technically it is well judged, simple and sparse. Mel Mercier’s soundscape transports us from place to place, a particular highlight being the far-off sounds of the wedding guests somewhere in the depths of the tunnels. Jean Kalman’s light suggests locations without dictating, and shifts us, sharp yet dreamlike, between narrative and frame.

As a final image, we watch Hay-Gordon’s wedding guest trudge away, using the full depth of the space, into the Tunnels’ deserted bar. He seems to bear the full weight of the story while Shaw, as the Mariner, seems released, relieved, leaning against a wall, the agony that grips him gone for a time. However, this highlights what was, for me, the problem with the piece. While Hay-Gordon seems marked and changed by what he has heard, the audience did not, because of our lack of connection to the story, the lack of relationship between piece and audience. This is impressive, but did not move us as much is it might have.

The Rime of the Ancient Marnier runs at the Old Vic Tunnels, in association with the Young Vic, until 13 January. For more information and tickets, see the website.

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REVIEW: Everyday Maps For Everyday Use at the Finborough

This article was first published on A Younger Theatre. To see the original review, please click here.


Everyday Maps for Everyday Use contains moments of brilliance. As part of the Papatango New Writing Festival, inevitably the writing is offered up for scrutiny. Everyday Maps for Everyday Use confuses me with its inconsistency – I couldn’t quite work out what I didn’t like about it. At times, it is brilliant – tightly-constructed, familiar and truthful. However, sometimes playwright Tom Morton-Smith makes his characters say things that are utterly unbelievable. At time, the twists and turns of this interwoven, multi-character plot are ingenious; at others, they are too neat, too useful and at the disposal of the narrative. This combines to make Maps an evening of ebullience with moments of wonder, but ultimately unsatisfying.

The action follows the stories of six characters and their sexual perversions and unhappiness. Morton-Smith crams a lot – perhaps too much – into his 80 odd minutes. The plot centres around Woking in 2012, and is essentially a collection of people trying to find love – sexual, romantic, parental – and the obstacles they meet. Maps also explores Martian travel, the shifting nature of the world and the impossibility of mapping it (hence the title) and how to come to terms with pain, insufficiency and loneliness.

This play would speak to different individuals in different ways – and this is one of its strengths. While it covers a lot (perhaps too much) Morton-Smith’s writing is never didactic or rigid, leaving the audience to pick and choose fundamental messages. For me, the most interesting idea in the play was one that is very rarely explored – the morbid fear and physical difficulty of childbirth. Corinne Radd (Cosima Shaw) describers her pregnancy: “alone with your thoughts and this creature inside of you… a monster in your gut”. Her daughter Maggie (Skye Lourie) fantasises about tentacled, heartless beasts raping her and impregnating her. John carries around an ultrasound of his unborn child, pointing out the head, the little fingers and toes in the blurry image. This motif is one of the most challenging and compelling in the play. How do we reconcile ourselves with these creatures we produce? They grow inside you – almost parasitically (Alien-like is one comparison drawn in Maps), but emerge and grow up to become people with sadness and perversions and loneliness just like you.

Aptly, given the preoccupation with parenthood, stand out performances come from mother and daughter duo Skye Lourie and Cosima Shaw. They are exceptionally well cast as relatives – aside from looking alike, they share sharply observed mannerisms and physical quirks. Both also exude mischief, sex, playfulness and desperation – they are a delight to watch. Lourie’s Maggie opens the show, dancing in her own world to David Bowie. With a few simple movements, she commands the stage. Having never seen her before, she is one to watch for the future.

Everyday Maps for Everyday Use is a knotty, challenging piece. Its inconsistency is frustrating, because it contains moments of exemplary writing – at the level of the sentence, character, plot and in terms of relationships. There are a selection of monologues in the piece that are almost uniformly outstanding: raw, nimble and devastating. They are a great example of the disjuncture of Morton-Smith’s writing: brilliant set pieces, but it’s difficult to believe these characters would speak publicly in this way. Perhaps being braver with form, and allowing these moments to take place alone onstage, would have been interesting.

While this is not a perfect show, when it hits it really hits. It is certainly worth seeing. Director Beckie Mills handles the stage deftly, and lighting designer Neill Brinkworth has created a delightfully subtle palette in a limited space. Overall, frustrating because of its moments of brilliance, but largely worth it.

Everyday Maps for Everyday Use runs at the Finborough Theatre as part of the Papatango New Writing Festival until 22 December. For more information and tickets see the Finborough Theatre website.

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REVIEW: Cul-de-Sac at Theatre503

This article was first published on A Younger Theatre. To see the original review, please click here.


Cul-De-Sac, the first play from stand-up comic Matthew Osborn is not the sort of show you’d usually expect to see at Theatre503. Plumbing the darker depths of suburbia, this is a snappy satire on leafy Home Counties living. Tightly written, sharply witty and unremittingly black humoured, Cul-De-Sac is not everyone’s cup of tea, but is an entertaining evening.

Cul-De-Sac’s three-man cast is made up of Julian Dutton (Dr. Cole), Alan Francis (Tim) and Mike Hayley (Nigel), all – like writer Matthew Osborn – experienced stand-ups and comic writers. It’s a strong cast, and the trio handle the style with alacrity and energy. This is a show that teaches you how to watch it, and once the mind has adjusted to the quick-fire, absurd dialogue, it is, at its best, sparkling comedy.

However, the sharp, slick quality of this show is also part of the reason why it didn’t wholly do it for me. Cul-De-Sac is described by ThreeWeeks as “Alan Bennett meets The League of Gentlemen“: in some ways an accurate epithet, but this show lacks any of Bennett’s heart, warmth or depth of emotion. This is more a series of sketches with a neat, reflexive plot than a play. When Tim discovers his dog has been kicked to death by his neighbour Nigel, he is largely unmoved. Later in the play, even once we have become accustomed to the lack of emotional engagement, it comes as something of a surprise that Tim is angry rather than moved or saddened by the disintegration of his family.

That said, Cul-De-Sac is clearly not trying or pretending to be a naturalistic analysis of neighbourly relationships. Osborn’s glib handling of the gradual destruction of his protagonist, and his characters’ flippant reactions to diabolical circumstance, generate many of the best laughs of the piece. Gags abound, and the excruciating darkness of the plot was enough to keep me gripped, to a point. Alan Francis’s Tim spends one scene tied up and seduced by his doctor, and Mike Hayley’s Nigel’s grim relaxation method is deliciously skin-crawling. This is greatly enhanced throughout by Nick Pynn’s masterful musical underscore, helping to ramp up the tension.

Overall, if you like dark comedy without too much weight behind it, this is certainly worth seeing. There are some genuinely brilliant jokes in there and the commitment of the company makes up for occasionally slap-dash moments. A few scene changes are too long, enhancing the sketch-show feel of the whole evening.

Cul-De-Sac is entertaining, sharp and sparkling like a pair of newly polished pruning shears, and provides a diverting evening of classically British black comedy. Just don’t expect to be moved.

Cul-de-sac runs at Theatre 503 until 5 January. For more information and tickets see the Theatre503 website.

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REVIEW: Lot and his God at the Print Room

This article was first published on A Younger Theatre. To see the original review, please click here.


“I came to the city. I saw the people were filthy. And those who were not filthy were still filthy.”

Howard Barker’s visceral and confrontational new play imagines the Biblical tale of Lot as a modern fable. In Barker’s world, sin and the permission of sin are the same thing, and generate disgust and fascination in equal measure. Unlike the original story of Lot (though very like much of the Old Testament), the moral is ambivalent, difficult to measure and deduce.

In Lot and his God, Barker masterfully sets up a dichotomy between possession and permission. At its core, this is a love story, but one entirely lacking in sentimentality. The relationship between Lot and his wife is exemplified succinctly in her naming – at all times, she is referred to only as ‘Lot’s wife’. Permission of sin is what destroyed Sodom, and here, it torments Lot. The tension of the piece comes from Lot’s possession of his wife, twinned with his permission of her sin, and it is executed with delicious precision.

However, for a play so concerned with sin, filth and visceral desire, it felt a little too aridly intellectual and considered. There is no question that Barker is one of our greatest living dramatists, but Lot and his God has a tendency to tell us rather than show us. Desire, infidelity, excruciating pain and “exquisite perversity” are described, rather than performed. This makes the few subtle physical expressions of desire all the more satisfying and tantilising. Drogheda (Justin Avoth) gently strokes the back of a chair as he contemplates Lot’s wife, telling more with this delicate gesture than text ever could. However, it left me thinking rather than feeling about visceral sin. This is a play of the head, rather than the gut, and the gut is rather more to my taste. As an intellectual examination of sexual sinfulness, though, Barker has excelled himself.

Here, the devil (or indeed, God) is in the detail. From the scuffed and burned lino floor, to the crumbling walls, and eerily realistic cobwebs hanging from the tired ceiling fan, designer Fotini Dimou has done a sterling job. The setting, a fittingly filthy cafe, is a liminal space – the characters want to leave, persuade, seduce, tempt, attract the attention of a waiter. It is a space in flux.

The four actors in this piece deliver strong and at times electric performances. The text is exacting, and it was a relief that the moments of comedy were well executed. Drogheda (Justin Avoth) is perhaps at times too earnest, but Hermione Gulliford as Lot’s wife delivers an excellent performance – rich, thick, smooth and luxurious as cream. Mark Tandy as Lot is also at times mesmerising: during his conversation with God (also the best written scene in the play), I was utterly gripped.

Lot and his God is a tightly structured piece and Robyn Winfield’s direction is slick and satisfyingly economical. It is well worth seeing, particularly if you prefer the intellectual to the physical. It allows us to look over the precipice into sin, without actually falling over the edge. The way the story hinges on permission carries interesting implications for an audience, particularly in the intimate setting of the Print Room. Lot and his God exists with our permission, and we let it happen.

Lot and His God runs until 24 November at the Print Room. For more information and tickets, visit The Print Room website.

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REVIEW: Uncle Vanya at the Noel Coward

This article was first published on A Younger Theatre. To see the original review, please click here.

It’s rare to see a completely astounding production. But Rimas Tuminas’s production for Vakhtangov Theatre is exactly that – Uncle Vanyaas you’ve never seen it before. It is in the original Russian for a very limited run at the Noël Coward Theatre as part of the Russian season in the West End, and I urge you to get a ticket any way you can.

Unlike familiar, traditional Chekhov, Tuminas’s production is worlds away from lacy tablecloths, period country houses and comfortably bubbling samovars. Here, the subtext becomes the super-text: what the characters are thinking violently manifests itself visually and expressively.

Tuminas relocates this Vanya to a stark, displacing and surreal setting. Adomas Yatsovskis’s design is beautifully sparse, dominated by a pair of Meyerholdian, proscenium-like arches. We view the action through these twin apertures. The set is spare and timeless: a worn work-table, a gargantuan, leather-covered settle, a rusty, horse-drawn plough. This gives the space the atmosphere of transience – like a cavernous train station, or a mock-theatre. Actors emerge eerily, beautifully from a concealed entrance in the back wall, gliding half-lit through gloom before they reach the playing space. The whole stage has a liminal quality: all the characters seem to be waiting for something to happen.

Almost all the action is underscored with a soundscape from Faustas Latenas, Tuminas’s long-term collaborator. Combined with the non-naturalistic setting, this makes this Vanya all the more dreamlike and surreal. The soundscape is beautiful, chilling and sad: if anything could encapsulate the magnitude and hopelessness of Vanya in abstract form, this is it.

The single major flaw of this production, however, was its lack of comedy. For me, Vanya is only complete if it has laughs, and here, they are few and far between. This may be down to my knowledge of Russian (non-existent): it’s probable that jokes don’t translate well over achingly slow and frustratingly inconsistently transliterated sub-titles. While Telegin (Yury Kraskov) and Astrov create some hilarious moments during their drunken revelry this is relief as opposed to standard. Comedy came second to intensity in performance, and I came away feeling the pain of the characters more than the amusement of their situation. Pain and laughter together is a very Russian preoccupation. Dostoevsky said that tragedy and comedy are twin sisters, and the two of them together equal truth. There is rather more of the tragedy to this Vanya.

That said, this winner of Best Production at Russia’s Golden Mask Awards (the equivalent to an Emmy), more than deserves the hype. Standouts in a uniformly extraordinary cast include Vladimir Vdovichenkov as an outspoken and outrageous Astrov, and Anna Dubrovskaya gives a languid and delicious Elena. However, the overriding impression (as is often the case with outstanding Russian theatre) is of an organic ensemble, thinking and moving together. The style of performance is alarmingly sustained and direct, the vast majority delivered out to the audience. Watching, you are constantly and inescapably confronted.

Tuminas creates this piece as a network of high-impact visual images: from the surreal to the painful and beautiful, mixing the naturalism of real hay (in Vanya’s hair) or liquid (tea, alcohol) with his expressionist setting. Telegin chucks tea ludicrously over his shoulder; Astrov blows powdered morphine into Telegin’s mouth; Vanya conducts a conversation with Elena’s disembodied feet; Elena and Sonya bash at a dust covered piano in perfect sync, gazing into the audience. This production is arresting, electric, iconoclastic Chekhov. It’s among the best theatre I’ve seen, and it will leave you reeling.

Uncle Vanya runs at the Noel Coward Theatre until 10November. For more information and tickets, please click here.

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