Review: Secret Theatre, The Rag Yard, London E1

Note: Because of this play’s supposed “secret” nature, I should warn that this review talks about specifics of the play, including its title and characters. I also explain why, but if you want to see a spoiler-free review you should go elsewhere.

The Lyric Hammersmith has been running a series of “secret theatre” projects recently – encouraging people to book tickets without knowing what they’ll be seeing, and as a result come to a piece with little to no preconceptions built up in their heads.

This Secret Theatre project is not like that. It was, I was told by the PR, more modelling itself on Secret Cinema. This series shows movies in suitably appropriate surroundings, but also with a deeply immersive experience that is just as entertaining, if not more so, than the film itself. So The Shawshank Redemption is presented in an old prison, Bugsy Malone in a speakeasy, Blade Runner in a grimy, industrial near-future where oriental noodle bars rub shoulders with security agents scanning all visitors for signs of replicant behaviour.

So we were expecting a similarly immersive experience for this piece, and notifications of dress codes and secret identities fed into this.

What we got instead was a straightforward play. A truly immersive piece needs to do more than say, “Oh, this piece about the aftermath of a botched heist is set in a warehouse, so let’s stage it in a warehouse”. Especially when that warehouse already hosts events, drama classes and art exhibitions, and the play itself is staged so conventionally.

So the failed promise of an immersive experience was a huge let-down. And that was a shame, because the play itself – an adaptation of a justly popular film – has the potential to be a great stage piece. As presented here, it’s still some way from that – but I think the false promise of an immersive experience will cloud the audience’s judgement of what this show has the potential to be.

And it’s all the more bizarre that the “secret theatre” concept also robs this production of its biggest appeal. I’m not going to beat about the bush any longer: if you go to this play knowing what it is, if you read about this play knowing what it is, it’ll be better for everybody.

Because I, for one, would bite someone’s hand off if they offered me the opportunity to see a stage adaptation of Quentin Tarantino’s first feature film, Reservoir Dogs.

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Review: Anatomy of a Murder, Audit House, London

Courtroom dramas can be tricky things to accomplish on stage. In order to keep the audience’s interest, the case concerned must be serious enough, the defendant’s guilt or innocence must be hard to determine – and yet, if we do not feel sympathy for them despite their possible guilt, how are we as an audience ever going to engage with their plight?

Anatomy of a Murder, Elihu Winer’s play based on Robert Traver’s 1958 novel, piques the interest by starting from the premise that there is no doubt that the defendant, army Lieutenant Frederic Manion (George McFadyen) killed Barney Quill, the proprietor of the local inn.But Quill, we are told, had raped Manion’s wife that night. Immediately, our loyalties and a sense of natural justice start muddying the waters – and further murkiness is added as Manion and his fresh-faced lawyer Paul Biegler (Benedict Hastings) work out that Manion’s only defence against a charge of murder will be a plea of insanity.

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Ten Things About Who: Rose

Now that ‘series 7’ of Doctor Who is out of the way, I’ve found that I miss writing ten points about an episode. So I’ve decided to carry on – rewinding all the way to 2005’s Rose, and continuing from there. Doctor Who Magazine has chronologically looked back with its Time Team features – but their conceit is that they’re watching as if for the first time, and without reference to any stores broadcast after the one they’re watching.

My posts will most definitely be written from a 2013 perspective, introducing thoughts about how the series has changed – or not – since its return; other shows the series has influenced, or been influenced by, offscreen and on; and any old randomness that comes into my head. Please do chip in in the comments below each post if you have your own thoughts about the episode in question.

Don’t expect the frequency to always be weekly, although I will try and keep up the pace. If you want to know when each one has been published, you can follow me on Twitter or subscribe to my public posts on Facebook.

And so sit back, press Play, and rejoice in the fact that on DVD, the department store basement won’t resound with the echo of Graham Norton doing a sound check for Strictly Dance Fever.

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Ten Things About Who: Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS

This post has been edited, tidied up and expanded to form part of my new ebook, TEN THINGS ABOUT WHO, available on Kindle. Buy it now for £1.99More details

1. The Van Baalen Brothers

If Tricky really thought he was an android, how did he explain a need for nutrition (and the resultant excretion)? But if the conceit about having been tricked into believing he’s robotic doesn’t really stand up from that angle, the clues are there: right from the beginning, his attitude to the plight of the Doctor and Clara – and of the TARDIS herself – is the most human of the three brothers’.

2. That’s some heavy polystyrene you’ve got there

Poor Jenna-Louise Coleman. It can’t be easy to have to wake up from a completely unconscious state, free yourself from under what is doubtless supposed to be extremely cumbersome masonry, leap to your feet and then brush yourself down in the space of about three seconds.

You can, apparently, just about manage it in the time allotted if you ensure that not a single step of that process looks genuine.

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Why CBBC is my desert island channel

Imagine if your television developed a weird fault. Whatever channel you tuned to next would be the only one it would ever receive again. Which one would you choose?

I’d find the temptation to stick with one of the more mainstream channels, such as BBC1 or ITV1, hard to resist. I might try and select a channel with a bit of culture in it – BBC2 would serve well in that regard (and would satisfy my QI cravings) or BBC4 (ditto, Only Connect).

But honestly, I think the channel with the widest range of enjoyable programmes at the moment is CBBC, the Corporation’s channel for children. It regularly produces output that is lively, engaging, challenging and fun.

A case in point is a series which finished this week. Wolfblood is a new take on the werewolf genre created by Debbie Moon. Young Maddy is a 14-year-old girl from a reclusive family ‘pack’ of wolfbloods (the series rejects the term ‘werewolf’). Her parents lock themselves away every full moon rather than risk roaming in the woods – partly to ensure the safety of the locals, but mostly to ensure that their family secret is not discovered.

In contrast, Maddy (Aimee Kelly) – who at the start of the series is not quite old enough to experience her ‘time of the month’ – is constantly tempted to share the burden of her secret with her friends, especially when the new foster kid at school, Rhydian (Bobby Lockwood), also turns out to be a wolfblood. And when he discovers that he has a family who live wild rather than Maddy’s domesticated parents, further conflicts arise.

Every drama thrives on friction, and there is plenty here. Intrinsic to the school setting are the usual kids-versus-teachers, geeks-versus-fashionistas setups. But the best conflicts for us as viewers are those that build up between friends and family. Maddy’s best friend Shannon (Louisa Connolly-Burnham) has been convinced for years that there are werewolves on the local moors. Maddy’s need to keep her family secret while also wanting Shannon to know that her theories are correct forms one of the biggest drivers to the whole series. And the more serious side to Shannon’s obsession isn’t shied away from – in one episode, she reveals that her parents are sending her to counselling because of her determined belief in supernatural beasts. In a couple of lines, we see that the series has at its heart a heroine who, by keeping a secret she knows she must not divulge, is risking her best friend’s mental health.

Wolfblood finished its first 13-part series on Monday, and CBBC celebrated by repeating the first 12 episodes back-to-back in the run up to the final episode’s premiere. It’s still on iPlayer for the next couple of days: download it now and savour it at leisure. There are a couple of dodgy moments (I recommend watching the being-a-wolfblood-makes-you-an-awesome-streetdancer episode through your fingers), but a second series has received a well-deserved commission.

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Review: Counter-Measures Series 1

Editor’s Rating

Way back in October 1988, the BBC gave me the coolest 18th birthday present: a four-part Doctor Who serial from Sylvester McCoy’s era that was really rather good. Remembrance of the Daleks kicked off the TV series’ 25th anniversary celebrations with a story that brought the Doctor back to Earth in November 1963, and the area around Coal Hill School – the setting for the very first episode. It also featured Daleks, Michael Sheard (at the time most famous for playing villainous deputy head Mr Bronson in Grange Hill) as a very different type of teacher – and a group of scientists who were working with the armed forces in the Intelligence Counter-Measures Group.

Now that same group has been revived on audio. Big Finish, who make the Doctor Who audio adventures and a number of spin-off series, have reunited Remembrance’s team of actors Simon Williams, Pamela Salem and Karen Gledhill, thrown in a smattering of new regulars and created four dramas involving strange happenings in 1960s London.

The result? Imagine a radio version of Quatermass, if it had been made by 1960s cult purveyors ITC Entertainment

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Review: Counter-Measures Series 14Scott Matthewman2012-07-15 22:51:36Big Finish, who make the Doctor Who audio adventures and a number of spin-off series, have reunited Remembrance of the Daleks’s team of actors Simon Williams, Pamela Salem and Karen Gledhill, thrown in a smattering of new regulars and created four dramas involving strange happenings in 1960s London.

Edinburgh Fringe 2011: The Overcoat, Pleasance Dome

Editor’s Rating

Gogol’s short story of The Overcoat, about a hard-working but overlooked clerk whose fortunes change for the better – and then, spectacularly and fatally, for the worse – on the acquisition of an expensive new overcoat, receives an imaginatively modern reworking by Finnish writer Sami Keski-Vahala.

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Edinburgh Fringe 2011: The Overcoat, Pleasance Dome5Scott Matthewman2011-08-30 09:33:08Gogol’s short story of The Overcoat, about a hard-working but overlooked clerk whose fortunes change for the better – and then, spectacularly and fa…

Edinburgh Fringe 2011: The Big Bite-Size Breakfast, Pleasance Dome

Editor’s Rating

After visiting Shakespeare for Breakfast on Saturday morning, on Sunday I headed to the Pleasance Dome for a collection of short playlets. With five separate pieces within a single hour, it proved a great way to see some new writing and standout performances.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was a strong element of comedy in the plays I saw (the cast offered three programmes of plays), but there were some terrific displays of poignancy as well.

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Edinburgh Fringe 2011: The Big Bite-Size Breakfast, Pleasance Dome4Scott Matthewman2011-08-30 09:09:04After visiting Shakespeare for Breakfast on Saturday morning, on Sunday I headed to the Pleasance Dome for a collection of short playlets. With five s…

Edinburgh Fringe 2011: Henna Night, The Spaces on the Mile

Editor’s Rating

After one too many bottles of cheap wine, Judith leaves a drunken message on her ex-boyfriend Jack’s answer phone late one night, saying that she’d bought some razor blades and some henna – and come the morning, she’ll have either killed herself, or dyed her hair. When the doorbell rings, it’s not Jack, but his new girlfriend Ros – the replacement. 

Henna Night was one of playwright Amy Rosenthal’s first pieces, and in places it shows. While she has an ear for dialogue and is able to find wry comedy in the darkest of lines, there are places where the gags are a little too frequent and forced, and others where Judith breaks into overlong, overwritten monologue. 

Rather than being a confrontational piece, Rosenthal makes both women ultimately likeable, creating a comedy of awkward manners than anything more explosive. That’s no bad thing, but it makes the whole play risk feeling flat  What saves the whole piece are the two performances from Stephanie James as Judith and, in particular, Lauren Garnham as Ros, who imbue their slight characters with real warmth. 

Edinburgh Fringe 2011: Henna Night, The Spaces on the Mile3Scott Matthewman2011-08-29 10:48:13After one too many bottles of cheap wine, Judith leaves a drunken message on her ex-boyfriend Jack’s answer phone late one night, saying that she’d bo…

No Comment/Peter, Shaw Theatre

While so many fringe theatrical eyes turn to Edinburgh for three weeks every August, there are still new events going on in London and elsewhere. Last night, I went to the Shaw Theatre to see two original plays being produced by Anatrope Theatre.

First up was No Comment, written by Amalia Kontesi, who co-directs with Hannah Rees. It tells the story of the French daughter of the British prime minister, who has gone missing. A detective inspector who has been recalled from leave to join the hunt for her eventually finds her, on the brink of suicide. Over the course of a night, she tells her story through a series of flashbacks.

If that sounds an interesting premise on paper, unfortunately it doesn’t really turn out that way on stage. Despite spirited performances from both Zoe Schellenberg and Dominique Pelides, who share the role of the PM’s daughter, the character never elicits much sympathy. She may have lost her mother to an unspecified illness at a young age and then have to live with the father she can barely remember, and who then ignores her in favour of pursuing his political career, but there feels a disconnect between those events and why she should feel the need to throw herself off a balcony.

As the inspector who listens to the girl’s story when she should be attending to sick wife, André Refig is the strongest performer of the ten-strong cast. Ultimately, though, I was left feeling rather non-plussed by the whole piece.

The second one-act play, Peter by George Hull, was more impressive on all counts. It starts with a more interesting premise – a family of Christians, whose eldest son has joined a fundamentalist cult after demonstrating healing powers, calls him back when the mother is diagnosed with cancer. If Peter can use his healing hands on the family cat, wonders his troubled brother, why does he not help cure their mother?

Some of the family dynamic is nicely observed, especially from Josie Bloom as Sandra, the mother. Michael Kenneth Steward’s shambolic, absent-minded father is so full of stops and starts and half-forgotten sentences that it’s either played superbly or awfully, it’s hard to tell.

But it’s the younger son Daniel, who has not so much a chip on his shoulder as a whole deep fat fryer, around whom the family really revolves. His resentment at the idolatry surrounding his absent brother manifests itself as aggression. Neill McReynolds is a tightly coiled spring who feels ready to explode at any minute, often adding tension to scenes where none would otherwise exist and perpetually keeping the audience on its toes. On occasion his delivery doesn’t quite suit the scene, leading to some of the nuances of Hull’s dialogue getting missed.

As Daniel’s friends and peers, Sam Hafez and Catherine Kitsis put in some of the best work of the evening. Hafez’s Saul in particular gets some of the better comedy moments, and he delivers them at exactly the right level.

Sadly, the weakest character in the whole piece is the eponymous Peter. Stan Colomb is perfectly fine as the sackcloth-wearing evangelical, but the role itself is underwritten compared to the build-up prior to his arrival. Indeed, the whole piece suffers from a lack of focus: although Hull’s dialogue crackles with wit and anger, the situations don’t build up with the sort of intensity that early scenes hint at. The inclusion of a mute chorus of “ghost nurses” doesn’t really add anything to the piece either.

As it stands, Peter is a good play that’s begging for further work to be done to it to tighten it up, strengthening the tensions between Peter and Daniel and just being a little bit clearer about which strand of the story is actually the main focus. But it definitely has a future, and it’s a piece I’ll be interested in seeing again in a year or two.