Review - The Believers Are But Brothers (Bush Theatre)

The Believers Are But Brothers is an hour long play written and performed by Javaad Alipoor, which explores the disturbing part which the internet and social media has to play in bolstering the popularity of extremist groups in the tech savvy 21st century. He tells a fictional story about how three young men from different walks of life (two British Muslims recruited into ISIS, and one American alt-right extremist) react to a video of a young girl in Syria who is singing on a street when an explosive device is detonated. Throughout the play, Alipoor attempts to deconstruct the mindsets of those that viewed the video, and explores the destructive paths they take as a result. 

Javaad Alipoor in The Believers Are But Brothers
Photo credit - The Other Richard
Part play, part lecture, The Believers Are But Brothers demonstrates the power of end to end encryption, used by terrorists as a recruitment tool and to plot attacks, by having part of the play conveyed through a group WhatsApp message which the entire audience is encouraged to join. Having the audience keep their phones on throughout the play provides many opportunities for the action to be diverted by rogue messages, but Alipoor manages to keep everything rolling along, despite some inevitable distractions. 

Alipoor is a very likable presence; extremely compelling and affable, if a little unpolished. It's clear he's done his research on the subject he's talking about, and frequently references his time exploring the dark depths of sites like 4chan to mine for content for his play. That being said, despite his impressive research, The Believers Are But Brothers doesn't cover as much new ground as it perhaps has the potential to. A few years ago, hearing stories of horribly disturbing videos being shared around on the internet as a tool to fire up vulnerable people who feel let down or left behind by society would've seemed horrific, but in 2018 in a horrible way it seems sort of unsurprising. After all, when the President of the United States of America can retweet fake videos posted by a neo fascist group and sustain very little condemnation from his supporters, the proof of the potency of online radicalism and extremism is plain to see in the mainstream, not just on the reprehensible fringes of the web.

The Believers Are But Brothers may not be the most groundbreaking piece of theatre which covers the subject of extremism, but it is enjoyable and interesting nonetheless. 

Review - Oranges and Elephants (Hoxton Hall)

An all-female musical about gang rivalry in Victorian London is the tantalising premise of Oranges and Elephants, the new show which is currently playing at Hoxton Hall as part of an all-female theatre season. The quaint, distinctly olde worlde music hall certainly helps to set the scene for writer Lil Warren's creation, which melds aspects of early music hall entertainment with contemporary musical theatre.

Christina Tedders as Nellie and Susanna van den Berg as the chair in Oranges and Elephants
Photo credit - Sharron Wallace
Despite protestations some in-shown protestations, Oranges and Elephants' plot is your typical star crossed lovers shtick. Set against the backdrop of a bloody and vicious turf war, Mary, an aspiring music hall performer from the Black Country, falls in love with a musically inclined crook named Nellie, and the pair make plans to run away together and have a crack at show business. The only problem is that Mary has been taken in by the Oranges (a girl gang which prowls on north of the river), and Nellie is a prolific member of the Elephants (a wily rival group). Both gangs are made up of a madcap mix of miscreants, such as the newly one-eyed Nora, and Ada the scene stealing slasher, played by a gleefully menacing Rebecca Bainbridge. Sinead Long is likable in the interesting if underwritten role of Mary, opposite the entrancing Christina Tedders, who brings charm and gravitas to the role of Nellie, and shows off her musical virtuosity regularly throughout. 

The score is mostly music hall fare. It's fun and bouncy, if a little samey. At times, however, the songs seem to pastiche more contemporary musical theatre too. There are shades of Chicago’s I Can’t Do It Alone and Gypsy’s Let Me Entertain You, and even Epiphany from Sweeney Todd seems to be referenced). At the end of the musical the full cast also takes to the stage to perform an anachronistic rap, referencing the #TimesUp movement. The cast of actor-musicians perform vivaciously, with Christina Tedders in particular providing some gorgeously brassy vocals. The songs may not be instant classics, but they're all entertaining to listen to, and having the audience occasionally join in with the help of lyric sheets is an enjoyable addition to the proceedings. 

However, running at over 2 and a half hours, Oranges and Elephants could do with some tightening up. It's clear that Lil Warren has a great story to tell, and she is more than capable of writing some great, period appropriate tunes, but in its current iteration Oranges and Elephants doesn't quite hit the mark. At times the plot seems simultaneously rushed and meandering, with Nellie and Mary’s love story fired up and then extinguished in the space of just a couple of scenes, bookended by gang based antics. There's also a fair bit of funny but perhaps unneeded padding courtesy of the (admittedly very charismatic) host, played by Susannah van den Berg, whose banter with gin swigging pianist Doreen (Jo Collins)  brings the story to a halt rather frequently. 

At a time when powerful women are dominating the media, Oranges and Elephants feels like it's touching on something very clever, harking back to a time over 100 years ago when, like today, women bonded together to get things done. The real life ladies who inspired Lil Warren's fictional story are a fascinating facet of London history, and despite its weaker aspects, Oranges and Elephants should be praised for bringing them into the spotlight, even if in reality they were a lot less stab happy!

Interview - Kara Tointon and Adrian Edmondson (Twelfth Night)

Being part of the Royal Shakespeare Company is still considered by many to be the holy grail of acting jobs, and every year, actors old and new collaborate on plays at the iconic theatre in Shakespeare's hometown. This year, amongst the scores of new faces in the current season, two stars of stage and screen are making their RSC debuts. Actors Kara Tointon and Adrian Edmondson, who have recently been seen in the likes of The Sound of Music Live and Star Wars: The Last Jedi respectively, are both appearing on stage in Stratford-upon-Avon for the first time, in Christopher Luscombe's production of Twelfth Night. 

I'm speaking to Tointon and Edmondson midway through their run in the famous Shakespearean Comedy, and ahead of the live cinema broadcast on the 14th of February, which will see the play beamed out to cinemas across the country.

I start our interview by asking how both approached their individual roles, and if any special preparation was required. 'There’s a fear of Shakespeare that’s inherent in audiences and actors alike, that you just have to get over.' Adrian Edmondson says, before explaining 'we had a very generous rehearsal period and we worked it all out until eventually we were just saying things that made sense to us.' Kara Tointon, who remembers studying Twelfth Night in school, admits that when she was first asked to audition for the role of Olivia she wasn't too sure, but embraced it as a challenge. 'I enjoyed the detective work,' she says. 'You start off with the text and you haven’t got a clue what’s going on, and then you kind of get your Shakespearean dictionary and look up every word.'

I'm curious about what it's like to perform at the RSC given its immense theatrical history, and taking into consideration how many amazing stage icons have trodden the boards of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Both actors agree that performing on that historic stage is bizarre, but for them, it's the play itself which is most daunting. 'On our first night they handed out a free copy of the programme to us' Adrian Edmondson recalls, 'and I was reading it before I went on, and it gave a list of all the famous people that’d played our parts before!' Indeed, Richard Wilson, Antony Sher, and the late Donald Sinden are just a few of the actors who played Malvolio in past RSC productions of Twelfth Night, meanwhile Mark Rylance famously won a Tony award for his performance as Olivia in The Globe's lauded 2012 production, when it transferred to New York. Kara Tointon adds that her agent saw Judi Dench in a production of Twelfth Night many years ago, although she played Viola. 

Adrian Edmondson as Malvolio, alongside fellow cast members Michael Cochrane, Sarah Twomey and John Hodgkinson
Photo credit - Manuel Harlan
Both actors are also quick to comment on how unusual it felt, at first, to be performing on the Royal Shakespeare Theatre's thrust stage. Audience members and actors often mere inches from each other, and even at the back of the upper circle audience members are still relatively close to the stage. 'I keep waiting for a mobile phone to go off in the theatre' Adrian Edmondson jokes, 'so I can say ‘turn it off, they haven’t been invented yet!' The co-stars jokingly suggest that if a phone is going to go off then it'll probably be on the day of the cinema broadcast, although hopefully that won't be the case. 

Speaking of the cinema broadcast, both stars are hugely supportive of it, although neither of them have ever seen a piece of theatre in the cinema before. 'It’s a lovely way of introducing people to Shakespeare' Kara Tointon muses, 'we’ve been very lucky and we’ve sold a lot of our tickets, so it gives people who aren’t able to get to Stratford-upon-Avon a chance to see some theatre, and I think it’s great.' I wonder if either of them have any concerns about the cinema broadcast, assuming that the pressure to get everything right must be tenfold compared to playing to an audience in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, which houses 1018 people when full. 'I hope I don’t fall over, that’s what I’ll be thinking about' Tointon chuckles, adding that 'something probably will go wrong – how fun! How interesting!' In general though, both agree that they'll be embracing the exceptional nature of the performance on the 14th of February.

Dinita Gohil and Kara Tointon as Viola and Olivia
Photo credit - Manuel Harlan
This production's concentration on Twelfth Night's themes of gender and sexuality are really interesting, as every version of Twelfth Night addresses them in different ways. Kara Tointon shares an insight into Christopher Luscombe's take, venturing 'I guess what we’ve tried to suggest is that actually Olivia fell in love with Viola as Cesario, not Sebastian, and will it work… who knows?'

This production's somewhat ambiguous twist on Twelfth Night's typically happy ending is something which really struck me, and so I am curious to know if the actors ever wonder what happens to their characters after the play ends. Sadly, Edmondson doesn't hold out much hope for the happiness of poor Malvolio, 'I think he’d be too humiliated and would leave and exist on a meagre pension.' Tointon adds that 'it’s really sad because Olivia has known him for so many years, and he’s all she’s got left apart from the house. He made everything run like clockwork.'

We finish the interview on a rather sombre note. 'Much like real life, everyone’s frustrated with their relationships. Really good for Valentine’s Day!' Edmondson jokes. 

Despite the bleak fate of Olivia's steward, audiences can rest assured that there's plenty of romance and loads of laughs to be had in Twelfth Night at the RSC. The production runs until the 24th of February and will be broadcast to cinemas live on February 14th! 

Review - Twelfth Night (Royal Shakespeare Theatre)

One of Shakespeare's most popular comedies is reimagined on the Royal Shakespeare Theatre's stage in Christopher Luscombe's charming production of Twelfth Night, which sees twins Sebastian and Viola shipwrecked in England in the late 19th century. Taking inspiration from the Victorian era's fixation on orientalism and the cultural aestheticism movement, there's a lot to unpack in Luscombe's opulent production.

Nicholas Bishop and Dinita Gohil as Orsino and Viola
Photo credit - Manuel Harlan
Although (often to its advantage) it is not exactly a laugh a minute, Luscombe's production definitely packs a few comedic punches. Adrian Edmondson shows off his lauded comedic chops as a manic Malvolio, tricked by his underlings into believing that his mistress is in love with him. Edmondson savours every moment of Malvolio's descent into all consuming love, strutting around in some amazingly gaudy costumes and bursting delightfully into song. Olivia's tricksy household staff are brilliant as Malvolio's scheming adversaries, with Sarah Twomey in particular getting in a few surprise laughs as the ditsy Fabia.

However, despite the hysterical nature of Twelfth Night's comedic scenes, the play shines brightest during its more subdued moments. Christopher Luscombe's production justifies its effortless alteration of place and time more than adequately, bringing the text's contemplation of gender to the forefront and exploring its many intertwining relationships. Most notably, the play clearly addresses the resurgence of Greek Love in the Victorian period. When the aesthete Duke Orsino is introduced he is posturing at an easel, painting his Adonian muse, thus instantly shining a spotlight on the relationship between the sensual and artistic experiences which epitomised the movement of aestheticism. This idea is further explored through Orsino's feelings for Viola's male alter ego Cesario. In one of the production's most breathtaking scenes, two share a wary yet passionate moment together, which is painfully underscored by Orsino's inner conflict. He is devoted to winning the hand of Olivia, but overcome by his feelings for his young serf. Having brought much physical comedy out of Adrian Edmondson as Malvolio and the rest of Olivia's household staff, Christopher Luscombe shows off the breadth of his directorial talent in Viola and Orsino's scenes, with Nicholas Bishop and Dinita Gohil beautifully portraying the blossoming love between servant and master. Similarly, with one look in the denouement, Kara Tointon's Olivia brings Twelfth Night's convenient happy ending into question.

Not only is this Twelfth Night splendidly acted, it is also beautiful to look at. Sumptuous from the off, locations such as a smokey train station and idyllic sculpture garden complement the plot's sweeping and romantic moments, as well as it's more bizarre comedic ones. Simon Higlett's design, which took inspiration from Wolverhampton's Wightwick Manor, is simply superb, with rich wood panelling giving Olivia's home a sombre yet lush appearance. Orsino's domain is equally handsome, adorned with rich golden ornamentation. 

If the play wasn't such an iconic Shakespearean comedy, it'd be easy to attribute Christopher Luscombe's production of Twelfth Night to a certain Irish playwright from the 1890s. With plenty of Wildean wit and the prominent themes of gender and sexuality this production very much alludes to Oscar Wilde and his fellow fin-de-siecle aesthetes. The Company do a brilliant job of bringing the play to life within the Victorian time period, and the play's juxtaposing comedic high points and yearning lows are balanced very well. Sure, a few of the slapstick moments might outstay their welcome a little bit, and one or two scenes feel a bit static, but there's plenty of contrasting drama and lots of brilliant humour too, which ensures that the play practically never slows down. Every element comes together to create a production of Twelfth Night which is almost seamless.