Above the Mealy-mouthed Sea – review

This review first appeared in Sabotage Reviews

Unholy Mess and Omnibus Theatre present
Above the Mealy-mouthed Sea
by Jemima Foxtrot and Lucy Allan
directed by Lucy Allan
designed by Mayou Trikerioti

at Upstairs at the Western (part of Find the Right Words presents)

On a cold, January evening in a land-locked East Midlands city, we pack our metaphorical bucket and spade for a trip to the seaside with Unholy Mess and their production Above the Mealy-mouthed Sea

Unholy Mess may be better known as performance poet and Saboteur Award shortlist-regular Jemima Foxtrot, and co-writer and director Lucy Allan.  Now at the beginning of a short tour, Above the Mealy-mouthed Sea enjoyed a three-week run in Edinburgh last year, and follows their debut show Melody (2016 Saboteur Award Best Spoken Word Show runner up). 

Jess Green, creator and compere of Find the Right Words (FTRW) and host venue Upstairs at the Western are now programming a new venture, FTRW presents, where a past FTRW headliner returns to the venue with their full-length show and, as with FTRW, a free pre-show workshop is also offered.

But, back to the seaside. For much of the show, Jemima is resplendent in a vintage red swimsuit, and through poetry, song and a pedal loop, she explores memories of childhood, holidays and darker experiences in several key scenes: the re-telling of a joke in a pub, telling a bedtime story to young nephews, recalling family holidays by the sea.

Salt air swaddled us

Framed by an open shell, and on a reflective surface scattered with sand, changes in lighting signify different settings – the focused light of a tent at night, a bright, sunny day, and the dappling of shimmering water. Jemima expertly weaves moods and melodies through words and movement; the ‘doo-wap’ poem is particularly effective, her cheeky humour not always drowning the pathos which lurks beneath. 

You have a big, hairy beer belly and you get offended when I mention it

I watch you closely as you push barbed fish hooks into big, maroon maggots

Described as a poetry play, there is no distinct chronology to the narrative in this show, and some may feel frustrated that fragments of story and experience aren’t resolved, however, I found this mesmerising. After all, there is no rule to how memory and experiences ebb and flow in one’s mind, and there is a strong sense of floating in and out with Jemima’s poetic tides. With echoes of playwright Caryl Churchill’s experimentation with language, repeated phrases and motifs take on different subtleties as the performance progresses and combine; the phrase “I’d just turned ten” denotes both a childlike innocence and later, a more sinister recollection.

Jemima’s performance is siren-like: engaging and charming, she creates soaring sounds, sometimes a little too loud but a representation of the discordant effect of a multitude of competing, inner voices. We are lulled by the waves, but aware of danger. 

Above the Mealy-mouthed Sea is a voyage for the senses and expertly evokes picture postcards of familiarity – alert to the joy of fish and chips but with a salty sting in the air.

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Two soups – the old and the new

TwoSoupsDelivery of my Wonky Veg box from Morrisons yesterday, a build-up of courgettes and trying to be organised for weekday lunches meant some hot soup action this morning.

I’m a ‘try-it-and-see’ kind of cook; I use a recipe more for inspiration, and am happy to venture into the kitchen and adapt what I’ve got available – that’s me, always living on the edge (not with baking though – I don’t wish to interfere with the science bit, so best not to fiddle too much until the goodies are baked and tasted).

I like the combination of courgette and cumin; previous courgette soups have been a little bland and insipid-looking, so today I used a red onion instead of the usual bog-standard brown, and added a garlic clove.

Courgette and cumin soup with red onion

cumin seeds – a good teaspoon
a little oil
1 red onion, chopped
small garlic clove, chopped
2 large courgettes, sliced
1 medium potato, peeled and chopped
stock (I like Kallo Organic vegetable stock cubes  – I don’t measure the water but I think this was about 750ml – 1 litre. Enough to cover all the veg in the saucepan plus about about a centimetre more. If too thick after blending, add some more boiled water)

Heat oil in a largish saucepan, throw in cumin seeds, allow to sizzle for 30 seconds or so to release their aroma.

Add chopped onion and allow to sweat down for several minutes. Stir in garlic and cook another minute or two. Stir in courgette, cook for a minute or two, then add the potato and stir. After another minute, add the stock, stir, pop the lid on. Bring to boil, then simmer for about 20 minutes.

Blend, taste, season.

courgette soup
the red onion and garlic give a deeper flavour – not a huge difference to previous versions, but enough to notice. The cumin provides earthy tones.




Jean’s carrot soup (with Sally’s tweaks)

a little oil
1 large onion, chopped
5 carrots, peeled and chopped
1 large potato, peeled and chopped
stock (cube as above)

Heat oil, sweat down onion for a few minutes. Add carrots, stir and cook for a minute or two, add potato and cook a mother minute or so. Add stock, pop on the lid and cook for 20 minutes or so until all the veg is soft.

Blend, season, taste.

Jean recommends adding a knob of butter when blending. I don’t do it, but feel free.

Verdict: I love this soup, and make it all the time. You could add some chopped parsley or coriander when serving if you had the urge.

Variations: Such is the versatility of soup, and this recipe, I’ve previously chucked in a ‘getting-a-bit-bendy’ parsnip and used up a stalk or two of celery with the onion which gives a slightly sweeter flavour.

PS – delighted to receive two books for Christmas featuring soup. I’m still pouring over them (oh, a soup pun), but will report back on results.

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Roald Dahl’s George’s Marvellous Medicine – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Curve and Rose Theatre Kingston present
Roald Dahl’s George’s Marvellous Medicine
adapted by David Wood
directed by Julia Thomas

Continuing what is becoming something of a Christmas tradition, Curve serves up another dose of Roald Dahl for younger audiences; this year it is George’s Marvellous Medicine, adapted by David Wood, and the third co-production with Rose Theatre Kingston.

Providing a little additional backstory not in Dahl’s 1981 book, we see young George enjoying life with his mum and dad down on the farm. Cut off from his friends during the school holidays, he disappears into books and his imagination to pass the time until the whole family’s world is turned upside down by the arrival of Grandma (something many may be experiencing, not just over the school holidays).

However, Grandma is not a very nice grandma and she soon has everyone living in fear of her next unreasonable demand. George bears the brunt, not least having to give up his bedroom for her, and he devises a marvellous medicine to transform her from nasty to nice. Inevitable ‘hilarious consequences’ occur, but, as ever with Dahl, matters are resolved in brutal, dramatic fashion.

This production is perfect for the four-year-old to early teen in your life, featuring bubbles, bangs and bodily functions as well as some small-scale audience participation. Preston Nyman immediately endears and engages as George, and we are more than happy with his plan to deal with his uber-horrible relative.

Lisa Howard is great fun as a brusque, Northern Joan Collins-esque Grandma, wielding her leopardskin grabber like an evil claw, whilst also managing to operate some very unwieldy-looking giant arms (an after-effect of said marvellous medicine). A fine performance from Chandni Mistry as Chicken, and Catherine Morris (Mum) and Justin Wilman (Dad, whilst playing numerous on stage musical accompaniments) provide excellent support.

Director Julia Thomas keeps things moving briskly with some clever touches in Morgan Large’s costume and set design and the whole creative team marry complex lighting and sound effects into a harmonious blend.

All age spectrums in the audience appeared fully engaged in the performance and, in an auditorium where the heady aroma of eau d’Haribo hangs thick in the airsome bang-up-to-date political references are a nice distraction for post-teen members of the audience.

Those with any health and safety concerns may also be pleased to hear the final song “Don’t Try This at Home” heeds the fact that George’s marvellous medicine comprises kitchen and bathroom cabinet staples.

Less gross-out than other Dahl adaptations, this show is no less charming with a strong moral message to absorb—be nice to each other, or else. A fun, family show—not just for Christmas.

Images by Manuel Harlan

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Scrooge The Musical – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Made at Curve in association with Michael Harrison and David Ian present
Scrooge The Musical
Book, music and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse
Directed by Nikolai Foster
Curve Theatre, Leicester

Christmas has come early to Curve as its latest production Scrooge the Musical opens, a month before Christmas Eve.

Stuffed-full with Victoriana, carol singers and Gawd-bless-you-guv’nor cheer, director Nikolai Foster and his creative team have pulled out some major crackers with their main show for the festive season.

Heavily based on Charles Dickens’s The Christmas Carol, Leslie Bricusse composed the score for the 1970 film Scrooge for which he received an Oscar nomination. Bricusse subsequently wrote book, music and lyrics for the stage version; it opened in Birmingham in 1992, transferred to the West End in 1996 and has enjoyed relative success in the UK over the years.

Dickens, master storyteller and creator of instantly recognisable characters, pretty much wrote the template for our Christmases since 1843 when A Christmas Carol was published.  Wisely, Bricusse stuck to the core story of Scrooge’s redemptive journey, and in these days of austerity and our issues with how we treat our fellow human beings, it is a message worth hearing again.

As the clock strikes 7PM on Christmas Eve, 1843, mean and miserly Ebeneezer Scrooge reluctantly allows his clerk Bob Cratchit home for Christmas to his poor but happy family. During the night, Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his former business partner, Marley, followed by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, giving Scrooge the opportunity to re-consider his wicked ways. I don’t think this counts as a spoiler, however, Scrooge plumps for being nice from now onwards and everyone is happy—hooray!

Jasper Britton gives a satisfyingly curmudgeonly performance as Scrooge; his comic timing is perfect and he commands the stage, his expressive face doing a lot of the work. So what if he’s not the greatest singer on stage, he personifies what Scrooge is all about. Nathaneal Landskroner doubling as Young Scrooge and Nephew Harry provides an excellent counterpoint to Scrooge’s older self as we gain an emotional glimpse into his earlier life.

From stage to ceiling, upstage and downstage, Curve’s vast space is fully utilised by Michael Taylor’s exceptional set design, complete with nightshirts festooned like bunting across Cheapside’s dark and gloomy streets. Ben Cracknell’s lighting design is breathtaking, greatly enhancing the story’s depiction of darkness and light in character, setting and mood.

However, all the tricks can’t disguise the lack of strong musical numbers, save one or two, particularly “Thank You Very Much”. The score is good but not great, and I often had a sense throughout of phrases from other songs from other musicals, and several just don’t seem to get going. In “The Milk of Human Kindness”, the ubiquitous “jolly number with the ‘poor folk’ getting drunk”, it’s “Oom Pah Pah” without the oomph; Oliver-lite.

A shame as, visually, the set pieces are exuberantly choreographed (Stephen Mears), and there is colour, humour and fine performances by the company in “December the Twenty-Fifth” and “Toy Ballet”.

This is a family show, however, I should warn those attending with young children: you may have trouble whenever memories of Marley’s ghost and entourage of chain-thrashing, wardrobe-hiding zombies recur.

With its pies and plum pudding, the haves and have-nots, this sumptuous production also serves up an opportunity for audiences to re-consider some of the messages behind the festive season.

Images by Pamela Raith

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Find the Right Words – review

This review first appeared in Sabotage Reviews

Find the Right Words
Upstairs at the Western, Leicester
15 November 2017

A review of one of Leicester’s regular spoken word events, Find the Right Words (FTRW), is long overdue*, having appeared on the Sabotage Awards long lists for best regular spoken word show in both 2016 and 2017. Created and compered by performance poet and playwright Jess Green, FTRW – on the 3rd Wednesday of the month – has been going for five years now, four of them based at pub theatre Upstairs at the Western.

Jess secures some of the country’s top spoken word performers, and uniquely, offers a free, hour long workshop before ‘curtain up’ run by one of the two featured artists. With a roll call of past performers including Buddy Wakefield, Hollie McNish, Jemima Foxtrot, Inua Ellams, Paula Varjack and Elvis McGonagall, these workshops are a gift from the word gods.

After the free workshop, FTRW follows this format: ten open mic slots, two headline guest poets, and a coveted speed poet slot (not forgetting a raffle).  With support from Apples and SnakesFTRW keeps going through ticket sales  – a price of £8/£6 concession is pretty fair for a good couple of hours of quality spoken word.

Part one: Lego, Barbi and Jeremy Corbyn

There’s a supportive, relaxed feel to this show, and boasts a hardcore of regulars. Initial business of the night involves the audience deciding on the three topics the speed poet must feature in a poem, and tonight it was the turn of James Ward to disappear downstairs, notebook and pen in hand.

Jess performed a poem from her forthcoming Burning Eye Books collection Self-Help Guide to Being in Love with Jeremy Corbyn (due to be published July 2018); it is both plaintive and amusing, with faint echoes of Wallace Stevens’ ‘Adagia’.

And now, the first five open mics. At any spoken word event I inwardly cringe when a poem is introduced with words along the lines of ‘I wrote this on my way here, it’s not very good’ (and which happened several times during the show). I know it’s a confidence thing and scribbled notes in a book may not seem much, but they can transform into magic when read or performed – poets, please have faith!

Moving effortlessly between humour and anger, Jay performed a couple of poems on transgender life with amusing thoughts on moving from use of the ladies to the gents, and a great re-working of the adage ‘our aim is to keep these toilets clean, your aim will help’.

Singer, songwriter and poet Grace Petrie read a ‘just-written’ poem but it had a polished feel – thoughtful and moving, and with astute points about her relationship with the word ‘butch’.

Dickie-bowed Poetman read his recent musings on artificial intelligence and Merrill presented an unusual (and effective) contemplation of his life when looked at as a series of stairs.

With themes including Kristallnacht and Afghanistan, Michelle read two excellent poems, both packing an emotional, but well-controlled punch.  Her first considered her prized Afghan coat from the 1970s and what it means to her now having recently taught an orphaned Afghan boy, once a goatherd in the mountains but now a refugee in a strange land.

First headliner of the night, and leader of the earlier workshop, was Louise Fazackerley (a 2016 Sabotage Awards long-lister with her show Council House Poetry).

Louise’s warm, reassuring style of delivery and Wigan vowels contrast with the jagged edges of the lives of the protagonists in her poems. Her collection Love is a Battlefield, the result of a BBC3 The Verb New Voices commissionconsiders the effect of war on soldiers (and their families) who served in Afghanistan, and, as is often the way at readings, coincidental connections appear throughout the evening  – Louise’s work showed another side of the same ‘war changes lives’ coin, a counterpoint to Michelle’s earlier poem about the Afghan refugee boy.

Louise creates some wonderfully concrete imagery:

Sweat glands seep
Lego men and workwear Barbis

‘RSVP’ is a love song to rain:

Let hoods fall while the streets become streams, the roads become rivers,
riding waves down to the call of woods and beck.

and good advice worth taking in ‘Fly’:

there’s only one life we’re living
so let’s fly

Part two: weddings and waving

Jess opened the second half with ‘Innuendo and Hotpot’, a heartfelt plea to the current producers of Coronation Street.

James the speed poet returned to the fold to perform a lovely tribute to Jess following her recent wedding to Dave – the randomly selected themes of weddings, sequins, Bonfire Night and the Australian vote fitting nicely together.

The next set of five open mics began with Gill who energised her poems with movement, and a lovely wry observation of what it’s like as the stationary waver and watcher of family members enjoying the many revolutions of a carousel.

Mike alerted us to the dangers of homonyms off-page – his poems on mourning and morning were delivered with quiet care, heightening their emotional power.  In contrast, Sammy performed her intense poem about love and addiction with good control of pacing and delivery.

Christine’s amusing reactions to visiting a bird fair at Rutland Water this summer also informed, with a line many of us are unlikely to write:

we learnt about the dragonfly
squirting water from its anal passages

Her delivery had great comic presence, and put me in mind of Josie Lawrence.

Shruti is working on her show Sky Diaries, and she performed two poems which examine her cultural heritage, particularly how she has come to embrace, and love the meaning behind her Sanskrit name.

Caroline Teague, also known as Caroline Smiling, was the second headliner of the night, and brought beautiful music into the intimate space. Another engaging performer, her rich, soulful voice wraps you up like a warm hug – she is also an expert giver of hugs, which is always a good thing if words ever fail.

She is inspired by place, particularly her life growing up and living in London; ‘Good Earth’ describes the richness of cultures in Harlesdon:

Dialects bounce off the walls

Accompanying several of her poems with her ukelele, Caroline’s performances and poems are sensual and her final poem, ‘On the Bad Days’ is melancholic yet uplifting – the description of her work as tragic optimism is beautifully put. 

And what words would I use to describe FTRW? Welcoming, warm, witty and wise.

Image supplied by Find the Right Words

* A confession: as co-founder and a director of Upstairs at the Western from 2012 to December 2016, I attended many Find the Right Words and have watched it grow and develop. I am no longer involved in the running and programming at the venue, and therefore delighted to now be free to enjoy the show as a ‘normal’ audience member.

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The Secret Keeper – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

ClerkinWorks and Ovalhouse present
The Secret Keeper
by Angela Clerking
directed by Angela Clerking and Lucy J Skilbeck
Curve Theatre, Leicester

ClerkinWorks and Ovalhouse’s production The Secret Keeper takes the homespun advice of “a problem shared is a problem halved” to a new dimension: share a secret and you will be totally free of your terrible burden, providing your confidant keeps mum.

Written by Angela Clerkin, The Secret Keeper is billed as a “political fairytale for adults with songs, magpies and a murderous gothic heart”.

There are indeed a handful of songs and a murder of magpies, however, the murderous gothic heart needs coaxing out.

The Good Daughter’s father, the Dolls House Maker, has suffered with a terrible melancholy ever since the murder of his brother nine years before. To make her father happy, The Good Daughter listens to his darkest secret and vows never to tell a living soul. The relief of passing his secret to another causes him to encourage first his wife, then the rest of the village to unburden themselves to his daughter (now wearing her official Secret Keeper outfit of hooded, lamé cloak and giant ears).

Suffice to say, the weight of the village’s secrets make her unwell and The Good Daughter frees herself of her own burden by revealing all. Revenge is swift and conclusive.

Performances from the four-strong cast playing many roles are excellent, with Niall Ashdown and Anne Odeke perfect as the conniving parents and Hazel Maycock’s hapless Chemist and imperious King’s Right Hand Man are amusing. Clerkin is an amiable narrator and plays The Good Daughter deadpan.

Some nice macabre touches include a severed doll announcing the scene changes and Colin Grenfell’s lighting design adds to the mood. In the second act, apart from an effective opening scene (a trade union meeting of crows verging on Pythonesque absurdity), the stark lighting prevalent has the effect of dispelling the magic. In contrast, act one’s darkness pierced by beams and starry sky really add to the fairytale aspect.

The piece as a whole seems unsure of exactly which style to stick with; the humour is knowing and savvy, although there are times when it relies on out-of-place expletives. The darker moments work well, particularly the mysterious ending, but there are too few of them.

Although “other-worldy”, there are many topical issues which are touched on but, frustratingly, skirt around rather than confront, not least the consequences of the transference of guilt and public outing of information that is not yours to divulge. In 2017, we’re up to our retinas in secrets, with data protection and privacy, leaks and fake news and the differing fortunes of whistleblowers, yet the hints at this are unsatisfying.

A quirky, creative piece which grazes rather than feeds on a topical subject.

Images by Sheila Burnett

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The Leftovers – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Sheep Soup presents
The Leftovers
Book by Nic Harvey
Music and lyrics by Nic Harvey and Rob Green

Sheep Soup’s The Leftovers is the first musical to be commissioned for performance at Curve’s 250+ seater Studio space and is performed as part of the venue’s Inside Out Festival 2017.

Over two years in development, The Leftovers is an examination of different responses to grief via “a musical in a naturalistic setting”. The team behind this project are graduates of Nottingham’s BAFTA award-winning Television Workshop which specialises in naturalistic performance and improvisation.

Set in a recording studio, five people gather, some know each other, some don’t, but they all knew Jodie at different points in their lives. Jodie has been dead for a year but they have gathered to record a tribute to her and honour her memory. Trouble is, Jodie didn’t seem like a particularly nice person which is fair enough, we don’t have to like characters, but as a central, unseen presence there needs to be something about her to make you care.

Fortunately for Yaz (Philippa Hogg), Jim (Ben Welch), Hayley (Sarah White), Angie (Wreh-asha Walton) and Russ (Tim Murphy), Jodie was a prolific documenter of her thoughts and, as the group delve into her papers, drawings and Facebook account, each of the characters attempts to resolve their feelings towards Jodie, and to each other.

And that’s it as far as plot is concerned. Unfortunately, the book of The Leftovers (Nic Harvey) is clichéd and lacks any real drama; naturalism has been taken too far in many instances with a narrative that includes too much of the mundane minutiae of life.

Conversely, Harvey and Rob Green’s original score is accomplished, beautifully sung and includes a variety of styles and moods. The paean to the ’90s is amusing and witty, and the lyrics throughout are clever. As meta-musical theatre, these elements work best as individuals apparently improvise the creation of a musical tribute.

Russ has most of the best lines and Murphy delivers them with a nice mix of sarcasm and surreality. Ben Welch has great comic timing and a stunning singing voice, as does Wreh-asha Walton; her solo numbers are soulful and delivered with impressive control and power.

One finds oneself longing to just hear the songs, a good thing in a musical, however,  a musical also requires songs that drive the narrative forward and unfortunately, this is where the talented cast are let down. All good stories begin at a crucial point in key characters’ lives; we want to get behind them, share the impact of their decisions and desires and care about what happens to them. Why not start in the immediate aftermath of Jodie’s death, for example, and see for ourselves how the characters react and change over time?

The improv feel to this is good, however, it should be noted this is a professional production with Arts Council funding. Running 25 minutes over the stated time is not a good thing, and there appear to be no production images. Notwithstanding the creative side, this stuff also matters, especially if you are given an invaluable opportunity to perform in a leading theatre’s key space.

The programme sheet name-checks over 30 individuals and organisations who assisted with development of The Leftovers and I can’t help wondering if the lack of underlying narrative has been raised at any point—it does need addressing.

During the spoken elements of the show, there is a sense the audience is intruding on a private conversation, only it’s a conversation I don’t particularly want to be involved in. A shame, as the music is wonderful.

Image supplied by Curve

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