Author Archives: Beccy Smith


About Beccy Smith

Beccy Smith is a freelance dramaturg who specialises in developing visual performance and theatre for young people, including through her own company TouchedTheatre. She is passionate about developing quality writing on and for new performance. Beccy has worked for Total Theatre Magazine as a writer, critic and editor for the past five years. She is always keen to hear from new writers interested in developing their writing on contemporary theatre forms.

Emma Frankland: Hearty

Hearty is the fifth in Frankland’s series of solos, NONE OF US IS YET A ROBOT about trans identity and her own transition experiences. It completes this body of work with a call to arms.

In the decrepit setting of Summerhall’s peeling Dissection Room, water pools the floor and a looped projection of fuzzy newsreels sears your eyes on entry. In a festival where the majority of shows speedily try to superimpose themselves on a space that’s theirs for barely an hour, the synergy of context and content here is smart and powerful. Hearty’s approach is almost site responsive, colonising walls, floor, the steep Victorian lecture bank of seats. in here, we’re in her world: a sanctuary and an outpost.

A siren wails and she plunges into the space, clutching a wooden box and bolting the doors behind her. The experience of a hostile external world is one of several looping threads woven through the piece. It sits alongside a deeply personal monologue giving insight to the lived experience of using the HRT of the title to transition; a political exhortation around the long and erased history of transsexual women (figured here as powerful and transgressive winged beings); and repeated real physical challenges that build towards a sense of ritual. It’s a complex dramaturgy that effectively articulates the innate tensions and contradictions of the experience under scrutiny: single within double, the politicisation of individual identity, the organic self-realisation delivered by synthetic chemicals. The production engages richly with its ideas, supported by presence of no less than four artists (Myriddin Pharo, who also designs, Keir Cooper, also scoring, Rachel Clerke and Ivo Macaskill) with dramaturgical input.

This could be difficult, serious theatre, and it’s certainly not material that lends itself to playfulness, but its embodied use of space and atmosphere places us in the heart (appropriately enough) of these ideas. We’re in the bunker with Emma. The water, fire, knives are all real and palpably present – this is no intellectual exercise. Pharo’s costume – fierce metal wings made of knives and a giant fleshy tail that pours over the back of Frankland’s tights – powerfully encapsulates the power, freakishness and beauty of the state of being described by the solo. There’s a story here – the dangerous uncovering of stories of silenced voices buried and rediscovered in Frankland’s bunker space – but it’s the looping, ever deepening structure that cycles though elation, fearfulness, potency, threat and horror in a viscerally embodied language, that accumulates to a deeper understanding of trans experiences and the precariousness of the contemporary world they face.

Honolulu Theatre for Youth and Annie Cusick Wood: Sparkle

Sparkle has been created by Scottish theatre-maker Annie Cusick Wood, former collaborator with the acclaimed Catherine Wheels (who share a supporting credit for this show) and Visible Fictions before her move to Hawaii. Aimed at 3 – 8 year olds, the production digs into those intense first experiences of starting school through the lens of one sparkly boy’s efforts to hang on to his identity.

It’s an identity that does not conform to the one-size-fits-all cut out paper doll expectations of the students around him and the production finds some effective theatrical languages to really hone in on the hopefulness and vulnerability of this pivotal moment for young children. Sparkle – first figured as a golden child in a bubble, much to the delight of my four year old – lives in a simple world of a rather magical small white tent, with his companion Gerald the caterpillar and cared for his friend and our narrator (Tina Uyeno). Strings of cut-out dolls are brought to life in shadow form, animated with the real voices of children’s laughter. Later, their presence hangs heavy on the upstage flat when Sparkle is at home. His name encapsulates his identity as a boy who loves glitter and tutus and resists the blazer and sensible shoes he must wear to school.

Catherine Wheel’s influence can be felt in the material unfolding that underpins the story’s shape. A simple rhythm tales us through Sparkle’s first three days at school; he wakes from his tent, tries to dress for his day and then the discoveries and tribulations of the playground are watched by Uyeno as shadow scenes through a golden telescope. The rhythm soon feels predictable, but this supports the show to go to some difficult places in its unflinching focus on the difficulties Sparkle faces at school for being different and his anguish and confusion at his treatment.

This is a simple, accessible show, gently done, that celebrates difference and retains an authentic child’s eye view, despite a fully grown man (Nathaniel Niemi) embodying the five year old Sparkle. I hope my own school starter will take its kind and hopeful message into his class.

The Herd: SLIME

The Herd are a Hull-based company making new work that connects with young people and SLIME is an engaging theatre experience for younger children bringing to life some of the magic of the micro in our gardens. I really appreciate seeing a children’s show that sidesteps cutesier creatures in favour of insect protagonists and a perspective from down in the dirt. Young children are sponges when it comes to relating to the world around them, and anything attempting to rehabilitate sympathy for our insect co-dependents is a Good Thing in my book.

The show does a lot of things right. The company have created an intriguing and welcoming environment, that fully wraps a back room in Edinburgh’s Central Library. Converting it into a ‘slime garden’ involves enclosing it with giant grass blades sculpted in coloured foam, while squishy foam pebbles and floor create a pleasingly tactile environment. Created for 2-5 year olds, the story employs only 12 words, all supported with BSL in the performance, to effectively articulate the plight of a slug and a caterpillar in a garden with only one leaf, just out of reach, to satisfy their urgent hunger. The characters are interestingly and sympathetically drawn: Lucy Bairstow’s Slug is sweet and open, fully embodying the joys of slime’s sensory therapeutic qualities. Finlay McGuigan plays arrogant Caterpillar for laughs, but both actors mange to convey the desperation of life at arthropod level and the urgency of their situation even as they, inevitably, overcome their difference to become friends.

This heightened emotion – the alarming (literally) threat of slug pellets; the desperate hunger and hurtfulness of some of their interactions, maintains a level of intensity throughout that is a bit much for younger audiences. The show hasn’t yet found the space and quieter bits of performance to invite a sense of ease and wonder which would balance the fear and conflict. The storytelling rhythm also needs a bit of refinement – its drive and that essential clarity of intention needed by very young audiences get looser at points in the middle. But the performances are detailed and really fun, and the show’s intention making insects identifiable is heart-warming and important work.

Trick of the Light: Tröll

Tröll is the seventh production by award-winning New Zealand company, Trick of the Light and the second of their shows I have seen. Their work is marked out by a satisfying aesthetic rigour that playfully interweaves visual languages and new writing to create a very complete on-stage world. In Tröll, that world is the 90s, specifically the 90s as experienced by 12-year-old Otto, coming to terms with life in a new house with an old family member, in a new part of New Zealand.

As an exuberant monologue on the joys and lows of adolescent adventures in the new playground of the internet, the show is sweet and funny, grounded in a detailed and affectionate performance by company director Ralph McCubbin-Howell’s that walks (and bounces) just on the right side of naivete. Otto is a proud member of nerdish chatroom The Round Table where they discuss important historical ‘facts’ of the time, attempting together to shed some light on the Dark Ages. The chat room is a sanctuary, at least for a little while, from the bullying Otto’s experiencing IRL (‘in real life’ as he proudly explains to us) but when that sanctuary is invaded he must turn to his aged ‘Viking’ grandmother to gnomically expand his understanding. It is her whose arrival due to ill health imposes the move that triggers the story, and she who first characterises the vulnerability plaguing him as a Tröll.

The company have riffed on these three languages – of the early internet, Medieval history and Nordic myth – to create a rich palette for their storytelling. Anchored in a small illuminated square of stage, a single desk, a flight case, an operating table and a lot of extended looping wires, mythic worlds behind walls and down cables are conjured. The material is highly identifiable and originally told: physicality, miniature worlds, arresting imagery (including a very pleasing use of a vaper), handheld projection, shadows and puppetry are all deftly spun together. The company have found myriad surprising and enchanting ways to animate Otto’s world view, and the 90s aesthetic is a very effective bridge between history and the now, the familiar and the strange – as well as being bang on trend.

Because now, of course, the days of dial-up, of spiky acronyms and pixelated characters seem in some ways like the Dark Ages themselves. In its final moments, the show bursts out of its magic realism memoir into something more sober and nuanced: a comment on the weave of childhood into our adult lives, and the threads that link together the stories that we tell to the metaphors we share.

The PappyShow: Boys

In contemporary conversation, gender is increasingly understood as a performance, the response to social conditioning and a mask that can shape or even overwhelm the individual. The PappyShow’s celebration of contemporary maleness, Boys, joyfully embodies the opposite point of view. A romping ensemble piece with a cast of thirteen, the show sets out to explode narrow definitions of gender or type and instead fully embrace the breadth of individual perspective that makes up the experiences of young British men of colour in 2019. In doing so, they turn the problem on its head, forcing an expansion of the definition – they are proudly, variously ‘boys’ and also undeniably all their own true selves.

The production has been developed through extensive workshop sessions exploring physical work, devising and exercise, for which the company was established by director Kane Husbands in 2013. Their show has emerged almost as a bi-product of this process. The holding open of this space for the various participant-performers has generated material with a profound authenticity and playfulness. Games and competition – often led on-stage on this evening by Kwami Odoom, the company’s Education and Outreach Coordinator – are used as the engine for many scenes, from overt competitions of strength and stamina, to scenes formed from statement disclosures on a topic set anew each night. The whole is put together with a lightness of touch that makes no apologies for the workshop feel of some scenes (amply balanced by some lovely and detailed choreographic sequences) – the company’s charm leads us through the looser sections. Playing themselves, the boys are nevertheless compelling creations who we want to spend time with.    

The overall atmosphere is infectiously warm, inclusive and fun and it’s easy to forget how unusual and important it is on an British stage for a show to foreground these stories and, indeed, these bodies. Together, the ensemble share stories, both through movement, often accompanied by a really banging soundtrack, and through gesture, physical image and storytelling. The stories are of their origins, of moments that have shaped them, of their loves and losses, and of the life challenges they face now in this moment. This is a performance in which we are all undeniably here together in this place with these individuals: the performance’s immediacy casts a powerful spell.   

They decide to open the performance with ‘a fight’– a familiar scene of boisterousness and aggression that suddenly turns and runs out of control.  All of the show’s content, much of which packs a real emotional punch, is presented without comment.  ‘Here we are,’ they say, ‘take us or leave us – here we all are: lovers, competitors, fathers and sons, flirts, husbands, heroes and criminals; lost in love, in grief, in fear, in solidarity.’ In presenting these stories with such an open hand, with a joy in their performing and a tenderness toward their material, the show delivers a response to the vexed question of contemporary manhood with the care and respect it deserves.


Featured image (top) PappyShow: Boys. Photo Dina Tse