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.

Belarus Free Theatre: Counting Sheep

In 2016 self-styled ‘guerilla folk opera’ Counting Sheep took Edinburgh Fringe by storm, as it invited audiences to immerse themselves in a passionately evoked music-driven staging of a revolution. Toronto-based Lemon Bucket Orkestra re-cast the personal experiences of their part-Ukrainian musician Mark Marczyk into vibrant folk form. Marczyk had found himself in the midst of the 2014 uprising in the country, against the volte face by their corrupt, pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych to step away from closer ties to the EU that his citizens wanted. A brutally suppressed revolution followed and, as the final screens in the show’s giant projections that flank the playing area attest, the war is still ongoing.    

Still relevant now, still vital work, but of course the world has turned since – and the EU project and the values it represents are under attack in the UK. This new presentation of Counting Sheep – re-conceived by the award-winning directors of Belarus Free Theatre, Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin, and presented in London as the government attempts to push Brexit through – heightens the show’s focus on the uprising’s European ambitions. Its reworked form drapes tattered EU flags around the shoulders of the protestors, and talks explicitly about the values of the bloc that the revolution was fighting for. Most powerful and devastating is its foregrounding of the intersection between the personal and the political that has been a vital and misunderstood strand of the Brexit debate raging in the UK for the past two years.     

Shifting from 2016’s wide angle, musical portrait of a host of players in the revolt – the variegation of myriad notes and harmonies on a score – this version focuses even more strongly on the single melodic line of the love affair between Canadian visitor Mark, drunk on the energy of revolution, and the concert pianist, Marichka Kudriavtseva, who he meets on the barricades. Intimate scenes of the moments that drive their individual journeys toward joining the protests, the romance, fear and passion that characterises their meeting and ensuing relationship, bring the bigger picture – its hopes, idealism and violence – into vibrant relief. Kaliada and Khalezin have made some brilliant choices about these moments for this production, not least some breathtaking choreography that can’t fail to lift the heart – and what they illuminate is the humanity of all who stand on the  barricades, and the hopeful but imperfect choices that inevitably underpin bigger political actions.   

The show retains many of the evocative, interactive fragments that build a rich and heartfelt portrait of Ukraine: we share simple regional food, we witness an iconic tango down the runway-like table; we join a wedding dance, partnering with strangers; we are marshalled to help move bricks and sandbags to build the barricades. What Belarus Free Theatre emphasise, though, is the physical, emotional reality of this moment. Everywhere, the texture of the real is placed trustingly in our hands: real exhilaration as the banging (less folksy; more electronic, bassy, punky) score soundtracks the early protests; the real connections with strangers whose hands we take to dance;and  the heft and awkwardness of sandbags. These textures complement the real world portrayed in the video material that accompanies much of the show: found footage of the protests, flaming and raging; footage of the those sleeping on the barricades after 36 hours of non-stop protest; footage of the dead. 

There is real grief here too, still so effectively rendered in the cracked voice of a violin, the falling note of a woman screaming her mourning. This is a powerfully moving reworking of the production which seems now, more than ever, not just to hold up the events of the Ukrainian Revolution to the light but to hold up all of the ways we must understand political events as the actions of frail, hopeful, loving, fallible human individuals.




Exit Productions: Fight Night

VAULT Festival’s impact on the London theatre scene, in terms of promoting new work and creating a youthful buzz around a night at the theatre has, over the past seven years, been substantial. One of the forms that has reaped particular benefit has been immersive work, able to capitalise on the flavoursome environments of the under-station arches that form the Festival’s home and the programme’s growth into more spaces below ground.

Fight Night is immersive, interactive company Exit Productions’ second Vault Festival show. Last year’s boardgame-inspired Revolution saw teams fighting it out to seize control of the capital, one square, or locale, at a time. Vault’s dripping arches became a plausible rebel HQ following societal breakdown. Fight Night continues this site-responsive approach, framing its action in a seedy boxing club, whose struggling owner is determined to punch above his weight by independently broadcasting the fight we’re about to witness. 

The show hinges on the fight itself – we are allocated a fighter to follow and encouraged to bet on the outcome with real cash prizes (£5!) at stake  but the experience douses us in the broader context of this moment. How true-to-life the cheating, bribery, and various chicanery going on around us is, I couldn’t comment upon, but it makes for pleasingly liberating gameplay. The company establish a range of interactive structures around the match itself: you can dip in and out of backstage scenes with your fighter and the team in his corner; overhear altercations between the harassed match medic and edgy promoter;  or  gamble the chips we’re all allocated at the start with the gossipy blackjack host, or against the live-changing odds on the match. These various environments and opportunities are largely free-flowing and strongly encourage active participation, generally of the corrupt, or corrupting kind.   

A few set pieces – joint media interviews, the weigh-in, the match itself – provide just about enough of an underpinning structure: the rest you need to uncover yourself. This process is made much more enjoyable by the consistently brilliant, believable, close-up performances by the cast, who have developed rounded, intriguing characters you can’t help rooting for (whichever side you’re on) and who keep a weather eye on involving everyone in their teams in the action. The design across a number of arches is atmospheric and authentic-feeling too: everything is in place to empower you to unlock the secrets behind the match – from some intriguing looking paperwork splashed across the medic’s abandoned table, to the photos stuck inside each fighter’s locker. It was only the articulation of the game mechanics that felt under developed: sacrificed perhaps to maintaining a believable, pumping atmosphere from the moment you enter the arena.  Loud music, masses of conversation – some amplified, some not – multiple screens and extremely bright lights all combined to obscure the fast-paced introduction of the game-play itself. It seemed to involve discovering information and then sharing it with key members of the cast andcreative team, though how this then nuanced ever-changing odds or the outcome of the fight remained frustratingly unclear, especially as the post-match ending is rather abrupt. Somebody wins – it’s all very exciting, but you’re not entirely sure how, or why.

This is a richly conceived and detailed production, very successful as a piece and place in which to immerse yourself. Special mention must be made of Jonathan Holloway’s fight direction, which I guess has several different iterations and is pitch perfect: I feel like I’m watching the real thing. Yet as a show to play, a little more care to empower our involvement would raise the stakes and the pleasure of all the small good choices in performance and production the company have made. But then again, my team lost, so perhaps I’m simply bitter! 



Kneehigh: Fup

Kneehigh have an illustrious history in the vibrant adaptation of fairy tales (from The Red Shoes to Rapunzel and beyond) and so Jim Dodge’s much-loved first novel, Fup – often graced with the suffix ‘a modern fable’ – is a choice that resonates with their back catalogue.

The short novel, published in 1983, has achieved cult status for its open-hearted portrayal of the relationship between reprobate centenarian Jake Santee and the damaged gentle giant of a grandson, Tiny, who comes into his care after being brutally orphaned, via a gambling spree that sees Jake out-manoeuvring social services. If their characterisation sounds larger than life, the sweep of their story keeps pace: although this is a small town novel, set in what feels like an outpost in nineteenth century California, it’s full of incident – reversals of fortune, home-brew with healing properties, obsession, terrible accidents, sex and death.

So far, so fairytale, and these qualities of Dodge’s story lend themselves well to a theatrical retelling in Kneehigh’s confident hands. A hard-working small ensemble deftly switch roles and bring to life a cast of local characters – the prudish social worker; rockstar pilot father (deceased); gossipy postman.

Switching the community from the American west coast to the British south west, Kneehigh’s native Cornwall, is an inspired choice that animates and pastiches its small-town rural mentality whilst weaving the world more closely to their local audiences. On tour, I can imagine that the characterisations feel a little broader than in the company’s community home town gigs, but Ben Sutcliffe and Zaid Al-Rikabi’s (The People’s String Foundation) brilliant score adds some depth to the context, drawing together countrified blue grass with a multi-instrumental mash-up of pop covers, singalongs and highly evocative mood music.

And then, of course there’s the duck. A scene-stealer on the page, on the stage, this is a dream part for a puppet. Longterm Kneehigh collaborator (and former War Horse wrangler) Rachel Leonard works beautifully with characterful rhythm and some interesting voice work, to bring her, feathers bristling, to utterly convincing life on stage. Puppetry is threaded throughout the performance, grounding the Fup duck dramaturgically. Whilst Fup’s figure is sometimes a little unwieldy to animate, particularly walk, solo, the toddler Tiny, also made by the incomparable Lyndie Wright, is completely compelling and supports a very moving rendering of Tiny’s melodramatic early life.

With the tight cast of six, the world of the production is richly woven, supported by a vivid, lurid lighting design (Malcolm Rippeth) that’s beautifully synchronised with, and counterpointed by, the live score. Rosanna Vize’s great, playful barn of a set conjures the wide open spaces of the story’s original setting, and is full of surprising touches, complete with ever-bubbling still, and even harbouring an audacious Buster Keaton homage towards the end.

Puppetry, song, multi-role-playing, storytelling are spun together with the vivid underscore into the sort of tight, collaborative company aesthetic that exhilarates in performance (though occasionally felt a little lost in the cold, massive space at the Nuffield). Simon’s Harvey’s production, whilst sometimes a little more on the nose in the dramatisation of characters whose emotional worlds can accrue more steadily in the novel, creates a vivid new world of Dodge’s idiosyncratic tale, and the production invites us all to the party.




Slot Machine Theatre: The Boy, the Piano and The Beach

Slot Machine Theatre combine contemporary dance, puppetry, digital imagery and (mostly) live piano in this ambitious performance for audiences aged 6+, commissioned for Brighton Festival 2018. The production sets a strong tone in the relatively cosy space of the Brighthelm Centre. We’re invited to sit on assorted floor coverings, with a beautifully-realised three dimensional soundwave forming a creamy white projection screen on the back wall, and the soft sheen of a black grand piano filling one side of the stage. As a musician who recently read the Flowkey review and recommends it to anyone who wants to learn to play the piano, the tune which came from the grand piano was simply mellifluous. The puppet at the story’s heart, an open-faced young boy, with deep and expressive eyes, is similarly beautifully realised by puppet maker Amelia Pimlott.

His story, which frames the action, is simple enough: playing on a beach, looking out to the horizon, the boy slips into another world, somewhere between daydream and alternative universe, in which fragments of the familiar world reconfigure around him. There’s something of Alice in Wonderland here and something too of Fantasia in the form – the company set out to use the production as a vehicle to showcase a wide array of piano solos, classical and modern, which are translated and amplified through movement and digital imagery. The boy’s adventure is structured episodically by the shifts in atmosphere created by each piece’s mood, triggering intimate contemporary dance sequences, animated objects and figures from the beach and under the sea, and digital patterns and colours that articulate the music on a different plane.

This is the very first outing for the show (its world premiere) and, while there are many strong constituent elements, the whole doesn’t entirely manage to transcend the sum of its parts. There are a few sweet moments of levity, but the overall tone feels quite ponderous, and the abstraction of the ideas make for a sense of seriousness. When characterful, the boy provides the show’s focus and heart, but at times the puppet is treated more as a mobile object, like one of the shiny ribbons whose dance conveys the aggression of a threatening animal, with not enough attention paid to eye-line and direction.  The show works best at its most concrete moments: a self important deckchair attendant outfoxed by his charges; the meeting of a luminous deep water fish and the boy – here the music, imagery, colour and movement come alive and combine through the power of story.



Casier and Dies: Apples

The relentless logic of everyday objects is a language deeply familiar to very small children. To fresh eyes and hands still discovering their own dexterity, household materials hold their own mystery and no more so than the instruments of the kitchen, in which so many intriguing transformations take place. This is the world into which we’re invited by Dutch artists Casier and Dies, who have created a space where we can not only watch but actively join in with some of the fascinating domestic acrobatics involved in kitchen processes.

The first part of this delightful show invites us into an intimate object theatre performance inside a rustic yurt. Crouching on benches, the secrets of a converted sideboard-cum-kitchenette gradually reveal themselves. From the top, a reconstructed tree proudly presents six apples from branches re-created by stacked segments of tree, still bark-covered. A cupboard door winches down to present a wooden toy truck, whose work harvesting fruit from the tree is supported by a playful selection of traditional kitchen implements, characterised with a beautiful lightness of touch by the show’s two dungaree-clad performers. The performance, which moves steadily through the collection, delivery, preparation, cooking and packaging of delicious fragrant apple sauce into miniature glass jars, showcases some lovely object work, ably supported by Karel Casiers’ acrobatic background, which seems to effortlessly bring the selection of kitchen esoterica to life, alongside an uncompromising treatment of the real. If part of an apple is dropped, or an object behaves unexpectedly there’s a rigour to responding to the problem in real time. In this way, the performance celebrates our relationship with objects and food in a way that recalls the slow food movement and which feels deeply sympathetic to a child’s eye view of the world.

The performance also showcases some ingeniously adapted objects and set items: a cupboard transforms into a fish-tank into which bubbles can be blown to create the underwater den of a curious corkscrew; a drawer is adapted into a chute down which glass jars can roll into the back of the wooden truck. Thoughtfully anticipating any self-respecting toddler’s response to such items, at the end of the show, the company open the tent’s flap to unveil a playground of witty Heath-Robinson contraptions designed for toddler testing. Mine was thrilled with the chance to explore pulleys, winches, turntables and concealed lights. Inviting them to get hands-on completed the show’s offer of a simple, generous performance with a child’s eye view of objects at its heart, and an appeal to every one of their senses in its world.