Author Archives: Sarah Davies


About Sarah Davies

Sarah is a Drama Lecturer (UAL Acting and Applied Drama), Freelance Writer, Facilitator and Improviser who has written for Total Theatre Magazine since 2011. Recent work includes play commissions from Theatre Centre, Menagerie Theatre and Now Press Play, and facilitation/directing for The Marlowe Theatre, All The World's a Stage and Improv Gym. Her recent improv performances include Mount Olymprov (Greece) with Big Bang Improv Boston, Amsterdam Improv Marathon,and Improfest (London).

Hippana Theatre: Shine

This taut psychological thriller is part of the From Start to Finnish programme at the Edinburgh Fringe 2019, and contains many of the hallmarks of what might be considered the best type of Scandi-Noir.

Under the exacting movement direction of Rachel Yates, performer-creators Olivier Leclair and Tiia-Mari Makinen weave an intriguing narrative: a couple’s daughter has gone missing, and the father in particular is relentless in his search for her. Everything about this production is stripped back and painstakingly carefully constructed, giving it both real heart and punch, from the tight visual aesthetic hinting at shattered domesticity to the stylised movement sequences that Illustrate trauma’s impact on sanity. That the production also encompasses Dave Carey’s innovative soundscape is an added bonus – he  constructs a world by using headphones worn by the audience throughout, making the piece at once feel intimate and at times overwhelming, the private sounds of distress and unravelling played directly into our ears as we watch events unfold.

The physicality of both performers lends a highly accomplished edge to the storytelling: a breath-taking sequence involving the father attempting to return to work as a teacher but breaking down mid class is beautifully shown through him drawing with chalk all over himself. In this vein, everything on stage becomes a highly loaded signifier; from the knife used by the Mother to chop vegetable in the opening scene, to the desperate Missing posters which take on a heart-breaking twist towards the piece’s close. The production’s aim is stated as being to ‘blur the senses’ and ‘trick the mind’ and indeed the subtle subtext, use of sound worlds, glimpses of repeated symbolic imagery, and some jarring abstract sequences all contribute well to this effect. Play best Y8 Games at the this website. The characters too are engaging, despite the sparse dialogue, and I particularly felt for the mother, presented as being at first an idealised domestic and sexual partner, and later the solid anchor to her husband’s unravelling mind, rather than as a focus in her own right.

This production had a real impact on me, prompting many questions, and was simply delightful in its ability to illustrate complex concepts in a spare and engagingly stylised way.


Featured image (top):Hippana Theatre: Shine. Photo Daniel Beacock

Lost in Translation Circus: Hotel Paradiso

Under the direction of Massimiliano Rossetti, Circus Space alumni Lost in Translation utilise a skilled multinational cast to bring this story of a failing hotel to life. An immediate sense of engagement is encouraged by the well-constructed pre-set, with a Bellboy welcoming us in to the space, and a Concierge interacting playfully with audience members called onstage to assist him with hotel duties, all underscored by atmospheric music created by multi-instrumentalist Roger Eno.

Following this set-up, the storytelling remains very clear throughout, particularly via the Concierge’s continued direct address to the audience. The conceit is that the hotel is losing money following the tragic ‘bucket-related’ death of its founders, and the remaining members of staff and the enigmatic Madame are desperate to save it, battling two sinister Banker figures to remain open in the face of a series of ever-increasing disasters.

The escalating conflict is illustrated by dynamic circus sequences including acrobatics, aerial work, stunning feats of balance and endurance, juggling and clowning. The company advertises itself as a ‘proper old-fashioned contemporary circus company’ and this flavour is clear: the story is the wrapping for this spectacle, with some theatrical sprinklings on top. These include committed physical characterisation, and elements of farce (used to particular effect in a delightfully ridiculous sequence involving moving doors becoming obstacles to thwart the bankers’ progress). Of course, farce by its nature is a traditional form, and one sequence involving the Maid being rather passively passed between the Concierge and Bellboy who are seemingly in love with her did jar a little for me in terms of contemporary values around female agency, as tongue-in-cheek as it was.

By contrast, a high point was a section involving Madame in a state of deep despair, frantically trying to drown her sorrows in wine that she could never drink due to having to deal with a series of hula hoops being attached to her. This section communicated particularly well because it contained a clear narrative journey, and stakes which heightened throughout, as opposed to some sections which seemed more a vehicle to showcase physical dexterity above all else, and sometimes were rather lengthy, if impressively executed. Yet this is perhaps unsurprising, in what is ultimately a circus show aimed principally at families, who certainly engaged well with these moments, and the spectacular surprise denouement in particular was a real highlight.


Featured image (top) Lost in Translation Circus: Hotel Paradiso. Photo Trevor Fuller

Last Tapes Theatre Company: Valerie

This experimental, deeply affecting piece of gig theatre is striking in both its imaginative breadth, and the delivery of its message, keeping me rapt. Valerie seamlessly mixes interdisciplinary elements, a heightened cabaret style, stylised narration, performers stepping in and out of character and imaginative visuals to tell the story of Valerie, writer and performer Robin Kelly’s grandmother.

Presented as a woman of huge resilience, in meeting her eventual husband Graham, Valerie marries in to a family beset by a host of mental health difficulties. Characterised as fragile ‘spinning plates’ which Graham tries to keep from falling; the family suffer from schizophrenia, psychosis and seemingly much in between, with a mother referred to as ‘Welc’ short for ‘welcome mat’ so named for her predilection to lay across the kitchen floor. Immediate questions around nature versus nuture and genetic influence and fate are raised: will Graham, and subsequently, his grandson Robin escape, and how?

Benjamin Henson’s precise direction frames the performance as a live gig. We enter to a traditional three-piece band set up, with the requisite dry ice, a soundcheck in progress. Lead singer (and later main actor of the piece) Cherie Moore is immediately incredibly powerful and confident, performing vocal gymnastics with precision and raw emotion. The audience are given some sense of ownership of the production from the start through the powerful device of recording us singing a few basic notes, these then looped and played under the lead vocals, adding emotion.

However, these slick production values are quickly disrupted by mess and struggle, for of course mental health issues are not neat and easy to understand. This is poignantly illustrated by Kelly who tries to lecture us about genetic mutations, but can’t quite speak into a mic constantly, being moved around by Moore. Cables are wound loosely round his neck, added to throughout. These lightly disrupt his words, a visual representation of his complex family history and his own mental health battles weighing him down.

Through song, narration, flashbacks and the reading out of past correspondence, we are immersed in to Valerie’s world of increasing chaos; we are shown Graham beginning to shatter, Valerie all the while trying to hold his pieces together. This challenge is huge; as Valerie tries out different versions of her life’s story (what would have happened if she had married her first boyfriend instead of Graham, for example) each time her attempt to construct her narrative is disrupted by Graham loudly creating feedback with a microphone. She is forced to try again, but ultimately everything she tries is wrong, there is only noise and chaos where resolution should have been.

The most affecting moment for me came towards the end; with a visceral honesty that seems almost to drain him dry, Robin steps forward and comments on the effects of this specific genetic legacy on himself,. The feeling of ‘noise and pressure and grinding teeth’ that rarely leaves him symbolises his own battles with depression, and he confesses movingly that he still has to listen to Harry Potter audio books just to be able to sleep. Finally, he begins to sing, with none of Moore’s polished finesse, but with a quiet and breath-taking voice-cracking intensity. There follows a very satisfying call back, hearing our own singing, again been looped underneath Kelly’s. The production ends on a hopeful note; a celebration of Valerie’s strength. Yet this is bittersweet framed as it is by Kelly’s clear and on-going struggles, making this is vital, gut-wrenching work. Delivered in ways that consistently surprise and engage, Valerie left me stunned, and I’m still now processing the impact.




Zanetti Productions: The Basement Tapes

Jane Yong’s taut devised production gives the impression that every element is carefully curated, from the precise placement of moments of tension to our physical environment, an actual basement room in Summerhall carefully dressed in the accumulated detritus of an elderly person’s past life. This setting creates a relatively tense atmosphere, aptly for a show billed as a ‘Twin Peaks meets Serial’, the audience are inescapably placed in what could be a classic setting from a horror film. Indeed, as we begin, we are plunged into gut-clenching darkness and hear the chilling strains of a desperate girl’s voice as she tries to make a call on an ancient landline.

The moment is quickly destroyed with a humorous line, the lights flickering on to reveal athletic performer Stella Reid springing out of a cardboard box. The disruption of expectations with humour is where this production really excels; despite the tense undertones, there is the very real feeling that we voyeurs have a window in to the (often ridiculous) ways that a person behaves when they think that they are alone. Tasked with clearing out her deceased Grandmother’s basement, the protagonist (referred to only as ‘A Girl’) is very easily distracted by what she finds. Her own flights of fancy around the objects serve to entertain her greatly: a radio playing static becomes a stun gun, wooden toys become cigars. There is dancing, sharp and often hilarious commentary, amusing phone calls to a Mother who never seems to pick up, but the feeling too that something dark is waiting in the corners. This is heightened when the girl finds a cassette player and what is ominously named ‘the first tape’.

Hearing her Grandma’s voice on the tape is an affecting moment, both for the girl and for the audience, a palpable change in tone seeping through the small space. As Grandma begins speaking about a complex, bizarre and troubling moment in her life, the tension is realistic and extreme. We are given a welcome reprieve via the arrival of an unsuspecting visitor, only to be plunged in much deeper than before the next time. The skill here is the way in which the audience’s attention is kept, the knife edge precision of swinging between humour, both physical and verbal, to fear, and back again. The twists, when they come, are unforeseen and impactful, perhaps sometimes stretching the bounds of believability, but the more delightful for it, and grounded by very real reactions. This makes for an exciting, fraught and imaginative production, which utilises its space incredibly well and is delivered with real aplomb by this New Zealand-based company.




Traverse Theatre Company: What Girls Are Made Of

As a 90s teenage grunger who legitimately held a memorial party for Kurt Cobain’s death in suburban Kent, inexplicably tie-dyed all of her clothes orange, and lost both her shoes and her dignity at a Blur concert, this production appealed to me on all sorts of nostalgic levels. The concept of ‘gig theatre’ with all its visceral and exciting promise is an enticing one, a powerful cocktail when coupled with the raw honesty in protagonist Cora Bisset’s true story of her fleeting taste of fame in 90s grunge band Darlingheart.

The tone is established from the pre-set. On stage is all the paraphernalia of a gig about to happen: banks of speakers, mics, instruments, and the customary gently drifting dry ice. Suddenly, Cora appears, immediately warm and affable, reading from her real-life teenage diaries, found in her parents’ attic, and the stimuli for the entire play. These documents meticulously detail Cora’s journey from teenage dreamer in Glenrothes to lead singer in a band supporting the likes of Radiohead and The Sultans of Ping. Suddenly the band are touring and partying with rock stars, spending money that they don’t know they have and being heralded as that most dangerous of concepts ‘the next big thing’. A range of effective theatrical devices bring Cora’s words to life: the clever staging from director Orla O’Loughlin places Cora centrally in ‘lead singer’ position as she recounts events, all the while surrounded by her band members, who stay in their respective positions at their instruments, supporting the narrative and multi-rolling across genders and types to often hilarious effect. The introduction of song to break the tension is an effective one, a Brechtian influence that allows for Cora to observe and comment on events, often with a wry humour that elicits a warm audience response.

Bissett’s writing is, like the best lyrics, well-paced, sharp and often stunningly poetic. Her honest accounts of her teenage naivety and subsequent unexpected success had the 17-year-old me who could only ever play four notes on the bass guitar holding my breath in hopes that things would work out. Yet all the while we know that they probably won’t; for we have also been introduced to the unscrupulous record producers and unsigned blank cheques orbiting at the edges of her story.

Later, an adult Cora shares with the same unabashed generosity the challenges of falling, bereavement and miscarriage, her words given even more poignancy when framed by her previous success. Yet ultimately this is a narrative of hope; transmitting at its climax the notion that the tired cliché of ‘living the dream’ is more about resilience and the ability to live at all. The production concludes with a message of strength – that what girls are made of is a heady cocktail of all their past experiences, hopes and failures too. Bissett shows us moments of hope amongst the very human mess and uncertainty; and I would love nothing more than to see this production staged in a site-specific venue that underscores this even more; the a big sweaty smoky concert hall of my imaginings as I watched it.