Author Archives: Sophie London


About Sophie London

Sophie London is built on Film Theory and Theatre Practice. She has been a theatre technician and some time stage manager for the last decade, working on everything from one woman shows in subterranean sweatboxes to Olivier-winning West End musicals. She always comes back to Fringe and new writing though. Sophie periodically lends her services as a Marketing type to Theatre Royal Stratford East. Find her on Twitter @solosays

The Karavan Ensemble and The Death Wife Project: The Birth of Death

Part physical theatre performance, part involuntary group therapy, The Birth of Death starts incrementally, with a ringing sound. Joanne Tremarco is in amongst us, sounding a bowl and asking if we can still hear the peal. It’s an evocative start, a strong metaphor, though the moment goes on far beyond its relevance. Of course, the moment at which we no longer hear the concentric rings of sound rippling out is indefinable, as with the moment we finally let go of a loved one who has died.

There is so much beauty in this show, so much honesty and bare nerve endings – but the expectations from the audience are too high. So many of us missed the memo that we were expected to arrive emotionally stripped, ready to reveal every tender nerve-ending to a room full of strangers. The level of participation demanded by The Birth Of Death is above the average and intimate in the extreme. Fully prepared, it must be a cathartic and rewarding experience, for the unexpecting it is invasive and dismaying. While it must be frustrating for an improviser to be given little to work with, as someone who has arrived expecting to watch a performance, to be sincerely berated for not having a finely-crafted tale of personal bereavement and a step-by-step survival guide for the recently bereaved is a bit much.

Tremarco is a beautiful performer with at times utterly precise comic timing. The real issue with this production is consent. As an audience we are never asked whether we are comfortable with the level of scrutiny, whether the question that has just been publicly thrust upon us is one we’re comfortable answering. Coming prepared to share in such an intimate way could clearly be rewarding, edifying, comforting. That needs to be far better communicated in the booking stage though. We are not all open books and we are not all sharers of intimate things. For those who are, this must be a beautiful experience. For those who aren’t, it verges on violating.

The staging is simple and all the better for it. The use of light and space evoke the very best of Karavan Ensemble productions. The observation of grief and its nature is astute and the physical evocations of its evolution are bordering exquisite at times. This production could be something very special, and it’s possible it is for the right people. For a broader and unsuspecting audience, it fails to account for people’s reasonable reservations. One of the requirements of improvisation is to be able to carry on without quality audience input and that is what was really lacking here. An inability, or worse, unwillingness, to move on unless the audience gave the right answer made the show twenty minutes too long and several degrees too pushy. A strong premise perhaps, but a weak execution in the end.



Karen Sherrard - A Fete Worse than Death

Karen Sherrard: A Fête Worse Than Death

Karen Sherrard - A Fete Worse than DeathA Fête Worse Than Death transports us from sunny seaside Brighton to the annual summer fete in a soggy Welsh village, where proceedings are managed by the formidable village matriarch and there is a special guest appearance from Charlie Dimmock-alike celebrity gardener Esmé de Flange. The fourth wall is nowhere to be seen, and each character turn is bookended by a video or slideshow. Karen Sherrard’s gentle character comedy is best described as a collection of thematically linked stand-up routines. Her broadly drawn women would all be right at home on a BBC sketch show. The entire hour is a nostalgic retreading of harmless, if obvious, British comedy tropes.

Easy laughs are found in the Welsh weather, the literal nature of the annual Tractor Pull, the spectacularly rubbish raffle prizes. Esmé the oversexed daytime TV personality and her closeted husband are an exercise in entendre that is linguistically impressive, but a randy middle-aged woman pawing at random young men because she doesn’t get enough attention from the secretly gay man she is married to isn’t so much a joke as a very dated social trope that I thought we’d evolved beyond.

Sherrard is a likeable performer, her delivery brings to mind Victoria Wood’s cuddly routines and the video/slide show interludes do enhance the running jokes. Especially popular with the audience was a series of astoundingly anatomical-looking photographs of unusual plants. A horticultural Readers’ Wives if you will.

The denouement, the Grand Raffle, brought out an unanticipated competitive side to the audience, with participants taking the brilliantly ridiculous prizes maybe a little too seriously.

A Fête Worse Than Death never really lives up to the promise of its punning title, but it’s a pleasant show built on easy laughs, though the politics could do with updating.

ZLS Theatre - Insomnia

ZLS Theatre: Insomnia

ZLS Theatre - InsomniaThere are a host of good intentions behind Insomnia, but not as much in the way of multimedia theatrical innovation as the show’s promotion suggests. Local company ZLS have carefully developed their cast of characters and present sequential snapshots of their respective sleeplessness, cut with video interludes.

The show’s premise, setting out to stage the weird liminal state of late-night insomnia, seems to propose a rich territory. The tag line ‘When you don’t sleep, who else wakes?’ makes a good soundbite, but reflects the lack of focus in the show as a whole: beyond the starting point of their wakefulness, there is a vain wait for coherence between the disparate storylines.  ZLS certainly have ambition: the four cast members inhabit a slew of genres – subaquatic, post-apocalyptic silver-catsuit-clad science fiction; hair-braided, gown-wearing mediaeval fantasy, featuring deals with dragons and putting peasants in their place; the creepy thriller of a lonely, resentful programmer building himself a robot girlfriend in his bedsit; and in psychological drama, an institutionalised teen. The performances are solid, the rhythm of each scene meticulously metered, yet it is missing an emotional core; too much textbook technique and nowhere near enough personal investment.

The staging is unconventional – mismatched chairs laid out seemingly randomly, between the precisely marked performance spaces in The Brunswick’s chilly cellar, means that the audience are only looking comfortably at one or two of the actors at any point. This can make the repetitive format feel overlong, especially when long video interludes are projected onto a small, partly obscured section of wall.

Recurring motifs run through Insomnia in an attempt to bring cohesion, and while these invite curiosity, lending another layer to the play, far more narrative progression and resolution are needed to justify the lengthy playing time.

The custom-written stories, which expand on the experience of each character, form an interesting addendum, dispensed to each of us as we were dismissed back to the balmy spring evening outside. This was a literary touch which, with the right audience, could engender lively post-show discussion. Sadly not on this occasion though – the slightly baffled theatregoers all simply shuffled their separate ways. An ambitious undertaking sorely in need of some dramaturgy.

How Small How Far - Garden

How Small. How Far.: Garden

How Small How Far - GardenLucy Grace’s one act, one woman show is charming in its simplicity, its honesty, and her sympathetic delivery. It comes to Brighton following a successful run in Edinburgh last year and shares the story of one young woman’s quiet revolution against the conformity of office life, triggered by her theft of a neglected office plant, and the beginning of an exploration of her own wildness.  Our protagonist’s vulnerable but guardedly optimistic demeanour is familiar and endearing and her little asides appended to the main narrative, the bon mots that could be read as non sequiturs, the internal monologue that sometimes leaks out into conversation, all make the audience feel like a confidante, like we’ve found a friend. Which is all ‘Lucy’ truly wants to do, even if she is made to conform to expectations of interaction and corporate ambition. To define where she sees herself in The Bigger Picture. Whatever that may be.  A dracaena is a sacred plant. Lucy knows this and no one else around her cares. It isn’t relevant. This is important.

One image which particularly lingered was that of Lucy, after spending the night euphorically painting her ceiling to resemble the sky, carefully and deliberately dipping the cuff of her work jacket sleeve into the pot of blue paint, before carrying it with her like a secret into the day. On her commute she covertly insinuates a daub of blue onto a fellow sheep, penned into the 8am to London Bridge, and imagines him discovering it later in his day, possibly having transferred that furtive scrap of sky onto others in the mean time. Though there is of course no pot of paint on the stage, no train carriage, nor supporting cast, it is such a clear and haunting image – as distinct as the white chalk in Fritz Lang’s M – that it felt tangible, marking an aching need to connect, somehow, with other humans, to share a little wonder at the simple, beautiful things left in life in between the downbeats of conformity.

Lucy’s first deviation, stealing a much-abused office pot plant entrusted to her guardianship as part of a ‘greening’ scheme, passed down from HR or some such nebulous entity, is a minor infraction, a socially-aberrant good deed.  It is also the first step in a spiral of isolation and (mostly) internalised abstraction that feels like it can only end in crisis, or worse. So much theatre, especially the Fringe kind, particularly the plays that draw on mental health struggles, is a headlong plunge into tragedy. Garden is an exercise in learning to regain trust, in hopefulness, in the potential of magical thinking to sometimes deliver. To suggest there are times when things are okay.

The show’s greatest strength is being funny in a way that encourages us to laugh with the protagonist at other people’s cynicism and literalness. At, in fact, our own, as their reactions would most likely be ours.  Yet with Grace explaining her character’s quirky acts we are granted the gift of seeing them not only through the perspective of the people around her, but also with the secret password that unlocks the additional content – narration, subtitles, a red-button voiceover telling you exactly why that innocuous, if slightly odd woman on the train, the one you’ve stood in the same carriage with dozens of times before and never once noticed, seems to have a pocket full of soil. No one who ever loved woodlice as a child and then forgot they ever did is too far removed from the path Lucy wanders down.

It’s a simple, messy, honest little play full of heart and dejection, ambivalence and hope. ‘Lucy’ is an awkward everywoman played with immensely likeable vulnerability, a few props and a neat lighting design. Garden is physically spare, but emotionally rich and proof that you don’t need projection, or speed eating contests, or paint slung up the walls, to make a Fringe show that is engaging and relevant. It’s startling how revolutionary optimism can feel.

Karavan Ensemble - D-Code - Photo by Aliche Mollica

Karavan Ensemble: D-Code

Karavan Ensemble - D-Code - Photo by Aliche MollicaD-Code starts slowly:  a crumpled paper sheet, the size of a person – maybe a map, maybe a patchwork of newspaper clippings, something we can’t make out – twists and lifts in a breeze we can’t perceive.  As the sheet, which seems to have vital information on it somehow, becomes more animated, a form becomes visible beneath it. This is more than flotsam, this is someone, being carelessly cast around by the elements.

‘Did you know that humans were nomads for three million years?’ asks a disembodied voice. At the end of this drifting sequence, up from the ground, in a chrysalis of tissue paper, rises the form of Yael Karavan. Finally revealed, ‘the human behind the sheet of paper’, she takes us, through impeccable physical manipulation, through the entire evolution of homo sapiens, from the first legless creatures crawling through the primordial ooze to an upright dancer skimming the ground. It’s a simple concept but so eloquent in context – the fabrication of countries and the idea that people are possessed by a specific patch of ground is so ludicrous against the scale of how we came to be here at all.

The tension in this piece is always between the personal and the political. Although it has been in progress for a couple of years now, D-Code could not be more topical, with the mass deportation of displaced peoples happening even as I type. Karavan’s wise choice not to root the core story in one specific state, or conflict, not to hone in on one specific and literal message, or speak directly to the audience at any length (relying instead on recorded voices), is to the benefit of this show, keeping a universal relevance.  It would make an eloquent double bill with Joe Sellman-Leava’s verbose Labels.

Karavan’s distinctive language of movement is always compelling to watch, and here she is complemented to great effect by the striking production design.  Projection is used astutely to create some truly remarkable visuals. Torn scraps of paper become treasured photographs burning up in the ruins of a bombed out house, Karavan’s white translucent mac becomes a canvas painted with light and data.

We see a spiralling DNA sequence fill her outline with GATCs, then a diagram of blood vessels, then a map; all the while a recorded voice gives a litany of genetic heritage, ‘12% Italian, 3% English 0.2% Belarusian…’ So many nations it becomes meaningless. All the while Karavan’s illuminated outline glows on the wall behind her. It’s an unforgettable visual that transcends the message of D-Code to be art in its own right.

The set is spare: a bare floor and three big paper flats in a rough semi-circle bordering the upstage space. Karavan opens a suitcase centre stage and a perfect model house sits within, on a carefully manicured lawn. An hour with just a handful of props and herself; no flashy gimmicks needed.

In one of many richly visual moments in D-Code Karavan stands centre stage, mostly silhouetted by warm white sidelight, and slowly turns while red sand pours from her outstretched fists. It was inexplicably pleasing to see a perfect circle ascribed around her bare feet in scarlet grains of sand, marking out one human’s allocation of space on the Earth.

As the narration speaks of nation the three banner-like background flats are lit in red, white, and blue – the iconography of a flag is that of a person divided by cartography and governments. In scenes of conflict they glow a deep bloody red. In two sequences Karavan simply and powerfully lights herself with a handheld torch, focusing on her feet as she is chased from nation after nation, or on each limb and extremity as they are assigned a country of origin.

The simplicity and clarity of production design, and the subtle complexity of Carl Beukman’s compositions, the soundscape that underscores it all, tie Karavan’s performance into an elaborate sensory immersion. At one point a layered series of voiceovers, in all of the languages Karavan holds under her tongue, escalates into a veritable Babel while, with controlled wildness, she flings herself through a rhythmic sequence of movements – each tied to a place she could be said to be from – hopping barefoot over battle lines she herself has drawn in gravel on the ground.

Particularly deserving of mention is the haunting mask work with a sheet of torn tissue paper. The eerie disembodiment effected by the blank sheet in place of a face succinctly and definitively answers the core question: of course a human is more important than the written papers that represent them.

There are many aspects and individual moments that could be singled out, but it is in the sum of its parts that D-Code holds its power. The rich tapestry of visuals with a strong, but mostly unspoken undercurrent of political and personal crises (and resolution) of identity and global displacement is a pleasure to watch, yet also provokes sentiments that are beyond words. I left the performance with a sense of belonging, of sisterhood with humans from anywhere who can move and create and appreciate beauty.