Author Archives: Terry O'Donovan


About Terry O'Donovan

Terry is a performer and director. He is the Co-Artistic Director of Dante or Die and one quarter of new company Toot.

Scottee: Putting Words in Your Mouth

Metropolitan. Assimilate. Tolerance.

Buzz-words that are splashed across the liberal social media and journalistic media as frequently as Trump, Farage and LePen.

In Total Theatre Award Winner Scottee’s new show, they’re emblazoned across large blank walls in thick black paint. Words, words, words. But what do they actually mean? How do they make people feel, and are they in people’s hearts rather than minds?

The idea behind Putting Words in Your Mouth came from Scottee exploring the political voices and opinions of working class queer people in the UK. As he began to speak with people he found growing numbers of EDL and UKIP LGBT groups. Alongside audio producer Debbie Kilbride, he delved deeper, interviewing a variety of men (specifically) around the country.

The voices of men from Leicester, Birmingham and Manchester are channeled through Travis Alabanza, Jamal Gerald and Lasana Shabaz. Dressed in funereal black suits they stare out at us and, as RuPaul puts it, they lip-sync for their lives. Unlike verbatim pieces in which the performers mimic those interviewed, Scottee’s cast and co-devisers mouth their words to us. It’s a clever device, distancing the performers from a literal re-interpretation of the words being mimed and neatly tying into the age-old queer tradition. And unlike the Drag Racers in RuPaul’s world, you can’t switch off or laugh off the words that come out of these mouths – it’s imperative that we hear them.

As the stories venture from tales of coming out to empathising with and investing in Farage’s rhetoric, the bodies onstage become ‘feminised’. Black wigs are donned, lipstick administered, shiny black Thatcher-esque handbags perch on their elbows. Queer identity mixes with British tradition: racist remarks are mouthed by a black person; leftwing liberal values are challenged by those who ‘should’ be leftwing liberalists but entirely relate to the right-wing’s narrative on immigration.

The piece is calmly but searingly performed by Alabanza, Gerald and Shabazz. They seem to shudder inside after particular moments of mouthing off; their own opinions quietly shining in their eyes with subtle glances to each other or a tight, hurried embrace. A final lip sync to The Special AKA’s Racist Friend is an urgent finale. Like the rest of the show it’s a battle-cry to hear people, talk to people and realise that we can’t just keep Facebooking words like ‘metropolitan’, ‘assimilate’ and ‘tolerance’. We need to hear the words from other people’s mouths and we desperately need to start a conversation before more and more people feel no other way out than building walls.


 Putting Words in Your Mouth was devised and directed by Scottee, and performed by Travis Alabanza (in centre of featured image), Jamal Gerald (left) and Lasana Shabazz.  Photo by Holly Revell.


Jérôme Bel: Gala

What a glorious 75 minutes of dance theatre Gala is. I don’t remember the last time that a live performance has made me grin like a Cheshire cat and burst into smiling tears… It’s remarkable.

French dance artist Jérôme Bel has gathered together 20 performers of varying ages and abilities – some professional dancers, some amateur – to create a work of great joy and openness. The piece begins in silence with seven or eight minutes of projections: images of empty theatres or stages ranging from a school hall to an amphitheatre; from a tiny puppet theatre to an image of Sadler’s Wells itself. Who are these stages for? Which ones are ‘important’? Are there any that we may have stepped foot on ourselves and looked out into a sea of expectant audience members?

It’s likely that at some stage in their early years everyone will have been flung on a stage, be it as a donkey in the nativity play, a ballet class or a choir. Dressed in colourful outfits designed by each performer, Bel’s company takes us on a dance odyssey that taps into the everyday experience of dancing. First up is ballet. Each performer strides onstage alone and attempts a ‘move’. Having seen all 20 versions of a balletic movement we are treated to Bows and Michael Jacksons (everyone’s moonwalk was pretty great). We build up to a solo section, watching a contemporary piece choreographed to a Bon Iver track. It’s heartfelt and sweet. Then the punch – the entire company joins her onstage following her routine as well as they possibly can. It’s messy, difficult, funny and brilliant. Each throw their entire being into energetically following the movement. In turn, each of them leads an intricately and lovingly choreographed piece. So we have a young man in a wheelchair leading a response to pumping beats. A woman with Downs Syndrome leads her company through a sequence of staccato movements choreographed to her breath. A tiny young girl channels Miley Cyrus and thrusts her fellow performers around the stage in reckless abandon before racing out of the wings and around the backstage of the theatre. One doesn’t even make it back in time for the end of the routine.

The remarkable achievement of the piece is that by investigating the everyday experience of dance, Bel creates a unifying antidote to a divisive and bitterly broken world. He celebrates each person’s uniqueness by offering them the chance to be leader for a few moments, in the knowledge that those nineteen other bodies will invest every ounce of their person to making your choreography fly. Imagine if that’s how every child grew up – with constant passionate support upholding their belief in themselves. As the company kicked their legs in the air to Liza Minnelli’s rendition of New York, New York I felt like a proud parent and child at the same time. And it desperately made me want to dance my socks off.


Jérôme Bel’s Gala was presented as part of Dance Umbrella 2016, seen at Sadler’s Wells, and was also performed at Brady Arts Centre & The Tanks, Tate Modern.   



Hetpaleis: The Hamilton Complex

In 1971 photographer David Hamilton caused a stir by releasing a book, Dreams of a Young Girl, filled with nude, or almost nude, soft-focused and dreamy images of teenage girls on the brink of adulthood. Looking at them now, they still provoke an uneasy tension – the likes of Nabokov’s Lolita, and the films Leon and the Virgin Suicides, spring to mind.

Director Lies Pauwels, from Antwerp’s Hetpaleis, was inspired to create what is an arresting, funny and emotional response to Hamilton’s book. He has assembled an astonishing cast of 13-year-olds (13 of them) who perform alongside a bearded bodybuilder to create a fascinating piece of tanztheater that wryly provokes, startles, and induces tears.

Faux Greek columns decorate a stage alongside a life-size plastic horse and a canvas of a Romantic landscape below a rainbow of teddy bears and fairy lights. The cast marches towards us dressed as air hostesses, the clip-clop of their heels creating a bold statement of intent. They are in charge. Lined up along the barrier between stage and audience, they pass a microphone one by one to calmly introduce themselves as Gift, Prudence, Memory, Lovely – a series of words that recall the adjectives often used to describe girls. One voice takes over. in an instant, she veers from the rules of the auditorium’s invisibility to ask wider questions: ‘Are there any paedophiles here? We don’t mind. We just want to know what we’re up against,’ she says defiantly as her colleagues stare at us.

Over an hour and forty minutes we’re whisked through a series of episodes in which the cast transform from schoolgirls in pleated green skirts, to Harajuku Girls in white frills and brightly coloured wigs. The piece is littered with arresting images that burn into your brain: a tall blonde with a litter of yappy neon toy dogs on leads wrapped around her wrists; a chorus of hair swishing up and down in unison (Pina Bausch would be proud); limp bodies being whisked along the floor into a heap. One girl dances Sia’s Chandelier music video to perfection whilst the others look on dismissively puffing on e-cigarettes. Another shrieks and slaps the floor with such anguish that I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She channels the most tragic pain only a metre from my face. The moment brims with the emotional and physical suffering of thousands of young women and girls. This performance demands attention.

The body builder’s presence shifts from bodyguard, to father figure, to potential lover or abuser. It’s darkly hilarious to see an almost naked man flash his Adonis-like body to the crowd, seeking approval within a sea of young girls who are turning into objectified bodies themselves. He can flip them upside down with a wave of his hand but it’s when he tenderly lifts a young girl with a physical disability he becomes a tender carer. He enables her to fly, to live in the spotlight that for most of her life will be reserved for the ‘pretty’ girls. It’s a devastatingly beautiful moment, perfectly orchestrated. And she looks like she’s having a whale of a time. In fact, the entire company, with their coquettish glances and defiant stares, all seem to be having the time of their lives performing this ambitious and utterly compelling piece of work.

Jeramee, Hartleby and Oogelmore - Photo by Richard Davenport

Unicorn Theatre: Jeramee, Hartleby and Ooglemore

Jeramee, Hartleby and Oogelmore - Photo by Richard DavenportClassic clowning is joyfully brought to life at the Unicorn Theatre for Gary Owen’s Jeramee, Hartleby and Ooglemore. It’s interesting to see the piece in the same week that I finally caught Owen’s Iphigenia in Splott, his celebrated play that is enjoying a run at the National Theatre’s Temporary Space.

Whilst Iphigenia is a dense, fast-paced monologue filled with anger, pain, and a violent sadness, his collaboration with Tim Crouch at the Unicorn is perhaps the complete opposite. Instead of a tirade of words, we hear only the three words of the title – to denote happiness, anger, furious rage, and utter contentment.  A reminder that only the important words need to be employed to illustrate meaning.

We sit looking at a beach (it soon transpires that we are sitting in the ocean) garlanded with festoon lights. Over the course of 50 minutes we witness an afternoon of sunshine through the eyes of toddler-like Hartleby and Ooglemore, as they squabble for ownership of a towel, have a lollipop stolen by a pesky seagull, and endure the pain of losing a giant bouncy ball. Jeramee is the ‘adult’ of the threesome, employed to feed, clothe and put an end to squabbles. Lily Arnold’s costume design channels Wes Anderson – bold patterns and vintage shapes (including a hilarious woolen all-in-one swimsuit for the bearded Ooglemore) that evoke warmth and an offbeat sensibility.

Crouch directs the piece to be assured, calm, and simple. He is not worried about racing through things, not worried about pandering to instantaneous laughs. Instead, the production celebrates the clown, performed skillfully by Amalia Vitale, Fionn Gill, and Dorian Simpson. Smiles come from the simple joy of hitting the bouncy ball back to Ooglemore from our seats; laughs come from the performers rolling down the tilted beach and almost colliding with the children, who squeal in delight. The piece is focused on what it’s like to be a three, four or five year old – the entire world revolving around them and their closest companions. I wish I could be that age again to watch this show – I’m pretty sure I’d be thinking, ‘Yes – that is exactly how it feels when Dad tells me I have to share my towel with by brother’.  I would like to have seen certain sequences developed further. There seems to be the start of a more expansive physical comedy sequence involving getting stuck in a towel changing robe (a brilliant prop); and the final sequence set to Owen Crouch’s upbeat score could be a vibrantly uplifting choreographed dance.

The Unicorn staff enjoyed watching rehearsals so much that they’ve programmed two adult-only evening performances – with a band and a bar. Channel your three-year-old self, sit on your bottom and sunbathe with the charming Jeramee, Hartleby and Ooglemore!

Machine Project - Return to Forever House

Machine Project: Return to Forever House

Machine Project - Return to Forever HouseA blacked out window of a shopfront in the trendy Echo Park area of Los Angeles stands in front of me. The words ‘RETURN TO FOREVER HOSUE’ have been pasted to the window. I wait outside, six others wander up, and we begin to tentatively talk to each other – How did you hear about the show? Have you ever done a locked room before? We’re going to have to work together…

A man arrives, we’re briefed (the fire extinguisher is the only thing that’s not a prop – we should use it if there is an actual fire!), and we’re ushered into a pitch black space. I touch the walls – soft and furry… A voice emerges from behind us and a giant mouth appears in the black, furry wall. The mouth tells us the sad tale of Forever House – a glorious TV show that was cancelled, trapping its characters inside this building for all time. And that’s where we come in – it’s our job to help release them.

We sneak through a dark tunnel into more blackness. The lights flash on in an instant and we find ourselves in a light grey box room. The fenced gate is slammed shut behind us, we’re padlocked in. Our team rush for clues – a small pink sofa reveals a mouth with hidden treasures under the cushions, we pad the walls searching for a magic doorway… and the lights go out again.

It would be remiss to reveal the details of our escape route tactics; the performative game relies on us discovering as we go linking clues to keys and characters’ needs to opportunities to gain more keys. The Machine Project team, led by Patrick Michael Ballard, have created a wickedly funny and brilliantly crafted game. We meet a series of surreal characters through holes in the wall – low and high – in the ceiling, and through hidden doors. Pushing a ball through a hall erupts another appearance and more clues; we pull roses out of the wall and drink the sacred tea that will reveal the ‘true’ secrets.

It’s as absurd as it is complex; like a mix between Sesame Street, The Crystal Maze and a Dali painting. The puppets are performed with precision and humour – I’m still puzzling as to how many performers there actually are. Mad-capped and offbeat, it’s a treat worth searching out if you find yourself in the city of angels.