Article 19 present: Jerusalem @ The Guild of Students

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Article 19’s adaptation, directed by Elisha Owen and Nicole Rixon, was my first taste of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem and it was a distinctly bittersweet one.

Set on St George’s Day in a fictional country village in Wiltshire, the play tells the tale of old, local waster Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron and his motley crew of mates. Away from the country fair celebrations, Rooster has twenty-four hours until he is evicted from his mobile home. Thus the three-hour play, dense with dialogue, passes with the tension of a ticking time bomb.

The short time span and single set made for an absorbing portrait into Rooster’s world. The set’s attention to detail was outstanding and the old caravan, stained sofa and empty beer bottles that greeted the audience gave a taste of what was to come. Staged on the same level as the audience’s seating, the play also created the impression that this was not a performance we were seeing but a slice of real life.

The play boasts an eclectic mix of characters, brilliantly played by an excellent cast. Sam Forbes was especially comical as the whimsical professor who has lost his dog, whilst Ciaran Creswell gave a great performance as Wesley, the straight-laced landlord turned stoned Morris dancer.

However the lead character, in an absorbing performance given by Jack J Fairley, is the hardest character to pin down. Essentially a low-life, surviving on drink and drugs in his squalid caravan, he is certainly not a hero- not even likable. Yet, in comparison to local thug Troy, he is not a villain. Something of an anti-hero, he simultaneously sickens and seduces the audience- just as his eloquent words and magnetism wins a kiss from his ex-wife, Dawn. In his battle against the district council to evict him, we instinctively fall on his side- but uneasily so.

Most mesmerising of all, for me, was Rooster’s seeming inability to grow up and his refusal to take responsibility for his actions, from his six-year old son to his smashed up TV. When his friends tell him he smashed it up himself the night before he replies, as he does to anything they accuse him of, ‘Bollocks!’ His crew of teenage companions further reflects this character trait and it is ambiguous whether he corrupts or protects them- plying them with drink and drugs, but providing them with a space where they feel safe.  The audience begins to lean towards the latter as the play unfolds, especially as it begins to appear that Rooster is being used. For me, the play’s most painfully sad moment was when local thug Troy laughed as he told Rooster how his so called friends pissed on him whilst he was passed out. And whilst he is certainly not fit to be a parent, the tender moments with his son persuade us that he is essentially a good man and that society is the monster.

Whilst Jerusalem is ultimately a play that explores ‘Englishness’, for me it was more about the dullness and disillusionment that accompanies growing old. The character of Lee, who is set to leave for Australia the next day, highlights the stagnant nature of the other character’s lives- particularly Rooster’s.

The play ends ambiguously, with the constant overbearing pressure of the eviction never fully resolved. I left after three hours feeling absolutely overwhelmed and utterly confused. As such, my first experience of Jez Butterworth’s work is one I’m still trying to make sense of.

By Ellicia Pendle
@elliciapendle

The Robert Glasper Experiment @ The Institute, Digbeth

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The vibes at The Institute on Thursday night were as cool as the soft, blue colours that gently lit the main room. I walked in to the fresh, jazzy sounds of Mercury Prize nominee Soweto Kinch. He was a more than adequate starting act, and after displaying his reputable talents as a saxophonist, he then revealed his skills as both a written lyricist and freestyle emcee. Kinch’s slot was capped off with a jaw-dropping display of lyrical skill, in which he set himself an acrostic challenge of incorporating words that spelled D-I-G-B-E-T-H into improvised verses (the words having been shouted out by random members of the audience). From due diligence to hunger, Soweto Kinch surpassed the challenge with ease, to a hearty and well-deserved applause.

Shortly after, The Robert Glasper Experiment took to the stage, and as soon as they did, Glasper charmingly suspended all elements of pretence with a simple “Hello, how you doing?” For the most part, I truly did not know what to expect from their live performance. Prior to the gig I was mostly familiar with the group’s collaborative works (including features from Erykah Badu, Emeli Sande, and Yasiin Bey/Mos Def, to name a very select few) but huge crowd favourites such as ‘Ah Yeah’ and ‘Let It Ride’ proved to be just as powerful without their respective vocalists, and for many songs this was somewhat of a blessing in disguise, shifting the focus towards the band’s ability to play off of each other and improvise, which is essential of any show associated with jazz.

What was refreshing about the band was that, despite Glasper being their namesake, there was no true frontman of the group. Equal attention was given to Casey Benjamin (vocoder and saxophone), Mark Colenburg (drums), and Travis Burgess (bass, presumably filling in for Derrick Hodge) as well as Robert Glasper himself. In fact, the term solo was taken quite literally during the show, with other band members often leaving the stage to lend the spotlight to their fellow band members, whose showcases of instrumental skill did not disappoint. Even the vocals were at a casual volume that blended with the other instruments. However, this often meant that Benjamin’s words were drowned out by the drums, particularly during Colenburg’s heavier jams. At times this was a little bit frustrating, and I felt that perhaps the synthesised vocals that gave the Black Radio albums (Black Radio 2 in particular) such a unique touch simply could not be done justice by a live performance – or maybe the levels just needed a bit of tweaking. Either way, for the songs with more recognisable lyrics, nothing was lost in translation, as the strong crowd helped to raise the volume for The Robert Glasper Experiment’s well-known renditions of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, and ‘Lovely Day’. The latter which performance entailed Benjamin’s light vocals making the perfect match for Glasper’s gentle piano chords.

Covers were certainly expected due to the aforementioned Nirvana and Bill Withers numbers, but that knowledge didn’t prepare me for their sensational performances of ‘No Church In the Wild’, and a shorter, but more polished version of Radiohead’s ‘Everything In Its Right Place’, which somehow seamlessly transitioned into a slow and emotive version of ‘Get Lucky’ (don’t ask how, but believe me, it really did).

Just when we thought the music couldn’t get any better, guest vocals from a Birmingham-born female singer added a beautiful, organic tone to their smooth, Neo soul sound, and in the closing few numbers, Glasper spoke the immortal words, “Soweto, where you at? Come spit some raps”. Mr Kinch graced the stage once again with his saxophone talents and more freestyle finesse, and the way he thrived off the musical environment around him was a genuine treat to watch.

All in all, it was a fantastic performance from an incredibly tight and talented band, and the at-times smothered vocals in no way detracted from what the gig was truly about: good, soulful music. 

by Oliver Clifford

Birdsong @ The Birmingham Rep

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In honour of the First World War centenary, The Rep recently staged Rachel Wagstaff’s adaptation of the best-selling novel Birdsong. As a fan of both the book and the BBC adaptation I was curious yet cynical about whether the tale could be successfully transferred to the stage. I couldn’t have been more wrong. 

Birdsong follows young Englishman Stephen Wraysford (George Banks), intertwining his experience of fighting in the war with flashbacks of his time in France beforehand- including his passionate love affair with his employer’s wife, Isabelle Azaire (Carolin Stoltz).

An impressive set was waiting in the gloom when the audience first filed in; a filthy trench with ladders stretching up to the implicit threat of No Man’s Land. Even now we are still shocked by the conditions they fought in, from the soldiers’ grimy uniform to the nurse’s blood stained apron. The neglected setting of the war scenes contrasted well with the elegant furniture used in the effortless flashbacks to pre-war France.

The play also tells the tale of the lesser known tunnellers, who laid mines under No Man’s land. I was doubtful of how these underground episodes could be conveyed on stage but the imaginative solution was to plunge the stage into darkness and pull forward a few short, propped-up wooden beams with dimly glowing lamps dangling from them. When the men came crawling through them on their hands and knees the illusion was complete and the claustrophobic atmosphere created on stage was stifling. 

George Banks impressed me greatly as the lead, especially given the demanding nature of his role. Wraysford was required to be almost constantly on stage and to switch between the present and past continuously. This contrasted his carefree optimism and passion before the war with his disgust and detachment during the war, showing great depth of character.

However the best performance by far was that of Peter Duncan as the working class tunneller Jack Firebrace. Despite his poorer background he is the most noble of all the men, always in good spirits and cheering the others up- despite receiving the news that his little boy has died back in England. Duncan played him with a brilliant mixture of bravado and vulnerability that made him the most likeable character and the most tragic. Jack Firebrace is the decent man that gets written out of history and the play makes you feel guilty for that.

The play’s depiction of the experience of war was extremely vivid, with the sudden shell explosions making the audience jump in their seats and the aeroplanes being made to sound as if they were directly overhead. The horror of the Battle of the Somme was also alluded to without having to attempt to re-enact it. Before they go ‘over the top’, Captain Gray quietly tells Wraysford that their bombing failed to destroy the German wire. When Wraysford asks him what to tell his men, declaring they will be slaughtered, Gray tells him not to tell them and simply hands him a pair of wire cutters. The audience already knows the catastrophic consequences of the Somme and we do not need to see it to picture it.

Despite Birdsong evoking the experience of the First World War so well, it ends with Wraysford telling the audience that we can never understand what they went through- as all the other characters join him in silence, and listen to the faint sounds of birds singing. Thus despite our current commemorations of the First World War, a century after it started, Birdsong suggests that the true horror of the war remains concealed- leaving an even more poignant impression in the modern mind.

By Ellicia Pendle
@elliciapendle

The Bridge @ The Guild of Students

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Making a film can’t be easy. Making a film really can’t be easy when you’re a student, so Cassiah Joski-Jethi’s The Bridge is a triumph for just existing. Written and directed by Joski-Jethi, co-directed and produced by Nicole Rixon and Elisha Owen respectively, and featuring a cast of almost exclusively students, The Bridge follows Lynn (Stephanie Rendall), an eighteen year-old woman whose dreams of being a dancer are interrupted by family tragedy, incompetent adults and an inescapable neighbourhood.

The most striking thing about the film was its stunning shots. Selly Oak and Edgbaston are substitutes for London, and while the landmarks are recognisable for any University of Birmingham student, the shots set up by Joski-Jethi are beautiful. Lynn’s isolation is a key part of this film, and Joski-Jethi utilises space, depth and blurring to add to this effect. The canal-side scenes are perhaps the most visually-arresting, and should make anyone who lives in Birmingham reconsider the city’s beauty. Nick Charlesworth’s original score is equally as beautiful, creating a sense of tranquillity in the troublesome world of the film.

The film is host to some good performances, and an excellent balance of the humorous and serious. The Officer (Jack Robertson) and Jane (Anna Roberts) offer some brilliant and much needed comedic relief throughout the film, while Lynn’s relationships with other characters explore connections more seriously, focusing on obligation and trust. The interactions between Lynn and Bobby (Ethan Owen), her younger brother, are particularly enjoyable to watch: the script wonderfully captures the sibling dynamic.

In her pre-screening speech, Joski-Jethi stated that she felt the film was a time capsule containing the houses her cast have lived in, buildings that no longer exist and streets that we walk down daily. This astute way of identifying the film can encompass the film as a whole: undoubtedly, when some of the cast and crew have made their names in the film or theatre industry – as the hard work and performances indicate – this film will contain their early work; perhaps one day it will gain a cult status.

Not only were the audience given an exclusive viewing of the film, we were lucky enough to watch the ‘Making of’. In a film where most of the characters are isolated, or seem to lack true friendships, it was lovely to see the cast and crew of The Bridge working together harmoniously and having fun.

Post-screening entertainment also included a performance from the recently formed a capella group the J Walkers. Their original arrangements of popular songs including Amy Winehouse’s ‘Back to Black’ and Ray Charles’s ‘Hit the Road, Jack’ were incredibly impressive and enjoyable to watch.

The evening was concluded with a sketch show set from comedy duo Jacob Lovick and Tyler Harding. The pair’s comedic timing was on point and their comradery palpable. The duo’s set was well-rehearsed, and incorporated the slight technical glitches well. Student comedy can often be quite self-referential, but Lovick and Harding’s set moved outside the university sphere, making it all the more entertaining.

What The Bridge premiere showed was an extraordinary amount of talent in the university’s community. This talent is varied, but when used effectively in a team, projects one might have thought impossible come into existence. If this is just the starting point for this group of creative individuals, I am excited to see where they go next. 

By Jenna Clake
@jennaclake

The Threepenny Opera @ The Birmingham REP

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Before the performance began, the audience were greeted with a motley crew of cast members chanting “no ifs, no buts, no disability cuts!” in front of an, assumedly, once glamorous now tattered red show curtain thinly veiling an ensemble of musical instruments and actors milling around, preparing to perform the opera for the poor. Around the auditorium were banners spray painted with powerful messages such as ‘Keep your filthy tax out of my bedroom’ and ‘Old people are worth more than the pennies we give them!’ The rawness and unabashed nature of this introduction set the audience up to confront some uncomfortable and challenging world views, perfectly aligned with the original intentions of Brecht.

As the Musical Review aptly put it, the play was “no-holds barred”. From the adapted and highly satirised lyrics tarring ‘Tories and their minions’, paedophilic priests and Jimmy Saville with the same brush for their ‘sexual imperatives’, to the highly ironic song performed in a prison cell by Macheath (Milton Lopes) ‘Live Life in Luxury – That’s What it’s For’, the audience were presented with a vivacious performance that served its purpose in reinventing Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera.

Almost every taboo imaginable was confronted in the performance, to the extent that some audience members were unsure whether to applaud or wince at the audacity of their presentation. For me, this only served to make it more enjoyable. The messages of the play were confrontationally presented by an awe inspiring cast, the majority of whom were disadvantaged – either in terms of their sight, mobility, hearing or their height. The casting was a stroke of genius; as the performance did not aim to make you feel sorry for the cast members, or empathise with them for their disadvantages; it aimed (and succeeded) to challenge and question the way our society works. It also demonstrated how extremely versatile the cast were, as the majority were not only actors and singers but also talented musicians.

Musically, the levels were sometimes a little unstable, and a few hiccups were had with the subtitles projected onto the walls, but these minor hindrances didn’t affect the overall experience to any substantial extent. 

The success of this performance was enhanced for me by the extremely talented signers, with a special mention for actress and signer Jude Mahon. During the songs, she delivered as compelling a performance as the actors singing, and was remarkable in her ability to bring several different characters’ personalities to life through sign language; undoubtedly she captured the essence of the songs for deaf audience members. Other notable performances were given by Mrs Peachum (Victoria Oruwari), Polly Peachum (CiCi Howells) and Tiger Brown (Will Kenning), a chief of police who served in the army with the notorious but oh-so-charming murderer and rapist, ‘Mack The Knife’.

All in all, if you are looking for a theatrical performance that will challenge your views and beliefs, and prompt your thoughts towards questioning the structure and hierarchy of our society as it is today once you leave the theatre, this is the play for you. Utterly fascinating.

by Hayley Yates

3Bugs Fringe Theatre present: House of America @ The Guild of Students

house of america

Ah, the eighties. What a glorious time of nihilism, high-waisted jeans and no work. The lack of hope that characterises the eighties is what you get in bounds in Ed Thomas’s House of America. What you also get is three under-thirties struggling to escape from the Welsh valleys, or, more pointedly, the house they grew up in and their mentally fragile mother. Mrs Lewis, Boyo, Gwenny and Sid are living on top of one another, with the threat of the cast mines looming over their simple lives and their secrets adding to their claustrophobia. To attempt to escape, Gwenny and Sid dream of travelling to America, seeing their estranged father, and being like Joyce and Jack from On the Road, while Boyo remains reluctant.

While Thomas’s play conveys an overwhelming sense of hopelessness well, it is flawed in places. The cast mines initially work as an effective metaphor for the threat of modernity and the secrets that will tear the family apart, but the constant repetitions of ‘They’re coming closer,’ and ‘They’ll destroy this house,’ undermine it, making the play quite expositional. In fact, exposition is one of the major flaws of the script: the audience is often on the cusp of figuring something out (usually due to some excellent facial expressions or body language) but is denied the privilege through speech.

However, flaws with the text aside, this production was raw, chilling and uncomfortable to watch: the things I like best about theatre. Director Tamar Williams utilised the small space of the dance studio brilliantly, and the actors’ breaking of the fourth wall added to the play’s theme of suffocation. Williams’s interpretation was also brave in that it allowed the audience to become aware of the play’s theatricality subtly: the moving and banging of chairs to suggest a temporal or spatial shift was an excellent decision, with the sounds echoing the intrusive industrialism.

 Another triumph of this production was the inclusion of music (provided by a band led by Musical Director Nick Charlesworth). While the band could play rock and roll classics with ease, the real treat was the improvised traditional Welsh music, and the beautiful singing that often accompanied it.

 This play deals with a variety of issues, including two murders, mental illness and incest; this is a script that asks for a lot from its actors. The onstage chemistry and tension between Lily Blacksell and Jack Alexander was palpable, and I wish that the script would have allowed more space for this. Blacksell and Alexander could communicate their emotions through a series of subtle facial expressions, and their interactions were incredibly convincing (and therefore very difficult to watch).

Blacksell’s final monologue was the highlight of the play: sensitively interpreted, she captured the misfortune of Gwenny’s situation – one that is entirely beyond her control – to make her a tragic, although not sympathetic, character. Blacksell was able to move Gwenny from a girlish, daydreaming woman who wants to be like Joyce Johnson to a severely ill and troubled person.

 Jack Alexander was also able to capture Sid’s daydreaming personality well: his panic during his final scenes was intense. Alternatively, Jacob Lovick and Mary Davies were at their best when providing dark humour. Lovick’s comedic timing was consistently on point, while Davies was excellent at providing Mrs Lewis’s unwitting comedy.

 During its first act, I wasn’t really sure where House of America was heading. However, its second act provided the punches I was looking for. The play perhaps tries to throw a few too many, if I’m being honest: the truth about Clem Lewis or the incestuous relationship would provide sufficient drama for one play. However, Davies’s production is sensitively directed, imaginatively realised, host to some good performances, and contains some excellent live music, making this a play I am glad I haven’t missed. 

by Jenna Clake

Apples & Snakes Present: Lit Fuse @ Birmingham mac

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“I want a man who pulls kindness out of his back pocket.” This was the beautiful and intriguing opening line of spoken-word artist, Nafeesa Hamid, during her performance on Friday night.

Nafeesa spent last week working alongside three other brilliant artists, Amerah Saleh, Carl Sealeaf and Sipho Eric Dube, making up the quartet of poets that brought Lit Fuse, a spoken-word collaboration, to the Birmingham mac on the 7th March 2014. This event, developed jointly by mac Birmingham and Apples and Snakes poetry collective, is a series of events showcasing brand new work devised by UK poets in collaboration with top directors and producers, encouraging poets to write and perform outside of their comfort zone. This set of poets were working with the help of Birmingham-based writer and director, Caroline Horton.

The four poems were part of the current season of work at the mac, ‘Exit Strategy’, a theme exploring death and its effects.
The event combined poetry and theatre, using lights, sound effects and short films to create atmosphere and background for the spoken word pieces. The performance began with all four poets speaking at once, moving from various areas of the intimate space of the Hexagon Theatre, before gathering together on stage. The effect of the clashing of lines and styles, and interrupting of each other made for a disconcerting and slightly wild beginning, and I struggled to make out what each individual was saying, let alone find any kind of meaning in the cacophony of noise and sound effects. Indeed, as each poet left the stage and then returned one by one, performing an individual 10-20 minute monologue, the level of intensity remained high, due to the heavy and sometimes controversial content, and the fact that the overall performance was only just over an hour in length.

Although four very different poets, all creating various interpretations of the topic of death, the pieces were beautifully crafted to fit perfectly together, moving seamlessly from one to another. The themes ranged from a heartbreaking monologue by Carl Sealeaf on the breakup of previous relationships and the death of a loved one, to a touching and intimate insight into a story of childhood, heritage and loss from Sipho, and an uncomfortable but beautifully important piece on rape in marriage from Amerah Saleh.

The influence of theatre was reflected differently in each piece, some of the poets choosing to use props. At the beginning of Amerah’s piece (written largely using stories collected from girls with real experience of rape in marriage), all the props, including a desk lamp (left over from Carl’s piece moments before), a mop bucket and a mug were turned on their side, and set right way up as the poem progressed. Using everyday objects reinforced the setting of a domestic home, and the act of setting them right reflected the healing process that took place throughout the poem.

The performance ended in the same way it had begun- all four poets speaking at once, and moving together to gather on the stage under dim lighting. This time however, the words and phrases they were saying had a poignant clarity – now I recognised them as lines from each of their poems. The idea that all these pieces shared the same subject matter, yet had wildly different interpretations of it was reinforced by the clashing and uncomfortable jarring of these lines, yet combined, at the end, a subtle and carefully crafted shared understanding and acceptance.

 by Alice Cudmore