The Keepers – ravens in the Tower

It’s not every day you see your friend flapping about like a raven. But then, when your friend is an actor and recent graduate of East 15 Acting School, it’s all in a day’s work.

Adam Brown, who goes by the stage name Adam Bellamy, co-wrote and performed in The Keepers, a short theatre piece by Tangled Spider Theatre about the ravens at the Tower of London. Last night a group of us headed up to London to see our friend perform at the Etcetera Theatre, above the Oxford Arms in Camden.

The Keepers

The piece also features East 15 graduates Hayley Adams, Komal Amin, Mairin O’Hagan and Sarah Anson, and originated from a devised performance project they worked on while on the MA Acting course. It also includes a graduate from ArtsEd acting school.

When your friend tells you they’re going to be playing a raven in their next show, you of course smile, nod and make encouraging sounds. These actors, eh. But as we settled into our seats, all preconceptions vanished. There stood Adam and his fellow actors, all wearing black and sporting heavy eye makeup, jerking their heads and strutting about the stage so much in the manner of a bird it was uncanny.

The Ravens

Later on in the pub, Adam told me about the extensive research they had all done into the anatomy of a raven, studying its skeletal structure in order to understand how and why they move the way they do. I was even more fascinated to discover the ravens in the play are all real ravens that have lived in the Tower. All of a sudden a highly entertaining piece of theatre in its own right took on a greater significance.

Sadly Erin is the only one of the ravens in the play that still lives in the Tower, but you can read about the other ravens’ stories on the Tower of London website. Many of the individual personalities and characteristics of the ravens we saw in the play are based on the real ravens, including a penchant for playing dead, a love of biscuits, and one raven going walkabout.

Despite an aching back here and there from holding the unnatural posture (for us) of the raven, the actors came into the pub exhausted but exhilarated afterwards for a well-deserved pint. This was a truly original and enjoyable performance quite unlike anything I’d seen before, and if you can get to Camden tonight or tomorrow for the last two performances I’d highly recommend it.

Images and artwork courtesy of Tangled Spider Theatre.

Le Corsaire – ballet at the Mayflower

Le Corsaire review for blogMy review of English National Ballet’s performance of Le Corsaire this week at the Mayflower Theatre in Southampton. A true delight. I’m not too happy with the headline though. As the reviewer, we don’t write the headline, and though the subs normally do a fantastic job of picking out a phrase from the piece to use as a headline, they haven’t got this one quite right.

Although I do describe the second act as ‘athletic’ and mention the ‘magical mix of athlete and artist that is the beauty of the ballet dancer’, calling the show a ‘mix of athletics and dancing’ is too simplistic. There were no standalone athletics in the ballet. There were athletic elements to the dancing, but I feel that to separate the two in the headline like this misrepresents the piece.

Still, a wonderful evening and my thanks to The Portsmouth News as always for giving me the opportunity to review such brilliant performances!



SOOP of the instant variety

Saturday night is always a difficult one. I’m at that age where a night gracing the dance floor in Liquid accompanied by several Tequila slammers is all just a bit too energetic, but equally I’ve not yet reached sitting in front of the TV with my slippers on and a nice cup of tea. So when my friend Bex suggested a spot of improvised comedy I was both intrigued and glad to do something a little different on a Saturday night.

Soop Theatre logo

We headed to The Cellars at Eastney for ‘Instant Soop!’, a live improvised comedy show by SOOP, the resident theatre company at the Spring Arts and Heritage Centre, Havant. The company’s website declared that each show is slightly different as it’s based on suggestions from the audience, creating a kind of personalised theatre. We grabbed a drink and bagged ourselves a good spot where we would be close enough to be part of the action.

Now, I’d rather not give too much away, as I really think these shows are best when you don’t know what to expect. To be fair, though, they really are shaped by what the audience says, so you can never know exactly what’s coming! The very funny Vincent Adams, co-founder of SOOP and a fellow SSA member, was the host for the evening, acting as a conduit for the suggestions from the audience and keeping a loose hold of the reins.

On stage the four actors took part in a variety of exercises involving lightening-quick thinking and a willingness to go with the flow, wherever it may take them. This kind of theatre only works if you have the audience on board, willing to come along on the journey with the actors and really throw itself into it too. The modest-sized but enthusiastic audience at The Cellars was with the actors every step of the way, and as the evening progressed the laughter became louder and freer.

An Instant Soop! promo shot - the cast at The Cellars was slightly different

An Instant Soop! promo shot – the cast at The Cellars featured Rachel Carter and Nathan Chapman, both on the left

Antics on stage ranged from conversations using words from the reading material supplied by the audience to group therapy expressed through the medium of song, with music supplied by talented musician Matt Blackwell. For the therapy scene each audience member was given a piece of paper on which to write a suggestion for a problem, and the host chose two to be used. I was thrilled when my ‘I can’t stop licking plants’ suggestion became the subject of a song, and delighted at the skill of the actors as they thought up rhyming lyrics on the spot. Rachel Carter, musical director for the company, is a wonderfully talented singer, and her beautiful voice carried a surreal air of serenity amidst the madness.

My favourite scenario of the whole evening was probably when the group acted out various scenes from one particular audience member’s life. A bearded Ed Owen-Jones playing a teenage girl was hilarious if not strangely convincing (a testament to acting skill and the audience’s suspension of disbelief, as said actor looks just like Alfie Boe). The younger sister being told she would have to wait for puberty until she grew a beard like her big sister made me snort into my merlot.

To be honest the evening was over all too quickly, and I could happily have sat there for another hour or two watching further hilarity ensue. Actor Daniel Scott and the company’s creative director and co-founder Nathan Chapman joined Blackwell, Carter and Owen-Jones to make up the evening’s five performers. Along with Adams and his intelligent wit, they made a perfect troupe, and I look forward to seeing them in action again.

Catch Instant Soop! next at the Spring, Havant on Wednesday 16 October, or check out SOOP’s website for more information about the company, including other upcoming shows. Hilarity guaranteed!

Truly talented ladies

It’s always a joy to discover new talent, even if that talent was actually discovered by everyone else a long time ago. With the ladies of Bench Theatre‘s recent production of Ladies’ Day, I felt just that.

Robin Hall, Beth Evans, Jessi Wilson and Sarah Parnell gave fantastic performances as the four fish-packers from Hull. I could easily have been watching professional actresses.

My review of Ladies' Day in local newspaper The News

My review of Ladies’ Day in local newspaper The News

Sarah Parnell particularly stood out as an actress who could captivate an audience and take them along for the ride, as she lead you deep into the story and her character’s life. Having praised the actress to a friend after the show who is very familiar with the local am dram scene, I learnt she also did voiceover work, possibly professionally. It was evident that my ‘discovery’ of this talented lady in our midst was lagging behind the rest of the local theatre world, and perhaps further afield.

If you missed Ladies’ Day, you can catch Sarah next in One Off Productions‘ performance of Noel Coward’s Present Laughter, coming to the Kings Theatre, Portsmouth this September. I’ll be there on the front row!

Beware the seagulls

Last week I reviewed a performance of Henry V by local amateur dramatic theatre company Collingwood RSC, part of the Royal Navy Theatre Association (RNTA). The company performed the play in Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard, in the open air alongside Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory. Such a setting presented some wonderful dramatic possibilities but also came with a few challenges. The actors carried on regardless, a skill that every actor must at some stage come to master.

My review in local newspaper The News

My review in local newspaper The News

The major issue open-air performances have to deal with, especially in this country, is the weather. However, with the amazing heatwave we’d been experiencing, rain was the last worry on anyone’s mind. The seagulls were a different story.

In the very first scene one particularly brazen bird decided he wanted his moment in the limelight and swooped down on stage. Taking a fancy to the prop sandwiches (at least they looked like sandwiches from where I was sitting), he proceeded to wolf one down, much to the amusement of the audience. I could hear the titter of faint laughter and the stifled giggles as he went in for seconds. I’m sure the audience were all too aware of how off-putting a good snort of laughter would be, especially as at this point the actors on stage possibly hadn’t seen the antics of our feathered friend going on behind them.

We did our best to keep the laughter in, even when a rival seagull turned up, having spotted the feast taking place and wanting in. Observing him struggling to stay on top of the tent roof in the background as his feet slippy-slided all over the place was particularly giggle-inducing, as was the moment when we realised the seagulls between them had managed to eat the entire collection of prop food on stage. The actors, by now acutely aware of the presence of the feathery food thieves, did an admirable job, and managed to draw us into the action of the play and away from the bird antics.

The actor announcing the death of Falstaff competed with a soundtrack of seagull cries and helicopter blades, but again not even a twitch or the tiniest slip of character from those on stage. It served as a good reminder of the challenges one can face when putting on a show somewhere other than the traditional theatre setting. It also reminded me of the merits, and with the magnificent HMS Victory overlooking the actors as they brought this rousing play to life, it made for a wonderful evening.

Read more about the seagull antics from one of the actors on the RSC Open Stages at The Dell blog.

The art of reviewing

Last week I had the pleasure of seeing a spot of theatre for free and getting to write about it for the local paper. Still a relative newbie when it comes to reviewing, and acutely aware of the importance of those words from an actor’s point of view, I felt as nervous as if I were the one onstage that evening!

The show in question, 84 Charing Cross Road performed by local company HumDrum Theatre, was brilliant, thus I was able to write a glowing review. However, the process got me thinking about the job of the reviewer, what to look out for when watching the performance, and whether there is indeed an art to good reviewing.

Review of 84 Charing Cross Road in local newspaper The News

Review of 84 Charing Cross Road in local newspaper The News

I read the local newspaper The News every morning as part of my job in a university press office. The paper often includes several theatre reviews of local shows, professional and amateur, so I have started poring over these in the belief that with each review I read I will absorb the structure, tone and rhythm as if by osmosis.

The work of the reviewer seems to be entirely different to that of both the news reporter and the feature writer. A skill all of its own, the writing of the reviewer has to be truthful, give the writer’s opinion but be balanced and fair, and come from a trusted source.

The title of this post is perhaps a little misleading. Is reviewing really an art, or is it a craft? The best way to get better at reviewing is to work at it. Improve your review writing style by reading and writing as many different theatre reviews as possible.

When I find a reviewer who’s work I particularly admire, I look at how their pieces are constructed, what elements they keep and what they have left out (reviews for The News have a word limit of 200 words). Crucially, I also notice how they manage to remain balanced and fair, regardless of the quality of the show they are reviewing.

Whether it is an art or in fact a craft, the writing of reviews is an influential element in the theatre-making process. As an actor, these words can hold great satisfaction or great disappointment. As a writer, I hope I can do my fellow actors justice, and perform the task entrusted to me with the integrity it calls for.