Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Reviewing Peers

It is an issue for me, whether or not to review my peers if I am given the choice and in most circumstances I have turned down the opportunity. This problem has been in the back of my mind since I recently (for the first time I hasten to add) told my editor that I could not review my good friend's production of Arturu Ui for the unsubstantiated fear that if it were not successful I would be unable to set aside my allegiances and give an honest report. It is my belief that when reviewing, one should not be influenced by the relationship they have with the people involved in what is being reviewed, loyalty should remain with reader; this is the critic's job. However at this point in my career I have not yet had the ability to separate the two.

After a pleasant evening spent at a double bill dress-rehearsal performance, both written, directed and created by friends of mine, I have decided to confront my fear and write a fair and honest response to each show:

'Until She Showed Me Otherwise'

The night begins with a relaxed atmosphere as Lisa Ellis welcomes us into the intimate space she has created in order to perform a one woman show in which she engages us with stories of lesbian and bi-sexual women. As a lesbian herself, Lisa has a strong connection to the verbatim material and she shows a passion and respect for the women she embodies as well as revealing her own personal 'coming out' story. Her persona is one which is comparatively a cross between the carefully constructed persona of Lian Aramis in 'Swimming to Spalding' and Kristin Fredricksson's relaxed amicability in 'Everything Must Go'. There are also elements which strongly resemble the form of 'The Vagina Monologues' and work magnificently.

Ellis' characters and the stories they tell are intriguing and yet heart-breaking; Ellis has an ability to draw the audience in, at times using us, without expectation or pressure, to read out individual stories of women which are capable of inducing shock and dis-belief. It is an eye-opening experience for anyone who refuses to accept that there are still problems in the acceptance of gay women in our society today. The effect is one similar to DV8's 'To Be Straight With You'; you leave the theatre feeling ignorant of the issues still plaguing the gay community and at times, this realisation brings a tear to your eye.

Some of the less effective elements of the piece includes the total ignorance of the elaborate set behind Ellis (constructed mainly for the second part of the double bill, 'Toast') to the point where one forgets that it is even there, and the placement of an onstage dramaturg. The dramaturg, Gemma Williams, becomes more of a distraction than a help, as she is used to dress Ellis in the various costume pieces and to occasionally clear up after her. It seems to be a case of anything Williams can do, Ellis could do better, which begs the question; why is she there?

The show itself, however, is strong, engaging and full of impact. Ellis raises issues that need to be raised without preaching or running her audience into the ground with overly-emotional lesbian horror stories. There is a careful balance of humour and integrity which keeps the audience amused and involved.


The second half of the show, although presented in a very separate format with different directors, continues along the theme of homosexuality, exploring the relationship between gay men and straight women. Through a text created part from Verbatim material and part from cast improvisations, the play introduces the space as a wake for Dixie Spartan; a drag queen who has seemingly left his best friend Maggie in the lurch by not acknowledging her in a letter he has written before he died. The dedication to delving deeper than the label 'fag hag' makes this piece interesting in it's new perspective, however some plot holes diminish the impact of this by diverting the audience's attention to what is not justified by the end.

The cast are superb in their very natural characterisation of Dixie's friends and one by one they make their own arena of debate on the subject through beautifully delivered monologues created from the Verbatim material. Unfortunately, at times, it is rather too obvious what has been improvised and what is other peoples' words; there is a missing connection between the two which creates a barrier between the humour of duologue's and the more serious nature of the monologues. The audience interaction is plausible and does not intimidate the audience, rather one feels a part of the celebration for Dixie, who is present throughout, mounted on the stage surrounded by glittering trees, shoes and over sized apples. It is a shame that this arena is not used by the other characters as instead we are diverted around the space to various tables at which they sit.

Whilst there are flaws at this stage of the rehearsal process, with development and attention to the finer details, this play, with it's fantastic array of colourful characters (in particular Dixie) and superbly fabulous set, has the potential to be thought-provoking whilst remaining thoroughly entertaining.

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