Little Fires Everywhere – A perfectly timed discussion on race.

Photograph:The Radio Times

Little Fires Everywhere focuses on two mothers: Elena Richardson, a white middle class writer and all round do gooder and Mia Warren, a black artist who moves from state to state in her car with her daughter, Pearl. The two meet when Elena Richardson takes pity on Warren and allows her and Pearl to rent her apartment for free. Elena prides herself on the action and sees it as an opportunity to do good in the world, soon sparking up a friendship with Pearl, who in turn becomes close friends with her own children. The story becomes, in the most part, a discussion about race and class, but also about motherhood. Ironically released during the biggest discussion of race the world has ever seen, following from George Floyd’s murder, it is a loud and glaring discussion of white privilege in America, from dolls only being made in white, to Elena’s trust in the police department versus Mia’s fear. However, the biggest and most thoroughgoing discussion of race and motherhood comes in with a third mother, Bebe Chow, who came to America from China to give her daughter a better life. The show sees her fight for custody of Mai Ling, in a world where white always wins.

What I loved…

The acting in the series incredible; Kerry Washington undeniably owns the show with her moving portrayal of Mia Warren. However, I found the shows young cast especially impressive, specifically Tiffany Boone, who plays the younger Mia Warren in the flash back episodes. Despite having a smaller part, her ability to mimic Kerry Washington’s mannerisms and facial expressions made for an uncanny likeness. She is one to watch.

The conversations the season has is undoubtedly its most interesting feature. It is the most mainstream discussion of racial bias and how it filtrates into the minds into even the most seemingly anti-racist people, I have ever seen. This comes through most clearly in the Richardson family, in particular through Elena’s character, who despite all her good intentions, still holds biases that she herself is blind to.
Alongside and tangled up in its conversation about racism is its discussion of motherhood, in particular mother daughter relationships, which forms a relatable and moving dialogue throughout the show. The season parallels Elena’s relationship with her youngest daughter Izzy (the one she didn’t plan for) with Mia’s relationship with Pearl. Both girls experience problems with their own mother and in turn seek solace in each others. Izzy, who can’t cope with her mothers need for control enjoys the company of free spirit Mia, while Pearl, sick of having no sense security or grounding, can see the value in a tightly organised home. The fact that both girls find qualities in each others mother’s more agreeable than their own shows that the concept of a ‘good mother’ is subjective, based more on preference than truth. This dialogue is played out with Bebe’s fight to keep her daughter, when the court gets to decide what constitutes a good mother. Through these three women the show discusses the inadequacy, survival and criticism of mothers.

Little Fires Everywhere is a powerful, political, feminist watch.

9/10

Normal People @ BBC Three

Photograph: Enda Bowe/BBC/Element Pictures/Hulu

Adapted from Sally Rooney’s novel, I was anxious that the screen adaptation could not do justice to her honest and intimate style of writing. If you have read Sally Rooney’s novel you will know that this book is built solely on the bond between the two main characters; it’s unusual lack of plot has brought recognition in its ability to portray the complexities of modern relationships. It follows the ebbs and flows of their relationship with all its natural bumps containing no real climax. Naturally, then, as internal perspectives are an area which screen is so often lacking, I thought how could it possibly do it justice? Rooney’s novel would be just another click bait opportunity, capitalising on the popularity of the book but translating poorly on screen. A tamer Fifty Shades of Grey.

However, this piece is genius, regardless of whether you are watching afresh or as a fan of the book. It maintains all the intensity of the novel, mostly through silence, lighting and cinematography. I found myself holding my breath along with the characters in the scenes, an element rarely preserved when adapting from novels. In fact, the series makes apparent the void in teen/young adult screen, by contrasting the over-dramatised and belittled teen emotions often written by a detached fifty year old man behind a desk. The script unlike the far fetched land of Skins or Misfits, is placed in mundane ordinary experiences. It is a dramatisation of isolation, manifested in class structures, miscommunication and loss. Communication forms a heavy theme in the script as two elite communicators in the written form, struggle to put across their most basic desires verbally. When Jessa Crispin at The Guardian wrote ‘I was bored watching these very typical representations of college students doing very normal things ‘, I think she was forgetting the title of the book. This isn’t supposed to be a happening programme, it is revolutionary because it is an exact mirror of the young experience now but perhaps she has forgotten what it is like to be 20.

9/10

BlackAF

Photograph: Gabriel Delerme

Looking for an easy watch comedy during the lockdown? Look no further than Kenya Barris’ BlackAF, following on from his earlier series ‘black-ish’, ‘grown-ish’ and ‘mixed-ish’. Despite being criticised for being a rehashing of ‘Black Ish’, viewed in separation this is a funny and fresh watch, readily available at your Netflix fingertips. The series is a satirised depiction of Kenya Barris’ life, a wealthy comedy writer, presented as a documentary attempt by the protagonist’s daughter for her college application. Showing his black middle class family living in a white middle class world, the series confronts issues of prejudice, cultural identity, and ‘black art’ success in a way that (prior to Black Ish), I had never seen before. Kenya Barris may need to push himself to get away from the shadow of Black Ish, but here he has stuck to what he does best: expounding on his personal narrative in a satirical context.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Photograph: Cannes Film Festival

Set in France in the late 18th Century ‘Portrait On A Lady on Fire’, is a progressive period drama about a solo female artist named Marrianne, who is commissioned to complete a wedding portrait of Héloïse, against her knowledge. In this wonderfully feminist piece the four main parts are women, with the addition of Héloïse’s mother the countess and her maid Sophie. The film is ultimately a discussion of the female gaze, a woman being painted by a woman, who also gazes upon the painter, both constantly under scrutiny. The male absence in the film is glaring and yet the female oppression is loud; it is in Marianne’s need to paint in her father’s name as well as Héloïse’s arranged marriage. Throughout the film Héloïse, Marrianne and Sophie the maid, form a kind of sisterhood like that seen Mustang, coming together through difficulty.

It is a heartbreaking and beautiful LGBTQ film. 9/10.

Viewed on MUBI.

Drop Dead Gorgeous @ VAULT Festival by the SAME SAME Collective

01.02.2020

Drop Dead Gorgeous is a darkly comic exploration of femininity and appetite by four women from the UK, India and Taiwan. The performance lies somewhere between a dance and performance art, with no dialogue whatsoever, as a table bearing fruit forms the centre piece of the action. In that sense Drop Dead Gorgeous is a visual discussion of femininity and its conflict with appetite, presenting a form of hunger I can certainly relate to.

The piece as a satire...

The piece successfully presents a comedic criticism of the universal tropes of femininity through both action and staging. Beginning with just the spotlight lit table, in a brief moment where the lights go out, the women hidden underneath the table appeared seemingly from nowhere. This felt indicative of the idea of women being ‘seen but not heard’ as they appear noiselessly, a trope which was continued throughout the piece, broken only by the occasional graceful sigh performed in unison. The set design was mostly beautiful, a pure white table cloth laid with colourful fruit, stood on pure white flooring. This perfection was mirrored in the women both in costume design, as they stood in their neat matching floral dresses and in accuracy of movement as their dance was timed to perfection. They appeared serene, controlled and delicate to the point of being comedic. Gradually they incorporated the fruit, beginning by gracefully selecting a grape each and including it in the routine. However, as the interaction with the fruit increased the unison of their movement began to break, first by selecting differing fruits, before comedically stuffing their faces until finally the piece digressed into a kind of animalistic feeding ground. They hoarded fruit, stole from one another and devoured all in sight. In this sense food acts as a means through which women cannot appear delicate and faultless.

The Set and how it supported the critique

The piece was performed in-the-round with audiences on all sides amplifying the sense in which the women were on show. Even when they did enact their appetitive desires, the majority of this was done under the long dangling cloth served as a mask to their eating. By the time they divulged into pure animalistic behaviour the table had visually broken into quarters, providing a symbolism of their societal mask slipping, revealing expectations of female bodies as idealistic.

If I had to moan…
My only real complaint was that it was so short. I would’ve loved for them to have taken this further.

The Same Same Collective are ones to watch for multi-cultural political performance art. I found Drop Dead Gorgeous a laugh out loud piece; current and thought provoking it is in tune with works such as ‘Women Don’t Owe You Pretty’. To catch them again they will be back at the London Vault festival on the 15th of February.

Girl from the North Country @Gielgud Theatre

11.01.2020

The musical that doesn’t feel like one.

Accompanying my mum to Girl from the North Country on the basis that it ‘has Bob Dylan music in it’, I had no preconceptions as to what it would be like and even though I knew it had been well received, I was taken aback by the ingenuity of the piece. GFTNC is categorised as a musical so predictably music is a central component, however it felt more like a kitchen sink drama come concert in comparison to thoroughgoing musicals such as Come From Away. Set in an American guesthouse in 1934, the play concerns itself with family issues; infidelity, illness and finance consume the plot. Within this the music acts as a kind of melancholic soundtrack, distinct from yet descriptive of the scenes. The most thorough performance came from Katie Brayben who played Elizabeth Laine, the mentally ill wife of the house owner. She convincingly inhabited the illness both in its comedic and frightening moments. Gloria Obianyo who played Marianne stood out as the best vocalist, as her soulful voice was more like a blues artist than your typical west-end performer.

The Set Design reflected its genre.

The design of the set was both naturalistic and abstract. The band was present throughout the show positioned upstage right, always in view but separate from the scenes amplifying the intrusion of the music into what, in terms of writing, could have been an ordinary play. A piano, downstage right appeared naturalistic and was used throughout the scenes mostly by Elizabeth while a drum kit, downstage left was visually out of place and was used solely as an instrument throughout the songs. It too was played by the actors (rather than members of the band) but this only brought you further away from the action, as it was so unusual to see members of the cast featuring in the musicianship. Similarly, ordinary guest house furniture such as a table and chairs and a kitchen sink were in keeping with the naturalistic script, however the spacing gave it an abstract feel as elements of the set, such as the sink, were rarely interacted with and acted more as ornaments. The most unique thing about the set, however, was the large screen revealed a third of the way into the production, which displayed an image of the nearby lake. It is unclear if this was supposed to be a modernistic representation of a window but as it was only introduced later in the production and occasionally it would show a laneway rather than the lake, I assume not. I think the purpose was to enable you to grasp the setting in a way which was going to juxtapose the naturalism, to distance you further from the scenes but more than that its purpose was to provide a backlight so that during the vocal numbers, members of the cast could stand close to screen and be mere silhouettes. It was thrilling to watch.

A genius piece so much more than an ode to Bob Dylan.

9/10

Rosa @ The Courtyard Theatre

Rosa is a one woman show about a woman (named Rosa) who fixates on her ability to control time throughout the day, causing her to fear sleep. The script follows her neurotic daily routine in a convincing but also bizarre manner.

Things I liked about this piece…

Committed characterisation- I found Carlota Arencibia a thoroughly committed actress, never slipping in her characterisation even during the comedic moments. The piece had already started from the moment the audience entered, which was a clever way of amplifying the realism of the piece. We really had walked into the room of a mad woman. Movement was a key and clever part of Carlota’s performance, mostly to embody the time she was fixated on, as well as to physicalise Rosa’s desire for control. This added to the thoroughness of the characterisation as well as the comedy of the piece. Most of the comedy, however, came from the quirks of Rosa’s daily routine such as her morning wee which was done on stage into a plant pot, using a water pouch tucked into her knickers. Other absurd moments included her morning cup of coffee, which was poured over her face, her exercises, which included putting match sticks in her eyes, as well as the period she spends rubbing her clit, a small pillow attached to her knickers. All these elements made for a convincing and funny portrayal of her neurotic character but also were evidence of what an incredible piece of writing Rosa is.

Set Design- This is the most fully realised set I’ve seen in a small scale production this year. It was made up of white painted wooden panelling which formed the three walls to the room. The white fresh paint was reminiscent of a mental asylum but the wood complicated this, making it feel more like a painter and decorator set or even a heavenly garden. The idea of it being a painter and decorator set was heightened by the roll-on paint brush which stood propped up on the wall throughout the piece, as well as the white linen flooring. This not-quite-finished state of the set nicely amplifies the sense of being stuck in time, much like Rosa. The set also mirrored her desire for balance, with props tending to come in equal numbers and there being only one stand out colour, red. The only sense of imbalance came from the roll on brush which looked as though it could have been left accidentally, cleverly highlighting the scene’s artificiality, much like her own sense of control.

If I had to moan…

This is a naturally difficult piece to critique due to its originality. However, I think to not lose sight of diction would be a good point to make, as parts of the performance were lost in the zig zagging of content. While the fast paced speech was obviously a deliberate characterisation choice, I think too much was missed at times.

The silent Mrs Coffman, the person Rosa speaks to throughout, was an unclear concept. Who is she? Do we know? Should we care? I found myself straddling the ideas that: Mrs Coffman was imaginary, Mrs Coffman was a psychiatrist, Mrs Coffman is whoever the audience want her to be. I think whether or not Mrs Coffman is supposed to be anything particular or not, it needs to be stated clearer as I found my attempt to grasp it distracting and spent half the piece worrying I’d missed the answer.

Finally, I would’ve liked to have seen Carlota go further in Rosa’s moments of fear, to elevate the contrast with the mostly lighthearted tone of the production.

Overall, this was an incredibly well written, performed and managed piece which I would highly recommend for anyone seeking something slightly unconventional. I wish this production the best of luck going forward and I have no doubt they will do well. Carlota is a real force.

Trouble @ The Chapel Playhouse

18.09.19.

Lizzie Annis’ ‘Trouble’, is a linguistically powerful and genuinely moving depiction of a night out from the perspective of a woman with Cerebral palsy.

It is both familiar and enlightening as it comments on sleazy men, social awkwardness, friendship and dating but from the perspective of someone with a disability. The piece was both hilarious and heartbreaking in one short half an hour sitting as it gives light to both the complexities but also humour which derives from the social repercussions of having a disability.

What I loved…

The language. The entire piece was written as essentially, one long poem with a rhyming scheme running throughout. It was cleverly paced, colloquial yet elevated with clever use of imagery throughout so that no set or props were required. I was struck by what an incredible piece of writing it was.

Multi-Role.

Throughout the piece, Lizzie embodies the people she interacts with simply by changing the tone of her voice and movement. I found this a lovely way of making a simple piece more powerful. She does a really good job of showing how sometimes less is more.

If I had to moan…

This is a really difficult piece to criticise as I genuinely loved it however, I felt some of the transition in her multiple-role playing could have been sharpened. At times it wasn’t entirely obvious who was speaking or which character she was embodying. Therefore I would say simply to focus on sharpening the tone and movement at all times, to avoid blurring the characters.

Overall however, I found this to be a really clever and contemporary piece of feminist theatre. We need more like this.

The Incident Room @ Edinburgh Fringe- My Recommendation.

03.08.2019.

Detailing the police investigation of ‘the biggest manhunt in British history’ The Incident Room looks at the inside events of the Yorkshire Ripper case. It presents a re-enactment of the case’s developments over the years over leading up to his conviction.

What I loved…

  1. It’s thorough.
    It gives a detailed account of the investigation into the Yorkshire ripper case, meaning it is genuinely interesting from a historical standpoint. Having said that this is not just one for the history nerds.
  2. It’s authentic.
    Set in a 1980s northern police station it’s a great step back in time. Think no computers, sexism and ‘simpler times’- making for a much greater piece of theatre but far worse police services. It’s comedic, raw and honest.
  3. The staging.
    This was my favourite set that i saw at The Fringe- having said that Fringe isn’t exactly known for its sets- but the use of space is well thought out and the interactive filing cabinets and the multi-use single door was clever while also being in tune with its naturalistic style.
  4. The acting.
    Last but not least this is the best piece of naturalistic acting I saw at The Fringe. Best Actor award goes to the woman who doubled as the police woman and the victim of attack (excuse my lack of clarity here but it did not come with a program). Despite being the underdog she was brilliantly Yorkshire, hilarious and committed to both roles.

If you want a gripping naturalistic piece of theatre this is your man (excuse the pun)

9/10

Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner @ The Royal Court Theatre

12. 08.19. “How exactly does one kill a social media figure/entrepreneur, or as I like to term her: a con artist-cum-provocateur?”

Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner focuses on the perspective of a black English woman on the economic and online success of Kylie Jenner. The play sways between the protagonist, Cleo’s, ramblings on twitter and a dialogue with her mixed race best friend Kara as they’re sat in her bedroom. Throughout the play Cleo posts a series of tweets detailing the ways in which she would kill Kylie Jenner, which allows the play to explore the themes of social media and race as she faces both online criticism and debate with Kara.

A political core…

SMOFKKJ enlightened me to the cultural appropriation which is all over our social media pages by, mostly, white women who are able to mimic traits of black women through cosmetic surgery such as ‘big lips, wide hips and big bums’. In this piece Cleo argues that off the back cosmetic surgery are white women such as KJ making billions from features that Black women have while those very same features in black women have invited racism and even violence. SMOFKKJ invites the audience to give a long hard look at the people we put on pedestals and the racism at its core.

Another racial debate running parallel to that of cultural appropriation and success of white celebrities is that which is held in the discourse between black Cleo and her mixed raced best friend Kara. Ironically Cleo is racist to Kara calling her a ‘lighty’ stating that she’d had it ‘easier’ and stated that ‘bare man’ were looking to ‘jump’ on her. She cites mixed raced celebrities which are idolised for their beauty such as Beyonce, Rihanna and Jorja Smith while there are very few idolised black celebrity women. However, Kara replies while that they may be true she is and will always be ‘a black woman’, highlighting the isolation mixed race women can feel even from the black community.

Staging

The staging became a clever visual embodiment of the plays central themes. The sparse blocks of wood with cream mesh hanging above appeared both stylish and haunting. I took the wood to represent the natural while the mesh, something that is man made. The mesh had a single hanging noose, inviting reflection on the lynchings of black African American people Cleo speaks about, yet the mesh had a strange attractiveness to it like those you might see draped at a fancy beach club. In that sense the mesh became a discussion of the way in which the same features can double up to mean two very different things for different members of society.

Here I have focused on the central theme of the play, racism but the play covered so much more which I won’t discuss here including feminism, homosexuality and social media. It is one of the most thought provoking pieces I have seen in a while.

My rating: 10/10 poltical, current, moving, hilarious.