Will Self’s Shark: More Than Some Can Chew

Published by Kettle Mag 17/09/2014

Will Self is often accused of being incomprehensible to the average reader. His vocabulary too verbose, his analogies too deeply drawn, his ideas too, well, difficult for a light read. Shark, his second installment in a trilogy of psychology, technology and pathology, is guilty of all of these things and more – and it’s all the more glorious a literary morsel because of it.

Reading anything written by Self can often feel as though you’re diving into murky waters without the aid of a searchlight, and for anyone who reads to give their overworked brain a rest, Shark is simply not the novel for you.

If, however, you’re looking for a cerebral workout and an exhilarating narrative to boot, you’ve probably come to the right place.

At first, being plunged into the middle of a sentence which begins a book-length paragraph of stream-of-consciousness style narrative, might seem superfluously maddening. But the effect of Self’s prose is to drag you incessantly inwards and onwards, rather than leaving you hopelessly adrift.

Much like Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, trying to second-guess the narrative will only damage your understanding of this book; keep on swimming in Self’s psychological sea, and you’ll soon make the necessary leaps required to keep your head above water

Dropping anchor

Following on from Umbrella – or, for a more accurate chronology, preceding from it – Shark’s currents pull us deep within the swelling minds of the residents of Concept House, with the aid of Self’s oft-used antagonistic protagonist, the anti-psychiatrist Zack Busner.

Based firmly on the houses R.D. Laing’s Philadelphia Association set-up in 1965, Shark drops us into the 1970s, where Busner has taken the idea of therapists and patients living together as equals one-step further; and thus, birthed The Concept House.

Our anchor in the washing tide of the residents’ intersecting streams of consciousness is, as it was with Umbrella, the wayward psychiatrist. This time, though, he’s been tricked into embarking on an ill-advised acid trip with his patients.

From this fixed point the ebb and flow of memories circles back and back, cutting across  events including the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in the shark-infested South Pacific, the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima, and the life of a girl who, abused by her mother as a child, enters into a young womanhood of prostitution and drug addiction.

Circling the kill

These events may at first appear discrepant, but as ever, Self’s masterful structuring of his narrative ensures that – as long as you pay attention – you’ll find your way safely back to shore.

The shark-like narrative circles back on itself again and again, until subject and object are united and we end up right where we began. Self’s universe is the realm of confusion and chance, serendipity meeting superfluity, and above all, psychology meeting pathology.

And while it might appear as though he’s simply thrown caution to the wind and scooped us up into an infuriating whirlpool of never-ending cause and effect, with little thought as to its consequence on the reader, this structure is intensely apposite.

Self has taken Hiroshima as the eye of Shark’s storm, and in fact the circularity mimics more than just the sharks going in for the kill. The structure of his book, quite unbelievably, recreates the orbit of the proton around the uranium 238 atom, and so in a very real sense we find ourselves reading the path of the nuclear bomb that decimated a city.

A slippery sea of thoughtfish

To attempt to describe the numerous rivulets of experience that form the larger waves of Shark’s narrative flow, would be both impossible and unhelpful. Suffice to say, that Shark both precedes Umbrella chronologically, whilst continuing its author’s examination of the relationship between humans and technology, through a wide-arching psychological dissection that questions whether this relationship is productive or pathological.

Reading Shark is a sometimes disorientating and at all times rewarding experience. Throughout its 466 pages the reader is repeatedly tossed across stormy seas, which at times will leave you feeling a little battered and bruised.

But in the end, Self sets you down with a fulfilling bite of literary fiction, and ensures that even the most ardent of serious readers will finish the journey feeling fully satisfied, and still wanting more.

withWings’ The Duck Pond: More Than An Ugly Duckling

The Duck Pond

Published by Kettle Mag 19/08/2014

withWings are one of those rare student companies that manage to excel themselves production after production.

Last year they performed a wonderfully inventive physical theatre adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, titled If Room Enough, featuring a beach hut, a washing machine, and a great original score.

This year, the group is back at the Edinburgh Fringe with The Duck Pond, a spectacularly creative re-imagining of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.

A quacking good time

It’s Prince Siegfried’s 21st Birthday, and despite the fact that he really doesn’t show an interest in women, his mother Queen Hildegard (Kitty Murdoch) is putting pressure on him to marry one. She plans to throw a ball to introduce her disinterested son to a whole host of suitable beauties, despite his comical resistance to the plan.

In the meantime, though, apparently eager to confuse her only child still further, she takes him to visit the traveling fair he loved so much as a boy.

Once there, the celebrations and stagecraft are wonderfully exuberant, with carnival-esque music, inventive choreography, presents handed to the audience, and even cake for those in the front row.

At night, though, is when the real magic begins. 

All the fun of the fair

As darkness falls and the carnival atmosphere subsides, our Prince (James Bennett) finally falls in love: with an enchanted rubber duck called Odin (Tom Coxon). No, really.

Odin has been cursed by the wicked magician and owner of the fair, the sinister Russian Rothbart (Tom Figgins). By day, our prince’s love is a plastic duck just waiting to be hooked, but as the moon rises, he returns to his human form.

It is wonderful nonsense, and you can’t fail to notice the nod to Tchaikovsky’s apparently closeted homosexuality. By making their duck a drake, withWings tell the kind of love story that would have been forbidden when the ballet was first produced. And tell it well they certainly do.

An enchanting six notes

Halfway through the performance, the company receive an irate phone call from the famous composer, and tell him firmly that they won’t be paying him any performance rights. Why? Because they’re only using his six most famous notes!

Their sparing use – sung by the company, played on a music box, and even created by the audience on glasses filled with water – serve the same function as they did in the original ballet.

They foreshadow the heartbreaking ending and echo its inevitability: because for The Duck Pond as it is for Swan Lake, true love cannot triumph over tragedy. 

Masterful handling of tone

For me, Odin the Duck deserves a special mention for being quite so delightfully endearing. Coxon is able to switch from playing the naively playful boyfriend, to a heartbreaking final scene which will bring tears to even the driest of eyes.

As you’d expect from a ballet adaptation, there is a certain amount of dancing which adds beautifully to the aesthetic. But The Duck Pond, if it fits into any category at all, is less a dance piece and more a tragicomedy for the 21st century.

The wonderful chorus of courtiers and fairground workers are played by a phenomenal ensemble, whose comedic moments give repeated relief from the darker undertones of the play.

Their well-choreographed stagecraft and audience interaction are a delight to be a part of, and a new musical  score played live on-stage is an enthralling mixture of folk, rock, and cabaret.

A tragedy

Thankfully, the only tragedy in this play is that it inevitably ends too soon – not just for the star-crossed lovers, but for everyone watching.

Time flies when you’re having fun, and the pace, staging, performances, and sheer inventiveness of this adaptation, are stunning.

If you’re at the Fringe and you don’t get to see this show, I can honestly say that you have missed out on one of the best productions on offer this year.

And that would be the real tragedy.

NB: withWing’s The Duck Pond will be performed until the 24th August at 18:00 (1 hour 10 minutes) at Bedlam Theatre.

Selina Thompson’s Chewing the Fat: Vital and Vibrant

Image Credit: This is Ruler

Image Credit: This is Ruler

Published by Kettle Mag 18/08/2014

Chewing the Fat is about body image. It’s about accepting fat and talking about fat. It does not endorse the opinions of any of the following: Jennifer Lawrence, Gok Wan, Germaine Greer, Selina’s mum, your mum, or actually, anyone who isn’t 24-year old performance artist and theatre maker, Selina Thompson.

A riveting autobiography

This is, unapologetically, a solo show about one woman’s experience of her body, from being a child, to leaving university and beginning her life as an artist.

Because, in her own words, Selina is not chubby. She isn’t curvy, there isn’t “more to love”,   and she isn’t jolly. What she is, is fat. But that doesn’t need to be a bad thing.

This show isn’t about anorexia, bulimia, fat acceptance, the beauty myth, feminism, the fashion industry, weight loss, or about how you should feel about your body. It is, however, a funny, encouraging, heartbreaking, unique, and astounding piece of storytelling and performance art, that will leave you uplifted, thoughtful, and thoroughly glad you were watching.

A feast for the senses

The easiest label to pin on Selina’s work is performance art, but that doesn’t really do her show justice. Chewing the Fat is part art, part theatre, part stand-up comedy, part story-telling, and part an outer-body experience of watching a tea party through a wonderfully thoughtful looking glass.

Featuring popping balloons, a teapot filled with crumbs that sparkle, a rice-pudding piñata,  and a deeply moving cleansing experience using Lush bathing products, every one of the five senses is put to good use.

Because of this, Selina’s performance is all-encompassing. The audience really is wholly welcomed into a world of glorious people, lifelong body issues, life-affirming successes, trials, tribulations, and triumphs.

An important subject

Personally, I have never experienced the issue of body image approached in this way before. Chewing the Fat is an experience that’s as unique and inspiring as its creator, and this insightful piece stays with you long after you’ve left the theatre.

The issues of fat, food, and body acceptance will resonate with both men and women across generations, and this show brings us all back to our childhood of midnight feasts, and our adulthood of counting calories.

During this piece you will laugh, you will be silent, you will think, feel, be troubled, and enjoy. Selina is uncompromising in her approach to the issues of fat and being fat. She is an in-yer-face performer with the kindness and joy of a mother, an innate gift for storytelling, and a belief system that’s perceptive beyond her years.

Shared stories

Every one of us has a story about food. Whether it’s eating ice-cream on the beach as a child, being called fat in the playground at school, skipping meals because we were busy, counting calories, or going out with a group of friends for the best Birthday meal ever, food is an integral part of all of our lives.

As such, this piece is a story for everyone. At 24-years-old, Selina creates and performs with the confidence of a seasoned professional.

Chewing the Fat is now starting its UK tour, and if you see one show this year, make it this one. Performers like Selina come along only once or twice in every generation, and sometimes not at all.

If this show is anything to go by, then she has a long and successful career ahead of her, and all of us will be better off because of it.

NB: Chewing the Fat is on tour this Autumn. For dates and tickets visit http://www.selinathompson.co.uk/

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Theatrical Acid Trip

fear and loathing

Published by Kettle mag 09/08/2014

When Hunter S. Thompson wrote Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, he was perfecting his own unique brand of drug use, insanity, and philosophy. You’ll find all of these things in abundance in Lou Stein’s wonderfully crafted stage adaptation of the book.

Enduring popularity

The prolific director first adapted the gonzo journalist’s acid trip memoirs in 1982, and the show has come to the Edinburgh Fringe fresh from a sell-out run in London. One of the reasons this play has been so popular, is that Thompson’s diaries are one enduring theatrical image.

From reptiles in the lobby to hallucinations on the highway, everything in this show is visual and vibrant. The drug-crazed trip to Las Vegas, taken by the gonzo journalist and his wildly insane attorney, is riotous, intoxicating, and solidly acted by all five performers.

True to text

The strength of this adaptation is that it’s almost rigidly true to Thompson’s original text. The narration is split between an older Hunter S. Thompson re-reading his words, and the younger version living through them.

The cross-over between book and play is slick and almost seamless. Thompson’s account of his attempt to cover a motor race in the Nevada desert whilst consuming an inhuman cocktail of mescaline, LSD, ether, amyl nitrate, cocaine and other assorted uppers, is surreally funny and often uncomfortably frank.

Stein’s production manages to capture the essence of Thompson’s whirlwind ride. The combination of well-constructed set, and lighting designs inspired by Ralph Steadman’s grotesque novella cartoons, works beautifully to convey the madness to the audience.

Insanity personified

Every cast member pulls their own weight in this slick and surreal show. But the standout performance, for me, was the incomparable Rob Crouch, as crazed drug-fiend attorney Dr Gonzo.

His acting cannot be called subtle, since nor can his character, but it is strewn with sparks of perfect comedic timing, and outbursts of melodramatic rage. As Dr. Gonzo, Crouch is louche, versatile, terrifying, funny, and utterly without shame.

In one particular scene, suffering an intensely paranoid and violent hallucinogenic trip, Crouch lies prone and naked in a bathtub, brandishing a kitchen knife at the astonished Hunter S. Thompson. He then heaves himself out of the water, and parades about on-stage as naked as the day he was born – and certainly not as innocent.

The pantomime-esque scene drew roars of laughter from the audience, and began an undercurrent of very real concern for the fate of his terrified traveling companion.

Well re-created

The world of the early 1970s is brought to life with a fantastic soundtrack – which included the Rolling Stones and Jefferson Airplane – and a well-designed set that adapted cleverly and moved with the action.

The ferocious pace is occasionally lost in the melee, but to watch this play is to live vicariously through the wild and brilliant mind of a literary icon.

The only real fault in the production was that it stuck almost too rigidly to the text, and although lighting was used cleverly, it’s incredibly difficult to convey hallucinations, and capture such a grand level of excess visually on-stage.

Even so, Lou Stein’s production is a valiant effort to recreate a text that delves into the darker side of the American dream, and reveals the era as experienced through one man’s wired and brilliant mind.

NB: Lou Stein’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is being performed August 12th – 25th, at 16:30 (1 hour 30 minutes) in the Pleasance Courtyard.

Verismo Theatre’s Departures: A Song-Cycle for All of Us


Published by Kettle mag 12/08/2014

Verismo Theatre are a glorious surprise in this year’s Edinburgh Fringe programme. Formed in Sheffield earlier this year by writer Joe Bunce and composer Matthew Malone, the company takes its name from a nineteenth century Italian operatic movement, which shunned the traditional tropes of royalty and prestige, and concentrated instead on the lives of ordinary people.

Similarly, Departures is a 21st-century song cycle about all of us. The “normal” ones. The people commuting to and from work and home, living our lives without recourse to riches or societal scandals, yet constantly plugged into a changing and fast-paced world.

A true-to-life song cycle

Departures tells the story of eight strangers standing at a railway platform as their train is, as always, delayed. As time passes, they put down their newspapers and smartphones, and begin to interact with one another – sharing their secrets, hopes, fears, and loneliness.

The source material for the show was collected from individuals across a diverse range of British communities. During each interview, the company asked the question ‘What is the biggest challenge in your life at the moment?’.

The answers to this question were then recorded, transcribed, and adapted into songs ranging from contemporary pop, to funk, to barbershop. What’s left at the end, is a life-affirming tale featuring misogyny, mid-life crisis, depression, immigration, and the importance of human interaction.

Music to smile by

This song cycle features an eclectic collection of well-realised and beautifully orchestrated musical styles, every one of them performed exceptionally well by the young cast. Richard Agar as the recruitment consultant who quits his job and buys an oboe – just because – is capable of real charm and humour on-stage.

Katherine Farquar’s role as sarcastic train announcer transforms beautifully in a touching composition, in which she urges the newfound friends on the platform to hold onto their community spirit.

And a personal highlight for me was “Silence”, a moving and powerful piece about an elderly man who thinks of himself as a burden, and so refuses to reach out to anyone around him. During this song, Matt Bond delivers a phenomenal classical performance to blow the audience away.

Real-life interests

The stories themselves focus on real-life struggles in the 21st-century UK – from the highly-qualified Romanian immigrant who has second thoughts about leaving her family behind, to a schoolboy struggling with depression and the feeling that he doesn’t have a valid reason to be unhappy.

The final numbers feature impressive harmonies from all of the cast, and some subtly complex arrangements by Malone. Similarly, Bunce’s lyrics morph from fast-paced and comedic tongue twisters, to emotive tales of everyday problems with a finesse that’s rare to find in someone in their early twenties.

Departures is what the Edinburgh Fringe was made for: a young, talented company that have been given a platform on which to perform to the best of their abilities, and create something that is truly impressive.

Keep an eye out for Bunce and Malone, because they will certainly be a pair to watch in the future.

NB: Verismo Theatre’s Departures is being performed August 12th – 25th, at 15:40 (1 hour) at C Venues, C Cubed.

Theatre Ad Infinitum’s Light: An Otherworldly Achievement


Published by Kettle mag 11/08/2014

Theatre Ad Infinitum are becoming something of an Edinburgh Fringe phenomenon. 2014 is the seventh consecutive year the international London-based ensemble group have brought a show to the Fringe, and Light is arguably their most innovative show yet.

An accomplished company

Theatre Ad Infinitum seek to create unconventional theatre that harnesses the universal language of the body. They draw on their cultural differences in language and nationality, to unify them into one engaging performance tour-de-force.

Since their Fringe premier in 2008 with the groundbreaking Behind the Mirror, which was named the Observer’s Best of the Fringe, the company have been hard at work.

Their 2009 show Odyssey won The Stage Award for Best Solo Performer, and in 2010 they were shortlisted for a Total Theatre Award for The Big Smoke. Continuing the wave of widespread acclaim, in 2011 the company won a whole host of awards for Translunar Paradise, including the Fringe Review’s Outstanding Theatre Award, and The Observer’s Alternative Iron Man Award.

This year, their production Light, a groundbreaking physical theatre performance that presents a dystopian future, and features Orwellian-esque brain implants connecting every human through cyberspace, has set the bar even higher.

A new theatrical experience

Entering into Theatre Ad Infinitum’s dystopian empire begins when you set foot inside the Pleasance Dome’s blacked-out performance space.

Intense darkness permeates the room, and a fiercely visual and terrifying display begins as the cast wield high-powered torches, and simulate torture and mind-control scenes in spotlights of white light across the stage.

Physicality, extraordinary uses of light, and a perfectly sequenced soundscape build throughout the show, to fully realise a future which feels much like what would happen if Orwell’s Big Brother met The Matrix.

Mechanical slickness

The perfect synchronisity between physical movement, mechanical soundscape, skillful lighting, and written dialogue on a brightly-lit back-screen, is a phenomenal achievement by the company.

Even more impressive, is that the startlingly realistic sounds of machinery, torture, and a steadily whirring cyberspace, are created almost entirely by a beat-boxer positioned at the back of the theatre with a microphone, who watches the performance with eagle-eyed attention.

A timely plot

This futuristic tale of privacy, surveillance, and mind-control uses no spoken text whatsoever, and yet the meaning is never lost.

Following the surveillance revelations by Edward Snowden, Theatre Ad Infinitum have created a dystopia set in the 21st century, where humans are fitted with internet implants enabling the people around them – and the government – to read and control their thoughts.

Green “freedom” lights are poisoned by floating red “control” lights, as one-by-one the populace are forced to conform to the whims of one all-powerful tyrant, sitting at the centre of an online webspace like a terrifying technological spider.

Another reinvention

This is a company that refuses to be pigeonholed. In 2012, Translunar Paradise told the heartbreaking story of two star-crossed lovers using masks and music to great effect. And in 2013 they tackled the Israel-Palestine conflict through a glorious cabaret and drag act.

This year, Light takes their accomplishment in theatrical form to new levels of technical expertise, presenting us with a glimpse into our own dark future that lingers long after the lights come back on.

This is without a doubt the company’s most ambitious show so far, and the snapshots of pulsing imagery will linger for weeks in the mind of the watcher. If you see one show at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, make it this one.

NB: Theatre Ad Infinitum’s Light is being performed August 12th – 17th, and 19th – 25th, at 17:15 (1 hour 20 minutes) in the Pleasance Dome.

He Had Hairy Hands: A Gloriously Silly Tale

Published by Kettle mag 07/08/2014

Kill the Beast are associate artists at The Lowry Theatre in Salford, and their 2014 production He Had Hairy Hands is a slick, surrealist comedy that has all the hallmarks of real theatrical talent.

Suspend your disbelief

Influenced by Hammer Horror, The Wickerman, Scooby Doo and The League of Gentlemen, this sixty minute show is a 1970s detective werewolf mystery, set in the fictional sleepy town of Hemlock-Under-Lye.

The production really is a case of surreal cartoon comedy meets genuine intrigue, all mixed up with a phenomenal dose of well-choreographed theatricality, and sublimely-versed musical numbers.

If you’re looking for something serious, this show really isn’t for you. But if you’re looking for a thoroughly entertaining romp through the realms of the improbable, He Had Hairy Hands certainly won’t disappoint.

A talented troupe

Kill the Beast enjoyed a successful Edinburgh Fringe run last year, with the gloriously bizarre show The Boy Who Kicked Pigs. For everyone who loved them then, now, with a bit more polish and a lot more confidence, they’re even better.

Despite the myriad of weird and wonderful characters involved, only four actors take to the stage to play them all. Their transitions are seamless, and the energy the four of them have is even more impressive after you’ve seen them flyering for hours beforehand, with just as much enthusiasm.

The group as individuals are all immensely believable and possess flawless comedic timing. As a whole, their chemistry and joy in what they’re doing is infectious, making the entire show a pure joy to watch.

Impressive staging

The company has also secured a reliable venue in the Pleasance Courtyard for a piece of comedic new writing, and what’s more, they’ve used it well. A large projector screen dominates most of the stage, changing the set seamlessly so the focus is always on the bizarre character creations, and their even weirder story.

The screen also serves another purpose, by allowing the actors to switch character behind it, and ingeniously make use of two wires which function as “dog” leads, phone wires, and climbing ropes – among other things.

A highlight

For me, this show has been an unexpected find and a real highlight for the early Edinburgh Fringe. Kill the Beast are a gloriously talented company, and this surreal comedy piece is joyful, filled with a wild energy, and endlessly watchable.

There are plenty of laughs, plenty of gasps, plenty of musical numbers, and plenty of hats. The plot is tricky enough to be a satisfying watch, and the writing and performances are slick enough to keep you giggling the whole way through.

This is a show which has an incredibly diverse range of talent, and He Had Hairy Hands can’t fail to keep you entertained, and on the edge of your seat from start to finish.

NB: Kill the Beast’s He Had Hairy Hands is being performed August 2nd – 12th, and 14th – 25th, at 18:30 (1 hour 10 minutes) in the Pleasance Courtyard.