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Critical Reviews

WarHorse by Michael Morpurgo
October 20, 2015


New London Theatre, London

Adaptation: Nick Stafford

Directors: Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris

Design: Rae Smith

Puppet design and direction: Basil Jones & Adrian Kohler

Lighting: Paule Constable


I went with a group of people from the class to see War Horse, a play based on the beloved novel by Michael Morpurgo. The play opened at the National Theatre in 2007 and has won numerous theatre awards, including best play and best design. Over 4 million people have seen the production, worldwide. The play's West End and Broadway productions are directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris and feature life-size horse puppets by the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa.


The story happens at the outbreak of World War One. Joey, young Albert’s beloved horse, is sold to the army and shipped to France. Albert, who remains on his parents’ farm, cannot forget Joey and even though he is still not old enough to enlist, he embarks on a dangerous mission to find Joey and bring him home.


I really enjoyed the play, especially the puppetry; I was absolutely amazed by the work of Handspring Company. The fact that some of the key characters in the play are puppets may sound confusing, but after a short time most people stop looking at the puppeteers and just see the characters. The concentration of the puppeteers is amazing, and it is like they give the puppets, through their bendy, bamboo frames, an articulated, individual life. The main horses are operated by three puppeteers, the head, the heart and the hind.


Ray Smith’s design for the stage and costumes is brilliant. The stage is very simple. It has a revolving floor, and above the stage there is a backdrop where her animated black and white drawings are projected onto. The costumes are beautiful, period style, and I especially loved the colour palette she uses. The use of props works well, and often very simple but effective solutions are used.


In her website, Ray Smith says: “War Horse was, devised and designed over a two year period at the National Theatre. Design wise, it is a fantastic example of collaboration in the creative team; and of putting a horse puppet (not an actor) centre stage at the National Theatre. From a design point of view it was very inspiring working with Handspring, using my own drawings as a backdrop, and working with 59 Productions in animating those drawings.

Absent by Tristan Sharps
October 22, 2015


A dreamthinkspeak production by Tristan Sharps

Shoreditch Town Hall, London

Installation and film design: Tristan Sharps

Costume Design: Meera Osborne

Graphics Design: Sara Popowa

Soundscape: Lapalux


The theatre company dreamthinkspeak creates and produces the work of Tristan Sharps. Since its formation in 1999, the company has played a key role in the evolution of site-responsive performance in the UK and beyond. Their work interweaves live performance with film and installations to create journeys that are ambitious in scale and visually layered. Their previous work have taken place in a variety of physical and architectural contexts from an underground abattoir in Clerkenwell, to a disused paper factory in Moscow to the Old Treasury Building in Perth, Australia.


Their latest production, Absent, is developed for the spaces of Shoreditch Town Hall. It is partly inspired by The Duchess of Argyll’s residence at a central London hotel from the 1970’s until the 80’s, when she was finally evicted, having run out of friends and credit.

There’s little to hang on to in terms of narrative. The audience is lead in groups of four down to the maze-like basements of Shoreditch Town Hall where they wander in their own phase through multi-layered installation, through deserted corridors of an imaginary hotel into a mysterious, maze-like underworld. Aside from a brief glimpse at the beginning of the show, the Duchess herself is never seen. Videos and fragments of memories tell her story. Pages from newspapers, the smell of parfume, a pearl necklace here, an empty bottle of cologne there.


Everywhere you move you find scale models of the rooms you visit. In one corridor you are faced with a wall of dozens of tiny, identical hotel rooms. In one, a solitary, frail figure sits on the edge of her bed, alone, out of time. The effect of this is sometimes breathtaken, such as when you peer at a miniscule ballroom before stepping into the actual space. It’s a moment that makes you feel, as if you’d bumped into the Duchess herself.


Overall I found the Absent a beautiful work and Tristan Sharps’ design is dreamlike and fascinating. It has some “through-the looking-glass” moments and I enjoyed being able to wander around the setting in my own time. But nevertheless I have to say that despite the set being amazing; I really missed the presence of actual actors. In my opinion, the relationship that happens between the performer and the audience is crucial for a successful theatre piece. But I realize that it might have been the intention in this case to leave the rooms completely empty. The Duchess has checked out and the only thing left are the memories of her, haunting the spaces she once lived.


Photograph 51 by Anna Ziegler
October 24, 2015


Photograph 51 by Anna Ziegler

Noël Coward theatre, London

Director: Michael Grandage

Design: Christopher Oram

Lighting: Neil Austin


Photograph 51 is a new play written by Anna Ziegler about the scientist Rosalind Franklin, played by Nichole Kidman, the socially awkward X-ray crystallographer whose research helped Francis Crick, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins win a Nobel prize. Franklin might have been a co-recipient of that prize had she lived. But by then, she had been claimed by ovarian cancer.


Christopher Oram's design is impressive. It could seem obvious to use clever graphics and back-projection, covering the stage with x-rays, matching the themes of the play. But Oram does the opposite. When the scientists gather round a model of DNA the audience has to imagine it, for there is nothing there but thin air. Yet we become caught up in the quest to identify DNA. Oram’s set shows the bombed-out, blackened shell of King’s College London. He places Franklin’s workbench in front of the dominating huge arches, completely of the period. In front of them Kidman’s Franklin looks bullied and resolute. The floor is beautifully lid, but I think it is a shame that you can’t enjoy it from the stalls seats. In my opinion Oram’s design really adds to the script, which I found a bit thin.

Moments by Starri Hauksson
November 1, 2015


The Drayton Arms Theatre, London

Translation and adaption: Aron Trausti

Director: Maya Lindh

Design: Leah Sams

Video/sound: Siggi Holm


Moments is an Icelandic play, originally written for radio and aired on Radio 1 in Iceland in 2008. It is now premiering at The Drayton Arms Theatre showing in both English and Icelandic. The play follows a young man named Andri, who after a tragic loss, has withdrawn from society and seemingly given up on life. The play addresses the subject of family, loss and forgiveness with brutal honesty, revealing the imperfections and raw vulnerability of the human mind and being.


The set is minimal; the whole play takes place in one room of a flat. It is very simple and in my opinion does not add anything to the story. It consists of two sofas and a coffee table covered with rubbish and empty bottles. In the background there are two screens hosting video projections of the main characters at younger age. The costumes are also very plain, almost like the actors were just wearing their own clothes.


I have to admit that at first I thought that the group had just made the set themselves, but when I read the program I realized that it was actually designed by theatre designer Leah Sams, and after looking at her webpage, I’m pretty sure this must not be her best work.

A Christmas Carol by Patrick Barlow
December 8, 2015


Noël Coward theatre, London

Adapted from the Christmas story by Charles Dickens

Adaptation: Patrick Barlow

Director: Phelim McDermott

Design: Tom Pye

Lighting: Peter Mumford


This classical story of the bitter, unforgiving, and money-obsessed Scrooge and his transformation into a kinder, less self-involved individual was adapted by Patrick Barlow and is performed by a seven-person, multi-role cast. Jim Broadbent plays Mr Scrooge and I thought his performance was brilliant. Just four other versatile actors play all the other roles, joined by two puppeteers.


Tom Pye’s design is beautiful. Inspired by flat-pack toy theatres, there’s cardboard cut-out style scenery, a large 2D proscenium front and matching red curtain. In the programme for the show, Tom Pye says: “It Was clear to me we needed to find a new language for A Christmas Carol … Rather than no scenery, how about loads of scenery? What if we had everything on stage but not necessarily the right scenery for the scene being played? The story could emerge in front of the audience against a backdrop of something like a theatre storehouse as if it were being conjured from the pages of a children’s storybook. This was key for the process of designing the show … Much like a storybook, all of the scenery and props are two-dimensional, but in a useless kind of way, leaving the actors to have to make-do and improvise on a seemingly unaccommodating stage.” Pye also talks about the costumes: “Some of the costumes are what you might expect them to be in a celebration of Dicken’s original story while others were designed to deliberately wrong’foot the audience.”


Pye alternates between the show's improvisational rough theatre aesthetic and richly detailed inventions, like the skyline of London that's wheeled on as Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present fly over it by simply trailing capes and false legs. The production is filled with such amazing theatrical trickery like when the Cratchit children are played by a selection of bonnets and flat caps. There are also moments of pure hilarity, like when two bowler-hatted stagehands throw handfuls of snow over unsuspecting customers and when Scrooge’s clerk Bob Cratchit winds a cardboard grammar phone prop that exudes Christmas tunes to offer the air of jollity to visitors. Despite these comedic inclusions, the play does retain some of Dickens’s more serious themes, including death and greed.

I really enjoyed the show, and its clever design. But in my opinion it would probably work better in a smaller theatre, with more intimacy. I was sat on the third balconies, and felt sometimes a bit distanced from the action.

Njála by Mikael Torfason and Þorleifur Örn Arnarson
December 28, 2015


Borgarleikhusid, Reykjavik

Adaption: Mikael Torfason and Þorleifur Örn Arnarson

Director: Þorleifur Örn Arnarson

Dance: Erna Ómarsdóttir

Set design: Ilmur Stefánsdóttir

Costume design: Sunneva Ása Weisshappel

Lighting design: Björn Bergsteinn Guðmundsson


Njála is a new Icelandic play that is based on the Icelandic saga “Brennu-Njáls saga” or “The Story of Burnt Njáll” which is a 13th century Icelandic saga that describes events between 960 and 1020. The Icelandic sagas are a large body of medieval literature which forms the foundation of the Icelandic literary tradition. Their authorship is for the most part unknown, but they were most likely written in the 13th and 14th centuries, originating in an oral tradition of storytelling. The sagas focus largely on history, especially genealogical and family history and reflect the struggles and conflicts that arose amongst the second and third generations of Norse settlers in medieval Iceland, which was in this time a remote, decentralised society with a rich legal tradition but no organized executive power. Njáls saga is the longest and most highly developed of the sagas of Icelanders and is often considered the peak of the saga tradition. The principal characters are the friends Njáll Þorgeirsson, a lawyer and a sage, and Gunnar Hámundarson, a formidable warrior. Gunnar's wife, Hallgerður Langbrók, instigates a feud that leads to the death of many characters over several decades including the killing by fire of the eponymous "Burnt Njáll".


The story is very popular and well known in Iceland and has lived with the nation for seven hundred years. I, like most other Icelanders, first read the story in high school. In this new adaption, which is a cooperative project between the Borgarleikhús theatre and The Iceland Dance Company, the story is told through the lens of a modern society. The saga deals with the process of blood feuds, showing how the requirements of honor can lead to minor slights spiralling into destructive and prolonged bloodshed. Insults where a character's manhood is called into question are especially prominent and may reflect an author critical of an overly restrictive ideal of masculinity. Another characteristic of the narrative is the presence of omens and prophetic dreams.


A lot of the original text is used in the play, but the adaption is all but traditional. During the rehearsal period, the group worked devised from a given script, which developed during rehearsals. The end result is a performance which is an unusual mixture of storytelling, dialogue and powerful dance scenes. Sunneva Weisshappel’s costumes are thoughtfully designed and suit the story in a strange but effective way. We don’t meet the Viking heroes like most people picture them, wearing cloaks, carrying sword and shield, but instead we meet a group of people wearing all from jeans and sportswear to golden overalls or naked suits.  Ilmur Stefánsdóttir’s set design is impressive. It is very abstract, but like the costumes, it suites the performance. Most of the time she uses the whole depth of the stage leaving it almost empt, but in a few scenes, a huge ship appears on the stage and in others shiny ribbon backdrop garland covers the back walls. The use of props is also interesting, including inflated bodies, wigs and massive amount of pink fake blood. The lighting is beautifully designed and works well with the set.


This adaption is surely not to everybody’s taste. It is a curious, challenging and colourful theatre experience. I found it very interesting and enjoyed it and it is definitely was like nothing I had experienced before.



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