BREVIEW: The War of the Worlds @ Old Joint Stock Theatre 25-31.10.2017

Words by Lucy Mounfield

Tin Robot Theatre specialise in bold plays adapted from well-known texts, with previous productions at the Old Joint Stock – Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart – all being well received. But can their new take on H.G. Wells’ classic science fiction The War of the Worlds live up to this burgeoning reputation?

First published in 1897, The War of the Worlds has since entered the popular consciousness, spawning dozens of derivative works including radio plays, films and theatre productions. The iconic 1978 concept album, Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds, proved to be a phenomenal success – selling three million copies in the UK alone and spawning a long-running stage musical.

Tin Robot Theatre’s production hearkens back to an earlier time. Whilst researching for the play, director Adam Carver listened to the infamous 1938 radio play directed and narrated by Orson Welles, broadcast as a Halloween Special on CBS in America – infamous because many of those listening to the opening ‘warning’ thought they were being informed of a real alien invasion. It is this sense of realism, as opposed to the high camp of the 1978 concept album, that characterises the Tin Robot Theatre production.

As we enter the studio space, configured as a theatre-in-the-round, the scene is already set. A desk is in the centre; on the desk lies a contraption upon which the bespectacled Pearson (Touwa Craig-Dunn) is working. Upon the table are two silver arched desk lamps – the arms of which evoke the legs of the alien tripods, a chilling reminder of the aggressors that we never actually see. We take our seats and don our wireless headphones, tuning in to a crackling radio broadcast about a red sky over England. The inclusion of factual information alongside fictitious broadcasts like this provides verisimilitude; Tin Robot Theatre are interested in the ‘totality’ of the play, and touches like this serve to immerse the audience, creating the feeling that we really are listening in on the end of the world via radio.

Throughout the production the year or date of the atrocities is never mentioned – the props are neutral and this adds to the sense of universality surrounding the themes of conflict. Indeed, aliens are not referred to as the culprits of the devastation until Pearson hears from the first voice (Grace Hussey-Burd) and the artillery man (Joel Heritage). Up until this point I half expected them to say the heat-burns were the result of a terrorist attack. These theatrical tropes enable us to reflect on our own society and how invariably desensitised we have become to war; in this age of fake news and social media, the ‘truth’ is a suspect notion and something that Carver channels by bombarding our senses with sounds, voices and news slogans that are on a constant repeat.

Tin Robot Theatre’s The War of the Worlds is essentially a radio play, which is both its strength and its weakness. Of the cast we only ever see Pearson, as the rest are heard only through the headphones, and whilst Craig-Dunn’s performance was naturalistic the burden of conveying the emotional impact of the scenes narrated by the other characters falls on his shoulders. The remote cast clearly enunciates their lines, sometimes too much so, but the pace of Pearson’s performance is also sometimes bogged down by repetition of movements and dialog.

The script draws heavily from Wells’ writing. Often, descriptive passages were lifted wholesale and tweaked slightly so that they might work more plausibly as dialog. In places this works to great effect, but at times it also falls flat. In the 1897 text, Wells’ opening lines crackle with the menace of a hostile universe; here they are diluted and deadened, lacking their original impact – ending up as the worst of both worlds, not quite narration and not quite dialog.

These things are not entirely negative however. The disjoint between Craig-Dunn and the rest of the cast serves to produce a sense of unreality; you are never sure whether these voices are real, whether they are in his head, or whether the aliens even exist at all. The doorway on which Pearson pins his notes, and through which he exits at the end, is a constant reminder of the uncertainty of the outside world.

One of the highlights of the play is the curate’s (Jack Robertson) hysterical breakdown. Here, sound was used effectively to convey a sense of panic as we hear screaming voices, gun fire, machinery, and radio distortion, reaching an unbearable crescendo. To see Pearson wreathing and wrenching on the floor is just as unbearable and highlights the horror of what we are hearing. This is where the play comes alive – Craig-Dunn’s performance is compelling as he reacts with horror to the audio sound emitted from his radio.

Overall, Carver and company deliver an atmospheric and bold take on The War of the Worlds, immersing the audience in a claustrophobic apocalypse and evoking the best of 20th century Sci Fi. And despite a somewhat jarring end with the opening song from Jeff Wayne’s rock opera, which reduces a thought provoking finale to a postmodern self-reference, the tone of Tin Robot Theatre’s The War of the Worlds is serious, bleak and a far cry from the 1978 concept album.

Tin Robot Theatre‘s production of The War of the Worlds runs at the Old Joint Stock until Tuesday 31st October. For direct event info, including venue details and online ticket sales, click here.

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BPREVIEW: The War of the Worlds @ Old Joint Stock Theatre 25-31.10.2017

Words by Lucy Mounfield

Running from Wednesday 25th to Tuesday 31st October, Tin Robot Theatre presents The War of the Worlds at the Old Joint Stock Theatre. For direct event information, including venue details and online ticket sales, click here.

Tin Robot Theatre is a Midlands-based company led by director Adam Carver, who is also an associate of the Old Joint Stock Theatre. Having only been established a few short years, Tin Robot Theatre have already built an impressive back catalogue of adaptations including Anthony Burgess’s infamous A Clockwork Orange, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey and Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Tell-Tale Heart.

It seems only right, then, that they take on H. G. Wells’ science fiction masterpiece The War of the Worlds – the long revered story of an alien invasion from Mars. As a first-person narrative, The War of the Worlds is an intimate and brutal depiction of mental trauma wherein Wells documents the fragmented mind in an uncertain and threatening environment.

Wells wrote the novel in 1898, but The War of the Worlds has since spawned numerous film, television and theatre adaptations; clearly, this story of an alien invasion can be adapted for modern audiences. In 1938, Orson Welles directed and narrated an hour long adaptation of the novel – broadcast as a Halloween Special on CBS in America, as part of the station’s drama anthology The Mercury Theatre on the Air. The broadcast was so powerful that many listeners, reportedly, believed the news bulletin format to be real and that Earth was indeed under attack from Martians.

Then in 1978, Jeff Wayne released his concept album based on the book, Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds, which proved to be a phenomenal success – selling millions of albums across the world and spawning a long running musical production.

In 2005, the Tom Cruise film adaptation utilised an enormous blockbuster budget to create the massive alien tripods and terrifying invasion scenes. However, the Hollywood penchant for dizzying CGI did not always push the story forward; we saw the conflict in minute detail, but the silver screen protagonist lacked the emotional range that Wells imbued his original central character with.

So, what can Tin Robot Theatre bring to this canon of invasion stories? Adam Carver, the director of the Midlands based company, offers a self-assured statement on his website:

‘Our work is about challenging expectations, and rethinking adaptation. We believe in story, and champion the stories of Others; our work has focused on identity (in its many guises), its construction, and relation to popular and dominant culture. We make “full-fat” theatre. We believe in theatre as an experience beginning the moment the audience arrives, transforming space and bringing our distinctive visual style to breathe new life into the familiar.’

Producing such an expansive and explosive piece in the Old Joint Stock’s relatively small theatre space may be a hard task. But great theatre often utilises the audience’s imagination, and this is something Tin Robot Theatre are seemingly adept at doing.

As well as a visual transformation of the space, the production will utilise an ‘interactive soundscape’ to create a sense of scale. From music to the sound of the Earth’s frequency, Tin Robot Theatre’s production of The War of the Worlds promises to attack many of our senses whilst immersing us into the terrifying world of an alien invasion.

Tin Robot Theatre presents The War of the Worlds, running at the Old Joint Stock Theatre from 25th to 31st October. For direct event information, including venue details and online ticket sales, click here.

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BREVIEW: Mother’s Ruin: A Cabaret about Gin @ The Old Joint Stock 31.08-03.09.2017

Mother’s Ruin: A Cabaret About Gin / Patrick Boland

Words by Lucy Mounfield / Pics by Patrick Boland

I can’t think of better way to mourn the end of August than by doing what’s best on a wonderful summer’s eve – drinking, laughing and having a good time. Thankfully, Mother’s Ruin: A Cabaret about Gin, performed at The Old Joint Stock Theatre, allowed me to do just that.

Indeed, gin is enjoying a renaissance. In recent years gin drinking has spread everywhere from the hipster burger bars to music festivals, becoming synonymous with the joie de vivre outlook on life.

However, this hasn’t always been the case. Tapping into gin’s darker past, co-creators Maeve Marsden and Libby Wood take on the role of two cabaret ‘broads’ exploring the spirits politically charged origins. Here I need to confess, I often shy away from audience interaction. If you suffer from the same disposition, do not be afraid: Marsden and Wood’s infectious thirst for fun is a fantastic tonic.

Mother’s Ruin: A Cabaret About Gin / Patrick BolandFrom the moment I stepped into the small theatre at The Old Joint Stock I was greeted with the two female performers and their accompanist Tom Dickens, already on stage laughing and joking whilst swigging from bottles of the good stuff. Immediately the three had a competition going to sing the most inventive and humorous gin-pun infused songs. Some cracking ones were Madonna’s ‘Like a Vir-gin’ and Christina Aguilera’s ‘Ginny in a Bottle’.

The three performers have obvious chemistry and rapport, which was showcased in their rendition of the musical Cabaret’s ‘Two Ladies’. Here, Dickens became the stage emcee and sang, whilst playing the guitar ‘two ladies and one man’ complete with choreography that aped the original Bob Fosse film.

The set for Mother’s Ruin included a keyboard, silver velvet curtain as a backdrop, and a drinks table with empty glasses, bottles and cocktail shaker: clear signs that these three had been enjoying themselves well before we came along. Holding my free glass of boutique G&T, I felt suitably at home.

Interestingly, the duo opened their set with a revised rendition of the Lord’s Prayer that clearly set out their passion for gin and indoctrinated us into the church of ‘Mother’s Ruin’. Once the bluesy notes of the new ‘gin prayer’ had been sung, we were introduced to the ‘Holy Trinity’: gin, tonic and garnish. At this point, Marsden pulled out a tiny bottle from her bosom and poured the contents into a tumbler, whilst Wood bit off the end of a cucumber and spat it into her glass. Throughout the night both bosoms contained an endless supply of alcohol.

‘Mother’s Ruin’ – the often-quoted epithet for gin – suggests a history steeped in female oppression and women’s mental health; images like Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’ from the 1750s, which picture women lying in the gutter drunk from gin, led to this nickname being coined. Gin is steeped in anti-women mythology – something that Mother’s Ruin tries to explore and debunk.

Mother’s Ruin: A Cabaret About GinThrough the medium of story-telling and singing, Mother’s Ruin starts the story with the 1729 gin craze which saw Londoners consume on average a litre of the liquor per week. With a feminist perspective, they challenge the images of ‘mother’s ruin’ by Hogarth and his ilk as propagandist, denouncing the painter and social critic as an advertiser working for a brewery. At this point, the facts come thick and fast; at times the performance felt bogged down by the sheer amount of history, but the musical story-telling helped keep the show moving.

One such moment was the story of Ada Coleman, who in 1903 was the first female barmaid in the ‘American bar’ at the Savoy Hotel. Coleman created the now infamous Hanky Panky cocktail which is still on the menu at the Savoy today. Sharing the recipe with us, Wood sang Amy Winehouse’s ‘You Know I’m No Good’ whilst Marsden concluded that Coleman was fired because the American men who frequented the Savoy during prohibition did not like being served by a woman. This was a poignant moment that caused the audience to sigh and gasp in shock from the evident struggles that women faced.

Mother’s Ruin not only highlights the complicated relationship between female suffrage and gin but also that of racism and British Imperialism. In a fantastically hilarious rendition of Peggy Lee’s ‘Fever’, all three performers told the story of how tonic water was invented; Mother’s Ruin: A Cabaret About Gin / Patrick Bolandturning Lee’s song into ‘Malarial Fever’, Wood performed the song as an inebriated dying woman.

The suffering of white imperialists in the jungles of Peru urged people to find a remedy in the aid of quinine. Years later, the British Raj in India introduced quinine to sugar and added gin to produce the infamous gin and tonic. Of course this was only reserved for the privileged, which the performers quite rightly point out; throughout the witty interplay between the performers onstage banter, story-telling and music, Mother’s Ruin maintains a solid tribute to the adversity and suffering that lay behind the invention of the G&T.

As well as history, the performers have a fantastic mastery of all styles and genres of music from the honky-tonk blues to their a capella version of The Pretenders’ ‘Hymn to Her’. One of the most outrageous moments was the rap about how gin was invented; Tom Dickens spat some bars on the microphone,whilst Marsden and Wood threw themselves into rapping all things gin.

Ending the show with an American hoedown style song, the two women rapidly sang the names of every gin they have ever tasted – ultimately testifying to the Gin God their love and devotion to the drink. Mother’s Ruin have decided to save gin from its dark past and have succeeded.

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BPREVIEW: Mother’s Ruin: A Cabaret about Gin @ The Old Joint Stock 31.08-03.09.17

Words by Lucy Mounfield / Pics by Patrick Boland

Running from Thursday 31st August to Sunday 3rd September, Mother’s Ruin: A Cabaret about Gin will tipsily explore the history of gin through a unique brand of story-telling, song and drinking the good stuff itself (with tonic) at The Old Joint Stock’s intimate theatre. The Old Joint Stock seems the perfect choice for Mother’s Ruin with the theatre above the pub.

Created and performed by Maeve Marsden and Libby Wood, Mother’s Ruin is coming straight from the Edinburgh Festival and London’s Underbelly Festival – pausing their run in Birmingham, before heading back on the festival tour circuit with Cabaret in the Glen on October 19th. Nominated for Best Cabaret (Fringe World Festival ) and Best Writing (Green Room Awards), Mother’s Ruin is a 60min cabaret, loosely blending a historical narrative with the hysterical happenings of two women who love drinking all things gin.

Beginning the story with 18th Century vaudeville London, Mother’s Ruin sings and drinks through the next 200 years of prohibition, New York speakeasies, the Australian bush, the jungles of Peru and a trip to India. Gin has had a rocky history – closely tied to colonization and women’s rights – which makes the renaissance of gin in recent years all the more interesting.

Throughout these stories Marsden and Wood weave in gin recipes, recount the origins to some of the world’s most famous cocktails, and give away tips on how to drink the spirit. With a gin researcher as part of the production team (Elly Baxter aka The Gintress), Mother’s Ruin takes the story of gin drinking quite seriously, mixing feminism and history to re-tell the story of this dubious tipple.

When I think of a cabaret nightclub, I picture a dark cavernous room with jazz music being played by a pianist at the stage; I think of people sitting elegantly, tapping their fingers rhythmically on the small round table they occupy, drinking gin with ice, a twist of orange, and a splash of tonic water. Gin, cabaret and music go hand in hand, so it’s no surprise that Mother’s Ruin combines all three. 

And if all this gin musing makes you thirsty, don’t fret as each ticket holder to Mother’s Ruin will be given a free glass of gin and tonic. During the UK tour of the show, the gin of choice has been Four Pillars Gin – an Australian boutique spirit, made with oranges and botanicals native to Australia and served with Fever Tree Tonic.

And if, like me, you couldn’t tell a boutique booze from supermarket schnapps don’t worry because Meave Marsden and Libby Wood do – facts I’m sure they will reveal to us whilst singing and drinking the night away.

‘I’ve Drunk Every Gin’ – from Mother’s Ruin: A Cabaret about Gin

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