Review – Parenthood ***

I’ve seen quite a few things at The Space but never a musical and this flexible venue proves typically adept in accommodating the form. This original show from Fluffy Top Production’s husband wife team Emily and Pete Moody details various stages of parenthood in the lives of a mixed group from conception until their little ones leave the nest. And there’s a flash forward at the end to a final scene on the joys of being a grandparent.

There’s a large cast of nine and it’s packed with all original songs and bills itself as a review, with an episodic structure based around key moments such as birth, first school report, graduation and so on. Sometimes all the parents are involved, sometimes we experience a particular moment from just one perspective. This makes for a fast-paced evening with the cleverly written songs doing most of the heavy lifting in terms of content.

The cast all sing very well, performing to a track, giving a polished and professional feel to proceedings. The numerous songs are all tuneful and adopt a variety of styles giving real variety. It does lack a real stand-out number, but some come close. For me the mum’s night out routine was a favourite, as the group we met at the start reading their pregnancy tests attempt to organise a get-together. Clever, funny and brilliantly delievered.

The downside is that overall the show is perhaps just a little too fluffy. The linear structure which follows parenting from conception onwards is a little predictable. The insights into parenthood are not original enough and, given the usual way of things at The Space, I was expecting a little more bite. This wasn’t an original take on the ups and downs of parenthood and, for me, would have benefited from some more surprising angles and challenging situations.

But it is a warm and winning show which draws you in and has a life-affirming quality both in the writing and the performances.

Parenthood is at The Space until Saturday 27 July.

Review – Lovers Anonymous ****

If you’ve ever endured a corporate team building ‘awayday’ you’ll be able to relate to the feeling you get on arriving for Lovers Anonymous. The chairs are arranged in a large circle around the room. There’s a basic table with tea, coffee and biscuits which the eager and slightly too enthusiastic Mike urges you to enjoy before the meeting gets started.

It transpires that what we’re attending is one of the regular meetings of a sort of counselling/self help group called Lovers Anonymous. After the obligatory warm-up exercises Mike and Sandra introduce us to the purpose of the group – a communal safe space where people can open up about their personal experiences of love and relationships. Various members of the group make contributions when prompted by our hosts. It’s not clear at first which are genuine contributions from the audience and which from other cast members who are mixed in amongst us. A few latecomers are admitted and this causes even more confusion. Are they genuinely late arrivals or entrances being made by more cast members? I’m not sure I really know even now!

The whole effect is unnerving to say the least. You find yourself watching everyone else. The ice-breaking games serve only to increase the sense of tension in the room. It comes as something of a relief, then, at least to genuine audience members, when cracks begin to show in the supposedly perfect relationship of Mike and Sandra. Her simmering resentment drips into proceedings slowly but surely, ready for an explosive moment you just know is coming.

Other group members it seems have been attending meetings regularly. Their various inadequacies and romantic failings are in their own way reassuring to the rest of us, whilst also providing some great, if perhaps unkind, laughs. Simon, for example, tells us how he has finally had the courage to speak to Emma, who he’s been admiring from afar these past two years. Suffice to say that when he brings out an album of photos of Emma it’s immediately clear he’s not made the progress the group was hoping for.

Serious issues are also addressed. Like casual sexism and the effect of pervasive pornography. The climax of the hour sees the whole of Mike and Sandra’s world collapse, whilst at least some of their group members are able to see the light and find the confidence to address their relationship needs outside the confines of Lovers Anonymous.

This was quite the most unusual experience I’ve had in a theatre for some time. The one thing I’ve always known in any show, even those designed to be interactive and immersive, is who are the actors and who are the audience. By brilliantly subverting this basic rule right from the moment you walk in, Lovers Anonymous does something unique, challenging, funny and thought-provoking.

Lovers Anonymous is at The Space Arts Centre until 19 July 2019.

Review – The South Afreakins: The Afreakin Family *****

There are, I believe, two kinds of people. Those who like wearing party hats – and normal people. I must confess, as party hats were duly handed out as we entered the theatre, I was mentally knocking off a star straight away. But, it turns out, this is, at least in part, the point. Because as the play progresses it becomes clear I wasn’t the only one feeling uncomfortable with the threat of enforced jollity.

The South Afreakins: The Afreakin Family centres on parents Gordon and Helene as they celebrate both 25 years since they emigrated from South Africa to New Zealand and Gordon’s 70th birthday. Joining them for the party are their twin daughters Rachel and Kelly – and family friend Clive.

The piece is written and performed by Robyn Paterson, playing all the characters. Any worries this was going to be hard work for the audience and self-indulgent for the actor were immediately dispelled by the opening scene of Gordon and Helene in bed at 3am, played completely in the dark. That way we could get to know the characters without the distraction of seeing them. After that it was plain sailing. Well, I say that. It was plain sailing for the audience. The two twin daughters arrived, along with Clive. Sibling rivalry boiled over (an object lesson in passive aggressiveness!). The amazing chocolate volcano cake was checked on again and again. Arguments happened in the bedroom and unseen off stage in the kitchen. Clive never spoke but his presence was almost literally felt. The switching from character to character, especially during heated arguments where the dialogue changed not only from one person to another but to a different scene between two other characters was effective, stunning and, OK, a little showy! So it was no doubt anything but plain sailing for Robyn Paterson. But it looked easy and felt oh so real. Sure, there were moments when she played wonderful comic riffs on the whole idea of her being all the characters. But at other times, particularly in the intense moments between the two warring twins, when their pain became all-consuming, the technical brilliance of the performance took a back seat.

The evening plays out the all-too familiar tensions that are brought to the fore by a family occasion. Subjects such a sibling rivalry and bodies failing with age whilst the mind refuses to realise it’s no longer 21 are laced with insight, wit and laugh-out-loud moments.

Invest just an hour of your life in this hugely entertaining piece and it’ll reward you with something to think about, laugh about and tell all your friends about for a long time to come.

South Afreakins: The Afreakin Family will be at The Space on the Mile at the Edinburgh Festival.

Review – Spitfire Sisters *****

In Spitfire Sisters writers Doc Andersen-Bloomfield, Catherine Comfort and Heather Dunmore tell the largely unknown story of the World War 2 women pilots of the ATA (Air Transport Auxiliary). Their role was to deliver aircraft from the manufacturers to the various airfields around the country, ready for combat. They had to be able to fly all the different aircraft types, from old fashioned Tiger Moths right up to the huge four-engined bombers. And to keep things simple they had to make these journeys without using the instruments – all they had was a compass. The powers-that-be considered women would find it too difficult to learn how to use all the different instruments in the various planes. So it seems they set forth almost literally on little more than a wing and a prayer.

American women pilots joined forces with our own ATA and the play centres on the moment this happens. It serves as a springboard to bring out a series of contrasts and challenges as the various characters reveal more about themselves as they adjust to their new colleagues. As well as a beautifully clear introduction to their differing working styles, delivered by the two senior officers to the audience as though we were in a briefing session, more personal issues surface. So we have alcoholism, sexual attraction, cultural difference and class divide all neatly brought to life through genuine and convincing characters going about their unusually intense working lives.

There is a downside to all this, which is that the story feels at times a little unfocussed. It seems for a long time it’s going to be a purely ensemble piece. Clues to any sort of plot are hard to come by. Then we begin to see that British senior officer Phyllis Griggs (Faye Maughan) is fighting several battles. There’s the one with the American senior officer, Jackie Hawkins (Alessandra Perotto), about the best way to lead and discipline their pilots. There’s another battle with her own fear of flying. And finally, the battle for equality with the male pilots of the ATA, who are paid more than the women for doing the same job. This focus is lost a short way into the second act where the pace seemed to slacken a little. At the same time it also delivered some powerfully emotional moments, such as when they all turn to salute the mission board after one of their number is killed.

Alessandra Perotto as American senior officer Jackie Hawkins dominates the stage and provides a wonderfully outspoken contrast to Faye Maughan’s uptight Phyllis. Jackie arrives in a mink coat demanding fresh coffee (to be reminded that there is a war on, you know). Phyllis, meanwhile, is so posh it almost hurts. Even her hair is uptight! In contrast Jackie’s hairstyle is a far more freewheeling affair, depending on what hat she’s wearing and whether she’s just got out of a cockpit!

Faye Maughan’s Phyllis shows great conviction and sincerity. Phyllis is not, on the face of it, a person to warm to. She’s deliberately aloof, partly because she sees it as her duty as leader, partly because she’s clearly not comfortable with letting herself get emotionally close to people. But Maughan carefully shows the humanity within as the play progresses and deftly lets the audience in on what this person is really about. She was particularly affecting during a stilted but powerfully charged phone call with her MP father as she attempts to get him to help her in her mission to get equality for women pilots .

I must also mention the staging. Before the play even started the ceiling was lit blue to suggest the skies the pilots would soon by flying through. I loved seeing the pilot, up in the gallery with a brilliantly simple lighting effect to show they were flying. Added to this the sound effects were spot-on. An air raid had you cowering along with the cast as some huge explosions detonated around the room.

The pilots were played by a young cast and each one managed two things. First, they looked too young to be flying planes in the war – which then reminded us that we did in indeed rely on 19 year old women to do this back then. Secondly they all demonstrated their absolute passion for flying. Not just because they were doing their duty for King and country, but because they just had to fly.

Director Adam Hemming really made great use of what The Space has to offer. This was a wonderul play, both a fascinating history lesson and a powerful evocation of time and place.

[Spoiler alert (although this is a matter of historic record): In a first for the British government, women pilots were awarded equal pay in 1943. Secondly, the American Jackie Hawkins in the play is so inspired by Phyllis she returns to the US to form a US equivalent to the ATA called WASPS (Women Airforce Service Pilots). This really happened and was achieved in fact by Jackie Cochran, who also went on to become the first woman to break the sound barrier.]

Spitfire Sisters is at The Space until Saturday 6 July.