Dara O Briain: School of Hard Sums – making maths sexy.

Today’s studio session with Oxford University Professor Marcus du Sautoy – one of the great minds behind TV show Dara O Briain: School of Hard Sums (starts tomorrow night on Dave), was all about maths. And as Marcus pointed out, maths are everywhere! If that fills you with fear, you’re not alone. Nearly a quarter of us have no confidence doing sums and yet over a third of us use maths in our jobs.

But is it really that hard? Or are we just being lazy? You’d never get folks freely admitting to being illiterate so why are we so willing to label ourselves as “mathematically challenged”? Countries like India and China encourage their youth to use their brains and learn the language of mathematics, the lyrics of logic, the sounds of sequence, and you’d never hear them admit defeat to the world of numbers & digits. Maths is the key to making and saving money in this world and while some cultures realise that, others (ours) don’t.

We seem to have a cultural crisis on our hands. It’s so common for one to broadly declare “I don’t do maths…”, “Me and numbers = oil and water…”, but maths is all around us, it’s everywhere we go (hmm, sounds familiar). It’s behind every Smartphone, it raises it’s cheeky head during all those shopping trips, it even makes a behind the scenes appearance on radio & TV (how else does it all run to time?).

It’s not a case of creativity verses mathematics. In fact, one has to be pretty creative in order to get their head around the structures, science and systems contained within maths. It’s not just about picking a side of the brain and sticking to it. Folks out there will proudly beam and sing; “I’m creative, it’s ok, I’ll just exercise the right half of my noggin’” (“right” as in “the opposite of left”, not “right as in “correct) – but if you want to live to a ripe ole age as a mentally healthy legend, it’s about using and exercising the whole of your brain. And yup, it’s pretty much been proven: exercising brains boosts life expectancy.

So us lot here are calling for a culture change.

We need to become more familiar with the language of mathematics. It’s about logical thinking and pattern setting. You just need the technical landscape to learn how to play its tune. It can be linked to art, music… it can even save lives (imagine a nurse administering that crucial shot of meds without it). Marcus, Dara and fellow comedians featured in Dave Channel’s School of Hard Sums are here to convince us it’s actually a fun (and even sexy!) subject.

So here’s a puzzle to get the neurons firing:

A temple was built in 25BC and Burnt down 50 years later.

When did it burn down?

[INSERT ANSWER HERE]

Nope (presuming you’ve got it wrong, sorry guys!)!

The answer is 26AD. There was no year zero.

And did you know. ..? There are different sorts of infinity. At the end of the nineteenth century they discovered that you could compare infinities. One infinity can be bigger than another. I mean… whoaaa…

So to everyone who had either a boring or evil maths teacher at school; it’s time to let go and move on, and embrace the world of logic and magic numbers!

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Californian Lives at the King’s Head TheatreCalifornian Lives shows the

Californian Lives at the King’s Head Theatre

Californian Lives shows the unglamourous and rather dreary side of the sunshine state. These three self contained monologues are naturally written and well acted, but the stories aren’t particularly gripping or original and there’s not a dramatic payoff. At the King’s Head.

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Californian Lives comprises three monologues; stories which have been lifted from Martin Foreman’s First and Fiftieth and other stories, and dramatised accordingly.

The first is entitled “Los Feliz” (named after a neighbourhood in Los Angeles) – where we see a man finishing off a sandwich the size of his face in an American diner whilst mulling over romantic endeavours and failed relationships.

Robin Holden’s performance demands attention. The actor has a strong sense of stage presence and practically radiates energy. Holden carries the monologue well: the pace doesn’t slack and he remains committed to the text throughout. There’s a clear sense of character too – thanks to the seamless combination of natural writing and strong acting.

Saying that, the monologue itself – as in the words on the page – doesn’t really consist of anything special or new; it all sounds quite familiar and, although it might be a story that resonates, it isn’t particularly thought-provoking.

Under Emma King-Farlow’s direction, it’s unclear who this man (Robin Holden) is addressing. As the piece kicks off, Holden appears to direct speech towards the audience. However, it soon becomes clear that we are not to interact and test this “man” on road routes across the States (I came close to shouting out a suggestion; thank goodness I didn’t – could have been awkward). So then, we probably guess he’s talking to the other customers in the diner. If this is the case, it’s a somewhat limited artistic choice because it’s perhaps unrealistic to suggest that so many customers (the character’s eyes dart around suggesting there are multiple fellow diners actively listening to the tale) would listen to a half hour’s worth of self-indulgent chat. It’s not clear and we don’t get a good sense of time or place. Aside from the accent and unlimited coffee, I wouldn’t be able to guess we were in California.

A better unity of time and place is communicated in the second piece: “Ben and Joe’s” (no need for a translation). As Man In Bar (John Vernon) slides his sunglasses across a table and begins speaking in a charming American drawl, we can tell we’re in the States – we can also sense the sun and feel the heat.

There’s no doubt that John Vernon is a brilliant actor. He is a very natural and confident performer possessing a great command of language. Vernon manages to make every character depicted in the story distinct, even though there are so many of them to build and convey.

This is a backhanded compliment to the piece as a whole, but Vernon also manages to make a boring story as interesting as it possibly could be. Essentially, it’s about a load of friends in a gay bar and how their relationships change over time. Nothing much happens. When you commit to following a story, you want it to satisfy your investment and there’s not a dramatic payoff.

Finally, we witness a doughy eyed housewife talking to her husband. There’s an early hint that something may be amiss, but it all unfolds rather predicatbly. It is quite a touching story, but one I feel I’ve heard before; unsatisfied housewife, affairs, loveless marriage, tired hearts, the reality of grief, and so on.

Once again, the acting is formidable. Carolyn Lyster carries the material well; her performance is poignant and her character well crafted. Saying that, I didn’t connect to the piece or feel particularly moved by the end. That was not the case for all members of the audience – one lady in particular was crying her eyes out by the curtain call, so perhaps the story resonates with some and not with others.

Although the writing feels organic, and despite the pieces being very well acted, the monologues aren’t particularly gripping or original. Californian Lives didn’t particularly float my boat, but I can appreciate strong production values when I see them and the writing – aside from the dreary content – is reflective of real life and builds a vivid picture of the minds we find our way into.

Date reviewed: Monday 22nd April 2013

Between Ten and Six at the Leicester Square Theatre.Between

Between Ten and Six at the Leicester Square Theatre.

Between 10 and 6 explores those awkward houseshare moments and amplifies these to the extreme. The piece is a bit of a head melt but the action isn’t particularly gripping. We witness a montage of cocaine-taking, masturbating, raving madness… & several murders. One of which is the play. At the Leicester Square Theatre.

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Anxiety-ridden and waif-like Charlie (Chris Mayo) has just moved into a new house, sharing with a somewhat strange landlord called Ed (Owen Llewellyn). The show opens with the ominous sound of a slowly ticking clock. Charlie is perched on a seat trying (and failing) to relax in his new surroundings; and it soon becomes apparent that his flatmate is mental. Ed is waiting for a package (due for delivery “Between Ten and Six”) and demands that Charlie waits with him, subsequently ruining Charlie’s dinner plans with his girlfriend. From there, things go very wrong. There is a montage of cocaine-taking, masturbating, raving madness… followed by several murders. 

Standard Wednesday night viewing. 

Firstly, the acting is okay but the protagonist (who carries most of the action) is one of the weaker links. Although Llewellyn masters those crazy eyes, his portrayal of a madman lacks substance – one could say it is one-dimensional & wooden. For instance, most of Ed’s lines are accompanied by a heavy sigh; so ingrained as a dramatic “tool” that the actor continues sighing even when unconscious.

There are other elements that don’t meet the professional standard you’d expect from a central London fringe venue. When Charlie dies, his corpse miraculously moves – his arm gets a life of its own and flails about in order to keep the trousers hoiked up. I’m sorry but dead people can’t stop their trousers falling down. Also, if his pants fell off that would have given us a chuckle… why hold back?? 

Opting for a caricature / cardboard performance just doesn’t work for this kind of play. Such writing demands a great sense of comic timing and, unfortunately, this isn’t the case. The characters lack believability & the actors lack stage presence (except Mayo, who is strangely endearing) and by the end of the play, it’s not just the characters that have been murdered: the play is also a victim. The cast members do have potential and could be good if they had better material to work with, but alas – it all seems a bit GCSE. 

Secondly, the writing is not to a professional standard. The concept certainly has scope to be funny but it isn’t – it’s occasionally boring, frequently slow and, instead of amusing, it’s irritating. Writer Chris Mayo probably has the potential to become a successful playwright, but needs a few more years on the circuit; as an actor, Mayo is definitely one of the stronger contenders in the piece.

The script contains many inconsistencies. Who goes out to dinner at 4pm? The characters keep referring to “tonight” – but it is set during the day. Cue confusion. During a fast-forward sequence of drug taking, the characters get battered, and yet minutes later they appear stone cold sober. From what I’ve read, I’m pretty sure cocaine and whiskey would alter the mind… but all we get is Charlie admitting to a headache. 

There are also a couple of unnecessary monologues; Charlie talks to the unconscious Ed for far too long, and it’s pretty cringeworthy witnessing those shoe-horned in serious elements. It just seems out of place. And then Ed talks to the dead Charlie for… ages. Despite depicting a hostage situation, Garrett Millerick’s direction doesn’t allow for much dramatic tension.

Thirdly, the show has about as much pace as the ticking clock. It feels like we’re sitting there between ten and six. Thankfully, Between Ten and Six is not eight hours long – all the action takes place in an hour, and that’s long enough. There are too many gruelling pauses, silences, sighs and the slowness weakens any potential humour. If the action picked up pace, it could be much better. 

I can usually find the positive or promise within a piece of work, but I’m struggling this time.

Date reviewed: Wednesday 17th April 2013

Thar she blows!!!!

Moby-Dick at the Arcola Theatre

Simple8’s succinct and encapsulating version of Melville’s epic transports you through the  oceans of time, as well as from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Featuring a strong all-male ensemble, this production is original and raw. At the Arcola Theatre.

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Ok. Hands up. I haven’t read Moby Dick. Sincere apologies to those who have sifted through the 600 pages, but I shall begin with a brief synopsis:

Loosely based on true events in the 1800s, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (also known as “The Whale”) focuses on the maritime adventures of the world0-wandering Ishmael, Captain Ahab and the whaleship Pequod’s fleet of sailors. As the crew takes to the wild waters, Ishmael soon learns that Ahab has bigger fish to fry than just capturing any old whale. He wants to find “Moby Dick”: the monstrous sperm whale that destroyed a vessel and claimed one of his legs. Driven to the brink of obsession, Ahab is determined to seek revenge and commands the crew to “row, row, row” and chase the fan-tails (the way a whale flourishes her tail in the air before diving), promising the sailors a significant lay (“lay”; a word in the Moby-Dick glossary relating to a sailor profit share scheme… I’m not being crude, promise).

Written and directed by Sebastian Armesto, this succinct and encapsulating version of Melville’s epic transports you through the oceans of time, as well as from the Atlantic to the Pacific. I’m told the play highlights the key chapters of the novel and grinds down the action into a nice and simple linear structure, which one can easily follow. There is a nice mix of humour – for instance, the show opens with a shanty-esque version of Titanic‘s theme tune “My Heart Will Go On” – balanced with the sincerity of timeless themes. Fundamental and universal ideas are explored, such as the exploitative and obsessive nature of mankind and the limits of human power and knowledge. This tale explores the surface and depths of the ocean it sails upon, the humanity at its mercy, the power of nature and the threat of the unknown.

As one might expect from Simple8 and their impressive track record, this play features a strong ensemble. Renowned for creating work that is innovative and bold, the talented actor-musicians effortlessly incorporate live music, song and physical theatre to produce work that is truly original and raw. These guys are great story-tellers, and their work is highly visual, stimulating and engaging. The ensemble work is pretty close to seamless and the cast work together to create magic. Voice and dialect coach Richard Ryder also works in a happy union with Armesto and the artists, and the result is incredibly impressive; each voice and harmony blends into a blissful bombardment of sounds and shanties. In true Simple8 character the neutral set is simplistic yet stylistic. The cast literally build the set from scratch, and the planks of wood and sheets of linen magically transform into a ship-shape whaleship.

Little lanterns hang overhead and candles burn to provide extra light and atmosphere. Shadows are cast across the space and the dark hues and lucid shapes help build a sense of mounting tension. The lighting design is aesthetically pleasing, practical and realistically executed. This enforced minimalism forces these creatives to be really, really clever. Windows are created with wooden sticks and a whale is conjured up with the simple assembly of planks of wood. And it doesn’t look tacky or stagey, or like they’ve sat around in a rehearsal room debating what works… it looks effortless and real.

You’ll lose yourself in this show and you’ll believe everything you do and don’t see. The only downside is that the action is sometimes a little too slow and the silences are a little too stretched. No doubt this is a technique to boost dramatic tension, however whilst it occasionally works it does become a bit tiresome. There’s something very cosy and comfy about this show. Perhaps this is due to the candlelight, or the atmosphere, or the songs… But perhaps it’s because we know we’re in the safe hands of Simple8. These guys are the essence of professional and the show itself is entertaining. In fact, I’m pretty confident that you’ll have a (forgive me) whale of a time!

Date reviewed: Tuesday 2nd April 2013

A Strong Collective of Talented Singers: A Class Act at

A Strong Collective of Talented Singers: A Class Act at the Landor Theatre

This autobiographical tale is beautifully told through Edward Kleban’s legacy of lyrics and music. The cast have enough energy and stage presence between them to light up the stage but – despite being a true story – I didn’t really get the chance to suspend disbelief and go with it. It did move me, but not to tears. At the Landor Theatre.

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Spanning almost four decades between the 1950s to the late 1980s, A Class Act tells the life story of Bronx-born composer and lyricist, Edward Kleban. In reverse chronological order, the show opens with Kleban’s wake in 1988. A congregation of New Yorkers and thespians toast Eddie’s life and through their eulogies we’re taken on a series of flashbacks, guided by the rather feisty spirit of Eddie Kleban himself. Each momentous occasion in this artist’s life is evoked through one of Kleban’s many unpublished “trunk” songs, and through this combination of music and events, we follow Eddie’s bumpy road to success and back again. We see his collaboration with Marvin Hamlisch in the creation of the musical hit, A Chorus Line, which whisked up a Tony and a Pulitzer Prize Award, among others. This high is followed by various lows and we see a peak/trough dynamic meander its destructive way throughout Kleban’s artistic career and personal life.

This autobiographical tale is beautifully told through Kleban’s legacy of lyrics and music. Several songs prompt a lump in the throat including “Self Portrait”, touchingly performed by John Barr. “The Next Best Thing to Love” is a lovely piece sung by Eddie Kleban’s life-long love and best friend, Sophie – which Sarah Borges poignantly and sensitively delivers. The cast are a strong collective of talented singers: quite a few goose-bumps found their way to my arms, along with a few tingles to my spine. There’s a nice balance of comedy too; especially Erin Cornell’s risqué and racy number, “Mona” – let’s just say the girl knows how to work it! There were a few hot collars in the auditorium.

The show takes a while to get going and certain scenes are a bit slow – but that aside, it’s an entertaining and informative journey through the influential time of Eddie Kleban. I found it slightly difficult to connect with the protagonist, perhaps due to Kleban’s larger-than-life persona coupled with various psychological disturbances, but this disintegrated into a mere memory towards the latter half of the show when John Barr’s performance suddenly became much more real and relatable. Overall though, I believe there should and could be a little more depth to Eddie Kleban. 

Without harping on about the negatives, there are a few dodgy accents and certain performances let the side down. Sometimes the truth behind the characters’ motivations and actions comes in second to the showy aspect, the musical “performance” as such – in short, some parts are revved and ramped up a bit too much, which comes across as borderline over-the-top and caricature. Saying that, there are some very natural performances – in particular Borges’ Sophie (maybe because this is the only character not involved in the arts!).

Where the show perhaps lacks in emotional depth, it makes up for in musical talent. The band is brilliant. MD James Cleeve directs the musicians with ease and the music is just marvellous, and the cast have enough energy and stage presence between them to light up the stage. All in all, this musical showcases pretty strong production values – but once again, the fact it’s a musical has resulted in a certain skimming over the deeper meaning. Despite being a true story, I didn’t really get the chance to suspend disbelief and go with it. It did move me – but not to tears. 

Date reviewed: Monday 25th March 2013

New Writing: Something Fresh and Different

Three Birds at the Bush Theatre

The 2011 Bruntwood Prize winner has made its way to London following a successful stint at Manchester’s Royal Exchange. Okoh’s writing is sharp, witty and chucks out a pretty hard punch but the ridiculous concept overshadows everything else. At the Bush Theatre.

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The 2011 Bruntwood Prize winner has made its way to London following a successful stint at Manchester’s Royal Exchange. Janice Okoh’s Three Birds focuses on a nest of youngsters not yet ready to fly. From the very beginning, we can tell something’s not quite right. Tionne is plucking up the courage to behead the chicken, whilst older sister, Tiana, eggs him on (note intentional puns). The bathroom is clearly out of order and has been for some time, and an array of funky smells filter into the home – perhaps something to do with Tanika’s need to relieve herself in the kitchen, or maybe because none of these youngsters have washed for what might have been quite a while. Hiding behind twitchy curtains, the three siblings ignore a somewhat pressing and messy matter in order to pretend everything’s just as it should be. Filling their heads with fantasies of a future not on the horizon, the three T’s live in the cold and sombre shadow or a recently departed relative. Thus, there’s much more at stake in this Home-Alone-esque take.

Okoh’s writing is sharp, witty and chucks out a pretty hard punch. The play centres on a quirky/insane (struggling to select the appropriate) idea so in every sense of the word it is “original”. But it’s also a bit too far-fetched, to the point where you neither believe what’s happening, nor  particularly feel much sympathy or heartache for the three neglected birds (except perhaps the youngest). The concept makes it hard to connect with the family… becauseit would NEVER happen! I didn’t believe Tiana’s journey: despite having an older head on her shoulders, it’s not particularly convincing that the eldest sister would let things get that far. I didn’t “get” the brother – his obsession with embalming is explained but it just doesn’t wash. Through no fault of their own, there is no real depth to the characters.  

The strongest performance is no doubt Susan Wokoma’s, who effortlessly transforms herself into a primary-school-aged kid – so convincingly that I fleetingly questioned whether she was in fact a child. (I bumped into her during the after-show party and she’s not). Wokoma brings together the right balance of impressionable and cheeky, and her Tanika is sensitively delivered. Claire Brown makes for a very comical Ms Jenkins and evokes a sense of the familiar – I think we all had a school teacher like that! All in all, a talented cast.

Sarah Frankom’s direction is slick and fast-paced, but this over-ambitious energy results in a lack of connection – for the simple reason that the actors aren’t listening to what each other are saying. It, therefore, looks a bit staged. For the most part, I enjoyed the show, but little things irritated me. Although comfortable in his sisters’ company, Tionne doesn’t speak to strangers – he’s a self-imposed mute – but this changes in the latter half of the show and he suddenly starts talking to Ms Jenkins, who doesn’t blink an eye at his new-found confidence and tongue.

Three Birds offers something fresh and different – it will nudge the odd giggle out of you and there’s no doubt that it is very well written… but the ridiculous concept overshadows everything else. Don’t get me wrong; I love a bit of weird and wacky, and you don’t have to believe what’s going on to be entertained, but it’s not a play I’ll be thinking about for very long. Overall, I did enjoy this show. It’s easy-to-watch and the action is snappy. Janice Okoh creates a sense of mystery from the very start and you do want to find out more… but then it all becomes a bit silly and you’re like, riiiiiiight…

Date reviewed: Friday 22nd March 2013

More Style Than Substance:

Making Dickie Happy at the Tristan Bates Theatre

This high class period comedy will certainly make you chuckle from time to time… but overall, this play contains more style than substance. Making Dickie Happy appears to be more of a showcase of intellect than a piece of dramatic writing. At the Tristan Bates Theatre.

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Set in the 1920s, Making Dickie Happy keeps a close eye on a collective of literary wits all randomly staying in a quiet little hotel on Burgh Island, off the south coast of Devon. According to records, Noël Coward, Dickie Mountbatten and Agatha Christie were all guests of the same establishment – and Jeremy Kingston’s play explores a possible encounter that could have occurred, during which Mountbatten pitches Christie an idea for a new detective story that will no doubt change the landscape of the genre! How very exciting! Christie isn’t particularly enthralled by the idea; in fact Mountbatten’s suggested plot is described as “treacherous to the reader” and is rejected on that basis. Ergo, Dickie is sad. Noël Coward steps in and after many fruitful interchanges… I’m still at a loss as to how it resolves.

I’m presuming Dickie was made happy because Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroidlives and breathes as a text today and mirrors the unprecedented plot twist that Mountbatten was so keen for her to explore.

It’s described as a “look at relationships, marriages, engagements, promises, hellos and goodbyes” – and yes, it explores all those things… but if you can make head or tail of some of the conversations, then you’re a better (wo)man than I. Don’t get me wrong; I got the gist. But that’s all I got – and I wasn’t engaged enough to work at it. I don’t ascribe to the notion of being “intellectually challenged”, but I couldn’t keep up with the heavy dialogue, all of which seemed to be just clever wordplay. It certainly exposes the social elite of the period, but Making Dickie Happy appears to be more of a showcase of intellect than a piece of dramatic writing.

This play’s got a bit do with making Dickie happy (especially if the Dickie in question is not a reference to a character – there’s plenty of innuendo to suggest that is the case), but overall, it’s got little do with anything. Nothing really happens. That’s not to say that’s a bad thing (nothing much happens in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and I’m not disputing that work of genius) – but Making Dickie Happy lacks depth, substance and the character interchanges are not particularly gripping, resulting in hardly any dramatic tension.

Despite being centred on one of my favourite literary heroes (Coward), I didn’t learn anything – mainly because I spent the most part of two hours translating the ever-so-expressive, poetic, intelligent vocabulary, which was sing-sung all the way through, into English. Now I know Coward was an energetic extrovert, a liberated linguist, and all round drama Queen (excuse the pun), but even the wittiest people break the surface for air every now and then; even the sharpest-tongues falter from time-to-time.

Considering the demands of the script, there are some strong performances. Helen Duff blossoms into a brilliant Agatha Christie, and James Phelips’ makes for a great buttoned-up Dickie. Rob Pomfret is excellent as the sought-after waiter, Cyril. Phineas Pett’s cracking impersonation of Noël Coward is larger than life and Pett carries the language well (quite a feat since I doubt even the most eloquent writer would speak in such a way).

Unfortunately the writing doesn’t build a good sense of character – it’s a play that relies on one-dimensional impersonation. Line after line, the writing doesn’t give the actors much chance to demonstrate any thought process, connection or spontaneity. It is perhaps too cleverly and tightly written – the intelligence behind the words dilutes the sense of real in the people it portrays.  

Saying that, there are some funny moments and witty comebacks and this high class period comedy will certainly make you chuckle from time to time… but overall, this play contains more style than substance.

Date reviewed: Thursday 7th March 2013