“The show is something you fall into enjoying, like a warm bath”
Anxiety. Depression. Paranoia. Little could ClodHopper Theatre, the creators of Clown-Hearted, know when devising the piece just how relevant its themes would be in the pandemic-hit atmosphere of late 2020.
Like many current shows, Clown-Hearted is about mental health. The stage is initially set with one down-hearted clown (Leonie Spilsbury) in a highly covetable cloud-patterned onesie, surrounded by scattered boxes representing the various positive and negative pieces of her mental life.
A theatrical exploration of mental health is something that could easily become very dark or clichéd, but this is a work that offers something altogether different. Our clown begins by shuffling the boxes about, making some light gags and setting up a few visual metaphors. The piece takes a little while to fully get into, but soon after the entrance of the second clown (Owen Jenkins) it really gets into its swing.
Asking for help from an omniscient virtual assistant (subtitles are provided), the two clowns take a journey into self-care. The only dialogue coming from either Alexa or Siri is nice ironic contrast to the open simplicity of the characters. Through limited but effective props and their own actions (movement directed by Julia Cave) the clowns experiment with several mood-boosting activities, including exercise, meditation, and exploring nature.
Devised by Spilsbury and Jenkins, the show’s structure may seem a little formulaic, but it works – leading the way into an emotional odyssey that is wonderfully and entirely unpretentious. The performance doesn’t labour over the metaphors set up early on, but instead moves forward into each joyful skit with new energy, ending in a place that is far more wholesome than expected.
The show is something you fall into enjoying, like a warm bath, although there are enough witty and on-trend references from the virtual assistants to make the audience realise the work is clever, too. And of course it is funny, but in a welcoming rather than exclusionary way, with humour everyone can enjoy.
The work of the actors is complemented by the sound and lighting (Will Alder) and most significantly by the musical choices. Many familiar songs feature – from Ponchielli’s ‘Dance of the Hours’ to ‘Under the Sea’ from The Little Mermaid – and each of these tunes perfectly suits the play’s comforting and uplifting tone. There are also some advantages that come from having had the show filmed, as the camera work (Joseph Ed Thomas and Peter Moreton) gives us some nice close-ups of the actors’ facial expressions that serve to emphasise some of the jokes.
Watching Clown-Hearted is almost an act of self-care in itself; the capers of the clowns are soothing and easy to watch, and there is real warmth brimming out from both of the performers. While you sometimes wonder if some of the clowning would be better if it was more exaggerated, perhaps it is the very easy-going nature of the two characters that makes the show work so well.
In a time when so many of us know what it feels like to struggle with mental health, the play is the perfect pick-me-up and well worth spending the time watching.
Reviewed by Vicky Richards
Online via Applecart Arts until 23rd October
Previously reviewed from Dazed New World Festival 2020:
“a thoughtful presentation, enhanced by the intimacy of the space, and the skilled performances”
Can The Tempest—a play full of echoes of Shakespeare’s imminent retirement from a rich and successful theatrical life—be played in a small theatre, and on a pocket handkerchief sized stage? It turns out that it can. It can, that is, if you have Michael Pennington for your Prospero, supported by a cast of talented actors speaking with understanding of a text that contains some of Shakespeare’s most memorable lines. And it should, if you have a director (Tom Littler) who knows how to put on big plays in small spaces.
You might be forgiven for being sceptical. This Tempest demands work from the audience, beginning with a search to find the venue among all the clothing establishments in Jermyn Street, long the haunt of London’s haute monde. But when you eventually discover the modest entrance, near Waterstones, and descend into the performance space, you will be charmed. The stage is literally tucked into a corner, and designers Neil Irish and Anett Black make the most of it by creating a wall of curving shelves that contain all the flotsam and jetsam of Prospero’s past life as Duke of Milan. Add to that a couple of curtains to create additional spaces, and you can conjure up an enchanted isle quite effectively. Black and Irish were inspired by the experiences and art of Gauguin in Tahiti in the design—hence a lovely sketch of distant vistas on one of the curtains, and a medley of different cultural influences in the costume designs as well. Ariel’s costume and make up stands out in this respect. The costumes are all cleverly made from bits of cloth that could have been washed up from the shipwreck that brought Prospero and his daughter Miranda to the island. Add to that William Reynolds’ lighting design, haunting music and sound by Max Pappenheim (always essential in The Tempest), and you see an unexpectedly rich canvas on which the production has been created. But this is not easily apparent. You have to take the time—to look, and to listen—to all the island’s voices.
Watch for several innovations. The opening scene of the storm at sea that brings Prospero’s enemies to his shore is cut—instead it is Prospero who speaks the lines while holding a ship tossing and turning in his hands. It’s an effective way of emphasizing the fact that Prospero is a magician who has conjured up the storm. When Miranda enters, the audience is as ready as she is, to hear the story of how father and daughter arrived on the island. There is some judicious doubling. Tam Williams plays both Caliban and Ferdinand—and it works because Williams plays Caliban with a white canvas hood over his head. This device makes Caliban an oddly sympathetic character right from the start, and Williams’ skilled performance means that it takes a while to realize that one actor is playing both roles. Peter Bramhill doubles as Sebastian, Ferdinand’s uncle, with the comic role of Trinculo. Richard Derrington doubles as Prospero’s usurping brother, Antonio, with the drunken butler Stephano. It is a treat to see Lynn Farleigh take on the role of Gonzalo, and she brings a rare clarity and power to his lines.
Whitney Kehinde, as Ariel, is a wonderful sprite with just the right amount of enthusiasm for her work, coupled with fear that Prospero will not honour his promise and release her when her tasks are done. Kehinde is a genuine triple threat and a talent to watch. In fact, the only major weakness in this production is the lack of chemistry between Ferdinand and Miranda, despite the best efforts of Tam Williams (without a hood) and Kirsty Bushell (Miranda). And it is the greatest pleasure to watch Michael Pennington, as Prospero, literally hold the whole production in the palm of his hand. He manages to bring off both the power and vulnerability of the role in ways that allow us to maintain sympathy for the character, while questioning Prospero’s more morally dubious actions.
For clarity of insight into Shakespeare’s last great play, take a chance on the Jermyn Street Theatre’s production. It’s a thoughtful presentation, enhanced by the intimacy of the space, and the skilled performances.