Blue Elephant Theatre
Reviewed – 11 November 2018
“an original take on a little-known aspect of wartime women’s intrinsic importance”
Amidst the pomp and circumstance of the official ceremonies, Blue Elephant Theatre contributes an unusual, personal and decidedly yellow touch to Armistice Day with Fun in the Oven’s production of ‘Canary’. When, in 1916, the Government set up the Ministry of Munitions following a shortage of shells, they relied on unskilled workers to fill the factories. This meant that women from all walks of life experienced the war in a very different way from holding the fort or weeping and waiting for their loved ones; they worked together in dire and dangerous conditions, forming friendships and bonds with those they would never normally have met. As a tribute to the hundreds of thousands of Canary Girls, Katie Tranter, Robyn Hambrook and Alys North become Agnes, Anne and Betty.
After setting the scene with film footage of cheery enlisting propaganda we meet the three complementary characters. Agnes is the work supervisor, commanding and outwardly confident: officer’s wife, Anne, escapes from her grand house to volunteer at weekends: young Betty, naïve and illiterate, is the star of the factory’s football team. We are taken along the conveyor belt of bomb-making, into the canteen and down into the air-raid shelter, accompanied by effectively dramatic lighting (Scott Ferguson) and interesting, integrated sound (Roma Yagnik). The show is packed with information and insights. Concentrating on the relationships built, we are drawn into their private world of sharing and supporting hopes, fears, sadness and joy. We learn about their lives from tea-break chats and air-raid confinement – the dangers of TNT, the long working hours, the disgracefully low wages. They discover a freedom to talk about men and physical and emotional intimacy, to smoke and drink. And we also see a fundamental change in attitude when their eyes are opened to their own value and place in society.
Andrea Jiménez’s direction is innovative and fun, making creative use of three tea crates as the only props. But the interpretation is patchy. The actors convey the diversity of class and the sense of unity between them and there are some striking moments like the cordite hallucination sequence and Alys North’s ‘man talk’ but it sometimes suffers from a slightly laboured pace. However, even though the show needs some fine tuning to tighten up this lack of slickness, ‘Canary’ is an original take on a little-known aspect of wartime women’s intrinsic importance, and the humorous dialogue, well-choreographed movement and rousing singing make for enjoyable and enlightening entertainment.
Reviewed by Joanna Hetherington
Photography by Chris Bishop
Blue Elephant Theatre
Previously reviewed at this venue:
Greenwich & Docklands Festival
Reviewed – 4th July 2018
“Visually, ‘Beautiful Thing’ is a feast of glowing colours, striking shadows and moving images”
Community – its infrastructure, its buildings, its people and its history – is at the heart of this new dance-theatre production of Jonathan Harvey’s ‘Beautiful Thing’. Taking place entirely in and around a block of the now-abandoned Binsey Walk estate (famously used in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’), Bradley Hemmings and Robby Graham’s production brings a coming-of-age love story home to its original setting – and what a setting.
The story will be familiar to some: Two Binsey Walk lads overcome parental woes and scholastic strife to find love. Hemmings and Grahams have crafted an almost wordless show that episodically retells the development of Ste and Jamie’s relationship like a greatest hits medley of the original film. Obviously intended to please crowds of Thamesmead locals and members of the LGBTQ+ community old enough (sorry!) to remember the 1993 film, the show relies on full-blown spectacle to impress and amuse, making use of the large outdoor space to bring in the 180-bus to Greenwich, cars, a VW campervan and even a JCB pickup. Visually, ‘Beautiful Thing’ is a feast of glowing colours, striking shadows and moving images. The housing block becomes a canvas for colourful and explosive projections that look cool but fail to contribute more than just showing the action we are already witnessing up-close. When Sandra learns her son could be gay, photos and film clips of her young son invite the audience into her internal world and proves one of the most moving moments of the show.
The choreography is fairly one-dimensional and underdeveloped, not quite catching the nuances of the story or characters. Despite having a huge playground, the energetic and impassioned performers are often trapped in small rooms and get lost in the spectacle of light and sound. Phil Supple’s lighting design is astonishingly good, giving each house and room a colour and identity, turning the block from dull estate to vibrant gay club in a flash.
Binsey Walk itself is the star attraction here. Some hate British post-war architecture, but here the building is let loose, representing something more than the sterility and poverty usually associated with British housing estates. The team could definitely have gone farther than just giving what it knows its audience will recognise and love. Ste and Jamie’s story feels somewhat dated, and this production taps into nostalgia rather than a re-telling of the story for a new generation of young gay men.
This historic site is about to become victim to the bulldozer. Crossrail looms. Communities and how they interact in Thamesmead, and indeed London, have changed a lot in twenty-five years. But by literally letting the audience see how the communal spirit tucked inside a place like Binsey Walk can produce a positive story of diversity, understanding, support and love against the odds, we are reminded that community is still out there for us to find, and it’s through others that our true selves can come into their own.
Reviewed by Joseph Prestwich
Photography by Camilla Greenwell
Greenwich & Docklands Festival until 7th July