Great stories do not present us with anything new; they present us with what is familiar to us and then they make it unfamiliar and weird and crazy.
Underexposed Theatre have come pretty close to achieving this in their recent run at The Old Red Lion in Angel, with a clutch of new plays that seek to force us to question and complicate our assumptions about, well, everybody, from the typical male sex drive to a long distance gay romance between London and Syria to the good intentions of a doctor who is judged for the strength of her convictions.
The evening begins with a delightful piece called Native Tongues, A Sci Fi Sex Romp, by Nick Myles, a story with a thoroughly preposterous premise of an estranged boyfriend and girlfriend with a thorny relationship meeting in a gym and being thrown in different directions in time, the corollary conceit that the former lovers can still talk to each other across millions of years. Charlotte Nice as Jen and Nick Skaugen as Oli have such a sweet and amiable chemistry on stage and genuinely push us beyond the self-centred egos and 90s sitcom cliched reasons for breaking up and into the nature of companionship and connections.
Gabrielle Curtis is as impressive as ever, penning and starring in three of the plays of the evening, all of which were delightful, one of which, Bonus of Contention, A Sexual Battle of Wills, was pure magic. Said battle pits Kara and Seb, having got together for a ‘closure chat’, against each other with Kara attempting to seduce her ex and Seb utilising all the force of his willpower and quite a lot of wit to resist the notoriously male inclination to jump at sex whenever it is presented. The air sizzles electrically with sexual tension in this confrontation and Curtis and her partner in this piece, Connor Mills, deliver scalpel sharp dialogue with contrapuntally perfect comic timing, bringing the intense chemistry between the two characters very quickly to a rolling riveting boil. Wonderful.
Also by Nick Myles is the powerfully hard-hitting London-Damascus, A Transcontinental Gay Love Story. This is a story that both contrasts and unites what it is to be gay in both a country where homosexuality is illegal and punished with death and in a country where it is embraced and celebrated more than ever before. Sweet and funny at points, heartrenderingly moving at others, this piece is poignant without ever getting preachy and Freddie Wintrip and Reece Mahdi are magnificent as the long distance lovers.
There are points in the night that don’t work so well. Daisy Jo Lucas’ The Goblin King presents us with a potentially intriguing and contemporary problem, that maternal instincts do not come naturally and that sometimes mothers genuinely fear and even loathe the role and its implications. And I’m not against a magical realist turn, but the one that happens feels a bit clunky and undeveloped. I don’t find I care much about Daphne, the career woman and resistant mother. And there’s nothing wrong per se with throwing in a character from The Labyrinth. Danny Steele does well. Ish. But I can’t help feeling like there is too much that goes undeveloped and that perhaps this play could have done better with a Goblin Queen played by the obscenely talented and criminally under-utilised Emily Bell, who plays Daphne’s assistant Clara.
And the evening does sink when it gets too worthy. Laurence Vardaxoglou’s C’etait Ouf felt interminable and unfunny, with Sophia Flohr, likeably enough stringing out clunky metaphors and telling us things that we all do in offices that trot out the old ideas that we all climb onto the same treadmill every day and never question it. I probably didn’t get it, but I can’t have been the only one.
But the underplayed gem of the night was certainly Bones, a beautifully written and performed chance encounter between Dom, an affably, clumsy cliche-filled man and Clara, a card shop attendant with a past. To see the barrier of ice melt between these two characters, played with masterful timing and subtlety by Amy Quick and Nick Pearse, is a genuinely moving experience that punctures our complacent guardian-reading sensibilities and fills us with a sincere affection for these two individuals.
This collection of scenes, if you’ll permit me a tiny bit of drama in a theatre write up, captures that old familiar Kafkaism, wielding an axe on the frozen sea within our souls. They shake us. And stir us and I look forward to more challenges from Underexposed Theatre in future.
Keep informed about this fantastic company:
An Exhibition by Dallas Seitz
I grew up a child of the Cold War, as (I imagine) did most of my generation and going back for the two generations before me. I believed from as far back as I can remember with an untraceably embedded conviction that Russians and everyone near that gigantic nation were bad, bad people. That communism, and all its associated corollaries and manifestations were patently evil and tantamount to satanism (I mean, hello? RED? Can’t be a coincidence).
I believed that Emperor Reagan was our saviour and that Bubble Gum Bush was his inheritor, that our fate was a constant war against the axis of evil. I was raised – and certainly not just by my parents – to believe that we lived in a nation of privilege in diametric opposition to oppression of the starving people of Russia, that we were blessed with the great fortune to live in a nation with the greatest living standards, and the best bestest of everything.
And that it was our superlative luck to have the freedom to shoot guns as often as we wanted, watch people on our cities’ streets starve as often as we liked and to aspire to be one of the good and the great and the rich that get to eat the poor for breakfast and then go to lunch on the dreams of the middle class. USA! U! S! A!
But, as with many such myths and fairytales, ‘when I became a man, I put away childish things.’ Maybe there was always an uneasiness. Maybe there were always questions there, but I didn’t get round to really asking questions about our own pretty little cultural fairytales until adolescence and perhaps it wasn’t brought home to me until a passionate Labour History Professor and something of a mentor in university delivered a lecture in which he talked about how sick it would make a person from Northern Europe to bring them to see the fine living standard to which we are accustomed to with the great privilege of working three jobs to make ends meet and dying of utterly treatable illnesses due to a lack of universal health coverage.
I digress. Do I? It seems poignant and right at a point in our nation’s history when we are potentially about to elect a socialist or a bigoted, venture capitalist dictator who seems to only truly believe in himself that we begin to question more. Of everything. Which brings me, in my charmingly circuitous way to the current show at The IMT Gallery in Bethnal Green, The American Story by the Canadian Dallas Sietz.
A haunting series of images contemplating the after effects of The Cold War, photographed on forays into the Californian Desert, Arizona and Palm Springs, this exhibition presents us with questions about the conflict that threatened to end the world from late 1940s right up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. A telephone tower disguised as a palm tree reminds one of the empty, inorganic nature of a nation infatuated with its own technological innovation. A tunnel that leads to desolate rubble strewn nothingness brings to mind Kurt Vonnegut’s descriptions of the moon-like landscape of a firebombed and devastated Dresden in Slaughterhouse 5. These photographs seem a decontextualized lament for America and the hollowness of a belief in military might and an apparently vacuous culture, seething with a kind of life and inner tumult.
We live in interesting times, in which many are trying to simplify the essence of what it is to be American and where our future lies. Seitz warmly invites us to get lost in a rich labyrinthine complexity to see things as they are.
ImageMusicText Gallery is at Unit 2/210 Cambridge Heath Road London E2 9NQ UK (nearest tube Bethnal Green). The American Story runs until 6 March.
When I first ventured abroad on a study abroad programme to a place in Ireland called Maynooth, I was enchanted by the spirit of adventure. I booked a flight that would arrive two days earlier than my semester abroad programme started so as to spend a couple of days experiencing all that Dublin, this capital city in foreign soil on which my feet had never tread, could offer. So I booked myself into Avalon House, a swanky hostel as far as hostels go, according to the Dublin Rough Guide in 1999, and probably still is today, I haven’t been back there in about 15 years. I do know from their website, they still seem to do a healthy business.
And it was a nice place. Sure, you still share rooms, but it was cosy and clean and had more in the way of amenities than my now better traveled self knows that some hostels have, which is not much, having stayed in hostels in other parts of Ireland and Spain since then. But the majority of you know what hostels are like. You’ve got to be careful in selecting them. This is where you rest your head for the night. This is where you go to seek respite from the hard day of globetrotting, of become more worldly wherever you are.
Which is all to say that I was ill prepared for a hostel as sleek, stylish and cool as the Generator Hostel here in London. I was fortunate enough to attend their relaunch party on Thursday evening and you can see that it was quite the happening atmosphere. If this is what hostels are like nowadays, I might have to revisit this mode of accommodation.
The night was buzzing with an atmosphere of bacchanalia and revelry. Bright young things lithely lounged in a comfy and welcoming atmosphere smoothly designed with an eye for detail. If Generator can make you feel this welcome on a launch night, think what they can do if you stay at their hostel.
Infused with a heavy rhythm provided by NTS Radio and Eglo records, the party was a sensory circus, complete with free photo booth, dance floor and chill out area.
So, if you find yourself in this fine capital and need a base from which to explore, Generator is a great bet. Rooms are reasonable and stylish. Service is friendly and accommodating. And hey, does a party like this not suggest something of the spirit of their hospitality?
Generator has eight hostels throughout Europe including Copenhagen and Venice. I didn’t ask about loyalty cards, but this is definitely a brand that inspires return custom.
Book rooms now at Generator London. Enjoy!
At some point in your London life, if you are here for any medium to long term period of time, you will have it: the property conversation. It won’t happen at first of course. You’ll have too many cool things to do and see, but eventually, you will start to peruse
realtors’ estate agents’ windows with something approaching avarice in your eyes. You will find yourself in the pub on Friday night with your friends saying things like, “I mean, we can’t rent forever. That’s no good, is it?” and “On average? £300k for a 2 bed! That’s exactly why we’re looking in that area!”
It doesn’t happen everywhere. There are plenty of places in the world — in fact in the rest of Europe — where people are quite happy to rent an apartment all their lives, but there is an Anglo-Irish obsession with owning a space and declaring it their own. If I speak in disparaging tones, they are also self-deprecating ones. I feel like my beloved and I are always thinking about where we can get more space, whether we can keep our place and buy another, how we can work the variables. With this in mind, I give you this intriguing study from our friends at reallymoving.com, based on 34,000 Londoners who used the site between January 2012 and August 2013. It’s pretty fascinating and a little bit surprising, especially for Londoners with an almost instinctual eye on the property market. Love to hear your thoughts on it. Enjoy and Happy Monday!
The American Londoner’s Mixtape Medley of Migratory Tips and Advice: What I Wish I Knew Before I Left
Don’t get me wrong. I love life in London. Wouldn’t trade it for anywhere else (right now, anyway… perhaps in the future… and then I would trade it for something else… I digress). A capital city, this big metrop. If a man is tired of London, he is… yada yada and the rest of what Samuel Johnson said. Point is, it’s a great life and it’s a continuing adventure, but boy could it have been made easier. I’m not saying we don’t learn from our mistakes or that how we deal with adversity doesn’t play a key role in defining who we are in some way, but you might not want to make the same mistakes that I made or suffer the slings and arrows that I endured.
It is in this spirit of public munificence, smoother transitions, obstacles avoided and exponentially greater enjoyment from the expat life that I blog today. With the help of and somewhat at the behest of our friends at HIFX, who have put together a fantastic HIFX tip page to collate some wonderful tips from us experienced expats, I give you a somewhat random (hence the reference to that great art of my high school days in the 1990s, the magnificent mixtape) collection of tips and pointers on making the most out of that incredible journey.
What follows is categorised somewhat arbitrarily between ‘useful’ and ‘make the most’, so bear with me. You might benefit. Even if it’s only from wry amusement.
Do Your Homework — This is going to sound obvious, but certain assumptions can lull you into a sense of security, and you know what happens when you assume. Mine was that being expat spouse, I was automatically entitled to work in any European country by virtue of my wife’s Irishness. Well, every country has its own intricate and insistently labyrinthine bureaucracy and every country has their officious public servants who, just doing their job though they are, are disinclined to ‘process’ you efficiently if they perceive the slightest disrespect for the rules and regulations that it is their job to uphold, manage, administer, and enforce. For the first three years of living in England, I spent six months out of every year, countless pleading, begging, hours in a torturously kafkaesque waiting area down in the Home Office in warm and welcoming Croydon (sarf of the riva’), and minutes beyond measure on the phone listening to coma-inducing muzak waiting to talk to a real person who could tell me what was taking so long for a stamp to come down on my passport granting me that glorious privilege: leave. to. remain. For another year. Had I done my homework and not trusted the dodgy Scottish recruitment agency that brought us over from Ireland, I would have saved time, money, several appeals to our local MP, and the hiring of a West London immigration specialist threatening to sue The Home Office before my passport suddenly turned up. And my case is by no means unique. Take the time. Find out what you need to work and stay in the country. It could save you a headache and an early trip home.
Build yourself an identity — Sure, the love of money is the root of all evil greases the wheels of a vast capitalist global empire, but until we turn to an organic bartering system and convert to an idyllic cashless society, money and the basic bank account are key to some very basic things as an expat. Be careful with this one. Back in my day (when I emigrated from the US in 2001), you could get a letter from your employer, take it to his local bank, flash it to the manager and Bob’s your uncle, you’re suddenly a banking and contributing member of society. Only three years later when we moved to London, I had to depend on my wife’s account and the banks were so strict that even she had to make do with a ‘basic’ or a ‘step’ account, the one they give to shifty foreigners they don’t yet trust. Find out about banking in your country. In England, it’s key to build yourself an identity as soon as you get here. They like to know you’re here. Big brother is watching. Simple things like utility bills or unexpected things like getting a library card all build up an identity for those that watch and wait and decide if they want to issue you with plastic or better yet, a long term loan or mortgage. Find out what’s necessary in the country your destination country and if possible, make contact with local banks and make enquiries as to what makes good credit history. I can matter a great deal.
Shop around when exchanging — No doubt you’ve heard of a bureau de change (took me ages to get the pronunciation right). If you travel a lot you’ve probably needed one in a hurry. It pays to shop around when you’re changing money. Some companies will charge extortionate rates on commission. The Post Office here in England is commission free! There may be a similar deal in your destination country. It may even be cheaper to pay by debit card wherever you’re going or withdraw from a cash machine while abroad. Whatever you do about it, shopping around for the best deal.
Every city’s as cheap as you make it — Yeah, but London is one of the most expensive cities in the world… if you don’t know where to go. This capital is famous for its street markets. We lived above on the Roman Road in The East End for the first year and a half or our Anglo-existence. The fruit and veg was good quality for a fraction of the price of the Tesco supermarket down the road. We live in an age in which every city has hidden costs, but look a little further and you find the hidden ways to save money as well. Anything from freecycle to Airbnb, to the beautiful array of floral displays that can be acquired, “cheap as chips” from Columbia Road when you get there either insanely early or as everyone’s closing up, you don’t have to go broke to go abroad and expand your horizons.
Make The Most:
Follow the Vegetarians — Bit of a strange one, this. Try it though, omnivore and fellow herbivore alike. All the cool places in any city, like electrons around the nucleus of an atom, cluster together, satellite fashion, around vegetarian hotspots. Soho in London, Soho in New York, Brooklyn now, West Philadephia, West Kensington Market in Toronto, Vesterbro and Freetown Christiania in Copenhagen… the list goes on and on. I had coffee in a Michael Ondaatje’s regular coffee shop this way. I don’t think it’s vegetarian, but it’s in the neighbourhood of cool. You want to find the cool cafes where the hipster locals go, the cute little vintage clothes shops, the adorable antiques with the dusted off G Plan and Eames in the window, google ‘vegetarian ____________ (your destination).’ Trust me.
When in doubt, laugh — A sense of humor is one of the most subjective and various qualities a human being on this earth can possess. It goes without saying that the British sense of humor is… well, different from the American. If you think that’s true of TV, try competing with fine cockney (or Northern or Welsh) wit in a pub conversation. For that matter, try rolling with the Irish wit, which I find to be even dryer, more deadpan, and arguably closer to teetering on the wrong side of offensive. Wherever you go, the sense of humor will be very different. Accept that. Go with it. Grow some thick skin. Laugh sometimes when it sounds too ridiculous to be true. It probably isn’t. Your colleague is just looking a tad serious to try and catch you out and see if you’ll fall for it. They’re just taking the mickey, ya know. That means having a bit of fun with you, by the by. Real pub dialogists will just tell you they’re ‘taking the piss’, which is to say the same thing, but hearing that particular gem for the first time left me somewhat open-mouthed.
Be a Yes Man — Practically cliche, I know, ever since Danny Wallace’s book, but still a truism that’s worth remembering: say yes to everything, especially when you have doubts. Those are probably the anxieties you need to get over to make the most of life abroad and learn what you were missing all your life in your place of origin. And sometimes, you get the most from that which you expected absolutely nothing from, like Belgium, which sounded like the most boring place in the world to holiday in until we got there and hit three cities in three days thanks to an efficient public transport system, a small amount of ground to cover and some aesthetically grandiose places, gladdening our hearts to that small Eurocentric nation ever since. You want to come out to the pub after spending the last 48 hours partying in Belfast? Not really. Tough. Go. My wife and I got together in just such a circumstance, very much by just such a chance. Say yes.
I could go on, but you’ve got enough to be getting on with what with researching flight prices and purchasing your Eurail passes. I hope some of these do help to save time and make the experience pleasant for you or even prove useful to file away in that mental palace in the back of your head. Enjoy and embrace the adventure!
And remember, for more tips on the life expatriate, check out HIFX’s fantastic tips page.
“Do ya ever see any of those Muslims in London?”
We are sitting on my parents’ back deck. We have settled in for a warm and pleasant evening of beer, nibbles, and mildly racist banter by the pungent flicker of the citronella candle.
I know my father too well to think he is joking, but I am still blindsided by the brick bluntness of his solid granite wall of insularity that you would be hard pushed to surmount. He says “Muslims” like Jaques Cousteau would if he were talking about some rare multicellular organism found only in the deepest and most uninhabitable depths. I imagine the nature programs in my Dad’s head run as follows: “And here we have the rare and vicious Muslimus Britannicus Arabius Londinius, commonly referred to as the English Brown Muslim; not to be confused with its American cousin even though both depend on a parasitic relationship with other mammals in their environment.”
“Um…” I begin. How does one answer a question such as this? Have I ever seen any Muslims in the great and sprawling metropolitan capital of England and seat of governance of Great Britain? Do you ever see any Christians, Hindus, Jews, Sikhs, Scientologists, Hardcore Zionists, Liberation Theologists, Dawkinsists, Seventh Day Adventists, Seventh Seal the movie fan clubbists, card-carrying Communists, frustrated Agnostics, Gnostic Christians, Coptic Christians, Eastern Orthodox mystics, Papal Cannibals, austere Protestant, tee totalling Northern Calvinists? Why not? Why not, damn it? Why can’t they all walk around with neon signs atop their heads and big brands burned into their foreheads from when they were all branded like sheep into their respective pens?
“Well…” I begin. “I’ve worked with Muslims. I’ve worked for Muslims and I’ve taught Muslims. In fact, one of my best students is called Hamza.” Thought my parents would like that last one in particular given all the trouble-making, freedom-hating, headline-hogging Hamzas that always seem to make it into the news here in the UK.
Plus, it’s just like saying, “I don’t roll like that, man. I’ve got plenty of Muslim friends.”
My Mom sees my liberal positioning and raises me a casual-racism, “well, I guess if he’s studying he can’t be making bombs at night.”
My face must look a bit like I’ve been handbagged by the old one-two from Ma and Pa American Londoner because my mother – not widely known for her awareness of the jarring abnormality of her worldview shrugs as if to say, “What’s your problem, mister? I’m just proclaiming the gospel of Regressive Thinkers of America and saying out loud what every other American is afraid to say.”
And it is possible (just possible) that my father’s question and my mother’s ponderous observation are entirely innocent. It is possible that I’ve been spoiled by the tolerant melting pot that is London. It is entirely possible that you can live atop a mountain with nothing but Fox to watch, pretzels and chips to eat, and racist neighbo(u)rs with which to “exchange views” to quite innocently hate Muslims. In the same way you might hate really evil aliens. Or zombies (though what with zombie chic I don’t see how you could) that are hungry for brains.
I should disclaim at this point that my father is a generous man, my mother a kind and nurturing woman. These thoughts seem to happily settle themselves and thrive like fungus in amongst the sweetest and sunniest of dispositions. My Dad is as innocent and sometimes as unintentionally funny as Archie Bunker (British Translation = Alf Garnet).
And let’s face it. Before 9/11, my parents probably didn’t know what a Muslim was beyond some vague notions of a hate figure in Iran. In fact, they probably couldn’t rightly tell you what a Muslim is now (I have called my father out for insisting he’d seen “them” running around town “in their turbans”). No more than I could have told you what a Communist was when I was seven and taught to hate them. No more than children can stand up and swear allegiance to a
piece of cloth (oh alright) symbol before they know what “allegiance” means.
It’s a simple thing to hate something you know little about and that doesn’t enter your sphere of existence from day to day. Pennsylvania has often been ranked number one for hate groups even with a low population of racial minorities. Draw what you may from that.
I’m not sure I can call my parents, as one kind reader wrote to me this week, “friendly racists… who mean no harm,” as they do seem to mean harm to all those who “hate freedom”, whatever that means. I’ve not met such an individual after nearly a decade in London. But what does scare me is that they are not harmless. They’ve got great big weapons: one vote a piece and plenty who think like them.
Beware America. Beware.
Slightly misleading post title, I know. I mean it’s purely theoretical. I don’t have any plans to leave at any point soon. Why would I? Duh, it’s London.
There are of course push factors: lack of any family in close proximity to us, a moderate to small flat with no outdoor space, Michael Gove, David Cameron, you get the picture. But frankly, nothing’s reached tipping point yet. My son’s in a good school that The Missus and I both like, modest though our flat is, we’ve made it our own and we may not have a
backyard or front yard garden, but we do have a lovely flat roof veranda that we have to struggle to climb through the window to get to adjacent to the bathroom loo. So, why would we want to move from this dreamy place?
I’ve been to more theatre than ever this year, courtesy of a few different online and print publications that I’ve been reviewing for and I feel so privileged to be able to have done it and to keep doing it. The truth is theatre in London is nothing less than phenomenal. Though the first item on your bucket list in one of the greatest cities in the world may not be to spend two hours in a darkened room with crowded strangers, there are good reasons why it should be.
Obviously, you’ve got The West End. Word Famous. Who hasn’t, right? But it really is the overpriced tip of the iceberg. Any chump can wait in line at a kiosk in Leicester Square, part unthinkingly with 100 quid for two seats with restricted viewing to see Billy Elliot and go home happy, having gawked at Elton John’s vision of the working class in the North of England. What you’ve got to do is explore.
Pre-parenthood days, when we first moved to London, the weekend consisted of picking up the Guardian Guide in the Saturday Edition, paying £6-12 a ticket, and seeing some marvellous, or appalling theatre. Whether it was marvellous or appalling, it was always engaging, in only the way that a performance that utilises space, human voice and movement, and the deep connection between performer and audience can engage on that deep, penetrating sort of gut level. I have seen Paul McGann reach heights of magically realist redemption in a backroom space of a pub in West London in Tom Murphy’s The Gigli Concert, took a student group to see a version of The Tempest in West End that was heavy on trapeze artists but fell just short of meaningful, was genuinely touched by Samuel Beckett’s ode to Vaclav Havel, Catastrophe, failed to be moved beyond audible snoring in a dishwater-dull perfunctory attempt at Faustus in The Arcola several years ago, and recoiled in horror at a character’s eyes being gouged out of their sockets in the basement of Shoreditch Town Hall as part of Serpent’s Tooth, written as a response to a production of King Lear. But my greatest, most heartfelt, and most intensely cathartic experience in London theatre was in a tiny little performance space underneath a pub in Baron’s Court, near Knightsbridge. The production was a version of Lorca’s Bodas de Sangre (Blood Wedding), an immersive performance that set you up with a frame story lulling you into a false sense of safety until the actors turned everything on like a switch about 10 minutes in and from there to the end of the night it was a joyfully bleak journey to the utter depths of the human capacity for pathos.
Because theatre’s a risk, always. More often than not, I’ve been gripped and even when I haven’t, I’ve been provoked by what didn’t but should have gripped me. It’s a cognitive process that happens rarely for me with movies, and almost not at all with TV, probably because my most UnAmerican tendency is not watching it much.
My judgement of course could be somewhat flawed having never been much exposed to theatre when I was a kid, hailing from a small rural town in a mountainous region of District 12 and raised by wolves. My first real memory of proper theatre was a local university production of Waiting for Godot, in which the actors pronounced it Godot as opposed to what the rest of the world say, Godot (Cue Beckett’s gaunt and ghostly cyberfist shaking in indignation), beginning a lifelong obsession with Irish absurdist. But that it is the main reason why I review plays; not because it’s good practice or because it adds to my portfolio, but because I find theatre, especially here in this great metropolis, breathtakingly inspiring and that it lifts my mind off the ground nine times out of ten well after I’ve exited the foyer and am out on the street.
So if you’re in town, go to see a play. There’s nothing wrong with paying a lot to see a play in the West End (there could well be much wrong with paying through the nose to see a musical, but that’s another blog post) and you most likely won’t be disappointed by your investment, but it’s more fun, less expensive, and more of a unique experience to get out into the smaller theatres and performance spaces and see what’s out there.
Go on. It’s worth the risk.