[Review] VAULT Festival 2017: Dark Testament and Sketchy Santas (23/2/17)

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We start off this week’s coverage of the VAULT Festival with two starkly different plays, both of which take deliciously dark turns really quickly: Testament by Old Sole Theatre Company and The Grot In The Grotto by acclaimed and award-winning sketch comedy team Casual Violence.

Testament by Old Sole Theatre Company

For anyone who’s grown up reading the Bible or has some knowledge of its stories, Testament is a real throwback and really makes you think twice about what the moral and psychological implications of those stories might be if set in modern day America.

Tristan Bernays adapts three Bible stories in this brisk one hour show. Four characters from the Bible gather and tell their stories as they experienced them in an American setting. Perhaps not intentional, but the way the cast was seated greatly resembled an AA meeting type structure, and it created the feeling that these characters were all going through similar post-traumatic group therapy. During the breaks between stories, musician and performance poet Ivy Davies performed various songs relating to Christianity, similar to worship songs one might here during service. Although not relating directly to the stories, Davies possesses a strong, confident voice that soars through the Pit in the Vaults, and it elevated the play from simple anecdote to something akin to a darker Sunday service, no doubt helped by the wooden bench setup and the ominous neon cross hanging above the actors. The praise seems absent here however, and the smiles dissipate quickly as the characters retold their tales.

Writer Bernays portrays Isaac, the boy nearly sacrificed by his father Abraham when God asks him too before stopping at the last minute. Bernays’ performance brought out the fear, terror and confusion as he recounts Isaac’s harrowing experience as a young boy, and his poetic language brings the environment to life. One can almost feel the cold wind blow and hear the car sputter into the night as Bernays describes being lashed to a rock and the shock of a hunting knife pressed against his neck. One truly wonders when devotion lapses into delusion and when a man of God becomes willing to sacrifice his own flesh and blood for an invisible voice.

In the second tale, Bernays reimagines the story of Lot’s wife, who was turned into a pillar of salt when she looked back upon the burning city of Sodom. Here’s Peta Cornish and Celeste Dodwell portray Lot’s two daughters, who have since grown up and have children of their own, both possessing a distinct Southern twang in their accents. This makes sense, as Bernays’ version of Lot is a very conservative man, afeared of the rise in prostitution and other vices that’ve sprung up in his hometown, afraid of the corruption of ideals. One night, the entire town begins to burn to the ground, and Lot escapes with his two daughters, abandoning his wife as she is assaulted, presumably killed. Wracked with guilt in the aftemath, Lot begins to lose his mind and locks him and the girls up in a motel for months on end, refusing to let them go out. Eventually, he breaks and ends up raping one of his daughters, mistaking her for his ex-wife, and is killed by the other daughter.

Celeste Dodwell and Peta Cornish share a strong onstage sisterhood that gives an immediate familial aura to the story, as they insert snippets of their lives and their broods of children in between the tragedy they experienced growing up. Despite their Southern twang and lighter recollections, their tale still looms dark and heavy, and it’s even implied that one of the children is born as a result of the rape. This is revealed towards the end of their act, and Bernays here shows off his skill for writing in such moments when they’d have the most dramatic impact, and the amount of sympathy one has for the two daughters is immensely felt. These are not helpless damsels in distress, but strong women who have managed to overcome trauma in their lives, finding strength in each other. For all the pain and sorrow, Bernays’ reimagining of Lot’s wife and the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah transforms into a powerful personal story of moving on, where the girls succeeded and Lot failed.

In the final story, Bernays tackles the New Testament, telling the story of one of the thieves on the cross beside Jesus when he was being crucified. Simon Manyonda plays the thief, this time as a prisoner clad in an orange jumpsuit, and Bernays ups the ante by having him also be a murderer. Accused of theft at his old job, Manyonda is declared innocent but fired nonetheless. As the sole breadwinner of his family, including a young daughter, he is distressed and driven to more extreme methods to care for them. His cellmate is a man who declares himself to be the son of God, and whose high and mighty holier than thou act angers Manyonda, who is asked to beg for forgiveness. Manyonda questions the true nature of God, and why is it that a benevolent God would allow for him to end up in this situation in the first place. This final story is a particularly multi-faceted piece, with questions of morality and the existence and purpose of God raised up, with a dose of race issues thrown into the mix as well. Was Manyonda’s character implicated because he was black? Why would God allow for this? There are no answers to these questions, and Manyonda is left angry, embittered and confused in his emotional performance.

Bernays script is unabashedly grim, unafraid of raising difficult questions and adding a layer of morally ambiguous depth to these Bible stories. God never makes a formal appearance in these stories, but the fervor of organised religion does, and there really is no better place to set it than conservative America. When commitment tips over into psychosis, there can only be a dark future for those ensnared by the wrong paths in religion, and what was once a safe space mutates into an ugly, sinister world. Testament is testament to Bernays’ skill as a writer at breathing darkness into the Bible, and is held up by atmospheric, razor sharp performances from its cast. Watch this, and you’ll be left second guessing the things you’ve learnt from Bible study lessons.

Testament plays at the Pit (The Vaults) till 25 Feb. Tickets available here. Keep up with Old Sole Theatre Company and Tristan Bernays on their websites, and folllow them on Twitter @OldSoleTheatre and @TristanBernays

Casual Violence: The Grot in the Grotto

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London sketch comedy team Casual Violence comes to the Vaults for an all new live sketch show! Best known for their radio show and Youtube channel, Casual Violence mixes irreverent humour, music and wacky characters for amazing comic effect.

In their latest show, Casual Violence is set to ruin Christmas forever. The Grot In The Grotto follows a conspiracy by a big business to solve Christmas problems. This time around, they’re pandering to the department stores, selling the idea of using homeless men as mall Santas and hypnotizing them to believe they truly are Santa due to a childhood trauma that left the boss of the business questioning reality itself when he found out Santa was a lie.

The colourful cast of characters includes Greg Cranness as an escaped hobo Santa, Alex Whyman as a dapper (but also insane) Christmas Problem-solving business boss, Luke Booys as his hypno-scientist-tist (a hypnotist who’s also a scientist in the field), David Arrondelle as the Real Santa (or is he?) and lead writer James Hamilton as various other characters, from a mall elf to yet another shady organisation boss. Joining them onstage is musician Ben Champion, who takes the opportunity to hijack the show to whine about his ex-girlfriend as well.

Hamilton’s writing seems disjoint and only thematically linked at first, but as the show goes on, the threads really begin to come together and forms a well-planned riot of a show, consistently subverting itself with new reveals and plot twists. As a staff writer on surreal Cartoon Network show The Amazing World of Gumball, Hamilton’s writing starts to make sense when you see the whole thing not as a straightforward play but a constant mining of the strangest of coincidences and the brazen antics his characters get up to. Harnessing the power of rhyming and witty wordplay along with outrageous commitment to characters and plot elements, from a Santa who wields ultra-violent toys to hobos with a penchant for reading the backs of DVD boxes, The Grot In The Grotto is laugh a minute madness, with silly songs thrown in for good measure. It helps considerably that the audience was very willing to buy into the storyline, and their energy only furthered the success of the piece.

The Grot In The Grotto is a great opportunity for Casual Violence to add the concept of live elements to their sketch comedy, and they succeeded at playing off the audience and bringing their brand of humour to new ridiculous heights. Although it may seem odd to produce a Christmas show in the middle of February, there’s always space for a little holiday cheer any time of year, although this may very well shift that into holiday fear. Casual Violence is absolutely committed to their cause of producing top notch sketch comedy, and this one is another success to add to their growing roster, making them a definite group to watch out for.

The Grot In The Grotto plays at Brick Hall (The Vaults) till 25 Feb. Tickets available here. Keep up with Casual Violence on their website and follow them on Twitter @CasualViolence

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