[Review] VAULT Festival 2017: Men With Issues (1/3/17)

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In the FINAL week of the 2017 VAULT Festival, we caught three one man shows, all of which coincidentally revolved around men with, well, issues (but then again who doesn’t?) – a gambling addict who loses his job in All of Me, a man who struggles to form a human relationship in Maisie Says She Loves Me, and a man who grew up with racism around him, but still turned out pretty great in Labels.

All of Me by Anything Other Theatre Company

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All of Me is the debut play by Anything Other, and is an unexpectedly short piece that deals with holes in people’s lives. Specifically, it’s a big hole in ex-travel agent Gareth (Jack Wilkinson), who loses his job over accessing gambling websites while at work. Gareth lives in the wake of his father’s death, leaving behind some inheritance money for the family. Inspired by his father, who taught him everything he knows about gambling and acted as a hero figure while he was alive, Gareth uses the money to bet and win his way to a living, assuring himself and the audience that he’s always in control, with the risk kept to a bare minimum, a coping mechanism for dealing with his father’s passing.

As we all know with gambling, once the streak comes, it doesn’t stop until you’ve lost it all. Gareth goes at it for hours at a time, be it online or the now familiar figures of the bookies at the local betting shops, carefully avoiding running into his mother in the mornings. It’s not that he’s terrible at his previous job; he was great at it, knowing just how to work the customer, and answering to his boss’ beck and call, even scoring employee of the month. Gambling for Gareth, seems to be a way to fill a void in his life, made only worse after he’s fired with nothing to do as the days pass, a lonely existence with approximately 0 friends.

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Nicola Ralph’s set design isn’t necessarily the most relevant, but it’s certainly one of the most interesting ones we’ve seen in a while. The stage is set-up with cardboard boxes stacked up all around, and there’s a kind of delight in watching Gareth go around opening them and revealing their contents, in a kind of twisted Deal or No Deal. From a complete afternoon tea to a helium balloon that bobs out to a sheet of paper Wilkinson uses to illustrate and caricature the bookies he’s come to recognize, there’s an entire world hidden in these boxes that director Liz Bacon has directed Wilkinson to reveal perfectly, masterfully maintaining the element of surprise as new, unexpected objects are brought out one by one.
Eventually though, the high of the gamble wears off when the winning streak ends, things can only turn sour for Gareth. All of Me launches into a sudden explosion of a twist ending that will leave you reeling. It’s outrageous and shocking, and a prime opportunity to Wilkinson to show off his brilliant performance as a desperate man with nothing left to lose. All of Me never quite fully sinks its teeth into the emotional aspects of gambling, whether it’s the pure joy and adrenaline rush of the winning streak or the mind numbing come down that comes after, but Martin Brett’s script does paint a familiar picture of a person you may very well know in real life, hooked and slowly being reeled in to the end of his line, and is a gentle reminder that there are much better ways to cope with grief and loneliness in one’s life that won’t leave you empty handed.
Note: The man in the pictures is not Jack Wilkinson


All of Me plays at the Studio (The Vaults) till 5 March. Tickets available here. Keep up with them on Twitter @anythingother

Maisie Says She Loves Me by Aula & Osborne Theatredavid-aula-img_0695edit

Maisie Says She Loves Me has an innocent enough title. From its synopsis about a man who has difficulties expressing himself, it’s easy to assume that Maisie is a simple love story with a happy ending. But of course, as with most fringe type shows, there’s a twist.
Sheldon (David Aula, who also directs) is currently dating Maisie. Six months into their relationship, she declares that she’d want to have his children. Most people would turn tail and run, but Sheldon is different, and is in fact, delighted. Sheldon’s always wanted a big family, peals of laughter ringing out in the house, in contrast to his quieter childhood spent avoiding making a single sound with his sister. Sheldon then reveals that he’s a bit of an oddball – a teetotaler who stopped going to the pub with his colleagues, grown distant from his sister, and seems unable to forge a real human relationship in his life, from time to time looking at the empty space beside him on the couch as he watches TV.
Maisie then, is a kind of life buoy for him in his sea of solitude, almost a last chance for him to have a shot at happiness, where a girl with as nice a smile as Maisie does, a girl who’s understanding and wants the best for him, if he can’t make this work, perhaps he’ll never find happiness. “Maisie Says She Loves Me”, Sheldon keeps repeating, almost like a mantra that this relationship is working, but from the very start, it becomes painfully obvious that there are deep problems with it. Sheldon possesses a violent temper and lashes out at Maisie once, twice, thrice, smoothing it over with apologies and wine each time, convinced that it’s enough to patch things up. But Sheldon is a stubborn man, obsessively particular about the way his house is organized, suspicious of the way Maisie looks at him from time to time, afraid to ever appear weak or taken for a fool. As he reveals more and more of his troubled childhood, it becomes clear that this relationship is doomed, even when his presumed indigestion gives way to what he thinks is true love for her, and there’s an audible sigh in unison at how this is something that just can’t be.
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Jimmy Osborne’s script possesses multiple unexpectedly moving metaphors, arresting in their imagery, such as describing Sheldon attempting to feel love like a moth flying repeatedly into a window pane, and with a less capable actor than David Aula, probably wouldn’t work as well. But Aula has a very commanding presence, a deep voice that echoes around the theatre, and brings a sincerity to Osborne’s script that resonates through our very souls. Sheldon’s story is painfully realistic, the people we are today a result of our upbringing, and I ached with sympathy as Sheldon recounted his memory of fishing with his father, an affair that launches him to an emotional high point before it comes crashing down in a violent twist. Aula’s direction also features a high level of audience interaction, where he identifies various audience members to play people in Sheldon’s life, including Maisie herself, and despite some apprehension at first, Aula’s easygoing personality quickly immerses audiences into his world, and they become more than willing participants.

Maisie Says She Loves Me is a surprisingly sobering, realistic look at one man’s attempt to be normal and happy despite a difficult childhood, and how being in a serious relationship can bring out the very best and worst in people. David Aula’s performance nimbly navigates the complexities of Sheldon’s character, and easily endears him to us while creating a deep sense of sympathy for him, a wish that things might have turned out better, and to eventually find someone to share his life with. Come to this performance, get in touch with your emotions, and sit closer to the front; who knows, you might even score a free drink!

Maisie Says She Loves Me plays at the Network Theatre till 5 March. Tickets available here. You can keep up with Aula & Osborne on their website and follow them on Twitter @aula_osborne

Labels by Worklight Theatre

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If you’ve ever been a minority, then Labels will speak volumes to you. Joe Sellman-Leava takes his award-winning show to the VAULT Festival and it’s easy to see why it’s such a success.

Growing up as the child of an Ugandan Indian father and a British mother in a small village in Devon, Joe used to be stumped by the question “Where are you from from?” In his show, Joe recounts his life being judged based on the colour of his skin, along with anecdotes from his family and living in the UK. The stories range from funny – his mother’s story about his brother Ross’ name origin, to the painfully realistic – being responded to in a mock Indian accent, a victim of racist comments on a Tinder conversation. Along the way, Joe also shows off his great character work when he impersonates and quotes various political figures who’ve spoken out against migrants and refugees, from journalist Katie Hopkins’ derogatory article in The Sun to Nigel Farage’s disparaging remarks, to even President Donald Trump, for obvious reasons.

Labels is very much a personal show, and can’t possibly be told by any other person apart from Joe. But thankfully, Joe is an amazing storyteller, and has plenty of great stories to tell. When recounting his family’s origins, he dons a patchwork blazer, telling an almost fairytale like account of his father’s move to England, and the refugees that followed not long after under Idi Amin’s racist policies. He recounts historian David Starkey’s outrageous claim that ‘the whites have become black’ in the wake of the UK riots in 2011. Amidst the political and global, he brings it down to very personal, relatable levels as well, unafraid to bare his soul and questioning from his heart the point when children change their words from play to attacks when a ten year old boy insults him on the street, and recalls neighbors wondering what his mother eats, being married to an Indian and having a dislike of curry.

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Among the segments, there’s a moment where Joe, in an angry rant, remembers his own childhood being bullied in class and being called names, recalls the reasons of his father changed their family name to a less obviously Indian one. This is a history of microaggressions, discrimination and outright insults, and in our increasingly PC world, it’s surprising so many of these issues still exist. The people who say that the world is too PC are simply masking their own racism. But Joe is balanced in his piece as well, admitting that he too issues labels to people, judging them on their intellect, their tone and more, before literally eating his words, a label that reads ‘Hypocrite’, while ironically and jokingly explains his dislike of people who chew loudly and talk with their mouth full.
Fringe pieces have a tendency towards either the political or the personal, and it’s not often that one manages to masterfully balance the two out. But Labels has done just that, and Joe’s style of performance is gripping from start to end, always politically relevant yet told from a deeply personal point of view, from a person who’s experienced all of this first hand. One is easily drawn right into his stories, which told from the heart, have just the right mix of realism, humour and oomph to really stick with you. Labels is an important piece of theatre that more people should see, and to top it all off, is a brilliant piece of theatre that addresses some of the most pertinent issues in the 2010s. Come to Labels, free up your mind and leave with your eyes opened a little wider than when you came in.

Labels plays at the Cage (The Vaults) till 5 March. Tickets available here. You can keep up with Worklight Theatre on their website and follow them on Twitter @worklight_uk and @JoeSellmanLeava. Labels will also go on tour in the UK following the VAULT Festival, dates available here

Note: Labels was previously reviewed by us by a different reviewer here for the 2017 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival.

Stay tuned for part 2 and our FINAL coverage for the 2017 VAULT Festival coming out tomorrow, and remember to catch all these shows and more till Sunday, 5 March!

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