Tag Archives: Chris Jack

Off the Grid


Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 27th March, 2019


Malorie Blackman’s seminal YA novel puts a spin on Romeo and Juliet, setting the love story in a parallel world that is rife with segregation and discrimination.  Now it comes to the stage in this pacey new adaptation by Sabrina Mahfouz.  Simon Kenny’s set has movable flats that bear the 3×3 grid of the time-honoured game, and incorporates elements of Joshua Drualus Pharo’s lighting design, to create a stylish, non-naturalistic backing for the action.  For all its stylisation, this is a world we recognise all too well…

Society is split into Noughts and Crosses, the former being the underclass, the oppressed white race, with the latter holding all the power, the wealth, and even the orange juice.  Young Callum (from Nought family the Macgregors) and Persephone (Sephy) Hadley grow up together, but theirs is an unconventional friendship, going against cultural prejudices on both sides of the divide.  Sephy’s dad is Home Secretary, striving to placate an increasingly unruly and pro-active population, while of course maintaining the status quo.  The measures he takes are far from enough to appease the militant Noughts, and it’s not long before a terrorist act takes place.

As the central young couple, Heather Agyepong is a spirited and principled Sephy, with an equally appealing Billy Harris as Callum.  They are supported by a strong cast of half a dozen, including Lisa Howard – heartrending as Callum’s mum, Doreene Blackstock as Sephy’s frazzled and alcoholic mum, Daniel Copeland as Callum’s dad, who becomes radicalised by his other son Jude (a strong Jack Condon).  Kimisha Lewis impresses as Sephy’s prejudiced older sister Minerva, while Chris Jack’s Kamal, Sephy’s politician dad, convinces totally.

Director Esther Richardson keeps a naturalistic tone among the spots of narration, and uses expressionistic movements to reveal the characters’ inner lives as well as to stage difficult-to-stage moments (like a bomb going off).  The music and sound design of Arun Ghosh and Xana add to the disquiet and sense of impending doom.  It all adds up to a thoroughly gripping piece of theatre, excellently and compellingly staged.

It’s a provocative piece.  By flipping the races, Malorie Blackman makes us face the dystopian society in which we continue to live.  Even minor details are telling, like when a Nought complains that sticking plasters are not available in their skin tone.

This thought-provoking, tragic drama covers a lot of ground, bringing to the fore issues that have woefully become more urgent in recent times.

Highly recommended.

Heather Agyepong as Sephy and Billy Harris as Callum - Noughts and Crosses - Photo by Robert Day - ASC_3791

Heather Agyepong (Sephy) and Billy Harris (Callum) Photo: Robert Day


Tall Stories

Curve, Leicester, Friday 1st June, 2012

There are some people who think Gulliver’s Travels is a kids’ story. These people hardly ever see beyond the surface – or past the chapters concerning the Lilliputians. Happily, I am able to report that this Dragon Breath Theatre production covers the whole story and, while child friendly, deals with the grown-up issues and emotions contained within Swift’s story, which first appeared in 1726. In particular I was pleased to see the political satire intact and updated: the witty –and rhyming- script counterpoints Jove with the ‘almighty Gove’ as, in its most absurdist episode, on the flying island, the closed thinking of educational policy is exposed as ridiculous.

Each of Lemuel Gulliver’s adventures presents technical challenges. How will they stage Lilliput? The Giants? The Houyhnhnms? Director Adel Al-Salloum rises to each challenge and deals with them with inventive and charming solutions. The tiny Lilliputians reminded me of the Tombliboos on In The Night Garden and the Houyhnhnms are horse heads on flexible rods, beautiful and graceful. The changes in scale are handled superbly.

The ensemble of performers transform the simple shipdeck setting into spaces on which the audience can project imagined pictures conjured by Peter Rumney’s evocative and funny script. Lemuel Gulliver (Chris Jack) is emotionally and mentally disturbed – it’s quite harrowing to see him in this state as the play begins. Daughter Molly (Jennifer Welwright) urges him to speak and so he narrates to her (and to us) his tales of wonders. Chris Jack is an appealing Gulliver, the voice of reason in each mad land he visits. He learns lots about human nature and society – most of it negative. It’s not a pretty picture. The flying island’s policy of bombing people who disagree into submission is particularly disturbing and idiotic. Gulliver is stunned – he would pitch a fit if he knew that the world today, as run by humans, hasn’t changed at all since Swift’s day. As a foreigner in the land of the giants, Gulliver, a trained surgeon and educated man, is reduced to dancing on tabletops as a novelty act and regarded as sub-human. I’m sure many immigrant workers today would recognise this beastly treatment. Oh, technology has improved and fashion has got worse, but basically people and politics are still the same.

The glimmer of hope for a better world comes in the Land of the Houyhnhnms, where horses rule over brutish humans (Swift gave us the word “Yahoo”). Here, conflict is disdained rather than sought. Gulliver longs to go back, despite the Houyhnhnms insistence that he is worse than Yahoo, because he can think and feel and yet is still bellicose and full of anger. The Houyhnhnms suggest we can rise above our baser instincts and aspire to Utopia. We are still a long way off, folks.

Chris Jack is an appealing Gulliver, emanating warmth and narrating with a rich, evocative voice. Also impressive are Jim Findley and Becky Matter in a variety of roles, and Jennifer Welwright is touching as Molly and the giantess Glumdalclitch. Duncan Chave’s atmospheric music is delightfully performed by Yvonna Magda, and Nettie Scriven’s design is elegant and stylish. The costumes are beautiful, adding to the conjuring of Gulliver’s bygone era but above all, this absorbing and entertaining production reminds us of the state of our world today. We must not let the Yahoos and the mental midgets continue to have their way.