'remarkable for its tender compassion'- Michael Billington, The Guardian
Chemistry, Finborough Theatre
Close-Up Culture 1/11/19
CHEMISTRY is a roller coaster of a play that will tug at your emotions. Tears may flow. It’s both beautiful and poignant. There is love and loathing in equal doses, underpinned by some mighty fine acting and clever, witty writing from the pen of Jacob Marx Rice. The play, acted out within a square defined by a metal ring that intermittently lights up, pits Steph (Caoimhe Farren) against Jamie (James Mear). They meet at a psychiatrist’s office. Steph, who works in a bar, is a chronic depressive although you wouldn’t necessarily know to begin with by her chirpy demeanour. She is bubbly, flirty and fun, but demons lurk within. Jamie, a political analyst specialising in the Middle East, is more uptight, intense and a newbie to the world of psychiatry – unlike Steph who has flirted with suicide since the age of 10. Manic meets depressive. A recipe for disaster or hope?
To begin with, Jamie is cautious, but love soon blossoms. It’s beautiful to watch – and brilliantly acted. All smiles, all tenderness, and a magic When Harry Met Sally moment (move over Meg Ryan, Caoimhe Farren has arrived). Yet, as Jamie ‘recovers’ – weans himself off chemicals – and enjoys success at work, Steph slopes into an awful depression. It’s difficult to watch as Steph lies comatose waiting for the world to collapse on top of her. The end is a poignant one (pack a handkerchief or three). Confirmation that depression and mania are life sentences – permanent, not intermittent. There is no escape.
The play, acted out in a haunting mist, is imaginatively directed by Alex Howarth. It’s claustrophobic and intense – and the metal square gives the verbal sparring of Steph and Jamie a confined boxing match feel. The music, that pulls at the heartstrings, adds to the emotional overload, while the actors often use microphones to put their arguments across (a clever touch from Howarth).
Yet the real stars of Chemistry are Farren and Mear who have a genuine on-stage chemistry. Both are outstanding. The diminutive Farren is superb in transforming the ebullient Steph into a static Steph, trapped by her illness. Mear exudes love and tenderness. Kindness should be his middle name.
Chemistry is a mighty fine piece of writing (full of wit despite the rather grim subject matter) that Howarth, Farren and Mear have done justice to. A triumph.
UK Theatre Web 3/11/19
From the moment I walked in, to a smoke filled venue, I thought "this could be quality..." It did not disappoint. As my eyes adjusted, I took in the steel frame around the stage with a tangle of wires and lights underneath: a neural web. The set, sound and lighting are almost a third character in this immaculate production.
Chemistry considers mental health and the challenge when a manic and a depressive fall in love. It covers both the chemistry of the brain and the chemistry of the couple in striking scenes. I am always wary when actors use microphones in a small theatre, but here there is a point. When the characters speak their thoughts, they use the mics – another visual image of the shape of a nerve cell, with the lead trailing down like an axon into the tangle surrounding the stage. Caoimhe Farren plays Steph, who is released from her depressive tendency by her growing relationship with manic Jamie (James Mear). They make a delightful, tender odd-couple, testing the bounds of their thoughts and fears as their love grows. Neither actor holds back, there are very subtle, sexy scenes as they reveal more about themselves and embrace the healing relationship. Of course, we should not expect a happy ending…
Alex Howarth has designed and directed a wonderfully sensitive, knowing, adult production. Every detail has purpose. The actors build credible individual characters and entice the audience into their romance and despair. It is thought-provoking and devastating as well as particularly beautiful. This is the best production I have seen all year.
We Live By the Sea
The New York Times 19/4/18
Young Katy can summon a huge band at the tip of her fingers: mandolin, piano, strings, horns — they all join in, one after the other, and make a catchy racket. And yet there are only two musicians by her side, deftly triggering loops and samples. That is one of the many beauties of “We Live by the Sea”: It creates an expansive world out of seemingly little.
Devised by the London-based company Patch of Blue, this small gem of a play introduces us to an unconventional, loving family consisting of two teenage sisters and (maybe) a dog in a beach town. At just 18, Hannah (Alexandra Simonet) has had to drop out of school to look after 15-year-old Katy (Alexandra Brain), who is on the autism spectrum. We learn their mother decamped after learning of the diagnosis, and dad died a year earlier. Now it’s just the girls and Katy’s imaginary emotional-support best friend, Paul Williams (Lizzie Grace), a “Jack Russell slash St. Bernard.” Katy and Paul Williams are such an indivisible unit, they say “we” instead of “I” and communicate in their own language.
The show (a hit at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and now at 59E59 Theaters after a weeklong run at SoHo Playhouse in 2016) toggles between two perspectives. Sometimes we see the world through Katy, and sometimes we get an outsider look at the sisters via their new neighbor, Ryan (Tom Coliandris), a gentle 18-year-old who just moved from London. As with all of the key background details, the reason is organically revealed over the course of the show.
The tricky part, of course, is to let us share the way Katy experiences life, and Ms. Brain is crucial here. Her warmly empathetic performance never feels “acty,” even when Katy freaks out and lets out shrieks that are equal parts bloodcurdling and heartbreaking. (The other cast members are just as good in relatively more straightforward roles.)
The director, Alex Howarth, does not have the means of the Broadway hit “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” about the sleuthing adventures of an autistic boy. But he did come up with a tight, imaginative staging, doing wonders, for instance, with simple projections of home-movie-like footage on a triangular sail. (Will Monks did the video design.) The Mason Brothers’ score, performed live by Josh Flowers and Julianna Zachariou, also helps us understand Katy’s rapidly changing moods — her meltdowns are accompanied by a screechy cacophony, for instance.
“We Live by the Sea” is concerned with how these extraordinary circumstances can be so ordinary: how the calm, weary Hannah and Katy, who is simultaneously very literal and very imaginative, go on about their routine-driven life, and how Ryan shakes them up.
Throughout, the company maintains a sure sense of tone, playful and grave at the same time, and pulls off a cathartic ending that’s neither cloying nor cheesy — though be warned that it is a five-hankie tear-jerker that may leave you a sobbing mess just as the house lights come back on.
The Guardian 9/3/17
Top 6 Shows To See at Adelaide Festival
In Adelaide to cover the festival proper, I was sent to this small production by the glowing review of a critic friend: “This is exactly what a fringe festival show should be.” As you enter the tent, 15-year-old Katy (Alex Brain) asks if she could please tap your shoes. For Katy – who lives with her sister Hannah (Alex Simonet) and her imaginary dog Paul Williams (Lizzie Grace) – the shoe-tapping is a way of greeting people and the beginning of your hour-long journey into the world of autism: not only what it’s like to live with, but what it’s like to fall in love with.
Young theatre company Patch of Blue worked with the National Autistic Society for this work, which is by turns playful, funny and deeply moving. Through a live score and innovative set-pieces, they build whole worlds by the sea where the two teenagers live alone after the death of their father, before a new boy Ryan (Tom Coliandris) moves to town. The show had sellout seasons in Edinburgh, New York and London – but there are remarkably still tickets available for the Adelaide run. Bring tissues.
The British Theatre Guide 28/08/16
We Live by the Sea is Katie’s story: a story about her imaginary dog Paul Williams, her big sister and her new best friend Ryan. It documents her summer holiday adventures and her big presentation to her classmates when she returns to school. It's feelgood and funny, honest and above all completely believable.
Katie doesn't like to be touched, she doesn't like too much noise, she likes to stick to her routine and takes things literally. Katie has autism but that doesn't stop her sharing her story, it spurs her on.
Alex Brain’s performance in the central role is mesmerising as she balances humour and frustration, breaking the fourth wall to chat to the audience whilst committing completely to the scenes within her story.
She is ably supported by Alexandra Simonet, Lizzie Grace and Lloyd Bagley who skilfully represent her important relationships. Simonet’s quiet fear and pride underscores Brain’s exuberance and her moments of vulnerability are particularly moving. It would, however, have been pleasing to know a little more of Ryan's backstory.
The inclusion of live music adds to the rising and falling emotions and swells the noise in Katie’s head. When she describes her "big wave", the stage is awash with music, emotion and discrete but powerful projections.
Although the Attic is a cramped performance space, this makes the performance feel all the more special as it unfolds with the audience almost as part of the action.
We Live by the Sea is an outstanding piece of theatre with a big heart and carefully honed performances. I cried freely throughout as did the rest of the audience. It's rare for theatre to connect in such a way and Patch of Blue has created something very raw and beautiful.
A Younger Theatre 24/08/16
It felt like the softest of hands had reached out, intertwined its fingers with mine, and squeezed as if to say: we get it.
Patch of Blue theatre, alongside the National Autistic Society, are taking the path less-trodden. Using the sensory potential of theatre, a platform is given to girls with autism in this spine-tingling tale of finding connection where you least expect it.
As a sister to an autistic brother, I hold my breath when a yellow-coated girl and canine-like companion bounce into the queuing crowd to ask if they can tap my shoes. Then within the intimacy of the attic, taking in the projected seaside backdrops, multi-coloured lights, and euphorically soaring live music, this frozen breath seeps out in relief. They’d got it right.
We Live by the Sea is Katy’s story. Directed by Alex Howarth, this collectively devised production gives an innovative glimpse into Katy’s obsessive routines, literalism, and love for the colour purple as she navigates the overwhelming world around her, told through her blossoming friendship with a boy named Ryan.
The modestly masterful storytelling is warmly delivered by intelligent performances. Beating loudly at its heart, Alex Brain – playing Katy – is breath-taking. It is rare to see such an enchanting example of autism depicted so sensitively.
Orbiting around Katy, each character dips a toe in her world – providing a complete and honest picture of her life. We even hear the thoughts of Paul Williams, Katy’s best friend and imaginary dog, ingeniously brought to life by Lizzie Grace. This loyal partnership makes the joy which Katy finds in the kindness of Ryan – played by the charming Lloyd Bagley – even more endearing. With a smile that could heal a thousand hearts, he breaks down Katy’s barriers, fascinated by her remarkable honesty which mends his fractured, though brushed-over, backstory.
Providing the shade to Katy’s light is her sister, Hannah. Though worn from the difficulties of Katy’s condition, and left parentless by the seaside, Hannah exhibits an inspirational endurance in fighting for her sister’s cause. Alex Simonet subtly executes this complexity, moving with the uncertainty of both their futures.
The success of this production lies in spotting the difficult experience of autism echoing through the creases of its comforting fingers. Sea-deep and honestly-interpreted research renders We Live by the Sea an informative and special immersion into the lives of those shaped by autism.
Patch of Blue have created an uplifting wave, leaving behind beaming smiles, streaming tears, and a poignant message of the connections we can make when we use a ‘different kind of thinking’. This is my Fringe gem, a treasure that I will bury in the burning cockles of my heart.
Adelaide Theatre Guide (Australia) 17/02/17
Every once in a while a piece of theatre comes along which makes me remember why I have always loved the power of theatre and how beautiful it is when a story is so well crafted and presented that it can completely envelop an audience and mesmerise with its emotive message. “We Live by Sea” does just that. At the Edinburgh Festival it was nominated for a Fringe First and sold out the complete run. Little wonder. The play deals with the difficult subject of autism and takes us inside the world of a beautiful autistic girl, Katy; an imaginary dog, Paul Williams; Hannah, her sister and carer; and Ryan, a newcomer to the seaside town who has his own demons to deal with. This is a sensitively written play about the often misunderstood mind of an autistic person and it is mesmerising. “We Live by the Sea” is an outstanding piece of theatre, engaging, inventive, raw and truly beautiful. The audience is taken on a journey of understanding and we are invited to enter the world of Katy. Her performance is heart-wrenching and sincere, highlighting the importance of ‘having someone in your corner’ because when you do, you can solve any problem. ‘Even the biggest dragons can be slain if you have someone with you.’The extremely talented musicians play an integral role in the unfolding of the story as does the sea and the repeated references to it. I urge anyone who loves theatre to see this production as it reinforces the role this art form can play in developing understanding of anything we find hard to accept, often because of lack of exposure and awareness. Amazing, wonderful, a definite must-see.
David Pollock- The Scotsman 24/08/16
"Even the biggest dragons can be slain if you have someone fighting with you." It's a twee motto, but it perfectly encapsulates this wonderful play about the power of human reliance upon one another by young company Patch of Blue. Developed in association with the National Autistic Society and Greenwich Theatre, it tells of a teenager called Katy whose autism causes her to live with one foot in the real world and one in a reality of her own devising. For her, life is creating fairy stories and best friendship with her imaginary pet dog Paul Williams, who appears to manifest as a young woman her own age.
The only person left to care for Katy is her sister Hannah. Into their world comes Ryan, a teenage vlogger with a sense of youthful altruism and a recent tragedy of his own which he needs to find a way through. His presence is reassuring for both young women, but confusing as well; for Hannah, who mistakes her need for company and support with a desire for a relationship, and for the innocent Katy, who gives the sense she might easily be broken if disappointed.
One of the most refreshing points about the piece is that it searches for something more than simple cliche; refusing to allow Hannah to resent Katy, or to let Ryan be a selfish male other rather than someone genuinely caring. There is humour in Katy's relationship with Paul, sadness in her recollections of running the gauntlet of bullying at school, and a sense of raw ingenuity to the live score, composed by Wovoka Gentle. It's a refreshingly strong piece of work for such a young company, and Katy's eventual public revelation of her own being has been built with such skill by director Alex Howarth that the audience gladly fills in the applause of her classmates.
Natasha Tripney- The Stage 26/08/16
Katy likes to touch people’s shoes. She likes the sea. She does not like crowds or loud noises. She does not like anyone to touch her.
Produced in conjunction with the National Autistic Society, We Live by the Sea is an inventive and well-judged piece that invites its audience to experience the world through the eyes of a 15-year-old autistic girl.
Following the death of their dad, Katy lives with her sister in a small coastal town. Katy’s best friend is an imaginary dog called Paul Williams, who is played by Lizzie Grace. Paul helps Katy cope with the world, and his presence allows us to better understand Katy’s thought processes – this is most potent in a scene in which Katy and her sister are in the car. Katy becomes increasingly upset, and, while we understand the source of her distress, we also see how exasperating, and at times dangerous, her behaviour can be to those around her.
It feels like everything has been very carefully considered. Alex Howarth’s production is so light and tight that you can forgive it the occasional sidestep into fairy-lit whimsy. Katy remains Katy throughout, and the production is always clear about that – there are no easy answers or magic cures. The standard of performance is high all-round, but Alex Brain’s performance as Katy is incredible, sustained, rich and funny, her timing exact. Informative without being worthy, this a really appealing piece. Lovely stuff.
The Memory Show, Drayton Arms Theatre
London Theatre 1
★ ★ ★ ★★
Neither character is particularly endearing, at least at face value, but this raw, no-holds-barred production leads the audience to empathise with both. In the old adage, the devil is in the detail, and minor points about, for instance, what exactly constitutes apple juice, plus an entire song sung whilst Daughter is cleaning the toilet, lend an aura of realism and authenticity to this show.
In a programme note, both composer Zach Redler and lyricist Sara Cooper write of their own experiences with family members who were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and it’s clear that these personal encounters have helped to make the show as compelling as it is. What surprised me was how deliberately jarring tunes paradoxically utterly failed to irritate. As Mother stumbles on her words, I was almost willing her to get it right; when she reached a stage where she was no longer able to, it was, I must admit, distressing – and, looking at it from a ‘How good was the acting?’ perspective, sublime.
The lighting is effective, and with some sparing use of projections. Strictly speaking they were not crucial because the script is more than sufficient at scene setting and driving the plot forward in itself, but I found the projections helpful nonetheless, at least partly reflecting what Mother does not remember anymore. While the whole show is beautifully multi-layered, it has one of the slowest and the quietest endings to a musical I’ve come across over the years – and one of the best.
It’s quite rare for me to get completely engrossed in a show, and this was one of those productions that I didn’t want to end. I had my doubts about whether a two-hander musical about dementia would work well. This is a triumph. Gripping and compulsive viewing, I have no hesitation in recommending it. At least I think so: The Memory Show has left such an impact, it now has me questioning my own brainpower. As Mother became ever-increasingly dependent on Daughter, I was (hopefully correctly) reminded of a line from Funny Girl The Musical: “People who need people / Are the luckiest people in the world.”
Back to Blackbrick
★ ★ ★ ★
Dementia, ageing and care seem to be emerging as big themes among this year’s Fringe theatre offerings. And Patch of Blue’s touching Back to Blackbrick, based on the novel by Sarah Moore Fitzgerald, puts a magical spin on the issues, weaving together a boy sorrowfully charting his grandfather’s inexorable mental decline with a time-travelling love story.
It requires a pretty big suspension of disbelief at points, but by the end it’s a truly poignant reflection on memory, family and fate, brought vividly alive in a big, warm hug of a show. It has the same crisp, incisive direction (here from Alex Howarth) that Patch of Blue have showed in a string of previous Fringe successes, and a fine, multi-part-playing cast: Alex Brain is impressively wide-eyed as the well-meaning central character Cosmo, and Grahame Edwards gratifyingly understated as his increasingly confused grandfather.
Live music from an ever-active duo is subtle and supportive, and there’s an inventive takeaway item for after the show has finished.
[title of show]
★ ★ ★ ★
It’s been a long time coming but finally the UK gets its first professional production of [title of show] courtesy of Patch of Blue Theatre who wowed audiences last year with their sharp production of The 25th Annual County Putnam Spelling Bee – which is now due to tour the UK.
[title of show] follows Hunter and Jeff as they write a musical based on their own lives within three weeks to enter into the New York New Musical Festival, what follows is a witty, often self-parodying, laugh a minute musical, that not only boasts a strong cast but also clean and crisp direction.
Alex Howarth rings out every ounce of humour in the show, which not only lampoons the genre itself but many of the biggest musicals currently gracing our theatres, he keeps things very simple, no expensive scenery, just attention to detail and here it really shines.
The cast are just as sharp, Carly Stenson fresh from her run as Princess Fiona in Shrek, gives a strong performance as dead pan Susan, while Ricky Johnston (Hunter) and Robbie Towns (Jeff) have a great on stage chemistry and deliver some knock out vocals too, but it is Jamie Lee Pike, who shines head and shoulders above her cast members, pulling in a show stopping portrayal of Heidi.
If one is to find fault with the show, its more to do with the final ten minutes of the source material which starts to loose its way, and never really wraps everything up in a satisfactory way.
It is great to see [title of show] finally get a production that it deserves in the UK… The only question is what will Patch of Blue Theatre give us next year?