'remarkable for its tender compassion'- Michael Billington, The Guardian
In rehearsal for Back to Blackbrick © scarab pictures
Cassie and the Lights, Vault and Adelaide Festivals
Creative Reviews UK, 3/2/2020
Cassie, Tin and Kit are three sisters fending for themselves after the disappearance of their mother, though the circumstances are surrounded in mystery early on for us as an audience. With the use of fairy lights, an old school projector, and a loop pedal amongst many other elements, Patch of Blue enchant us on a journey of sisterhood, bravery, and raw emotion that makes you want to hold on tight to those who we care about the most.
Alex Brain embodies 17 year old Cassie, a strong minded young adult whose main instinct is to step toward as the mother figure to her younger siblings, who at the best of times are still full of imagination and wonders that we all have inhabited at some stage as children. Tin and Kit are the two sisters in question, portrayed with impeccable vulnerability and childlike mannerisms from Michaela Murphy and Emily McGlynn respectfully, and as a trio each showcase their emotions to an exceptional level of dignity and realism, whether that's Murphy's innocence of dancing with Jake at the upcoming school disco, McGlynn's breakdown on wanting her mum to return following a 'Play within a Play' segment of the production, or Brain's closing deceleration speech where Cassie urges to be the soul guardian in her sisters. Rachel Sampley's lighting and video design captures some staggering imagery throughout.
Written, Directed and Designed by Alex Howarth, what he has managed to achieve is something quite extraordinary, leaving sniffles and tissues being produced all around come the rather uncertain future for the trio in a striking image at the final moment. Through his storytelling, Howarth allows the characters to interact with us through 'Tin Talks' and regular 'under the breath' moments from Alex Brain, which are unexpected but makes us roar with laughter. The direction flows so naturally from one moment to the next that all three performers on stage are clearly having the time of their lives with each other, even when they are squabbling when the loop pedal messes up, until having genuine delight when something seems to go perfectly right.
Imogen Mason and Phoebe Coco make up the final two company members on stage as the musicians in the background, who also make little cameo appearances throughout as small characters. Music is often the make or break of any production as it can sometimes come off unhinged and break away from the nature of the show, but here Mason and Coco play a variety of instruments that are cohesive with each other and drift perfectly into the action on stage; a rendition of Maisie Peters 'Place We Were Made' is even more poignant in the closing moments when the lyrics in question are mirrored with the story that we have been watching for the past hour, where one minute we are grinning from ear to ear to then suddenly feeling cold and small in feeling helpless to what's going on around us.
Overall, Cassie and the Lights is a beautiful tale of three sisters who care about nothing else in the entire universe than to be with, and look after each other. Though it's come to a close at Vault Festival for 2020, I cannot foresee this being the end of such a poetic production with a sensational company of cast and musicians.
Adelaide Theatre Guide 23/2/2020
Theatre, at its very best, has the capacity to crawl inside your bones, your soul, your heart, and stir something deep inside. A play has the ability to be the ultimate tool for empathy, allowing you to understand a perspective and experience very different from your own. With nuanced writing and complex performances, the intimacy and immediacy of the form allows a powerful emotional connection with the audience.
“Cassie and the Lights”, the latest production from the UK’s Patch of Blue, is play that harnesses this power to tell the story of three sisters—sixteen year old Cassie, ten year old Tin, and seven year old Kit—whose notion of family is thrown into disarray when their mother disappears. Using music, projection, audio recordings, audience interaction and meta-commentary, “Cassie and the Lights” is a remarkable exploration of the resilience and fragility of childhood.
The three performers, Alex Brain, Michaela Murphy, and Emily McGlynn, greet the audience as they enter, chatting and directing them to their seats. The atmosphere is informal and intimate, warm and inviting. The stage is scattered with suitcases. What follows over the next hour are a series of vignettes that depict the experience of these three girls after they’re taken into a foster home. Other characters are portrayed merely as unseen voices—the uncontrollable external forces in their lives—and music and projection is also used to great effect throughout.
The heart of the performance, though, is the interaction between the three girls. Their dialogue is natural, their performances authentic, and we go with them from the joys of eating ice-cream and preparing for a Christmas disco, to the pain and confusion of their abandonment. All three actors are superb, playing their roles with great sensitivity for the complex inner worlds of young people, and their kinship is strikingly believable. The standout is Alex Brain as Cassie, the eldest of the three who has taken on the burden of responsibility for her small and broken family, even before their mother’s disappearance. Brain is utterly captivating; all of Cassie’s turmoil is portrayed with delicacy, heart and honesty. It’s a privilege to watch her at work.
“Cassie and the Lights” is based on real-life events and interviews with children in care, and it’s clear that the utmost respect has been taken to communicate these experiences without feeling exploitative. Director, writer and designer Alex Howarth has created something truly extraordinary with this piece of theatre. It is sad and it is fun. It is delicately simple, and wrenchingly complex. It is unmissable.
This Is Radelaide, 25/2/2020
London-based theatre company Patch of Blue made its mark on the Adelaide theatre scene when it brought it’s play We Live By The Sea to the Adelaide Fringe in 2017, winning multiple awards during its season including Best Theatre and Critics Choice. Three years later, they’ve finally returned to deliver another truly moving play in the form of Cassie and The Lights, written, directed and designed by Alex Howarth.
Telling the story of sisters Cassie, Tin and Kit whose mother has deserted them and in turn have been placed into the care system, the play explores the resilience of children, the fragile yet unbreakable bonds of family, and the inherent responsibility older siblings feel for their little ones. As the girls tell the audience from the outset, there are “some sad bits…but in a good way…and some funny bits…but in a good way, as most fun bits are…” and they really deliver on this promise.
Actresses Alex Brain, Michaela Murphy and Emily McGlynn carry this heavy play with their incredible strength as actors. They deliver flawless, believable performances of their respective characters; when adults playing children can make you believe they are children you know how much talent is before you. This is only aided by the clever costuming that suited each character’s personality perfectly. Their use of stage space is excellent – all three are present onstage from the moment audience enters, and hardly ever leave the space until the end of the show. Their development of rapport with audience through fourth wall breaks, directly speaking to and asking questions of patrons, is a great touch that draws viewers further into the story.
The set is haphazard like the lives of the characters living in it, made up of piles of old suitcases and clothes on a washing line. Props are drawn from these suitcases throughout the show to further illustrate the story, from children’s toys to balls of lights. The lighting and video design by Rachel Sampley is beautiful, using different colours and levels of intensity to vividly portray mood. The videos of the girls projected onto the suitcases and the sheet on the washing line are very well animated. The voiceovers of characters not played by the three actors, such as their foster carers and social workers, are very well performed and synchronised with the onstage action. Finally, the music written by Ellie and Imogen Mason, and played live by Howarth (because what can’t he do?) is stunning and emotive – a highlight is undoubtedly the use of the loop pedal to create a layered harmony of the three girls singing.
Howarth has developed a truly stunning story, rich with symbolism, that is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. It is an important story that is relatively untold in theatre or any form of entertainment, simply making it a must watch. All in all, if you are looking for a piece of theatre that will make you genuinely laugh, cry, think and feel, look no further than Patch of Blue’s truly moving play Cassie and The Lights.
Glam Adelaide, 17/2/2020
This original play, written, designed and directed by Alex Howarth, is based on real events and was developed around conversations with young people in care in the UK. Cassie, the eldest sister at 17, is played by Alex Brain while the younger sisters, Tin, aged 11, are played by Michaela Murphy with Kit, aged 8 played by Emily McGlynn. All three young women give powerful and moving performances while remaining true to their ‘age’ – Kit is obsessed with her frog hat which is her comfort blanket.
The play opens with Tin giving a TED style talk on triple star systems which have two stars orbiting close together and one further away which gives the whole system stability. This serves as a metaphor for the relationships of the three sisters who have been left alone by their mother. As Cassie struggles to be mother to her sisters, we hear the voice of a teacher telling her she will fail if she doesn’t hand in an animation project and her friend Donna excitedly telling her about being accepted for a Summer School they were both going to apply for.
Audience engagement is a key element in the production with Tin questioning someone about who is in their family – making the point that there are all kinds of families as the girls discover when they are fostered by an older childless couple. Cassie challenges the couple’s desire to adopt the younger girls in court, arguing she can look after them herself even if this means abandoning her hopes of going to university. Although the play is dark at times and moved me to tears, the love between the sisters and the humour they display offer flashes of light which demonstrate the resilience of the human spirit and the tenacity of Cassie in wanting to keep her fractured family intact.
Patch of Blue have again brought a not to be missed, imaginative production to the Adelaide Fringe.
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.
The Stage 3/11/19
She suffers from chronic depression; he from unipolar mania. She cannot get out of bed; he cannot stay put. She thinks mental illness is chiefly a matter of chemical imbalance; he refuses to accept he should be on medication. Jacob Marx Rice’s piercing play Chemistry tracks the increasingly intense relationship between the bartender Steph (Caoimhe Farren) and the political advisor Jamie (James Mear). They meet in a psychiatrist’s waiting room and soon become lovers desperate to help each other heal, even if their proposed methods turn out to be fundamentally different.
Steph and Jamie try to battle these differences out within a horizontal, waist-high frame suspended from above, on a floor strewn with cables and microphones. Designed and directed by Alex Howarth with commendable fluidity, Chemistry knows how to work wonders in the constrained space of the Finborough.
Howarth’s staging deploys a subtly efficient choreography, embodying this intricate relationship in dynamic ways. Rachel Sampley’s stylish lighting turns the dense smoke in the room into an ambient force that alternates between the dreamy and the nightmarish.
Farren and Mear both give sympathetic, clearly accentuated performances that throb with tender energy, conveying a fine sense of their characters’ temperamental divergences. Even as the play occasionally feels didactic and drawn-out, they handle each scene with due care and humour.
Rice has written a love story that treats heavy, complex subjects with confidence and compassion. Despite its bleak ending, there is much warmth to be found in this clear-eyed look at mental illness.
We Live By the Sea, 59E59 Theaters New York and touring
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 5 Shows To See at Adelaide Festival
I was sent to this production by the glowing review of a critic friend: “This is exactly what theatre 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 Upcoming- 29/7/2017
Patch of Blue’s disarming play draws us into the world of Katy, an autistic 15 year old. It’s a disorienting one, in which everyday noises can become a terrifying cacophony, facial expressions are indecipherable code and people say things that don’t make sense. But it’s also a beautiful one, in which colours have personalities and all objects have a name.
Devised alongside the National Autistic Society, We Live by the Sea is a studied and nuanced portrayal of an alienating disorder. Katy’s visceral experience is depicted by flashing light bulbs and a fragment of screen projected with memories, while live music and song are provided by on stage musicians.
Naturalistic dialogue sets a warmly familiar tone, especially Katy’s complete and endearing vocabulary. The favoured phrase “it’s a lovely thing” is uttered at little words or food that make her beam. She’s unable to understand idioms, so her sister’s complaint of “freezing my tits off” gives her cause for puzzlement. Other gems include her critique of Snoop Dogg’s lyrics: “I don’t know why you’d drop it if it wasn’t hot, because it might get broken.”
Above all it’s Alex Brain’s portrayal of Katy which hooks the audience. It’s a masterpiece of finely tuned observation. Her thoughts come out in a rush of words and she is childlike when emitting little screeches of ineffable delight. Her anxiety is all-consuming. When she screams it’s skull-invading, deafening. As a spectator you feel pushed away and frustrated. She evokes panic almost as often as she draws the audience in. Along with her we swing from euphoria to devastation.
The play lightly touches on the poor funding for special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) children at state-funded institutions. Katy goes to a mainstream school which has withdrawn its support staff, meaning that she flounders trying to keep up with the other kids. It’s a conversation that needs to be heard.
Unsurprisingly, We Live by the Sea has picked up a raft of awards and nominations at the Edinburgh Fringe and the Adelaide Fringe. To watch is to be lost in the storm with Katy, but also to recognise her enviable position of honesty. She’s never afraid to say what she’s feeling, or to run fully clothed into the sea, or to fill the sky with her howls of sorrow.
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, Edinburgh Fringe and National tour
★ ★ ★ ★
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], Edinburgh Fringe
★ ★ ★ ★
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 give us next year?