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Review: Cheer at The Other Room by Gareth Ford-Elliott

(4 / 5)

Cheer by Kitty Hughes is a dystopian, anti-panto where Christmas is controlled by the elite and briefly experienced by the poor through the Christmas drug, ‘cheer’.

We follow Jules (Alice Downing) on a journey of exploring her own morality. Jules sells illegal Christmas licenses, seeing herself as a Robin Hood figure, but operating more like Sports Direct, TK Maxx or one of those Gucci knock-off labels. Offering cheap alternatives to allow the poor to join in on the rich people’s rampant consumerism. Enabling and in essence supporting the elite.

When Todd (Cory Tucker) enters, Jules is forced to recognise her hypocrisy as someone who understands the oppressive system, but merely profiteers off the desires of the poor.

 

One thing Kitty Hughes does well in the script, is neither character is particularly likeable. Jules is clearly exploitative and, despite being relatable in many ways, flawed. We would all like to say, “I’m not like that,” but ultimately if you can afford Christmas, you undoubtedly will relate in some way to her moral conundrum.

One main criticism has to come with Todd’s character. He doesn’t really have a story and is more of an event in Jules’ story. A statement in itself. But one that is potentially problematic. He goes in wanting one thing and comes out with it and despite recognising the over-consumption and greed of it all, he still wants to participate. And that is his position going in. He doesn’t learn a lot and really, at its heart this is a story about the moral dilemma of left-wing, middle class person. A conversation urgently needed in theatre, so good that it’s being had here. But perhaps a stronger working-class character, with more of a story would make this production more powerful.

It’s a play that explicitly talks about class, in a way that really isn’t very dystopian at all. Some people can’t afford Christmas, this is simply a reality. But also, it’s a script you can interpret in various ways. General classism, how the “first” world treats the “third” world in terms of aid, or even migration. The play feels a lot more real than a lot of dystopian pieces that speak in metaphor or allegory. This is more literal and stronger for it.

The script certainly gets a little lost in repeating itself. It seems to drag and with less of the playful style Big Loop usually adopt, 85-minutes does seem too long to tell this story. Especially as it feels as though you could pack this into an hour very easily. That said, the scenes themselves are well written, and you don’t get bored. But in terms of a script, it could be planned and plotted better.

Not Duncan Hallis’ most playful piece of direction, he shows that he can handle a heavy piece without compromising his style too much.

Perhaps one of the main downfalls of this production is, it sometimes feels like we’re split between Hallis’ imagination and Hughes’ political conscience. Sometimes it gets a little cluttered and the drama gets lost.

However, this conflict of style isn’t always a negative. The direction sometimes distracts from the deeply political text in a way that makes the message sink deeper. For example, when the two characters are arguing about their backgrounds, an exchange that is packed with political language, it’s a complete mess.

But a mess in a good way. It seems real. There’s a lot of frustration in this argument and the two characters are not exactly in the mindset in that moment to string together coherent political points. It comes from the character’s heart in a way that we don’t really see elsewhere, particularly from Todd, in the production. And so despite the political language, the manic actions and energy make it seem as if they’re just shouting and rambling, despite making thought-out political points. There’s a complete contradiction between what we see and hear that works really well.

The combination of styles is really good and a writer-director team I’d like to see more of. It just would have been nice to see some more weird, wacky or surreal moments from Hallis’ mind at times.

Alice Downing shows a lot of depth in her complex character. She exploits a brilliant use of facial expressions and body language to portray her character’s inner emotions.

Cory Tucker doesn’t have the same amount of character depth to play with, but does a good job of depicting what is there for his character. In particular, Tucker’s attention to detail in certain moments, the first time he tries gingerbread or the first time we see him on ‘cheer’, stand out. Considering there’s not much depth to his character, Tucker does a good job of letting us know the important moments for Todd.

The set design from Ceci Calf is really nice. The classic bookshelf/cupboard the best bit, but it’s just generally a nicely decorated set. The lighting design by Garrin Clarke compliments the production well. Lights changing and flashing when characters are on ‘cheer’ and a projection of a crazy Father Christmas onto the set in particular stand out.

The sound design from Matthew Holmquist shows a great use of music in particular. A bit of a throwback to earlier in the year when Cardiff Boy, which Holmquist directed, took over The Other Room. Again we see the influence of Holmquist’s mix of music to emphasise what’s happening on stage.

Generally, the productions is enjoyable and funny, as well as deeply political and thought provoking. A protagonist with a clear moral dilemma that isn’t solved by the end is left at a satisfactory conclusion encouraging the audience to discuss further after the show. And isn’t that exactly what theatre should be about?

Cheer is a bleak outlook on the world and Christmas, but has messages and themes that really should be spoken about further than just in the theatre. It’s a brave production that won’t fail to get a reaction from anyone.

Cheer at The Other Room.
Running November 27th – December 15th
Produced by Big Loop Theatre Company
Written by Kitty Hughes
Directed by Duncan Hallis
Starring:
Alice Downing as Jules
Cory Tucker as Todd
Creative Producer: George Soave
Designer: Ceci Calf
Lighting Designer: Garrin Clarke
Sound Designer/Composer: Matthew Holmquist
Stage Manager: Kitty Hughes
Assistant Producer: Yasmin Williams
Assistant Director: Alanna Iddon
Arts Placement: Natasha Grabauskas
Set Construction: Jack Calf
Promo from Sean Cox Design
Photography from Tess Seymour Photography

Review: Cardiff Boy at The Other Room by Gareth Ford-Elliott

(5 / 5)

Kevin Jones’ monologue Cardiff Boy is a nostalgic jump into the 90’s with a story as relevant today as it was in the 90’s. A story of male friendship that explores toxic masculinity with a killer 90’s soundtrack.

Narrated by “the quiet one” of the group, the story follows a group of young Cardiff lads as we join them on a night out. The use of set, sound and lighting design really add to Jones’ descriptive and emotive piece, which is guided well by director Matthew Holmquist and actor Jack Hammett.

Jones’ writing in this piece has its strength in the language. Whilst the plot is fairly basic, it is the expression of the characters that really stands out. Jones uses a clever mix of comedy and archetypal characters to juxtapose the hard hitting moments of the play. This works very well and makes the play relatable, enjoyable whilst also saying something unique.

There’s more you want to know about the characters and paths that are left unexplored. But not in an unsatisfying way. Details such as the protagonist’s relationship with his father is touched upon, but quickly brushed over by the protagonist. A detail that could be explored, but the lack of clarity of which is harrowingly too real for many young men.

When the audience enter the space of The Other Room, we leave behind Porters, the pub within which the theatre resides. However, with Cardiff Boy, The Other Room literally feels like the other room of the pub, such is the strength of the set design.

photo credit Kirsten McTernan

 

 

 

 

Sitting down you’re greeted by benches and chairs scattered throughout the room, with tables on which to rest your drinks. And as Hammett wanders between you and the other audience members, it is hard not to feel a strong sense of place.

This is heightened with the hanging photographs of 90’s Cardiff, which act as a sort of scrapbook of the protagonist’s photography collection. Photography and perception is used at various times by the protagonist to set the scene, with the city and locations generally described in great detail. Looking around at these fragments of Cardiff hanging from the ceiling, creates a very evocative feeling that makes it easy to get drawn in.

The directing of Matthew Holmquist is another strength of this piece. Not an easy piece to take on, such is the temperamental nature of the script. Without a brave director, that temperament could easily become a major flaw. But, the tone of the piece is handled brilliantly by Holmquist who allows the moments of emotion time to breath, without letting them take over.

Jack Hammett does a good job of portraying the protagonist and his mates as he bops around the room. In particular moments of vulnerability, which defines his “quiet” character, stand out. Ultimately a play about difference in men, Hammett does a great job in portraying this.

The use of sound is crucial to this play, and it doesn’t fail to impress. The soundtrack is obviously brilliant for anyone who enjoys 90’s music. Often used to comedic effect, the music, like the photographs, has a deeper meaning to the protagonist of the piece. Sound is also key in setting the scene and does so well.

The only issue for sound designer Joshua Bowles to work on would be that the level of the sound often drowns out Hammett’s voice. On occasion this works, for example in the club, where you can never hear anyone anyway, however, probably an occurrence too regular were that the desired effect.

photo credit Kirsten McTernan

 

 

 

The use of lighting from Ryan Stafford is understated. Often going unnoticed until you try to see it, the lighting adds to the overall piece well. A tough play for lighting, as the stage is the entire room, Stafford manages to keep it effective without distracting. Even when there are flashing lights, you barely notice it because the music, direction and acting are all working together with the lighting to set the scene.

Perhaps this is the biggest compliment to Cardiff Boy and Red Oak Theatre as a wider company. A company that views the roles of the designers as importantly as the director, writer or actor. Something that is weirdly rare when you consider how well it has worked in Cardiff Boy and how vital these professions are to the theatre industry.

It’s good also to see that with this in mind, Red Oak are committed and passionate about developing young artists with a paid assistant director (Nerida Bradley) and assistant designer (Lauren Dix). A company no doubt restricted by a budget won’t always do this, so it’s nice to see Red Oak committing to young artists in this way.

Along with this, it is heartening for a piece that started at a scratch night, to grow into such a strong piece of theatre. Again showing Red Oak’s commitment to new work and new artists.

Overall, Cardiff Boy is a wonderful production. It’s hard to say anything stands out in this production as everything works so well together to achieve its aim. However, April Dalton’s design, assisted by Lauren Dix, is phenomenal and deserves recognition.

The play’s greatest strength is the team behind it because with another team, and another company, Jones’ emotive script could be easily forgotten.

Cardiff Boy by Kevin Jones
Presented by Red Oak Theatre
Running From: 30 October – 11 November 2018
Performed at The Other Room, Cardiff
Director: Matthew Holmquist
Cast: Jack Hammett
Designer: April Dalton
Lighting Designer: Ryan Stafford
Stage Manager: Joshua Bowles
Sound Designer: Joshua Bowles
Producer: Ceriann Williams
Assistant Director: Nerida Bradley
Assistant Designer: Lauren Dix