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The problem with long plays, This Is Not A Test Theatre, and three shows to see...
The Second Woman lasted an entire 24 hours: is that an issue? Plus: theatremakers Maria Teresa Creasey and Rebecca Reeves, three shows to see, and more...
Hello, and welcome to The Crush Bar, a weekly newsletter about theatre written by me, Fergus Morgan.
This is the last issue you’ll be getting for six weeks or so. My inbox is already filling up with dozens of press releases about the Edinburgh Fringe, and I want to take a bit of a break before it begins. On that front: if you want to let me know about your Edinburgh show, then feel free to send something over - email@example.com - and I will get back to you eventually.
This week, there is a short essay inspired by Ruth Wilson’s marathon performance in The Second Woman at the Young Vic last weekend, a chat with theatremakers Maria Teresa Creasey and Rebecca Reeves - AKA This Is Not A Test Theatre - and three recommendations for shows to see during the final week of Brighton Fringe.
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I have spent several entire days in the theatre.
I spent eight hours watching Angels In America at the National Theatre in 2017 – and, sorry, I did not love it. I spent about the same watching Young Chekhov – David Hare and Jonathan Kent’s Chichester Festival Theatre trilogy of early Chekhov plays – when it transferred to the same venue in 2016, and liked it more. And I spent about seven hours watching The Gabriels, American auteur Richard Nelson’s trilogy of naturalist masterpieces, at Brighton Festival, also in 2017, and could happily have spent an entire week in their company.
What else? I caught the Royal Shakespeare Company’s productions of Richard II, Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part II and Henry V at the Barbican in 2015, across three days: Richard II with David Tennant was great; the rest was not. I spent an entire day seeing both Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra at the company’s home in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2017, and it felt like a year. I spent one October day in 2018 watching Nick Dear’s Hogarth’s Progress at the Rose Theatre Kingston, and sometimes have nightmares that I am still sat in the auditorium, watching Keith Allen drone on, and on, and on. There have been days – exhausting, stressful, but occasionally extraordinary days – at the Edinburgh Fringe where I have watched over seven hours of performances, too.
I mention all this because I’ve been thinking, ahem, about the length of things this week, after reading the reviews of Ruth Wilson’s marathon, 24-hour performance in Anna Breckon and Nat Randall’s experimental show The Second Woman at the Young Vic. If you have not heard about it, Wilson basically spent an entire day last week inside a box, acting out the same seventeen-minute scene again and again with 100 different, unprepared co-performers. Some were famous – Andrew Scott, Toby Jones, Idris Elba, Ben Whishaw – and some were not. Some critics stayed for a few hours. Some stayed for a few more. The Guardian’s Arifa Akbar heroically lasted for the show’s entire duration.
Of course, The Second Woman sits in a different category to the shows listed above. Those are all long productions of long plays: The Second Woman is closer to performance art, an experiment in duration, where the punishing length of the production is part of its point, just as it is with some of Forced Entertainment’s shows, or Ken Campbell’s productions, or Marina Abramović’s work. Exhaustion, boredom, and frustration are all intentional aspects of the audience experience.
Nevertheless, when it comes to both long productions of long plays and durational pieces of performance art, there is a patina of exceptionalism that annoys me a bit. Shows like The Second Woman engender a grating attitude among those that see them: “You had to be there, guys, and if you weren’t, then you don’t really get it.” There is an air of arrogance about them, too, which irks me, whether it should or not: who are they to assume they can take up so much of my time? And isn’t a ridiculously long runtime also another act of exclusion? Who can give up an entire day to go and see a theatre show? What about work? What about childcare? What about disability?
On the other hand, though, I love it. I love it because it is theatre unapologetically leaning into its theatricality. We are living in an era of extraordinary television, and spending an evening on the sofa is always an enticing prospect. Theatre, in my opinion, cannot hope to compete with the quality – and particularly the value-for-money – offered by hit TV shows like Succession, The Bear, Only Connect, or Scotland’s Home Of The Year, and it would be foolish to try. It needs to queer the pitch, and offer something TV cannot: extreme intimacy, extreme creativity, or extreme length.
Yes, a six-hour show, a trilogy of plays performed over an entire day, or a 24-hour piece of performance art is an exclusive event, but theatre is exclusive by its very nature, and to pretend otherwise is pointless. There are only so many seats in the room for so many shows, and that is at the heart of what makes theatre special. Or, in other words: You have to be there, guys. If you aren’t then you don’t really get it.
Meet Maria Teresa Creasey and Rebecca Reeves, AKA This Is Not A Test Theatre.
Theatremakers Maria Teresa Creasey and Rebecca Reeves might hail from either side of the Atlantic, but the pair have a lot in common. They share an interest in deconstructing classic texts. They have the same sense of alternative humour, influenced by alternative comedians like Stewart Lee and Tim Key. They are a similar age, too – around 40 – and both have two young sons. And they have a company in common, too: Creasey and Reeves are the two halves of This Is Not A Test Theatre.
“Our theatrical sensibilities developed together,” explains Reeves, who directs This Is Not A Test Theatre’s work, while Creasey performs it. “I have strange ideas, ask Maria to come into a room and try them out, and we develop them together. We work well and have learned a lot together. We like working with classic texts, but we don’t like serving them. We prefer to take them apart a bit.”
Reeves grew up in London, studied at Leeds University, where she got heavily involved in student drama, then completed an MA in directing at RADA, then a PhD in European theatre practices at Central. “I was into Forced Entertainment and Complicite, and anything that was fairly avant-garde and European,” she says. Creasey, meanwhile, grew up in California, studied at New York City’s Fordham University, then trained as an actor at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow, formerly the RSAMD. “It was in New York that I really started to discover this other world of performance art,” she says.
The pair first met through a production Reeves staged as part of her PhD research in 2013. Creasey was not part of the show’s original cast, but one performer dropped out, and a mutual friend suggested Reeves contact Creasey instead. “We got on well,” says Reeves. “And the rest is history.” In 2014, the pair worked together on Masha, a devised piece inspired by Chekhov’s The Seagull that ran at Central’s Collisions Festival, Camden People’s Theatre’s Calm Down, Dear and Sprint festivals. In 2015, they returned to Collisions with an experimental adaptation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters.
Creasey and Reeves’ plans were put on pause for a few years – a global pandemic and four children between them had something to do with that – but their ideas kept bubbling away, eventually resurfacing in February at VAULT Festival with This Is Not A Test Theatre’s new show, Degenerate.
“Returning post-pandemic, we wanted to make a show as cheaply as possible, in a way that would fit into our busy lives as mums and our other work,” explains Reeves. “I wanted to start from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. We wanted to explore what it meant to be a woman at 40, too, and to simultaneously be quite early in our career as a company. The show evolved from those influences.” It is, Creasey adds, “very much a direct response to ageing as a woman in a youth-obsessed culture.”
The result – developed through scratch nights, open-mic nights and that work-in-progress run at VAULT – is a show the company describes as “a hellscape stand-up comedy fever dream that descends into a full -frontal face-off with the concept of ageing itself.” So, is it Creasey, doing a stand-up show that goes wrong? “Kind of,” answers Reeves. “It’s kind-of a parody of a stand-up gig. It’s Maria on stage with a mic and not much else. It’s comedy, but not in a conventional way.” And did Dracula make it into the show? “There’s a nod to it,” says Creasey. “A vampire is part of it.”
Degenerate runs in The Rotunda at Brighton Fringe on Wednesday and Thursday nights next week, with another date at Margate’s TomThumb Theatre already in the diary. “We are keen to take it on a longer tour later in the year, too,” Reeves adds. “And we want to do a longer run of it somewhere at some point. We want to get it in front of audiences as much as possible. We want to get some mentorship, too, so that we can build on this, and make This Is Not A Test a totally viable thing.”
Three shows to see at Brighton Fringe next week.
Andrew Houghton and Sami Sumaria’s emerging company Pink Milk Theatre’s was founded in 2021 and has already earned acclaim for telling impactful and important LGBTQ+ and global-majority stories on stage. Sumaria’s solo-show A Splash Of Milk is set to tour later this summer, while Houghton’s solo-show Naughty is already on the road for the second time. A darkly comic coming-of-age story about queer identity, it originally ran at Camden Fringe in 2021, visited several venues in late 2022, then kicked off another tour at the King’s Head Theatre earlier this month. It is at York Theatre Royal’s Takeover Festival tonight, and at Brighton Fringe on Thursday and Friday next week. You can get tickets via the button below.
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Trailblazing Deaf-and-disabled-led company Signdance Collective was founded by Welsh-English performer David Bower and Cuban dance artist Isolte Avila thirty-six years ago. Over the years, it has established an international reputation for its pioneering and inclusive approach, which combines movement, music, dance, and poetry in English, Spanish and BSL into a unique genre of performance known as Signdance Theatre. The company’s latest project, Oriente Plus/Power Cut, is a “Caribbean Gothic story of diaspora, culture, family and ancestors,” written by regular Brazilian collaborator Pedro De Senna. It is being staged al-fresco on the i-360 terrace at Brighton Fringe next week, with two performances per day, as part of an extensive international tour. You can get tickets via the button below.
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This solo show, written and performed by Erin Hunter - one half of comedy duo Hunt The Vigan - and directed by Adam Lenson, was a hit at the Edinburgh Fringe last year, earning a nomination for the Popcorn/BBC Award for Best New Writing. Inspired by her own experiences, it sees Hunter use physical storytelling and ukulele music to tell the story of Heather, an American woman who moves to Tel Aviv to follow her husband Zach’s work, and discovers a love of watersports - and a lot else - while she is there. The Edinburgh Reporter called it an “effervescent one woman show.” It is on from Thursday to Sunday next week, and you can get tickets via the button below.
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See you in six weeks or so…