Tokyo Rose ★★★☆☆ / Conspiracy ★★☆☆☆ / Art Heist ★★★☆☆
The Untapped award – run by Fringe venue Underbelly and London’s New Diorama for early- and mid-career companies – has made a name for itself as a pretty reliable indicator of interesting shows. This is less of a vintage year, but there are still green shoots aplenty.
Young female-led company Burnt Lemon have turned a true historical story into a new musical. In 1949, Iva Toguri was charged with treason in the US, accused of being “Tokyo Rose” – in fact the generic name given to women who broadcast on Radio Tokyo during the Second World War, playing pop hits and supposedly peddling propaganda to American GIs in the Pacific. But Toguri was an American citizen who got stuck in Japan after Pearl Harbour – and she always denied she ever broadcast propaganda. It took 20 years for her to be pardoned.
Burnt Lemon have really mined this story’s rich potential to create an impressively fast-paced, fleet-footed show. Using nimble rhymes and heavy hip-hops beats (yes, it’s hard but not to think of Hamilton, if not very helpful), they flicker through her story adroitly, moving back and forward between her almost sham trial and her painful wartime experiences.
There’s real confidence in Maryhee Yoon and Cara Baldwin’s writing, directed by Hannah Benson, and Maya Britto makes for a hugely appealing, watchable Toguri. Not all the performances in this all-female cast are so on point, but this is a promising ensemble – and certainly a promising show. While Tokyo Rose excels in ramming a lot of information into an hour without feeling rushed, it also feels like it has real scope to be expanded further.
In Conspiracy, Barrell Organ have also alighted on an interesting topic – they spin elaborate conspiracy theories, and prod at why we’re drawn to these alternative narratives. In an age of fake news, this should be timely, but this show only ever skates on the surface of a deep and murky subject.
Azan Ahmed, Shannon Hayes and Rose Wardlaw sit at a desk with microphones and recording equipment, and begin by repeatedly describing a famous photograph, eventually revealed as Lunch Atop a Skyscraper. But something’s wrong with the image. They’re working together to uncover the cover up: did the original construction workers on the Rockefeller Building die? Was it a Mafia hit job? Was Rockefeller in a secret brotherhood who killed JFK and faked the moon landings and and and... the theories, as they are wont to do, spiral wildly out of control.
The cast are good at the small, sniping tensions that arise in the group – Wardlaw’s uptight, highly strung character takes the stories they weave terribly seriously, while to Hayes’ character, conspiracy theories are just fun stories that help us make sense of the fact that we don’t really know how the world is run. Which is fine, but it’s as Conspiracy goes. And given we never have any context for who these people are, it’s hard to care too much when they turn on one another. Dan Hutton’s production, set mostly behind that desk, is theatrically pretty inert. There is a final fantastical tableaux, but it really isn’t enough to elucidate or elevate what’s gone before.
Art Heist also sees its characters constructing their own narratives. Three separate thieves coincidentally break into a gallery to steal a painting on the same night. But their progress through the museum is controlled by a narrator (also behind a desk with a microphone) who doubles as a security guard. Art Heist is constructed a bit like a role-playing game, and at the beginning the actors are led to develop their own roles – an art lover who disguises herself as a French chef; a suave, sleek professional art thief; an art heist nerd who’s done his research. At times – as in Conspiracy – they’ll also tussle over who has control of the story.
Poltergeist’s show is largely a jolly heist caper, complete with lasers and alarms that must be dodged, with a bit of audience participation and much creeping and contortion from the bungling burglars. There’s a cartoonish energy to it that’s lots of fun, and although its production values are distinctly lo-fi, live filming and video screens are used smartly.
Jack Bradfield’s production, with its rebelling or confused characters, also looks at its own construction as a work of art, as well as musing on the value of art (we’re told that a painting being stolen massively ups its cache – having a story adds value). But such theorising and thoughtfulness is offered up gently rather than sharply articulated: Poltergeist seem happy just to let such considerations, well, hang.
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