Camden Fringe Reviews: Red Hot Pokers, Fox-Light + The Wasp

Another suite of Camden Fringe Reviews for Red Hot Pokers and The Wasp at the Hen & Chickens and Fox-Light at the Hope Theatre 

“We are so different you and I”

Written by Annie Herridge, Red Hot Pokers is a monologue that seeks to contextualise the gay experience in the second half of the twentieth century through the eyes of Englishman Jay and the tumultuous life he has led. From verbally abusive and homophobic mother and emotionally distant father, navigating illicit cruising and the haunting arrival of AIDS, to fighting cancer in the current day, there’s a lot of seriously dramatic peaks which makes the terrain of the play rather jagged for this running time. Herridge’s direction doesn’t alway help matters here, short blackouts interrupting the flow rather than feeling like natural pauses.

The strength of the show comes from the luminosity of Jay’s personality, given irrepressible life by Sam Tully’s wonderfully warm performance which connects directly to his audience. In giving us the potted highlights of his life, he’s able to convey smaller emotional moments that keep us connected to the narrative. The desire to please his mother that never quite goes away, the thrill of genuine sexual attraction with someone special, the joy that comes from seeing things you have planted flourish. And the humour with which he details his sex life – whether gossiping in cruising grounds or revelling in his popularity online as the dom top du jour – makes this an entertaining hour.

Barnaby Tobias’ Fox-Light comes as a 90 minute play, feeling a touch more like a regular Hope Theatre play than a Camden Fringe entry, a small distinction perhaps but a crucial one still. Tobias’ debut play gives the heady love affair that explodes between two young painters and then follows the relationship as they try to make it work together, searching for a place where their love, life and art can co-exist. Its first half is a blistering success as its he-said-she-said mode of direct address takes us through their meet-cute in the bathroom at a house party with highly entertaining brio and a keen eye for the different ways in which the same interactions can be perceived.

The extended move into domestic would-be-bliss sees the pace of Simon Usher’s production slow right down and in some ways this works. As the tone darkens, the grip these characters now have on us squeezes all-the-tighter as real-world problems intercede with their happiness. The shift though comes a little too rapidly, to the point where it saps the energy rather than completely transforming it – the current running time sees the play caught in a hinterland, but nothing further development couldn’t address. And that shouldn’t detract from the quality of the work here from Tobias, who co-stars so effectively with Martina Rossi with whom the chemistry ignites from the off. 

Any production of Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s The Wasp has a lot to live up for me, as I saw it in its first incarnation at Hampstead with the incredible Sinéad Matthews and MyAnna Buring. BOLD House Productions have nevertheless taken on the mantle and remounted this intense two-hander after a successful run earlier this year. It was interesting to revisit the play – it follows former schoolmates Heather and Carla as they reunite, the intervening 20 years having treated them wildly differently – and I’d forgotten just how dramatically Lloyd Malcolm deploys the rugpull of unexpected revelation after unexpected revelation.

Though this production has ended, I’m loathe to say too much more as the thrill of watching this drama is in those revelations. I will say that perhaps it pushes a little too hard towards the melodramatic by the end and there’s not too much sophistication in the way the final monologue is used to explain a little too much. But it does offer two meaty roles and Jennifer Thornton (Carla) and Tegan Verheulis (Heather) tackle them with relish as differences in class and fertility intersect with their shared history and we discover the extent to which bitterness can eat from the inside.

All shows run for approx an hour
Red Hot Pokers is booking at the Hen & Chickens until 9th August, then Upstairs at the Gatehouse 25th-28th August
The Wasp is booking at the Hen & Chickens until 7th August
Fox-Light is booking at the Hope Theatre until 7th August

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