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Take a Deep Breath and Breathe, Ovalhouse Theatre

Bola Agbaje
Directed by Toby Clarke

Pros: An electric display of young acting talent with moving performances from all cast members.

Cons: Sexism seems to be engrained in the script and is never challenged – I came away hating both men and women.

Our Verdict: A brave and hard-hitting piece of work which thrusts its wide range of emotions onto the audience and says it how it is.

Courtesy of the Ovalhouse

Launched in 2008, 33% London is a festival run by the Ovalhouse for London’s younger generations, with the goal of enticing younger audiences into theatres and celebrating the young creative talent the city has to offer. According to the Ovalhouse website, the entire project was “conceived, programmed and run by young people aged 16-25”; 33 is the percentage of London citizens under the age of 26. Take a Deep Breath and Breathe, a new play by Olivier Award-winning Bola Agbaje, was the highlight of this year’s festival and was, certainly, an interesting exploration into the lives of young people in London.

The play is based on the Greek comedy Lysistrata, Aristophanes’ tale of a woman who ended the interminable Peloponnesian war by convincing her fellow women to refuse their husbands sexual favours until they agreed to sit down to peace talks. In the modern take on its ancient counterpart, the conflict becomes gang warfare and begins immediately after the funeral of a friend of the characters. It gradually emerges that he has been killed in an attack following a fight at a rave, where the virginal Candy, girlfriend of ringleader Luke, has been harassed by a stranger. The boys want revenge, and their girlfriends hatch a plan to prevent them from going out and getting it.

What emerged was an interesting view of gender relations amongst London’s youth, and I spent a lot of the play not knowing what to think. The men called their girlfriends ‘bitches’ and ‘whores’ every other minute and the women drove the plot forward with their belief that the only influence they held over their boyfriends lay between their legs. What Agbaje’s script seemed to be telling us was that sexism is an irredeemable and now integrated part of youth culture. The end of the play essentially comes full circle, with another unnecessary death and harmony amongst the other couples. Whilst it was dramatically very effective and touching, it failed to make an attempt at resolving the issue of sexism amongst the characters, but rather took it as read.

This aside, Take a Deep Breath and Breathe is a gripping piece of theatre. Driven by the Ovalhouse’s terrific Drama Company, the production was edgy and tense, accelerating toward its climax with biting excitement. The climactic scene in which Candy is left alone with the furiously dominant Ryan had my heart pounding; the performances of Scarlet Billham and Jamael Westman were so effective that I truly believed she was in danger. Director Toby Clarke surrounds the audience with the action, having three separate sets in different corners of the room, using them brilliantly to convey separate storylines happening simultaneously. The play’s biggest success, though, was the rapidly changing emotions woven into the script. One second I was laughing at the use of Nandos takeaway to demonstrate love, and the next gasping at Ryan’s angry fist banging down onto the table. The cast had a firm grasp on the power behind the play and used it artfully, keeping the audience in the palm of their hands for the duration of the play.

While the level of sexism in the play made it difficult to determine what was for dramatic effect and what was a portrait of accepted real life, Take a Deep Breath and Breathe is an exciting piece of new writing which, combined with the enthusiasm and talent of Ovalhouse’s Theatre Company, made for a gripping performance which toyed with the audience’s comfort levels in both its comic and dramatic moments. It spoke to audience members of all ages, proving the 33% London Festival have found a very worthy cause for celebration in the city’s young artistic talent.

Please feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!

Take a Deep Breath and Breathe runs at the Ovalhouse Theatre until 20th April 2013.
Box Office: 020 7582 7680 or book online at http://www.ovalhouse.com/whatson/detail/take-a-deep-breath-and-breathe

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