All posts by Mary Nguyen

Dennis Kelly’s ‘Debris’ at the Southwark Playhouse

Dennis Kelly’s bleak yet gripping play Debris was his first  script, written in 2000. Innovatively part-funded via Kickstarter, this Southwark Playhouse production celebrates the 11-year anniversary of the show, which was first staged at Theatre 503 in 2003.

Its director is Abigail Graham, whose ground-breaking work Molly Sweeney is the first to have transferred from the Print Room. It first went to The Lyric Belfast and then on to tour Northern Ireland earlier this year. Graham’s work with organisations such as Clean Break and offenders within the prison system brings a fresh set of eyes to the dysfunctional childhood of the siblings in this one-act play.

The set is literally debris. Signe Beckmann, the designer, sets the scene beautifully in an intimate and stark grey-walled room, scattered with heaps of dull smashed-up concrete and red brick rubble.

We come across a pair of teenage orphaned siblings, Michael (Harry McEntire) and Michelle (Leila Mimmack) who plunge us into the devastating nightmare that was their childhood.  With an air of innocence that entwines their tattered lives, they convey a dark and broken childhood filled with unanswered questions and unsettling conclusions.

As they draw on the wall and play with stones to fill their time, the story unfolds through monologue after monologue, revisiting scenes of their miserable past through various filters.

In a masterful retelling of stories viewed through their inexperienced eyes, they verbalise their deepest thoughts about God, the paedophile Uncle Harry, their abusive and alcoholic father and their mother’s death. Throughout the play, they kick and throw stones across the room, adding to the narrative of their confused mindsets and distorted frustrations.

Michael delivers an account of his 16th birthday, a day imbued with horror and the shedding of blood, when he came home to discover his father’s suicide by crucifixion in the family living-room. He laments his skewed vision of life, which is juxtaposed with the peaceful dream of a boy who lays his head on his mother’s lap, seeing this vision of perfection through a window, like watching TV.

McEntire’s portrayal of Michael’s ache for a “normal” life is most visceral in the scene where he discovers life in a waste chute – a discarded and half-dead baby. At one point, he exclaims the meaning of love through his visualisation of breastfeeding the child with his own blood and finding solace in this shrivelled baby, whom he calls “My Rubbish”. It is heart-rending.

Michelle, with a balloon in her hand to symbolise her embryonic state, fires away with several differing  accounts of her mother’s death. Michelle’s story imagery is provocative throughout,  but none more so than the image of herself as a foetus growing plant-like in her mother’s dead corpse, eating the almost decayed womb in order to survive. Mimmack grapples brilliantly with Kelly’s detailed words and Graham’s insights into the chaotic lifestyle, weaving a character that’s multi-dimensional through a lens of deep despair.

This intensively engaging production will makes you think about violent realities of life and how traumatic events can throw your life off course and into a spiral of chaos and decay.  Kelly’s language is brought to life by emotionally wrought performances by McEntire and Mimmack who each bring their own unique voices to the script.

Birkbeck celebrates Chinese New Year

On Friday night, members of the Chinese society welcomed Birkbeck students to their event organised to celebrate the Chinese New Year. The event was held at Malet Street in a room filled to the brim with students curious to know more about this traditional Chinese celebration.

Red paper decorations and lanterns were hanging from the ceiling. The atmosphere loud, but friendly, as various activities took place. To one side of the room students got their hands dirty with flour and vegetable corn filling, as they learned how to make Chinese dumplings for the first time.

Birkbeck Chinese Society - dumpling making - New Year Celebration 2014

Next to them was the Chinese calligraphy where students were taught the stroke order for writing the characters ‘horse’ and ‘fortune’. Another section was jianzhi, the art of of paper cutting.

On the far right was the drinking corner, for those who appreciate Chinese alcohol or wanted to taste it for the first time. Tsingtao, a Chinese beer, was available in abundance as were a variety of Chinese spirits which some took to better than others. Spring rolls and pancakes were available too, so everyone was fully immersed in Chinese culture.

At 9pm, the grand finale took place with the ‘Imperial College London Dance Team’ performing a Chinese Lion Dance. This was a spectacular and exuberant performance in dazzling colours from two boisterous and skillful lions with Chinese acoustic music and vibrant drums in the background.


The occasion marked the start of the year of the ‘Wooden Horse’ according to the Chinese zodiac, which is based on a twelve-year cycle. If you were born in 1966, 1978 or 1990 your zodiac sign is the ‘Horse’.  As a ‘Horse’ in 2014 you can expect a year of conflict but, conversely, many positive surprises as well. Those born under the sign of the horse are described as fast, energetic and animated. Chinese astrology suggests that if you’re born in these years you thrive in social surroundings, but enjoy being free and independent as well. In addition, they are competitive and, like horses, are heroic and victorious in battle. They move fast from one destination to the next – which could be considered a disadvantage – but luckily it is coupled with an ability to think quickly and make decisions on the go.

Group Photo - Birkbeck Chinese Society - Chinese New Year celebrations

The president of the Chinese Society, Zheng Chia said: “This year is the coming of the ‘Horse’, which, will bring a lot of success to 2014.” His vice president, Yibing Sun said: “the ‘Horse’ is strong and powerful, which is why 2014 shall also be a strong and powerful year for everyone.” Sarah Whitaker from Birbeck’s International Office helped organise the event in collaboration with the Chinese Society and partner university, the Beijing Institute, said: “This is a great event taking place during International Week, and is the first time Birkbeck is celebrating Chinese New Year ever.”

Birkbeck is an international hub full of interesting students who want to learn about other cultures which is something this event clearly highlighted. The year of the ‘Horse’ is about galloping towards a prosperous 2014. In work and play, Chinese students will look at this ‘Horse,’ as a symbol of luck, for examinations and essays, perhaps, but let us hope it gives Birkbeck societies encouragement to organise more fun events just like this one.


La Bayadère: An array of synchronised white tutus, salvaged by the stunning Spanish heart

la-bayadere-2The classical ballet La Bayadère (the Temple Dancer), like Swan Lake, is a masterpiece of the musical composer Ludwig Minkus and Marius Petipa’s French and Russian-inspired choreography that lacks the exposure and praise it deserves.

The ballet, set in India, was created and first performed at the Bolshoi in St Petersburg in 1877, and has been periodically revived since.  A version staged by Natalia Makarova, the Soviet-Russian-born prima ballerina, was performed by the Royal Ballet in 2009. A DVD of this was screened last week at an open evening at Birbeck organised by Francesca Secola, from Birkbeck’s Spanish and Portuguese Speaking Society. A small group of us from different courses attended this rare occasion, and the majority had not seen it before.

The cast was a Latin combination that underpins the connection that Francesca wanted to share. Cuban-born Carlos Acosta, who played the charming warrior Solor, is an accomplished dancer who has often performed for the Royal Ballet.. Tamara Rojo, from Spain, gave an exciting performance as the heroine, the bayadère (dancer) Nikiya.

The Argentinian Marianela Nuñez played the bayadère‘s devilish rival, Gamzatti, who steals  Solor’s heart with her divine looks. Her dancing was ravishingly poised, yet with Acosta had minimal symmetry. Acosta’s portrayal of a confused protagonist, spiralling hopelessly with both the bayadère and Gamzatti in a ménage à trois scene, did not leave his strength and agility questioned nonetheless.

Rojo proved to be a better match for Acosta, with her naturally seamless turns. It was hard not to marvel over her flexible, sculpted body in addition to her passion to dance as if it were her last.

Pier Luigi Samaritani’s colourful Indian scenery and Yolanda Sonnabend’s eastern set design added a unique flavour from the traditional ballet, not forgetting the small springy bronze idol played by another Latino, Jose Martin.

In the mysterious “Kingdom of the Shades” scene, 24 delicately synchronized dancers concentrated on their arabesque penché, pacing slowly in a harmonious trail of shining tutus, to a dreamy stage of heart-felt strings in the background. This contrasts with the beginning acts’ vitality, variety of post-colonial Indian hues and a collection of gypsy scarfs and high-jumping savagery choreography. Viewing this extravagant work through a DVD allows the audience to zoom in on technique that a live performance may miss.

Francesca Secola is a student ambassador for the Royal Opera House who promotes their productions to Birkbeck, with the aim of  making students aware that attending performances at the ROH need not be elitist and unaffordable. Discounted tickets under the Student Standby scheme can have you attend a performance for as little as a tenner.  For details visit