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A Piece of the Continent review at Tristan Bates Theatre, London – ‘a celebration of European fringe theatre’

Chiara D'Anna in Don't You Dare! at Tristan Bates Theatre, London

A Piece of the Continent is a new festival designed to showcase the best of European fringe theatre as Britain hurtles – or, rather, totters – towards Brexit.

Co-produced by the Actors’ Centre and Voila! Europe, this response to Britain’s attempt to disentangle itself from the EU highlights the importance of cultural collaboration and cultural polyphony.

The first three shows in the festival are all inventive in different ways. Set in 1960s France, Anne Bertreau’s A Voice (★★★) tells the story of Angèle, a talented young singer who falls under the spell of the Svengali-like Francois, who polices her career, her clothing and her body.

A solo show, written and performed by Bertreau and mixing storytelling with song (she has a lovely voice), it charts her career in the music industry before morphing into an account of the brutal consequences of living in a society in which abortion is illegal, as it was in France at the time.

Bertreau is an engaging performer, her vulnerability accentuated as she peels off each dress, but the piece would definitely benefit from a director’s hand to give it more structural rigour and narrative clarity.

Dark Matter (★★) is the work of Vertebra, a London-based ensemble of European theatre-makers. The show uses puppetry to tell the story of Alfie, an ageing astrophysicist who has succumbed to dementia and is now living in a nursing home. Alfie is a wonderfully realised puppet, given voice by puppeteer Adam Courting. Fragments of memory – his childhood, his awkward first encounter with the woman who would become his wife – intermingle with the many little indignities of old age.

Despite moments of genuine pathos, Eirini Dermitzaki and Mayra Stergio’s storytelling feels foggy and repetitious. The puppet is wonderful though, impish, twinkling – alive.

Vertebra’s Dark Matter at Tristan Bates Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Don’t You Dare! (★★★★), Italian writer and actor Chiara D’Anna’s show for Panta Rei uses the commedia dell’arte tradition to explore how the historical anti-woman propaganda of the Catholic church is part of a continuum with instances of contemporary anti-feminist backlash. Different century, the same shit.

It’s not always subtle – chucking in references to pussy-grabbing – but it’s witty and playful and D’Anna is a delight as a performer, ad-libbing with glee and slipping into different characters (or rather caricatures) with ease: a  silver-tongued salesman of relics, a wizened, black-shawled nonna, a misogynist Roman cardinal – this last one an outsize hooded figure with shades of Monty Python.

It also feels the most theatrically satisfying of the three pieces, with a set by Jelmer Tuinstra and costumes by Natasa Stamatari. But it’s D’Anna, a performer with charisma to spare, who knits it together.

Long Read: As Brexit chaos reigns, what does it really mean for theatre?

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Verdict
Eclectic festival celebrating the richness of European fringe theatre
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