Written by Rebecca Harrison
This review contains spoilers.
Last night, Theatre Group put on a programme of five New Rights productions, written by Theatre Group members. It’s not often that one sees so much talent in one show, let alone from five separate shows on the same night. The five new plays are Doubt; Bye, Bye Baby; Sour Milk; Father, Protect; and Her. They are currently fledgling productions - excerpts from shows still being written. Because of this, I have been more critical in this review than I usually would be, in the hopes of highlighting what needs work as much as what went well. That said, last night’s programme was a series of relevant and enthralling new theatre that left me optimistic and excited about our budding generation of playwrights.
Doubt by Sam Cooke followed the inner workings of A’s (Liv Blythe) anxious mind as she struggles to answer the intrusive question: ‘What’s the point of it all?’
Left to right: Matty Edgar, Liv Blythe, Matthew Dangerfield)
Photo by Abby Swain
Cooke’s script brilliantly explores the tyranny of mental illness: what happens when an unhealthy mind collides with complex philosophical discourses like Nihilism and Existentialism. The result is a kind of corrosion: it leaves a bleaker, bitty version of the world. There is a fantastic scene where A, B and C are high and staring at a bird caught in the room. The same frenzied image of a bird hitting itself repeatedly against a closed window came up in Blythe’s heart-breaking monologue. It made me wonder if Cooke had read D. H. Lawrences’ poem ‘Man and Bat’ where the bat goes ‘round and round and round’ his room in ‘insane circles’ with a ‘twitch, nervous intolerable flight’.
It is in this same frenzied way that the darkness in Doubt does not plateau and depress, but excites us with its liveliness. Cooke switches between scenes with force and B (Matty Edgar) and C (Matthew Dangerfield) whirl vertiginously between characters, as if each is boggled into existence by unquiet minds. There is a particularly fantastic change from Dangerfield into an exuberant teacher whose advice for anxiety is to tell it to stop. There were other times, however, when I wished there was more clarity as to what relation the characters had to each other, and as to what the broken glass metaphor actually meant. Ultimately, though, that didn’t affect my vividly emotional reception of this incredibly evocative piece.
Bye, Bye Baby by Fabien O’Farrell follows three students who wind up at a chippy after a night out and discover that one of them is pregnant. The dynamic of the group’s three very distinct personalities is completely convincing, not to mention totally endearing. Over the course of the excerpt, we fall in love with each of them as they reveal to us their own problems: Lucie’s (Sophie Apthorp) pregnancy, Ali’s (Emily Sharples) shame about being a bad daughter and Ellie’s (Eden Vaughan) infertility and her brother’s death.
O’Farrell’s writing is smart and funny and implements props to great effect - Tom (Theo Life) comes in wearing a felt traffic cone; Lucie throws her chips at Theo in outrage at his insensitive comments about abortions; and Lucie drags in a sagging balloon called “Phoebe” (stuck onto it is a print out of the face of ‘our feminist leader’, Phoebe Waller-Bridge). Apthorp plays the airy, bordering on ADHD, Lucie to perfection; and Vaughan and Sharples play off each other brilliantly. The acting (aided by their hair and makeup) is also pitched at just the right level of drunken disgruntledness to make the “afters” action realistic, but also just sober enough for the dialogue to be meaningful and have consequence in the characters’ lives.
The only snag for me was that a lack of plot meant the dialogue began to dip in the second half. Although consistently funny, towards the end of the excerpt it wanted a bit more edge, especially since it aims to cover the topic of abortion. To be consistently skimming over the surface would seem off-key. But O’Farrell displays such a promising combination of humour and heart with her writing that I have no doubt she will uncover something challenging and true when the show is fully hatched.
Sour Milk by Phoebe Graham is a hilarious and perceptive comedy about three housemates at Uni. As Katie, Seb and Zoe pull an all-nighter before their final exams, the pressure begins to grind down on their friendships. Funny, loyal and uncalculating, Katie’s (Alice Walker) naivety is the perfect vehicle to pedal the growing tensions between Zoe (Jess Payne) and Seb (Akshay Raja). Whilst Seb is: Tory, son of Boohoo CEO and co-host (with Piers Morgan’s son) of the podcast “Chapping”, Zoe (Jess Payne) stands indignantly on the sidelines as: militant Leftist, abstainer from drugs (and fun), and she also crochets for charity. Walker’s character expertly bends over backwards to form the bridge over the political and cultural gulf between her housemates. Her mediation of the two allows for some great comedy and quippy dialogue from all three.
Graham is an expert with pacing and embedding subtle hints about the trajectory of the play (and the budding, unexpected romance and consequent betrayal). Her jokes always land, even if sometimes they do feel a little bit too familiar. My only concern was that Zoe and Seb are too prototypical and overly gendered. I was disappointed that Graham didn’t reveal the depth behind their Tory/Lefty stereotypes until the last moment, but there’s no denying it gave me lots to get excited about for what she does with the rest of the show.
Father, Protect by Harry Daisley is a monologue performed by a woman (Ginny Davis) who appears to be psychologically mannacled by the absent manipulative “daddy” figure. Her performance begins casually, which allows the eeriness to creep steadily in, to great effect. When her devotion teeters on something like cultish inauguration, the audience is left with lots of questions. The lobby piano music in the background added to the other-worldliness about the performance, but I found myself being distracted by it constantly being there. However, it did put me on edge, so perhaps this was an intentional choice.
Her by Julia Brookes follows the deterioration of Marie and Will’s relationship told by her younger self (Naomi Poole) and her older self (Scarlett Allen). Brookes handles Will’s abusive behaviour towards Marie with care and sensitivity. The actors move serenely around the stage. The steady control in Brookes’ direction creates a contrast with Marie’s lack of control and Will’s abuse of it. Poole is a pleasure to watch, from her pre-pinging nerves as a sixteen year old to the complex mingling of love and hate she feels for her boyfriend. Allen is composed and confident as the older narrative voice and playful as Maggie, Marie’s friend. Aaron Garland’s restrained rage is chilling and appropriately malicious when he tells Marie to hold her breath. Her fear and humiliation is palpable in the audience. Brooke’s Her has some brave moments and I love the idea of telling tragedy from a female perspective, but with such a well-worn plot, it needs to challenge itself to really say something new. There were also points where I would have hoped for more show and less tell. This is far from beyond Brookes’ abilities as both writer and director though, and I’m excited to see how the play evolves.
Theatre Group has achieved much in putting forward some intelligent and sensitive theatre this year and it’s thrilling to see such talent taking shape in these compelling new plays. Get your tickets for the programme for the 24th and 25th here.