Carols and Cocktails and caterwauling

Carols_and_CocktailsAlphabetti’s Carols and Cocktails, is ambitious – maybe too ambitious – but a very bold choice for a December productions.

If there’s one thing 2015 will be remembered for in Newcastle theatre, it will surely be the setup of Alphabetti Theatre. This might sound like hyperbole, but honestly, they’ve become the venue of choice for all the small-scale groups in Newcastle, and they earned the wholehearted report of the city’s other theatres. Such an advancement from two years ago when they were an obscure even in an upstairs room of The Dog and Parrot. But do they put on good plays? Yes, if The Frights is anything to go by.

And so Alphabetti close their inaugural year in their own theatre with Carols and Cocktails. This is not, as the title suggests, an end-of-year social where everyone turns up for some, um, carols and cocktails, but a play. In this play, office IT workers Phil and John put on a show for the Christmas party, not because they’re particularly into this sort of thing, but because they want to impress the ladies (because playing in a band is cool yeah). Or rather, they both want to impress one particular lady, Carol. Okay, I think I’ve spotted the flaw in this plan. One other tip: if you must resort to reading a woman’s e-mails in the server room in order to find out her personal interests, keep that fact to yourself.

December plays, in a way, are a law unto themselves. Even if it’s not a pantomime, such is the influence of pantomimes that audience expectations are different. Plays that would be dismissed as pedestrian the rest of the year can be enjoyed as a bit of fun before Christmas. So the easy route for this play would have been an undemanding storyline without too much depth and just let the audience enjoy the singing. Credit where it is due: writer Ben Dickenson did not opt for this easy route, instead going for something deeper: one of the duo is more socially confident that the other, their relations are already strained by the other being temporary IT manager, and there’s lingering fears over redundancies being announced imminently. What they say front of stage and what they say back stage are very different things.

Unfortunately, there is a snag with Christmas productions, which is that audiences tend to see it as a bit of fun – whether you like it or not. In this particular play, the fourth wall is down, we assume the role of the office party revellers, and Phil and John play the part of encouraging us to have a good time. Phil and John do the job well – too well. It’s all very well having a drink and a laugh when they’re performing their hastily-rehearsed carols, but not so great when they’re trying to develop sub-plots of one worker having a dying relative in a nursing home, and the other recovering from a recent devastating break-up. The raucous atmosphere also overpowers the theme that one of the workers is dominating and belittling his more socially inept colleague. A real pity, because I’m sure there was more to these stories than came across on stage.

To be fair, I understand I had an unusually rowdy night, as an apologetic director Ali Pritchard explained afterwards. Other nights I believe went more to play – but there were also nights when apparently behaviour was worse. And even with a perfectly-behaved audience, there’s still some things where I can’t see how it was meant to work. When you’re inviting the audience to sing along to well-known songs, it gets confusing to change the words of later songs to fit the story. There does seem to be a recognition amongst the cast that this play can be improved. Maybe they underestimated how ambitious such a light-hearted play could be, but that’s okay, because Alphabetti’s a small theatre where you can try new things that might not work out perfectly the first time. It’s going to be a challenge to get such serious storylines working in a setting that invites the audience to get so frivolous, but hey, a challenge is a challenge.

It might be might that it’s just too difficult to make this play work the way it was meant to – but I’ll be disappointed if that’s the case. Some of the best plays and comedies I’ve seen whip up the audience into hysterics first and then hit the audience with the darkest of dark twists when they least expect it. But with audiences being such unpredictable beasts, perhaps it has to be a case of trial and error. Either way, it was a marvellously bold way for Alphabetti Theatre to sign off its inaugural year.

And I’m still picking Carols and Cocktails over another bloody panto any day.

Also showing …

Whilst I’m on the subject of Alphabetti Theatre, let’s catch up with some highlights of what else the Alphabetti lot have been up to.

A little earlier in the year Alphabetti did The Rooms, because, hey, the building they’re in has lots of disused corridors where any killer from a teen slasher flick would feel quite quite at home, and it was Halloween, so let’s make use of them with a site-specific piece. There were three monologues billed as harrowing stories. I didn’t review this at the time because I’m not the best person to comment on this. My personal taste is that I prefer plays that aren’t harrowing from start to finishing – I find it’s more effective if harrowing moments are used judiciously and sparingly – but that’s just me. I’ll leave it up to others who are more into this style to give their verdict.

However, I can’t cover Alphabetti’s in-house productions without a mention for Meat Factory, written by David Raynor, directed by Ali Prtichard with a delightfully insane performance from Rosie Stancliffe. Even though I saw the joke coming a mile off, it was hilarious. Basically, Rosie Stancliffe plays one half of a husband-and-wife pair who run a factory that producing crappy chicken nuggets for the plebs. At least, that’s the disdainful attitude that she’s got for both her workers and her customers. And yet she is praised by the government for the work she’s doing to reduce the unemployment numbers. She is in fact, Dave and Iain’s biggest fan, gets everyone to sing along to the national anthem, and even knows the words to the second verse.

When she hands round the chicken nuggets to eat, you can probably already guess the punchline. But just in case you don’t, she goes on to the regrettable incident where she had to stab to death her husband’s attractive PA (for providing him with “services” outside a PA’s remit), wondered how she was going to dispose of the body, suddenly had a brainwave what with this being a meat factory she could just dispose it that way, and then she thought why not go one step further and- … yes, you can imagine the rest of the story. Whilst this might not have fit in with the harrowing theme promised for the evening, it was undoubtedly the highlight of the show.

And the other play from an Alphabetti regular I want to highlight is Nina Berry’s The Terminal Velocity of Snowflakes. I was sceptical by the pretentious-sounding title (luckily, when I see pretentious two-handers now, I just end up sniggering ever since I saw the side-splitting Intertwining Monologue from Steven Hopley that eviscerates that kind of play), but don’t worry, the play itself is down to earth. It was also easily the strongest piece in Live Lab’s end-of-year variety show Christmas Adventures. I don’t normally review things from variety shows, but this was so good I’m making an exception. (This was actually entirely a Live Theatre production and not something Alphabetti was involved in producing, but for all intents and purposes Alphabetti can consider Nina Berry one of theirs.)

The plot itself is nothing unusual – a story of a boy and girl who accidentally meet fleetingly over a period of twenty years – but it’s written beautifully and makes a lovely self-contained piece. It’s an achievement to get the thumbs up from me for a short play, because I have high expectations. For me, the masters of the 10-minute play is Brighton-based Bite Size, who seem to get their hands on all the best short plays (including the aforementioned Intertwining Monologue), and though I’ve seen many other attempts to do what Bite-Size does, no-one has come close before. Most 10-minuters are, at best, feel like snippets that would be more at home in a scene from a longer plays, and, at worst, incomprehensible. So for me to look on Nina Berry’s play as up to the standard of Bite-Size is an achievement where countless others have tried and failed. Well done too to Graeme Thomson for some good directing and excellent use of the lighting that happened to be available at the time.

So Alphabetti theatre can be pleased with their first year in their own venue. It wasn’t perfect all the time, and no fringe theatre can ever expect to be perfect all the time, but it’s a good start for 2015. Here’s looking forward to what’s in store for 2016.

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