Right, no more quips about how big my backlog of reviews is. It’s January and there’s four fringe plays standing between me and a backlog of zero. This is going to be a little different to previous roundups of this kind, which isn’t quite as local as, nor as fringey as before. Here we go.
Between a Man and a Woman
So, here’s a rare departure on this blog: a review of a London fringe play. For some reason, I keep getting invited to review London fringe plays even though I live nowhere near London. By staggering co-incidence, however, I happened to be in London (filling my annual craving for infrastructure geekery whilst tickets to London are stupidly cheap) during the run of this play from JamesArts productions. So London folk: even though I don’t live in London, feel free to give it a go. You never know your luck.
As the theatre company name suggests, this is written by Scott James, and as the name suggests, this is a play about domestic violence within a marriage. The play begin with Tom and Polly talking excitedly about the wonderful time when they first met. Fast forward to now, and it’s a different matter. Polly’s sister is sure something’s not right about their marriage, but as someone who took a natural dislike to Tom from the start, however, her husband and other suspect believes what she wants to believe. However, she was right the first time, and when Polly starts seeing less of her sister – under pressure from Tom who ruthlessly exploits the notion that she’s got it in for him – suspicions begin to grow.
Much of what’s in the play is very believable. James clearly did his homework on what happens in abusive relationships, and not just the physical abuse. In fact, most of the abuse is psychological: berating her over trivial disagreements, contradicting her on factual matters when she was clearly correct, systematic erosion of self-esteem – so that when it erupts into actual violence, it only take an apology for the abuse to be forgotten, until it happens again. Tom’s multiple bits on the side show but a charm that can get a woman under his spell, and a sudden temper that can take someone by surprise. It even has a stab and trying to explain how Tom turned out the way he did, though a visit from a semi-estranged brother who shared a secret.
And yet, the convincing portrayal of an abusive relationship is a weakness as well as a strength. There was a time when a play like this would have been a shocking revelation as to a marriage turned wrong; nowadays, however, everyone agrees domestic violence exists and it’s bad. So much time is spent going into detail of a well-known kind of abusive relationship, there isn’t much chance to be distinctive. And this is where I think they missed a trick. The by-line for the play was billed as “To the outside world, Tom and Polly are just an ordinary couple”, but we don’t see that much of the outside world’s perspective. This play could have been very effective showing the perspective from the outside world, as the illusion of the happy marriage slowly unravels, but most of the play directly depicts what goes on between Tom and Polly, with the outside world very much a secondary plot. One moment that handled this well was a conversation where Polly explains to her sister why she’s given up writing, cutting to and from the scene where Tom forces her to give it up. That sharp contrast was the best thing the play did to show how different the perspectives are of the outside and inside world; I would have looked into do more of they play like that – maybe even all of it.
I’ve nothing to fault with the production of the play though. It was pretty reckless to put such a large cast on to such a small stage, but, hey, they got away it, manoeuvring themselves though such a tight space to avoid any collisions. Special mention to Millin Thomas for his role as Tom: in real life he looks like the sort of person who wouldn’t hurt a fly, but on stage he mixed and aggression to produce the confused monster of a husband. If there’s one piece of advice I would give, it’s: don’t feel the need to explain the rights and wrongs of everything in the script. You don’t need to, that’s portrayed well enough in the story already. This won’t be the first play to explain why domestic violence is bad, but whichever was this play goes now, it doubtless gives the message loud and clear. This next appear at Etcetera Theatre on the 10th-13th April if you want to catch it there.
The Unexpected Guest
Now from new writing to old writing. Again, a bit of a liberty including the People’s Theatre in the list, and an Agatha Christie classic isn’t really fringe theatre, but I’m using a loose definition of low-budget productions, okay? Unlike Between a Man and a Woman, there’s few points to be scored here for originality or risk-taking, but it’s fine production of a fine play.
Household name though Agatha Christie is, I’m not an automatic fan of her plays. However, The Unexpected Guest‘s opening scene is, in my opinion, Christie’s best single scene in the play. A two-hander almost throughout, the story begin where Michael Starkwedder, stranded after a road accident, wanders into a house to find Laura Warwick, standing with a gun in her hand over her dead husband Richard, confessing to his murder. Rather than turn her in, Michael insists on concocting an alibi for her, pinning the blame on a hopefully-untraceable man in Canada. But the holes in these stories – both the ones they told each other and the one they cooked up together – will emerge in due course.
Where this play stands up where some other don’t (including, in my opinion, her her most famous one) is the characterisation. A lot of her works, especially the stage plays, don’t really develop characters beyond the minimum needed for their alibis and possible motives. This one goes a lot deeper, thanks in part to the opening scene, but also beyond that. Perhaps the most interesting character is the one of Richard, the deceased himself. Once a well-respected man, later a cantankerous man after a hunting accident leaves him wheelchair bound, Michael’s key observation is that the cantankerous man Richard because was most likely the man he was all along, just less facade. There’s all sorts of things that aren’t right about the opening scene, but it’s only when the truth is finally confessed that it really makes sense. In fact, the only real reservation I have about the script is Christie’s over-reliance on secrets being confided in a drawing room where anyone could earwig, especially when that’s exactly what happens.
I am used to the People’s Theatre providing good productions, and this was no exception, with the usual strong cast. My favourite was probably Callum Morston as Richard’s half-brother Jan whose bullied self becomes a very different person once he has the chance to be respected and feared. I did feel the directed over-used the devise of delivering important lines to the front of the stage away from the person they’re talking to; that’;s one of my pet peeves. But that’s only a small reservation, and if you like your Christies and your whodunnits, you won’t be disappointed with the People’s.
Before Alphabetti Theatre moves venues in March – something they seem quite confident the last time I asked – they’ve been busy booking in a lot of well-regarded fringe acts. The one I caught was Chopping Chillies, written and performed by Clair Whitefield. Whilst you might not recognise the name, you will probably recognise the name of director Guy Masterston. This is a solo performance told in third-person. Normally I’m not to keen on this format because it rarely amounts to something more than storytelling, but this defied expectations and was a very pleasing piece to watch.
But before you get too relaxed and assume this is an undemanding piece about cooking Indian food, a word of warning: you are going to have to wait a long time before any chillies get chopped. In fact, that goes for any kind of food, vegetable or otherwise. This story is not about young Katie who sets up a gourmet Indian cafe , but Ajna in the cobbler’s shop next door. He’s only there because he inherited it from an uncle of his. And even so, he had no use for it having been perfectly happy with his family in India. That is, until he lost them all in a fire and couldn’t bear to stay where he has any longer. And you thought this was this was going to be a nice cheery play about cookery, didn’t you?
And yet, in spite of everything pointing to the opposite, it is a cheery play. Yes, really. Having had no choice but to detach himself from all emotion of his own, Ajna run the shop thinking more about the hopes and needs of others. There’s a lot of echoes of Amelie in the story, as Ajna finds devious ways of giving his customers what they really need in disguise as a shoe repair, and whilst some of stories take a few liberties on realism, it’s an unexpectedly nice counterbalance to the tragedy that went before. Only when Katie (nominally played by Clair) moves in next door does Ajna become ready to face his past.
Solo plays, especially ones written in third person, frequently get unstuck when it comes to acting it. Even the best story in the world falters if what you see on stage is dull and static. However, Masterston and Whitefield between them pull every trick in the book to change this from a monologue to a play. I don’t remember a single moment in the play when the action was reduced to reciting the lines. This play was one of the best-performing ones at the Edinburgh Fringe, and deservedly so. So well done, I may be prepared to reconsider my reservation to third-person monologues after this.
Finally, a play from Steve Gilroy, one of his many verbatim plays (or, more accurately, edited verbatim), as usual in partnership with Live Theatre. His most famous play is Motherland, which was extraordinarily successful at the Edinburgh Fringe a few years back, based one the words of wives and mothers of servicemen during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This play, however, explores the subject of dementia. Three couples are interviewed, as is a support group for husbands, wives and partners who lost those to the illness. The beginning was particularly poignant? “Do you remember our first kiss in the park, 26 years ago?” In this case, not necessarily.
This play basically does what it says on the tin. It covers a lot of ground, partly the trials of the dementia sufferers themselves, but mostly the trials of the people who look after them – and, in one case, in a family at high genetic risk, a woman who has early onset herself looking after a mother much futher down the line. One theme that kept cropping up, unfortunately, is the lack of care in various care homes. Oh dear, I thought we might be past that.
That much was to be expected. One additional touch that might not have been expected was the lives of the three couples before the illness came. I’m glad Steve Gilroy did that, because it gives the message that there’s more to these people than the dementia. The touch I really didn’t expect, however – and I’m not sure Gilroy expected it either – was the laughs in the first 20 minutes from one of the couples. Gallows humours maybe, but humour it is.
I am obliged by my own rules to say that this was a script-in-hand work in progress, and allowances should be made for that, but to be honest, I barely need to. It was acted so well that after the first five minutes, you forget about the scripts all over the stage. Other than that, the only real giveaway of a work in progress was a 60-minute play overrunning to 75 minutes, which I’ll let them off. As always with verbatim theatre, there will be those who don’t warm to this format – if you thought the stories from Motherland would have been better done as a TV documentary, you’ll probably think the same about Each Piece. But if you like this format, I’m confident you’ll like this. Here’s hoping the full version appears in due course.
And that’s all for January. Stay tuned for February where I expect a pretty intensive fringe theatre session at the Vault festival.