Friday, October 19, 2018

Playing up 8 -Review- Northern Stage

Playing Up 8
Northern Stage
Oct 18th 2018

In any mix of short plays and pieces showcasing new drama talent, some dramatic styles or themes are going to accord with preference. So, this review is not in any way objective. It’s just what I like.

The Birth of Frederica (terrible title btw) By Lewis Cuthbert touches on a hot contemporary issue, one close to my heart, sexism in comedy and the misogynist almost rapey culture that underlies it, especially in its lower dingy reaches of the comedy club scene. Colin Cuthbert is skin-crawlingly convincing as Steve Regal, a sort of Geordie Poundland Louis CK. Shock, harshness and a good dollop of misogyny are the keys to his funny bone – none of this feminist screeching and whining. He’s ably backed up by Sam MacGregor’s Jacky Breggs, a swaggering almost-ran who nearly made the panel of Mock the Week. Together they bully and break down eager Kiki Dunn (Eilidh Talman), changing her act, from whimsical ukulele-playing ramble about bees, to their kind of shock-horror humour (referencing the Manchester Arena bombing a week after the event).
My only criticism of this sharply observed take-down of small-time sexists is that the staging pulled a few punches: it was not shocking enough. The scene where they move in to barrack Kiki, their dies obscure her reaction, so we cannot see the awful human effect of their treatment; ditto when they literally unbutton her. You could argue that the writer-director chose to leave this to the audience’s imagination, that to show it would be unnecessarily voyeuristic. But in this case, the theme demands that the audience is implicated. This is horrible, and it’s done for our entertainment. How do we feel?
And ending with the pair of unrepentant men on stage, rather than Kiki/ Frederica, felt unsatisfactory to me. Too pessimistic: things don’t change. I would like to see this developed into a full-length play, where we could see aspects of Kiki and the comedy scene which belie this pessimism. It is Steve Regal’s dinosaurs, in reality, who are being left behind.

At the other end of the comedy scale, Three by Richard Delroy, directed by Beth O’Doherty, is essentially a clown routine, based on the finding of a man in a suit, unconscious in a back alley. I only knew it was supposed to be a back alley from the programme notes. While the cast (Mark Buckley, Steve Blackshaw, Becky Clayburn) perform the clown business – double-takes, fumbling, attempts to move the body, comic tussles – and deliver the few lines effectively, this kind of sketch requires that they create the space they inhabit, and they didn’t do much of that. It would have been funnier if there had been more mime exploration of their surroundings, and that would have pre-empted audience’s puzzled questions. Why don’t they just phone for help? Because there’s no signal. Where are they then? But a joyful romp, and especial credit going to Mark Buckley as Mr Suit Man, playing an unconscious body, on-stage all the time, is harder than it looks.

Something completely different, Tap (what is it with these crap titles?) by Huw Evans, has an intriguing set-up. Cora (Lynn Huntley) is on the beach at dawn, seal-watching, when Sylvia (Rachel Scott) arrives in pyjamas and robe and starts undressing. What is this ‘private thing’ she wants to do? Cora, the voice of common sense and ordinary everyday loneliness, tries to draw her out. Gradually what emerges is a story much stranger and unexpected. I found this version of the folk myth of the Seal Wife quite haunting.

I wanted to like Mimi Monteith’s Two of a Kind, directed by Humira Imtiaz, so much. The relationship of the two young women, Emma (Gabriaella Pond) and Fliss (Eleanor Beck) was utterly convincing and the dialogue excellent. It felt a bit insubstantial, though, and couldn’t quite carry the implicit twist ending. Maybe it’s the self-referential setting: they are students on a deadline to deliver a script. Or that Fliss’ vulnerability needed to be foreshadowed more. This is obviously a very talented writer. Hopefully we’ll be seeing more of her work, with a longer development.
I felt similarly about Green Tile by Craig Fairbairn, directed by James Barton. It was well acted by Matthew Geddis and Brogan Gilbert, the characters convincing, the dialogue well-written. Yet I didn’t feel it had earned its ending -- almost as if it had been tacked on because ‘we’ve got to stop now’. It might be that it needed longer to explore, twist and stress the relationship, and go into the backstory: what happened at that primary school, to evoke such contrasting reactions in the two protagonists? It was also a bit thin on character background and setting. We know they are a couple and that they went to the same school, but what do they do? How do they get by? It felt strangely timeless and generic, a little world disconnected from anything that’s going on now.

Fassbenderthon by Steve Palace, directed and lead-acted by Dolores Porretta-Brown, was very much the territory of the late Victoria Woods: a village hall, two weirdly obsessed middle-aged women (Dolores Porretta-Brown, Wynn Walton), a young innocent ‘interloper’ Carol (Amy Herdman-Burns), a camp-gothic backstory. Their obsession is the actor, Michael Fassbender, whose little shrine they keep, and the hinted mystery is: what happened to the previous owner of Carol’s cottage? Natasha Haws’ Debbo brings a breath of Tyne fresh air (is there such a thing?) to the stuffy overwrought atmosphere. A funny set-up, competently done, but, Oh! I miss Victoria Woods.

Playing Up theatre Company was formed by Graduates of Live Theatre’s Writers Course. They regularly bring one-off showcases to the Northern Stage’s Stage 3. Worth looking out for them in the new year.

Gerry Byrne

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