This month I’ve published two interviews with the fantastic playwright Matt Fox. He talked to me about his new play and the Swindon Madam Renards Mini Fringe Festival for Ocelot: read it here. And gave some great advice for people interested in writing for theatre — which also happens to be good advice for any aspiring writer. You can read that interview in Pie Magazine here.
I have to make a confession: I have tried my hand at playwriting and as such I get very excited when I see new writing that is challenging and engaging. I do enjoy going to watch Shakespeare and other classics but what really pushes my buttons is finding something new that has been done well.
To Sleep is a dark and comic play about two mismatched suicidal strangers. Martin (Peter Hynds) is a middle aged man who meets Hayley (Ellie Lawrence), an off-the-rails 17 year old, in an A&E waiting room. As the two start to talk to each other they realise they are both there because of failed suicides. It is often those areas in life that are most taboo: sex and death, in which there is the greatest opportunity for comedy. And when dealing with something as intense as suicide it is useful to have a release valve for all that pressure. When done well humour can be that release valve – it’s a brave thing to attempt to do, but it works well in To Sleep.
As the play progresses Martin and Hayley decide they will take their own lives together but it’s not as easy as they had anticipated. They reveal to each other their stories of how they came to feel the way they do. As the two characters journey together towards their own demise they form a bond that would not be possible with anyone else, and they help each other in their own weird way.
Ellie Lawrence’s portrayal of a seventeen year old who has nothing left to live for is close to perfect. There is something in the glamorous but unkempt hair, something in the half rolling of her eyes and condescending tone that tells of someone whose last defence is to push everyone else out.
All that is on stage throughout the play are three chairs which represent everything from a hospital waiting room to a leather sofa. The minimal set has the effect of focusing the attention on the characters and the intense relationship between them. Peter Hynds directs and acts in the play and presents us with a man broken by tragedy but still with a lightness of touch to make him warm and endearing.
Matt Fox’s script was very tight: effortlessly switching between humour and tragedy. The people of Swindon should be proud to be represented by him. His other work includes Swindon The Opera and the Madam Renards Mini Fringe Festival.
The next stop for To Sleep is The Camden Fringe in London on the 20th and 21st of August.
Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film is given an imaginative reinventing in this comic stage production. The story follows the hapless Richard Hannay (Richard Ede) as he accidently discovers a secrete spy ring and is pursued around Scotland whilst trying to find out the truth. Like any good hero, he sets about getting the girl and saving the day while he’s at it. Richard Hannay feels like he’s straight out of a 1930s film, complete with three piece suit and pencil moustache. Ede’s over the top performance adds to the fun absurdity of the whole production.
The highlight of the show was its imaginative use of the set. Rather than being confined by the limitations of telling a story on stage, Maria Aitken’s direction makes use of the props to their full comic potential. Particularly funny is the door on wheels that is slid around the stage to represent every internal and external door in the whole production.
A lot of the comedy comes from playing with the idea of what can be done on stage. The two actors, Tony Bell and Gary Mackay, play a host of characters in hilarious role swapping, gender swapping mayhem. At times it seems difficult to comprehend that there is only a cast of 4 people.
When there are not props sliding around the stage or actors engaging in split second costume changes, the atmosphere is created by cardboard cut-out shadows puppets and conspicuously badly timed smoke machines.
The frantic pace of the show keeps the audience on their toes from beginning to end. There is something wonderfully British about the wacky, over the top characters and the unlikely situations that they find themselves in.
- The 39 Steps is showing at the Wyvern Theatre until the 9th Feb
Beautiful Thing is a love story following two teenagers, Jamie (Dominic Baker) and Ste (Joshua James Foyster). They battle first with themselves, to come to terms with their sexuality, and then against the prejudice that exists in their working class estate.
As much as this is a play about sexuality, it is also about family. We get an insight into Jamie’s complex and often turbulent relationship with his mother (Sarah Lewis). The story takes place outside three houses and these neighbours also become a sort of dysfunctional family. The dark side of family relationships is also explored with abuse and emotional breakdown. But don’t be put off; this is an uplifting story that will leave you with a smile on your face.
The production authentically captures the feeling of the deprived estate where the story takes place. Jamie’s mum and his defiant teenage neighbour, Lea, clash throughout the play. Ella Thomas brings believability to Lea’s larger than life character and Sarah Lewis is utterly convincing as Jamie’s conflicted single mother. The deeply flawed but loveable characters are well thought out and performed in a way that is a pleasure to watch on stage.
- Beautiful thing is showing at Swindon Arts Centre on the 28th & 29th Jan
Before you enter the theatre you are given a polite notice that you should feel free to leave your phones on and, if you like, take pictures. If that seems weird, things are about to get a whole lot stranger in Nassim Soleimanpour’s experimental play.
Nassim Soleimanpour was denied a passport from the Iranian government when he refused to do military service. Not able to travel around the world, his second best option was to write a play that could. He imagines, in the play, all the countries that it might go to, what the cities look like, what the audience looks like and what they will think of it.
Nassim’s presence is felt throughout the play (he even has his own empty seat in the audience). The idea of communicating through the barriers of time and distance by the medium of theatre is something that thrills him.
As you may have guessed by now this is not your average play. And a word of warning to anyone who might feel uncomfortable being part of the story (yes, I mean audience participation, but not only that), you might find it a bit of a challenge.
When you walk in, the theatre is almost completely bare. Every night the play is performed by a new actor. He or she is led onto the stage and given an envelope. Inside is the script. They have never seen it before and experience it for the first time, along with the audience. The only information given to the actor before the show is how to pronounce the writer’s name and that, at some point, they may have to imitate an ostrich.
Everyone is free to make their own decisions. Everyone is responsible for the decisions they make. If there’s something in the script that you think is wrong, should you stop the play? If you’re in the audience and you do nothing, are you complicit? These are the questions that Nassim asks. He also muses on mob mentality and the risks, and rewards, of being singled out as different.
It is less a play and more a conversation with the author. And yes, it’s a two way conversation; he tells you how to contact him and he wants to know what you think. Having a conversation with a random Iranian playwright might seem like a strange way to spend an evening but the play is so absorbing you won’t give it a second thought.
The play is challenging and thought provoking, but also gentle and funny. Whether you end up on stage or not, you won’t be able to forget this play for a while.
- White Rabbit, Red Rabbit is showing at Bristol Old Vic until the 19th Jan