FringeReview UK 2021
Directed by Collette Parker on March 19th. Curated by co-founder Mary Chater. Previous readings of four new plays including the winners took place on Thursday 11th.
Lockdown, Taboo and You is a Shakespeare in Italy initiative responding to lockdown and in partnership with Props Mental Health, specifically designed to provide mental health training across the arts and entertainment industry to all, from directors and managers to actors. It’s run by Laura Duthie Couper.
An inspiring competition with 91 entries, the first four winners were premiered on March 11th, and tonight we have five further runners-up with a new set of rehearsed readings.
After the first competition based around The Decameron, these nine short plays herald in this second competition a new reach for Mary Chater and Collette Parker’s Shakespeare in Italy.
Their productions and masterclasses another with Janet Suzman follows on March 22nd – are legendary enough. These competitions though will hopefully outlast the lockdown that prompted their latest inception. These were already – albeit differently – in the pipes beforehand, with plays in women’s prisons being another outreach project, currently on hold.
Each play this time lasts roughly 15-20 minutes. Though one or two could adapt to radio – particularly the first two – there’s an inherent theatricality, particularly in the third – yelling to be let out.
Each play too touches on quite complex mental health issues, obliquely and subtly brought in. Sometimes there’s more than one person suffering. The quintet tonight are frequently more layered, occasionally more confusing as presented on zoom, and suggest rich potential elsewhere.
Simon Blacksell All Fall Down
Gerald: Jeremy Peckham
Judith: Mary Chater
Gillian: Emma Rayner
Radio Voice: Quentin
This play’s patient unwinding works as a falling-down of illusions. Storm warnings, jumpy prophesies. A couple in later middle age – Gerald (Jeremy Peckham) and Mary Chater’s Judith – are baffled at the strange smells emanating from plumbing in their creaking house during lockdown. Their svelte financier son Alex is coming to lunch. There’s vocalized stage directions from Collette Parker – in a radio play these might morph into FX.
The doorbell elicits a disappointment – their daughter Gillian – a concerned Emma Rayner -with unasked-for shopping, but she’s located a ponging dead rat and drops it into the bin. Judith resents her daughter more than Gerald does who at least offers her a drink. Peckham delivers this convincingly too in a kitchen.
The play ratchets up – the couple have never encountered a mask before. Gillian’s expensive education has led to working in a woman’s refuge Judith complains, and she’s jealous, never speaks to successful Alex. She has to inform them Alex is self-isolating, and no she’s not jealous of his glistening job.
After she leaves promising a social worker, there’s a noise upstairs, an abrupt surprise and denouement. No spoiler but it’s an unsettling, eerie play with a remarkable unanswered question. Strong performances from all three actors.
Sue Bevan One Touch of Nature
Monologue: Collette Parker
The director herself stars in this monologue against a suitable backdrop with flowers. A woman of fifty laments her lot with a deal of wit and breaking a few taboos – including menopause and sexual invisibility. The monologue shifts focus so we inhabit a younger woman wolf-whistled but it’s essentially a wry meditation on ageing, sex dating sites and loneliness. Just as she’s ready for her first dates, lockdown comes. It’s touch the narrator craves, and sparing Shakespeare quotes enrich her resignation and make a telling point. Parker delivers this magisterially, with a vocally-shaded steadiness to a moving conclusion.
Gemma Al-Khayat Verona Virus
Adam: Faisal Mohiuddin
Laura: Karin De Ponti
A larger-scaled play follows – indeed Act One scene One promises it. An initially distanced former couple – clearly no longer in the first flush – contemplate St Valentine’s Day, which Adam (a mysterious gentle performance from Faisal Mohiuddin) has wholly forgotten till Laura’s barbed comments recalls it to him. He calls her Rubenseque. We’re in 2021 lockdown. Karin De Ponti’s sadness begins slowly as wistfulness, rising throughout.
Shakespeare’s referenced here, but it’s a pub. Laura’s unhappy misadventures seem to embarrass younger men, especially carrying out dead guinea-pigs. She’s forty in sixteen days. Adam’s sympathetic but there’s a very good reason he can’t help.
Though forty’s no age the same meditation on being older and attracting the wrong man and soon none at all suffuses this play as in Bevan’s. Watching the 1996 film, Romeo and Juliet’s invoked ‘in fair Corona where we lay our scene’ and there’s an excellent reason to riff on that. Adam though invokes Hamlet. They crash out watching TV. For a moment.
A profound meditation on grief, loss and Shakespeare’s plot as metaphor, this work too sucker-punches. There’s a film this references obliquely, but that would be telling. Evocative performances, and costume!
Anna McNutt What’s Thicker Than Love
Elaine: Tiffany Sian Parker
Francis: Kate Hargreaves
Alex: Emily Rayner
Sheila: Ida Casilli
Elaine’s visiting her family home in Hungary: it’s complicated and we get cut-away monologues from the main protagonist – interrupted with other voices.
Three sisters share an British father, but their Hungarian mother, has returned two sisters to her home country.
Elaine’s hardly welcomed with unmixed joy. half-sister Francis, who answers upbraids her for not wearing a mask. Mother Sheila’s quite hostile, and youngest Alex hides away. But confides her depression to Tiffany Sian Parker’s can-do pragmatic Elaine contrasts with Emily Rayner’s sparky animated Alex.
Elaine’s not as obsessed with wearing a ask outdoors with no-one but her sister – and delivers truths. Pointing out how much more she knows about actual risk – including travelling to this house – you find Parker taking her monologues too with unfolding authority, with a complex family tale to share. Yet Elaine’s a poet, disdained by her parents from the start.
Alex’s anxiety dominates. Francis (Kate Hargreaves doubles as an alert Dr Vass) is less in evidence. Vass wants to hospitalize Alex, but as a gay young woman in that system she’ll not survive, Elaine insists.
Ida Casilli’s role as the withdrawn Sheila is a challenge she leans into. An impending operation has meant she forbids Alex any mixing save with her sisters.
There’s a provisional set of truces to get through. This is a play that would really benefit from live theatrical production, because of its complexity. Strong performances, with Parker and Rayner carrying the emotional freight with conviction
Sergio Cortes Allsopp Afresh
Joe: Conor Sheridan
Mrs Bridges: Jayne Bridges
Carol: Mary Chater
Sandra: Collette Parker
Albert: Giacomo Tarsi
Jayne Bridges playing her namesake Mrs Bridges ,a spiky woman suspicious of Conor Sheridan ‘s affable young Joe, delivering fruit. He’s twenty and non-plussed by her hostility: he’s known her all his life, but she doesn’t quite get it. Or seems not to. She taps her aluminium leg lovingly.
This is a cleverly inverted play. Bridges with her covid coins ‘spat on especially for you’ knows exactly what Joe fears, though as he ripostes, he has more to live for than Mrs Bridges, she’s old. Mr Bridges is out on a walk….
His mother Carol – Mary Chater – sprays Joe with disinfectant and home truths. There’s some good lines through to this play, one of the two wittiest of this evening’s five. ‘Am I embarrassing you in front of no-one?’ Chater relishes this off-cuffed delivery of bon-mots.
There’s spiky interplay between Sheridan and Bridges who insists Joe come in: he refuses, out of distancing but is inveigled to deliver more fruit, finding the previous week’s rotting. Chater’s Carol is another mother who seems somehow tuned-out, but reveals a laid-back wisdom as well as a few secrets of her own.
Joe has anxieties of his own. He’s not left the house since A levels. There’s a development. Next visit Joe encounters Giacomo Tarsi’s hostile Albert who rounds on him, accusing him the cause of Mrs Bridges’ hospitalisation. But as her daughter Collette Parker’s Sandra brings her round, there’s a ballet of dissonant comedy, full of railings and cartings-off. And a break-through. Strong performances from the core three, and the edgy badinage between Bridges and Sheridan remains a dark delight.
The only possible criticism is that two actors are brought in late in the play, with little to do. With BBC Radio lifting its limits and re-establishing a repertoire company, such things are again far less problematic for radio than for the theatre.
This crop of plays introduce notes of theatricality where the gift of writing for zoom where some quite eruptive happenings can be suggested, as against theatrical effects which truly need live set productions, are played out. More complex, very possibly equally rewarding. Some would work as radio, others – particularly these five – for TV or theatre. Thicker Than Love and Afresh, the most extended and complex plays, pose the most interesting questions for development.
More plays might be excerpted. Watch this space. To stage nine of the 91 plays is a true feat. Shakespeare in Italy have become a small producing wonder, quite apart from their other activities. A third competition will be worth waiting for.