Belt Up are never going to please everyone when they experiment with what theatre can be in 2011. But then, you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. Actually, they don’t make an omelette during their double bill of new writing, although an egg does get broken during a delightfully ill-advised juggling incident.
First up is Atrium, a slippery little play about unreliable narrators. We are personally greeted by born entertainer Malcolm Kinnear (Dominic J. Allen), a man intent on having his life written up into a best-selling book; the thing is, he doesn’t so much play fast and loose with the facts as consider them wholly irrelevant to the story he wants to tell. Atrium’s playwright James Wilkes spends a great deal of time on stage as ghost-writer Paul, trying to coerce Malcolm into cooperating. The levels of meta-theatricality range from the disturbing to the absurd to the hysterical, and at times it’s like a cross between Luigi Pirandello and Harry Hill. For some, it will seem ludicrously indulgent, and many will struggle to keep up with the labyrinthine plots. But then, that’s sort of the point: the audience both shares the frustration of the painfully put-upon writer and revels in the central character’s irrepressible lies; both are, in fact, a pleasure to watch.
The second half of Belt Up’s evening is Alexander Wright’s The Boy James, which explores the state of mind irrecoverably lost in the transition from childhood to maturity. Drawing on the life of J. M. Barrie, Jethro Compton gives a flawless performance as a little boy desperate to remain just that, strongly supported by Lucy Farrett as a girl all too eager to give up her innocence. With audience involvement not merely encouraged but entirely necessary to the plot, the piece combines the beauty of youth’s simplicity with the sharp sting of disenchantment. My one complaint is that The Boy James, like the sense of youth it captures, is all too short, and some of the poignancy of the conclusion is lost in its abruptness. Although, because this is Belt Up, you’re allowed to take matters into your own hands: wanting to linger longer in the moment, I stayed until the rest of the audience had left so I could do something I’d been desperate to do throughout the performance – namely, give a lost boy a comforting hug.
Theatre should make you want to leap out of your seat and intervene, and this talented company allow you to do just that. Belt Up don’t want applause, they want to make you feel, and surely there is no nobler goal for theatre to strive for. While these pieces of new writing aren’t perfect, they are diamonds in the rough: York can feel justly proud of its homegrown talent.