This has meant that the faces of audience members become familiar and that acquaintances have been made. In other words, it’s a proper festival generating the right sort of atmosphere and sense of adventurous enjoyment. As well as the Escalator initiative productions there have been a number of others setting out on the fringe festival route and at least a couple which fully deserve longer exposure. Some need a lot more work, but a play really only comes to life when it is taken off the page and presented to an audience in its three-dimensional guise. That’s equally true for a one-person or full-cast show.
Catcher is written by Richard Hurford and tells the story of the night before John Lennon was shot by Mark Chapman. It’s a concentrated drama with only two on-stage characters – Chapman himself and the call-girl who came to his hotel room. So much is fact, as is Chapman’s initial idolising of Lennon and his obsession with J D Salinger’s novel The Ctacher in the Rye. The drama intensifies as a straight-forward commercial transaction mutates into an exploration of mind-warping emotions.Mitzi Jones and Ronan Summrs are both excellent in Suzann McLean’s production.
Also memorable in a different way is Rain From a Dry Sky by Neil Fleming given in a performed reading directed by Geoff Church. Anyone who has ever suffered management-speak will have empathy with Hugo Shackleton, a beleaguered CEO as the inaptly named Verity consultancy firm starts its work. The second act is a little too disjointed and needs trimming but the characterisations are all good and the performances equally so. I particularly liked Christopher Ettridge as a modern Lucifer confined to a wheelchair and Sian Webber as Hugo’s wife.
Nicola Werenowska’s play about a Polish woman and her teenage son trying to fit into a new life in Colchester Tu/Teraz has its moments but this rehearsed reading was something of an object lesson in how not to do it. It was well cast – Amanda Haberland, Gina Isaac, Gus Gallagher and Andrew Livingstone – but suffered from a bad attack of the mumbles and little immediate sense of the relationship between the two sisters Marysia and Anna. Slightly surreal but presented with the utmost conviction is The Man I Cure in which Daniel Holme plays the wartime airman who finds himself in a sanatorium run by nurses Anna Beecher and Rachel Lincoln. We are their patients as well, while different types of curative escape are explored.
Spooky things also happen with Wolf where nine actor-dancer-singer performers draw us into their lupine world. Facts and fictions, folk tales and fairy stories blend as we are surrounded and partly herded by the wolf pack; menace is there as well as an appeal for understanding. Kath Burlinson’s production of the text by Iain Finlay Macleod and score by Kerry Andrew manages to avoid any hint of sentimentality. These are wild animals and they behave accordingly. There’s irony also in the triple-authored True Love Waits in which three women write to a man on Death Row. Devout Catholic Judith (Rowena Lennon) wants to save his soul, though she would do better to look to her own salvation. Alice (Natasha James) was the murderer’s partner. Young British Charlotte (Abi Hood) projects her teenage frustrations with friends and family – not to mention sexual fantasies – onto him. It’s short and intensely gripping.
Of the one-person shows, the best was Almost 10 by Raphaele Moussafir], directed by Daniel Goldman and brilliantly personified by Caroline Norton. Rachel is a not-so-nice Jewish girl with a slightly skewed understanding of adult attitudes and concerns who is brought up short when she loses her friend, Hortense. Even if you’re well past your own childhood, Rachel rings true. It’s deliberately made difficult to separate fact from fiction in Leo Kay’s It’s Like He’s Knocking which explores various levels of coincidence within the setting of a small dark room as fragments from connected lives are described and shared.
When I saw it, Jack Thorne’s new piece was called The Siege; it is now apparently called Bunny after its narrator, yet another troubled teenage girl. Katie McGuinness guides us through a slice of urban life which acquires a dangerous momentum as an apparent affront to her boy-friend attracts ever-new layers of racial and gang-culture violence. It has its moments, but they’re too few. Stolen Voices is a one-woman show by Neyire Ashworth who has composed a delicate musical accompaniment in minor-key cadences for the clarinet. Like Tu/Teraz it’s about life in another country but Ashworth fully engages the audience’s sympathies for the story of a Turkish woman political activist forced into exile.
Sympathy is presumably what you’re meant to feel for Chris Williams as a comedian who loses his stage partner. What Do You Think Of It So Far? is a dangerous question to ask; it invites the too-ready response of “Rubbish!”. It’s too drawn out, far too self-indulgent and in sore need of a director who knows when and what to cut. There’s also an element of self-indulgence in 6.0: How Heap and Pebble Took On the World, which combines a spoof about ice-dancing with a lesson on climate change. It’s clever enough, quite good fun but does try just a bit too hard to please.
Impressive in its use of film, mime, music and surtitled dialogue mainly in colloquial French is Tales From the Bar of Lost Souls (Bar aux Esprits Perdus adds a couple of layers less obvious in the English title). Three framed spaces display the five main characters while a dying man tells their story to a young woman who may, or may not, be his daughter. A naïve young sailor on shore leave with two shipmates meets a chanteuse in a bar, deserts and – when she falls pregnant – falls deeper and deeper into degradation and crime in his efforts to earn money. It works very well. So will Orpheus and Eurydice in a version which updates the story to that of a pop star and a top model and which combines circus skills with more conventional theatre ones. This New Wolsey Theatre production opened the festival. I suspect we’ll see it again in a full-developed version.