Alison Carr’s new play is a finalist for this venue’s Playwriting Award – reason enough to recommend it. And it’s clear why judges were keen; this is a carefully written, cleverly modest drama of motherhood and mental health that poses important questions, albeit a touch too slowly.
Carr benefits from a classy production: a trio of strong performances, solid direction from Yasmeen Arden and skilful lighting design from Ben Jacobs. The story of Claire visiting her recuperating mother Maeve in the family-run B&B turns into a tale not about an elderly relative but the wellbeing of the younger generation. Both Judith Amsenga and Tricia Kelly depict Carr’s strong characters wisely: there’s just enough sassy humour in Kelly’s affable landlady, while Amsenga brilliantly controls Claire’s flares of anger and panic. These are strong, well-written roles.
Although the guest house is supposed to be closed, a competitor in the annual ‘Birdman’ hang-gliding competition arrives in the middle of the night. Simon comes with a backstory about his hopeful flight off a cliff being a memorial to a dead girlfriend. Impressively, metaphors are kept under control and the character serves as more than a foil to Claire’s depression. It’s a third role containing subtlety that, again, gets a superb performance, this time from Alan Mahon.
There are twists in Caterpillar that ensure you leave the theatre with plenty to think about. But the play spends too long pupating. Startling questions arrive late, so they can be little explored – particularly with Simon’s character. The finale is grim, but shocking rather than moving. While it’s commendable to tackle the subjects of suicide and self-harm without sensation, the structure of the play ends up uneven. Carr’s turns of phrase and a good deal of humour make these flaws easy to ignore, but they stop the play from really taking flight.
The Faction theatre company wastes no time with its new production of Shakespeare’s romantic comedy. Tamarin McGinley’s brilliant Hippolyta is imprisoned in a ring created by her fellow cast members and snarls at her soon-to-be husband Theseus – he wooed with his sword, after all! The startling depiction of their relationship shows a skill at interpreting the text. And the method of using the actors’ bodies rather than props as a cage shows off a signature physical style. Setting out its stall from the get go, this production excites from the very beginning.
Director Mark Leipacher is well aware that the course of true love isn’t supposed to run smooth and injects a tension into the romantic turmoil of the play. When it comes to the Athenian workmen, preparing a play of their own for the nuptial celebrations, the company does just as well with the play’s comedy. Led by Christopher Hughes as Bottom, in blissfully funny thespian form, the transformation into an ass has the cast taking turns as his ears and tail. It’s surprisingly effective and shockingly… sexy. Again, there is an attention to the text that shows an underlying intelligence: this is the first time I’ve been interested in the scene when Bottom is introduced to his fairy attendants.
Physicality is pushed to an extreme at times: the four Athenian lovers, interfered with by magic, end up wrestling one another in the woods – it’s brilliantly done, but you do lose some lines. And with only eight in the cast, the normal doubling of roles becomes a tripling and leads to a truncated finale that loses the witty commentary from those usually watching the show (since the same actors are performing it). But it’s a thrill to see every role embraced by each performer, especially Christopher York, who gets full comic potential out of a trio of parts.
It should be pointed out that a knowledge of the play helps, especially when it comes to the scene changes, crafted using sound and light by Ben Jacobs and Yaiza Varona, respectively – they are beautiful, but might not aid comprehension enough. But the production is full of rewards, with Richard James Neale’s direction of movement continually fascinating and Leipacher’s engagement with the text consistently intelligent. Combined, this is a winning offer and I think it’s magic.
Lazarus Theatre’s production of Christopher Marlowe’s play has much to recommend it. Director Ricky Dukes’ 90-minute adaptation shows a sharp intelligence: practical, dramatically effective and unwilling to patronising the audience. The story of the gay king’s disastrous reign benefits from strong visuals: Dukes and his designer Sorcha Corcoran, working with Ben Jacobs on lighting, produce some marvellous imagery within this tiny space. The creativity and imagination here is the stuff that makes the fringe so great.
The nine-strong ensemble stays on stage throughout and proves a disciplined crew. Making up a rebellious peerage, the actors ensure that confrontations with the King bristle with anger. Andrew Gallo and Jamie O’Neill are especially strong as the brothers Mortimer, with the latter detailing his treachery with a mix of violence and intrigue.
Luke Ward-Wilkinson takes the title role and goes for a fey monarch who is impish and petulant. Arguably, this cheats the play of some tension (conflicts seems a foregone conclusion). And it also short changes Edward’s relationship to his wife – a shame, since Lakesha Cammock makes a very fine Queen Isabella. But Ward-Wilkinson’s decision is committed and consistent, getting humour out of the role as well as passion. It’s also brave. Dukes’ vision for Edward’s notorious assassination is nightmarish, kinky and demands a lot from his cast. The ensemble are all in their pants, with disposable aprons and gloves. Believe me, it’s creepy. The addition of masks goes too far, only causing confusion – are the same characters in disguise and, if so, why bother? But this is not a scene you’re likely to forget in a hurry.
The finale is certainly memorable with Ward-Wilkison naked and sprayed with blood from the ceiling – another memorable tableau. Yet the real strengths of the production are simpler: tight directorial control and technically strong delivery all round. Dukes and his team have produced a piece of remarkable clarity. It may be too blunt for some tastes, but you can’t argue with its force or the skill on stage.