Saturday, January 10, 2015

'The One Festival: Programme C' at The Space, 9th January 2015

Another day, another round of monologues at The One Festival.  These performances are theatre stripped right down to the bone: just a human being, a stage and a story to tell.  I'm loving the process of getting to know performer after performer; letting them draw me into the world they've constructed, be it a sombre, emotionally sincere exploration of the darker portions of the psyche or a light-hearted comedy skit.

First on the slate in Programme C was How it Crumbles by Colleen Osborn, directed by Vanessa Pope and performed by Alex Vincent.  Here we meet a waitress who's just been fired from a Chinese restaurant for tampering with the food.  With a sparky, insouciant demeanour, Vincent draws us through the tedium and time-killing of minimum wage waitressing, painting a quick portrait of the microcosm society that develops inside a restaurant.  Eventually she zeroes on some of their regulars; suspecting that a woman and child are being abused by their partner.  She resolves to do something about it.

Alex Vincent
The waitress is instantly likeable, her conspiratorial tone making the audience feel personally involved.  Though the majority of it is light-hearted, tales about altering fortune cookies to slipping in nuggets of gossip, there's the occasionally slip into more disturbing territory. This makes the monologue a bit like traversing a minefield: you never know which way the emotional pendulum is going to swing next.  For the most part this works gangbusters, quietly and subtly building suspense.  The only moment it comes unstuck is literally in the last second with a cheap 'twist' ending.  It's a weird misstep, not enough to spoil the monologue, but certainly enough to take a bit of the shine off it as you applaud.

Next up is the London murder epic The Case.  We begin on a crowded Hammersmith & City line tube; where our cheeky/cheery/faintly laddy narrator eyes up the carriage; regarding a suspiciously dressed faux-gangster with some disdain, and later turning his nose up at a "spic" student being loved up by a girl who's "all over him like a rash".  Things take a turn for the horrific when the faux gangster gets up and stabs the student, before fleeing the carriage.  Shaken, our narrator retreats to the pub, not quite knowing how to process what he's seen.

Peter Steele
The rest of the show charts the effects this has on his psychology.  He feels guilty, helpless and scared in the face of testifying; but ends up going to the police and eventually arrives at a murder trial at the Old Bailey.  This lengthy monologue, written and directed by Richard Bickley and performed by Peter Steele, impresses in many ways.  The most obvious facet is the ambitious scope of the piece; encompassing months of time, the geography of London and the gradual shift in Steele's personality as he processes his feelings about it.

Steele possesses a wonderfully intense, slightly scary stare that has a whiff of a young Peter Capaldi to it.  Dressed in a smart suit he stalks the stage, constantly fixing members of the audience with a laserbeam gaze, challenging us to believe him and also grant him absolution.  This is buoyed up by marvellous writing; particularly in its use of evocative City slang, easy to visualise paths scratched across the face of central London and the quick, detailed portrait painted of the various institutions we head through.  By the end we feel like we've travelled through the wringer too; faintly exhausted but relieved.

After a much needed interval we begin The Fantastical Tale of the Boy on the Run, which signals a sharp turn into whimsy.  With a giant book on stage, the gangly Tice Oakfield, writing, performing and designing, plays storyteller.  The book gradually reveals itself to be full of pop-up wonders, the London cityscape; a flying pirate ship; an enchanted forest; helicopters and voracious Wizards.  Told in a chaotic, hyper-frenetic style peppered with whoops, yelps and audience interaction it's quite unlike anything else I've seen at the One Festival up to this point.

This is both a positive and a negative.  There is no way I can criticise Oakfield for his imagination, craft skill and enthusiasm - there's a touch of genuine magic in the world he conjures from within his book, each pop-up causing the audience to crane their necks forward to see what wonder will be revealed.  These truly are worthy of praise, my favourite being a carousel that gradually emerges like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis. 

The flip side is that this is touch too whimsical for my liking; the tale less a story and more the narrator delighting in how random he can be.  Maybe I just don't have much of an appetite for self-conscious weirdness, but I bristled a bit as yet another dollop of oddness is piled onto the creaking story.  Still, it's basically fun to watch the pop-ups - maybe actual children would eat this up more than an adult crowd?

Carrie Cohen
Far more my speed and tone is Hula Hoops were my Downfall, a faintly Alan Bennettish exploration of a schoolgirl's passion for Hula Hoops (the spinny thing not the crisps) in 1960s South Wales. Written by Claire Reddaway and performed by Carrie Cohen, her history feels as cosy as slipping into a warm woolly jumper.  As Cohen lays out her childhood we feel pieces begin to slot into a whole; the Kier Hardie toby jug that plays The Red Flag when it's moved; scratchy school skirts on cold knees, rows of terraced houses where everyone knows each other and the quiet inevitability of knowing you're going to end up married to one of the cheeky boys in your class.

But Cohen, dressed in neat boho style and smelling faintly of incense, has obviously escaped this black hole; the force generated by her Hula Hoops saving her from a life of cold, terraced drudgery.  Gradually we learn how the hoops influenced her life; arguing that it sparked an obsession with crazes; I was particularly tickled hearing her explain how much she loved her GameBoy.  There's no great social or intellectual earthquakes here, but it is a straightforward and well-pitched slice of drama, and that's good enough for me.

Last on the bill was SMS by Marianne Powell, performed by Emily Jane Kerr.  The first thing you notice is Kerr's eyes, wide, staring and faintly desperate.  The performance chronicles her foray into online dating; focusing on a wonderful date with the man of her dreams.  He drives a fancy car, is "minted", took her on a date to The Shard and generally sounds like he's wandered out of the pages of a romance novel.

But he never texts back.  Our heroine falls into a spiral of delusion and misery, fretting over the amount of X's she adds to the ends of messages and eventually begins wandering the streets of St John's Wood in an effort to spot his house.  Her behaviour is extreme, but the modern worries over waiting for texts are keenly felt; and there's great observations like preferring WhatsApp because you know when the message has been read.  There's a great cocktail of sadness and humour here; this woman is a caricature, a figure of fun - but she's still instantly recognisable in ourselves.

More to come from The One Festival over the next few days!

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