Saturday, October 27, 2018

Review: 'Pickle Jar' at the Soho Theatre, 25th October 2018

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Pickle Jar takes is full of strange similes, so I'm going to describe it as a creamy and relaxing korma with a ghost chilli lurking at the bottom. Or maybe a room full of playful kittens frolicking around a cobra. Ooh, or a bag of pick n' mix with one cyanide capsule thrown in. You get the idea

Written and performed by Maddie Rice, who garnered a whole bunch of praise for playing Phoebe Waller Bridge's role in the Fleabag tour, this is a one-woman play about a young English literature teacher at a girl's school near Guildford. Known only as 'Miss', she's awkward, funny, cute and cares a great deal about her pupils.

Over the course of an hour, Rice conjures a detailed picture of life in the school, meeting her fellow teachers and some of the pupils she teaches. It's honest, straightforward writing that combines with Rice's charisma to conjure up a properly three-dimensional world around her. Though the set is an abstract grey piece of linoleum with some weeds poking through it's very easy to picture a dowdy tea-stained staff room, the woozily loud interior of a shitty club and a packed classroom full of kids.

Within this, her characters spring to life. 'Miss' is a self-deprecating but passionate woman who uses her innate awkwardness to empathise with the problems of her teenage pupils. Though her past mostly goes unsaid, her actions within the play and the odd off-hand comment make it easy to imagine her own schooldays. Plus, every supporting character is brought to life in a heightened, caricatured way - with the highlights being the dippy and annoying school counsellor and her fellow teacher/housemate/best friend.

The first thing you realise when watching is just how talented a comedian Rice is. She reminds me a bit of Rachel Bloom in the excellent TV show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, making us laugh at her while also feeling desperately sorry for her. Rice is so funny that she passes my tried n' tested 'every comedy must make me laugh out loud three times or it sucks' test in about 60 seconds. Perhaps the best litmus test of how much the audience was enjoying it is that one woman got a bad case of the giggles and throughout one of the more serious moments you could hear her feebly suppressing her chuckles in the back row.

The fact that it's so funny makes the sudden tonal shifts to seriousness that much more jarring. Rice sadistically teases the audience with a couple of fakeouts early on in the show, before eventually descending to some pretty dark depths. No good critic would spoil what actually happens in the show, but it's pretty damn moving.

Pickle Jar is a great example of what can be achieved without too much theatrical frippery. This is one woman on stage delivering what an extended monologue, but manages to encompass more reality and humanity than nearly every razzle-dazzle show you'll see on Shaftesbury Avenue. I definitely recommend checking it out.

Pickle Jar is at the Soho Theatre until 10 November. Tickets here.

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