[Review] VAULT Festival 2017: Inner City Pressures and Talking Balloons (11/2/17)
Wrapping up our coverage of the VAULT Festival this week we have reviews of
Save + Quit by Hairpin Productions
Save + Quit deals with cities and the lives that inhabit them. Specifically, London and Dublin. Written by Sophia Leuner and directed by Billie De Buitlearneur, Save + Quit is a phenomenal exercise in stripped down theatre, consisting of two sets of two intersecting monologues, with just the lights, two chairs and the players.
Even amongst fringe productions, such stripped back theatre is rare and possess some kind of prop or gimmick at the end. Save + Quit is fancy free, and completely reliant on its script and actors’ delivery. But the risk pays off, and what results is a play that hits hard, speaks to the soul and strikes at all the right emotional chords.
In the first half of the show, we’re introduced to born and bred Londoner Joe (Eddie Robinson) and recent graduate Steph from Hull (Josie Charles). Joe attempts to get through the daily routine of life while he works in a pub, deals with his mother and thinks back to happier days when his dad was still alive, while Steph attempts to understand why everyone in the London school she teaches in is so cold, learning to get to grips with inner city living. Both Robinson and Charles are exceptionally talented at mimicking other characters, and truly draws you into their world. The first half also manages to touch on a myriad of issues, from council bureaucracy to the poverty gap, despite not possessing a complicated plot or being driven by urgency. There’s a casualness to the way their stories are told that keeps your attention completely focused, conversational yet arresting, and both actors perform these to perfection. It never feels false, completely believable and the kinds of people one undoubtedly has encountered in real life. Robinson’s pacing as Joe when he recounts meeting his ex-girlfriend at the pub is pitch perfect, and Charles possesses a rare charm to her that makes her young enthusiasm something to root for, and not annoying, as it may come across with a less capable actress.
In the second half of Save+Quit, we’re relocated to Dublin, where old friends Cara (Niamh Branigan) and Dylan (Michael Kiersey) drift apart as they go their separate ways, drawn together one last time upon a shared loss. This is by far the more emotional of the two stories, and there’s a tragedy in the inevitability of their fractured friendship while they traipse through the city, the urban landscape’s familiarity somehow making solace even harder to find. Both Cara and Dylan are complex characters, on the brink of proper adulthood, yet burdened with the weight of their lives and each other. It’s well heartbreaking, and both Branigan and Kiersey manage to give performances that mix attitude, wit and relatability all in one, universal kinds of characters that remain extremely rooted in reality. When Cara recounts her favourite story of her mother going to the fish market, there’s a warmth in Branigan’s voice that brings the image to life, while Dylan’s descriptions and mimicry of the people he encounters are supported by his sincerity onstage.
The talented Leuner’s script is extremely easy to listen to, and is simultaneously amusing, heartbreaking and poetic. There’s a particularly strong metaphor that arises in the first half where Joe talks about how he used to play a racing game on the Xbox with his dad, and relives those moments through the game’s ‘ghost driver’ feature, where a player can play against the best saved score with a spectral, virtual racer representing his dad. It’s so hard to find scripts that genuinely speak to the soul and manage to be so real, so lyrical and so so good. It’s going to be hard to top this, but I believe Leuner has it in her to have a repeat performance (one can hope) because Save+Quit truly is a piece that manages to recreate her locations with visceral, tactile language, and given love and life through simple, yet effective stories of people. Hairpin Productions has reached out and truly connected with its viewers, and we can only hope to see more great work in future, and bring in a little more warmth to these cold capitals.
This Must Be The Place by Poleroid Theatre
Photo Credit: Matthew Foster
Written by RSC alumni Brad Birch and Kenneth Emson, This Must Be The Place riffs on extremely similar inner city themes to Save+Quit, this time with Manchester and London. Dealing not with solace of the city and instead an attempt to find an escape though, This Must Be The Place plays out quite differently.
James Cooney plays Adam, a young man in his 20s sick of the hipster culture, sick of the conforming of city life and the interconnectedness of technology. Upon having a moment, he drops his phone into the Thames on purpose, and heads home. Girlfriend Lily (Molly Roberts) is unable to reach him and worries sick before he arrives home safe and sound, but the cogs of Adam’s mind continue spinning, and eventually, he runs away from London back home, haunted by memories of his father, attempting to get away from it all. There’s a lot of fading in and out of reality here, and it can be hard to tell when Adam is dreaming or actually jumping barriers and escaping to the wilds of Greater London, but there’s a magic in the way his dilemma is scripted, constantly worrying for Adam’s health. One wishes Lily was given more to do than being given a stereotypical girlfriend who wants to start a family type role, but it does enhance Adam’s fear of settling into comfortable routines. The anger at people’s obsessions with social media is a well worn topic, but in the capable hands of Birch and Emson, is given new urgency once again.
In a parallel storyline, Feliks Mathur and Hamish Rush play friends from Manchester waiting for a man in the forest to whisk them away to his flat in London. The two exchange witty banter at first, and all is lighthearted until the reasons for their leaving Manchester is revealed, and the story turns dark. The mysterious man grows increasingly later and dodgier with each passing second, and the spectre of a doubt creeps into both their minds, their fantasy version of London slowly fading away. Mathur and Rush have great chemistry onstage, and are often the reason for the laughs This Must Be The Place offers, but also manage to show off their emotional side when things get tense, showcasing their acting strengths.
Although the two storylines don’t always meld, one wonders what it’d be like if either storyline had been given more time to be fleshed out and given a more conclusive ending. The limited time a fringe type show offers hinders the play from having a more full picture, but what glimpse we do get here piques the audience’s interest enough to bring up interesting questions about place and whether we ought to keep finding a place where we truly belong, or attempt to settle and get used to something we’re not entirely comfortable with.
Don’t Let Me Down by Andy Goddard
Andy Goddard directs and produces podcast Wooden Overcoats, and here, employs Wooden Overcoats regular Ciara Baxendale in a solo show about a girl coping with death at a young age.
Baxendale plays Tess, a twenty year old recounting an incident in her childhood. Tess’ father dies when she is only 6, and her mum quickly replaces him with Mike, a man living in a large mansion in Bury, who Tess immediately dislikes. Compared to her witty, inventive and joyous father, Mike is unable to connect with Tess or understand her in the same way. On her eighth birthday, after a row, Tess is given a balloon by Mike. In her mind’s eye, the balloon takes on her father’s voice, and she embarks on a stress-induced, dark fairytale-like adventure, blowing up schools, stealing party snacks and framing men for sexual abuse.
All of this sounds extremely dark, and it is, but Baxendale is an engaging storyteller, mixing these accounts with the light humour of a distressed child, and Goddard’s visceral, script helps draw the audience into the magical, disturbed world of Tess’ childhood. Baxendale wields her limited props with ease, particularly her demonic red balloon who grows more sinister as he grows in size. Her energetic voice brings out a childhood petulance that really brings her story to life, coupled with help from some interesting tech, with projections of blurred childhood photos and animated drawings of the crimes committed, memory becomes re-creation in Don’t Let Me Down, and there’s an edge of wistful nostalgia for the innocence and imagination of childhood that’s easily transformed into horror when faced with loss and the lack of a coping mechanism.
Don’t Let Me Down will convince you that children do occasionally get possessed by the devil, yet Tess’ actions are understandable, if a little over the top. Tess manages to recount enough of her father that the audience sympathizes that Mike can never come close to replacing him, and the realization that such a man will most likely never come back into her life again spur her into a grief induced rage. Although Goddard offers no easy solutions to coping with death, his script and Tess’ antics will certainly be memorable, and the image of a red balloon with a dead, black marker smile might haunt you for a good while to come.