The Play’s The Thing Theatre Company
When you walk through the sliding doors of one of Milton Keynes’ ubiquitous, faceless office blocks and ascend the lift to the 3rd floor, you don’t expect to end up being transported into a theatre. But this is exactly what local professional theatre company, The Play’s The Thing, manages in beaming you up to another world. It’s momentarily like being Spock, it seems illogical.
But there is nothing illogical about wanting to engage with new playwriting in an alien world. The theatre space created inside Norfolk House makes you forget where you are in reality and embraces you in the unreality of drama. The recent One Act Play Festival, produced and directed by Rosemary Hill, was a great opportunity to engage with four new works, each so different in style and pace, it was as if a repertory theatre had finally graced the city with its talented ensemble cast and crew.
“Sea Monkey Killers” by Francis Grin swaps the novelty aquarium pets for human beings when research academic, Gina (played by Carly Halse and Sarah Dyas as her subconscious stream of thought) questions the nature of human kindness. Her disastrous, self-obsessed and questionable research methodology leads her to ‘adopt’ a pet subject (herself in disguise) to Jill (Heidi-Karin Meldrum) whom she believes demonstrates the ultimate act of human kindness by agreeing to give her (disguised as an illegal immigrant and unable to seek healthcare) anti-depressant medication. What she doesn’t bargain for is that Jill has her own intentions;’ still grieving at the loss of her girlfriend, she wants to take her own life, on camera, and she persuades Gina to film it, to give her work that unique edge that makes her research into a powerful piece of art. But why would Gina agree to such malpractice? That’s because Gina has been forced to forensically examine her own personal life which has been a total disaster with fellow academic, D (Richard Galloway). All four actors gave us sensitive and fiery performances that kept the narrative and plot weaving in and out of reality.
“The Wedding Party” by Julia Pascal pushes the ‘art’ of interrogation to the limits and delivers the unexpected. A hooded terrorist suspect is subject to a barrage of questions and accusations by Aella (Clare Gollop) but the prisoner remains mute throughout, sometimes slumping, sometimes aroused, on his chair, but always with his back to the audience. This was the faceless, nameless presence of terrorism, acting seemingly indiscriminately, targeting civilians in cafes in a city unnamed that could be anywhere. Which was, to me, part of the point of the piece. But the twist was there was another stage presence, a shrouded corpse that haunted Aella’s space, with good reason. For this appears to have been her fiancés body, himself murdered in the 11am café carnage inflicted by the Prisoner (Richard Galloway). We’re not made aware of this until the end of Clare Gollop’s intensely driven monologue nears its end: passionate, angry, taunting and at a loss, her performance draws you in, leaving you thinking, what will she do next?
Natalie Baker’s “What We Are Now” is a finely drawn ‘Un-birthday party’ in which she’s able to make humour and personal tragedy sit happily side by side. It's Tom’s (Simon Morgan) 31st birthday – but it’s not a cause for celebration as far as he is concerned in his supervised care home where he is receiving treatment for some kind of breakdown, beautifully exemplified by Simon’s monosyllabic responses, visible annoyance and OCD reactions. It’s very amusing as Sarah Dyas plays Fran, cheerfully interrupting his moods with her Iceland buffet snack selection and balloons. Caroline Mann, as the psychotherapist, Jo, gives us the more mannered and analytical response, again, very funny when the rules and regulations appear un-adhered to. Especially when Tom’s surprise birthday unwelcome visitor, the bright and bubbly Anna (Heidi-Karin Meldrum) turns out to be Tom’s wife. But underneath this humorous disruption, you get a sense of sadness from her, we feel a sympathy towards her as well as with Tom. The breakdown we do understand is their marriage and if Tom blames Anna for the death of his beloved dog, Hattie, then that's really only part of the obvious problem. What’s happened in their heads since can only really be imagined and perhaps, never examined fully, which is the question the play cleverly raises. This play uses humour and unhappiness to great effect, it swings between the two constantly and Natalie is to be congratulated for taking a difficult subject and giving us so many angles to view it from.
Finally, we have a piece by Ryan Vernel “Decorating Pavements” which was a cross between a very mischievous ‘Men Behaving Badly’ and the naughtiest episode of ‘Friends’ the TV series never had the balls to explore. Four housemates in their early to mid-20s, two girls, two boys, a harrowing (offstage) suicide, lots of alcohol, vomiting (off stage) and philosophising about love and life. It was a riot of comedy with lots of one liners, cod love and life advice dispensed (mainly by motor mouth Barry – Richard Galloway) to sponge like, but likeable Aaron (played with puppy like charm and charisma by Chris Townsend), the emotionally distant Sian (Carly Halse) and the really-wanting-to-be-in-a-relationship-with Barry, Sam (Sarah Dyas). What was hilarious is that this crisp and fast paced script showed all characters knowing all too much about everyone else and yet very little about themselves, or at least, having the courage to do anything about it. When Barry persuades Aaron to make a play for Sian it’s like a revelation to him that she would be interested, though it’s obvious to Barry that Aaron is in love with her. It’s painful to watch Sian gently knock Aaron back but of course, all’s well that ends well when finally they all manage to see what’s right in front of their noses and love (or at least, lust) blossoms all round. But you do get the feeling that Vernel gives us all hope for his characters – perhaps for us all that are in need of it. The cast were amazing. A great way to end a great evening.
Rosemary Hill directed all four pieces fantastically and all four felt different since she reflected the different styles and pace of each. The whole production and team work involved – and not forgetting all of the backstage crew involved from design, lights, sound, stage management and FOH – made this such a memorable event and for my part, I was very happy to see a large crowd supporting it, proving there is an audience for new writing and in Milton Keynes, to boot!