Reviewers Ella McKeown and James Melville look at some of York Theatre Royal's most recent plays.
The Same Rain that Falls on Me by Logan Jones
Review by Ella McKeown
It might be useful to start this review with the two key reactions this play got from me: I laughed a belly laugh, and I had to rush to the toilets afterwards to cry. Safe to say, this performance got me feeling things as any good piece of work should.
It was in every way a beautiful piece of art. Jay Seldon’s direction really drew out the emotional landscape, creating a piece that felt full-bodied and varied, despite being a monologue dealing with the death of a father. Maria Cook handled the piece with precision and grace, creating a character that both suited the writing, but also spoke to the audience on a relatable level. Her pace and tone were exquisite, and she struck a balance between the dark humour and poignant moments. It was clear that there was a purpose and meaning behind each line.
The piece itself was poetically written and had a clear development. Jones is clearly not afraid to say the things we all think but don’t necessarily have the guts to say aloud. His descriptions were particularly powerful, painting a picture with every well-chosen line. He tackled a subject that is not particularly unique – a dying relative – yet he did so in a way that felt new.
There was a clear influence of the playwright Simon Stephens in this piece (this isn’t necessarily a bad thing – he’s a great writer) but there were many more moments where I felt there was a new voice coming through. The only problem I had with the piece was the environmental subplot. Some mentions of global warming felt plopped in there as if to fill the brief of ‘make it environmental’. It would have been nice to see some further development of this, and to make the intentions and relevance clearer. One example of where this was achieved was when Alice watches the video of Greta Thunberg talking to the UN whilst sitting by her dying father, and the emotion this brought forward helped punctuate the scene effortlessly.
Overall, this is certainly a writer to watch. Jones handled difficult themes well and captured the human emotion with such a nuance that the performance captured the audience from the very start. Not to mention, Cook was perfect for the role. I want to see it again. And again. Edinburgh Fringe, anyone?
Everything is Fine! by Lucy Finnighan
Review by Ella McKeown
Lucy Finnighan’s piece was funny from the very start. The stylised characterisations from the four-person cast were perfect for this satire filled with zingy humour, BuzzFeed quizzes and catchy theme tunes.
The audience’s laughter was sprinkled throughout the performance – a real credit to Finnighan’s skill – as we saw the character of Elizabeth, a news reader in a dystopian world, trying to cover up the flaws and corruption of governmental powers. Using humour, the piece explored ideas of censorship and ignorance. We cannot simply bury our heads in the sand and pretend that the planet is fine when we live in a world where the Arctic is likely to become ice-free in the summer by the mid-21st-century according to NASA Global Climate Change. Therefore, Finnighan’s message, although put in an amusing way, was also quite powerful. I found myself laughing frequently during the performance but once I stepped out the auditorium, I felt rather sobered. Everything is clearly not fine.
Overall though, the piece as a whole did fall short in creating an engaging narrative beyond the first half and in my opinion would work better as a sketch within a wider body of work. The humour was fantastic and the ideas interesting, but unfortunately it failed to keep me locked-in for the whole thirty or so minutes. There is clear potential there and it was so exciting to watch but at times it felt repetitive or a bit lack-lustre.
Finnighan’s wit was clear thanks to the playfulness of her writing and the sketch-like structure. There was a clear flow and the themes were carried through very well to create a piece that was effective. Yet it should be noted that the direction from Burbs L Burberry created a timing and pace that allowed Finnighan’s writing to really shine in this piece. Caitlin McDowell as the newsreader Elizabeth was excellent, with her facial expressions really bringing the piece to life. In fact, the whole cast’s energy was brilliant and helped create a fun and entertaining piece of theatre that worked very well as a sketch but, for me, didn’t quite work as a short play.
lovely, special, best and most important, by Ashley Milne
Review by James Melville
Ashley Milne’s lovely, special, best and most important grabs you by the throat and hurtles you through almost an hour of snippets of the lives of conflict-ridden friendships and romantic interactions. The actors kick off the play with a collective sprint onto the stage, wearing plastic alice bands with shiny baubles sparkling on top, opening with a sucker-punch of energy. All the actors had a great joint output, with each and every one able to keep up the pace and bring the ensuing stories to life with tension and sensitivity.
Once it became clear that these bauble-wearing characters were in fact aliens observing Earth, the play opened up. It was, admittedly, hard to make sense of these stories and how they connected, but it was not impossible. These seemingly disparate stories were brought together through themes of anger and violence, particularly pertaining to women. The stories ranged from a brother and sister awaiting their mother’s return home, to an intensely jealous and abusive relationship between two teenage girls, to a meeting in a park where two people discuss their children with sinister undertones of sex and violence. Jessy Robert’s direction of these encounters was ingenious, bringing the separate stories together into one dream-like piece which danced between characters and events, with projections onto the set further enhancing this non-naturalistic feel. One moment which stood out to me was the sexual encounter between Mae and Emmie, during which their hands flowed between and around each other, starting off softly and becoming increasingly rigid, effectively casting a simultaneously romantic and violent feeling across the scene.
Despite the high calibre of the whole piece, there was one particular highlight for me, coming as a result of Milne’s skilled writing and the acting of Rebecca McGreevy (Emmie). This collaboration came in the form of a monologue after Mae and Emmie’s sexual encounter. Milne used vivid and at times disgusting language to discuss how men may treat Mae in future encounters just like Emmie did in this one. It was a deeply tragic exploration of Emmie’s obsession with pornography and her skewed perception of sex, which would have any audience squirming in discomfort.
lovely, special, best and most important had the audience simmering in desperately uncomfortable topics, but did so in a very interesting way. While the piece did feel like a work-in-progress in both structure and style, it certainly had plenty of promising moments that could easily be expanded. In the hands of Milne and Roberts, this piece could become something quite impressive.
The Sylvia Swing, by Melanie Hopkins
Review by James Melville
The Sylvia Swing was a short but sweet show about an older man whose wife has just died and is being pushed to find new ways of bringing fulfilment back to his life. When his son and daughter visit him, they start to worry about how he is not moving on with his life. The script did not take itself too seriously, and managed to leave me uplifted about this widower’s future, which was quite a nice change of pace and tone from the previous play.
At the start of the show, the first thing that struck me was how adept the script was at casual dialogue. Melanie Hopkins can convincingly recreate the intricacies of everyday conversation whilst incorporating a narrative into that casual dialogue, as opposed to moving the scenes straight from point A to point B. The actors were able to play with this dialogue and make it believable by not appearing to overthink it, instead simply saying the words as anyone in real life would say them.
By the end, the older man is brought to the local community centre and brings his old dancing shoes with him. Even though it “doesn’t feel quite right”, picking up the very activity he and his wife enjoyed most – swing dance – once again might just be the very thing helps him bring back some joy into his life. But after Christine finds him, he very quickly becomes embarrassed and storms off. The actors were more than capable of portraying the tension of this moment without straying into the melodramatic, something which can be quite difficult to pull off. But by the end, both Christine and the widower shared the dance that he and his wife once shared. Learning something new and fun brought the biggest smile to Christine’s face, whilst the widower too smiled with the familiar joy that this dance brought him. It was a very sweet moment that made the audience want to sing along with the swing song.
Although only thirty minutes, this was a charming and nostalgic short play which I hope will have inspired its audience to restart an old joy of their own.
Wild Thyme (and Heather) by Teastain Theatre
Review by James Melville
The best was saved till last with Teastain Theatre’s Wild Thyme (and Heather). A tour-de-force cast of Jessy Roberts, Rebecca McGreevy and Lucia Rimini came together to tell the story of Heather – sister to McGreevy’s character, classmate to the others – who had recently died after being swept by the waves at the beach close by. The contrasting characters offered to us by the play were all joined by this one person, and the memories of one party where all of the girls shared in a hatred for Heather borne out of jealousy.
The Teastain Theatre company was able to deliver an eye-catching performance and engaging narrative that stood out from the rest due in large part to its structure. Breaking up the overarching narrative with pace and genre changes – from physical theatre to projections, song to monologues – kept the audience interested. The piece moved between scenes detailing what happened on that fateful night of the party from each character’s perspective, to both touching and bitter memories of the Heather they had known, to calm poetic descriptions of the coastline and ocean, jarring against the knowledge that this idyll was the cause of such a tragic death. The movement in the piece – incorporated into the poetic, dreamy scenes as well as the party ones – in particular helped to form emotional landscape, moving between anger and melancholy, youthful joy and tragedy expertly.
Where the writing stood out for me was in the lines of Jessy Roberts’ character. The ability to make a character show such jealousy for the ‘perfect’ Heather and then make a shift to feeling pity for the nudes that were still going around of Heather even after her death, without feeling clunky or inconsistent at all takes a great level of skill. Additionally, Roberts’ portrayal of the character, which sensitively explored how grief changes ones perceptions, hit the audience hard.
The distinct parts of the play were linked together with the fascinating refrain of the performers lying in a dim light on the floor with recordings of their research and development process playing into the space. This technique allowed the audience to take a moment and think about the ideas of the piece a little more, as we listened to the performer’s discussions of interactions between men and women and contemporary feminism.
If this performance is anything to go by, Teastain Theatre are ones to look out for for anyone interested in dynamic feminist theatre. This performance brought together so many aspects of theatre effortlessly to tell a story of youthful relationships, grief and jealousy. Wild Thyme (and Heather) was a delight to see, one which I believe everyone could take something away from, and I am greatly looking forward to seeing what Teastain do next.
Teastain Theatre – https://teastaintheatre.weebly.com/
Image: Teastain Theatre’s Wild Thyme (and Heather) by ‘Kirkpatrick Photography’ – email@example.com