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Needing Some Relief

It has been a funny old week.  One of those weeks that peeks in your diary and laughs as it scribbles out the events you had planned and draws willies instead.  For our week at NOT BAd has followed its own agenda, with scant regard for us and our careful scheduling.

We shall start at the beginning …

Last Friday, we scooted over to Duns to catch Duns Players in flagrante in an upstairs room at The Black Bull.  We were there for a night out, had no plans to review A Midsummer Night’s Readings, preferring to catch up and gossip and actually enjoy a performance without having to perform a mental autopsy and sprinkle the corpse with fragrant bon mots.

Ah, the best laid plans of mice and men, eh?  So here’s that review:

Producer and professional actor Euan McIver had selected excerpts from ‘Two’ by Jim Cartwright, ‘Silver Wedding’ by John Bowen, ‘Permanence’ by Fay Weldon, and ‘Countdown’ by Alan Ayckbourne — all on the theme  of the bittersweet nature of relationships.  In a departure from the Duns Players’ norm, a small team of actors took on the various roles: Celia Hedderwick, Peter Lerpiniere, Kate Lester, Eloner Crawford, John Schofield and Euan himself, with nothing but a script in hand and a donation bucket.

This was a smart move.  While Duns Players is a community theatre group open to anyone of any ability, the assembled team at The Black Bull was the crack squad;  the sort of acting unit sent in if the Amateur Dramatics Embassy was suddenly held hostage by separatist street performers.  It’s showcasing this kind of skill and experience that will place the Duns Players’ reputation on firmer footing.

The set was nicely balanced, humour and pathos taking turns to keep the audience engaged and entertained.  There was a pleasing pace to the whole thing, and while the dialogue was delivered well, the not speaking was given some lovely moments all to itself, something often lost in the hands of amateur actors who are usually too anxious about getting the words right to worry about the gaps in between.

John Schofield was the star of the evening and thus recipient of the rarely bestowed F.A.R.T (Flyte Award for Realism in Theatre).  His quiet assurance drew the eye, his performance understated and believable as an elderly widower still communing with his dead wife’s spirit.  Out of all of the excerpts, it was this one from  Jim Cartwright’s ‘Two’ that brought a lump to the throat.  Beautifully done.

That said, this was an evenly billed production.  All the actors seized their chance to shine, and left the audience clearly impressed.  More please!

So, that was nice.  Then on Saturday, life as we know it at NOT BAd HQ began to fall apart…

Miles Gregory – Artistic Director, impresario, patron of the arts, moustache-waxer extraordinaire – announced his imminent departure from The Maltings Theatre to return to  New Zealand.

And lo!  There was much gnashing and wailing  that was pitiful to behold.  

This event seemed to act as a catalyst, that first domino in a week’s worth of toppling, because on Sunday, during rehearsals for the Berwick Broadcasting Corporation’s Last Night of the Spittal Proms, I received a parking ticket for hindering the flow of bored seagulls in a deserted car park. 

And lo verily!  The Lord’s name was taken in vain, as was that of the joyless little weasel responsible for issuing the ticket. 

Then the Milester approached NOT BAd wondering if we would review this week’s The Girlfriend Experience (25th-27th August).  To be honest, personally I wasn’t in the mood.  The promo material made it look like a farce and I have an allergy to those; I erupt with hives and have to hide in a wardrobe in my underwear until the feeling passes.  And besides, NOT BAd didn’t have space to carry a review as it had Other Plans for the week’s copy.

Other Plans, which on Monday were definitively kiboshed by a broken drive shaft. 

So instead of a team from NOT BAd driving up to the Edinburgh Fringe to be part of a studio audience for a show in which comedy-writer Christopher Brookmyre chatted with names from the comedy-writing world, there was a team from NOT BAd loitering by the turning to Shellacres on the A698 looking mutinous and not a little bit mardy as it waited for the AA.

And lo!  We were right cheesed off.

For it was our intention – right here, right now – to bring you tasty gobbets of writing juiciness stolen from the very lips of successful authors – proper authors, authors that can turn out more than snarky comments and glib innuendo.  It was our intention to motivate and inspire you to writing greatness by plagiarizing other people’s words.  But no.  Now there was a gap in our programming.  A hasty Duns Players review would be required.  (See above.)

By Tuesday then, as you can imagine, we were feeling most discombobulated; and by Wednesday, £250 worse off but with a working drive shaft.  Which made us think –   perhaps a play about prostitution wouldn’t be such a bad place to go on a Thursday night?

New Northumberland-based theatre group, North See Theatre Company (in association with The Maltings Theatre, Berwick-upon-Tweed) this weeks presents its maiden production – The Girlfriend Experience, by Alecky Blythe.  If we tell you Alecky courted controversy earlier this year with her new play, London Road, a musical based around the Ipswich prostitute murders, then you would be right in thinking the North See Theatre Company has taken a bold, uncompromising stance in saying who they are and what they’re about right from the off.

Alecky is a leading proponent of verbatim theatre whereby subjects are interviewed on a particular topic and recorded,  then a play created around their actual words.  It’s a strange mix of journalism and theatre which you would think would show an obvious join, but it works surprisingly well.

In The Girlfriend Experience the words of prostitutes working in a basement flat brothel in Bournemouth have been shaped into a ribald, touching and thought-provoking piece.  We’re drawn into the everyday lives of Tessa, the madam; Suzie, the tart with a heart; Poppy, hooker-in-training, and Amber.  We get a glimpse of their dreams, their love lives, the often hilarious day-to-day practicalities of selling sex.

A writer always faces the temptation to air-brush politically sensitive subjects, and we had a dread that this play would buff-up the prostitutes until they shone with inner virtue.  But to our great relief what came across instead was the very the humanness of the characters.  

This verbatim approach – directly quoting not only the words but the repetition, stuttering, and mauled syntax of real speech – manages to introduce us to authentic people rather than two-dimensional characters plucked from a page and dropped on stage.  They share our worries about paying bills, finding lasting love, looking after their  children or ageing parents.  Prostitution is just another job with all that entails; more than that, it’s a career.  A choice.

As the play commences, you sit in the role of silent interviewer, the cast regularly breaking the fourth wall to address the audience directly and encouraging us to laugh along with them.    Naturally, there’s a lot of (very funny) sexual references but ironically it’s only when you witness Tessa’s and Suzie’s emotional wrestle with disillusionment that you get the uncomfortable feeling of being a voyeur.

For the most part, the cast managed to tame an incredibly complex script.  It didn’t seem to pose any problems for a very confident and relaxed Dani Carbery, whose warm-hearted Suzie had us wanting to sit next to her on the couch and help her pull on her rubber cat suit while discussing soft furnishings.  Lin Clifton as Tessa gave off marvellous world-weariness but didn’t always seem comfortable, losing her way a few times but always managing to find her way back.   Kate Jamieson and Nina Mickleburgh both turned in good performances in their roles of Poppy and Amber respectively.

But then we hit a problem, and we don’t know if this is a flaw in the play or of the directing.

The director, William Mickleburgh, up until this point had used a light touch.  The play didn’t need much or particularly imaginative staging, leaving Mickleburgh free to concentrate on the performances themselves.  So it was a surprise to find most disappointing the portrayal of the punters.

Where the play had managed to avoid positively stereotyping the hookers, it failed to avoid demonizing the men who paid for their services.  They arrived at Tessa’s door sporting bizarre joke shop wigs.  It had the effect of ridiculing the men, yet at the same time making them appear sinister.   Why Mickleburgh – single-handedly playing all the clients – decided to go down this route baffled us, especially when the rest of the play had been handled so well.  This lack of even-handedness – making the prostitute real to us while caricaturizing the punter  – rankled, because it seemed to fly in the face of the play’s demand for authenticity.

Notwithstanding our grumbling, it is fantastic to have this sort of innovative and daring theatre on our doorstep.  North See Theatre Company has produced a very funny, warm and moving first play, one well worth seeing if only to challenge your preconceptions of what, and who, a prostitute is.    You’ll come away surprised.  

(The Girlfriend Experience is playing on 26th-27th August 2011 at The Maltings Theatre from 7.30pm.  There is strong language and sexual references.)

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