Review: Scratch the Surface: The World Today at the Hen and Chickens

Instinct Theatre’s first new writing night at the Hen and Chickens brought together four pieces of work around the theme “The World Today”. It’s a broad topic, and the plays being showcased were, unsurprisingly, pretty diverse. From the personal to the political, it was an evening of high quality new writing, with uniformly strong performances. Interestingly, regardless of their subject matter each of the four captured an element of both comedy and tragedy – which I suppose is very much like the world today. And more importantly, they all left me wanting to see more.

First up was Besides The C by Francesca Mepham, in which a young woman recently diagnosed with cancer struggles to cope in the face of her boyfriend’s cold indifference. The strength of this play, directed by Michelle Payne, lies in its balanced view; there’s no doubt whose side we’re supposed to be on, and James (John Dayton) freely admits his primary concern is how Natalie’s news affects him. But his honesty, and the fact he’s allowed to have a say at all, is actually quite refreshing – and at the same time, Natalie (Leanne Petitt) isn’t perfect either; terrified of being alone through her cancer treatment, she stays with James despite knowing they don’t have a future. So who’s using who?

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This was followed by another equally insightful perspective on a flawed relationship, in Jonathan Skinner’s Suck, Squeeze, Bang, Blow. Directed by Hilary Burns, the play introduces us to a nameless couple (Felicity Huxley-Miners and Harrison Trott) forced to confront the fact they’re officially on the rocks. It’s much lighter in tone than the previous play – and provided arguably my favourite quote of the evening: “This is like walking through mud in flip flops” – but there’s a feeling of sadness too as the couple teeter on the edge, taking progressively more savage swipes at each other. Whether they hang on or go over… we’ll have to wait to find out.

The evening then took a turn towards the political in Guerrilla Kingdom by Saria Steyl, in which two young women carry out a terrorist attack. Or at least they would, if they could stop bickering and remember which button to press. Under the direction of Thomas Attwood, Laura Lawrence and Marina Tapakoudes give two brilliant comic performances as the incompetent rebels, but behind the laughter there’s sincere passion. We don’t know exactly who or what the women are fighting against, but an emotional recital of their mission statement shows how deeply their cause matters. And as with any play involving an explosive device, there’s also a certain degree of suspense involved…

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Finally, we enjoyed an excerpt from Tea and Good Intentions by Felicity Huxley-Miners, directed by Dominique Gerrard. Student Elizabeth (Lily Driver) arrives home from uni to discover her mum’s taken in a Syrian refugee, much to the scandalised delight of the neighbours. While the play pokes good-natured fun at the misguided intentions of the middle-aged Margaret (Catharine Humphrys) and Mary (Erin Geraghty), it also makes a serious political point about what makes someone leave everything and become a refugee (hint: it’s not our benefit system). Yusuf Bhaimia gives a particularly powerful performance as the nonplussed Adar, who seems at first sight to have swapped one kind of trauma for another.

Each of the four plays featured in Scratch the Surface is complex and sensitively written, exploring different aspects of the world we live in. With enjoyable hosting from actor and presenter Paul Lavers and lively discussion in the bar afterwards, the scratch night was undoubtedly a big success; hopefully it’s the first of many.

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