Review: Monolog 4 at Chickenshed

When I visited Chickenshed last February to review the third instalment of Monolog, little did I know it would be one of the last shows I’d attend for a very long time. So Monolog‘s return as an online offering for 2021 is both a welcome sight and a poignant reminder of all the live entertainment we’ve missed out on over the last twelve months (not to mention a bittersweet farewell to the theatre’s artistic director Lou Stein, who leaves in April).

Monolog 4 follows the same format as in previous years: eight individual pieces of new writing, seven of which have been filmed in Chickenshed’s Rayne Theatre (one couldn’t be recorded due to unforeseen circumstances), and each performed by a single actor. While 2021’s show lacks the variety of styles we’ve seen in past years, the range of themes is as extensive as ever, with pieces covering betrayal, prejudice, celebrity and much more.

In Cathy Jansen-Ridings’ Gin Sisters, Belinda McGuirk plays Yvonne, who learns to her shock that her ex-husband’s in a new relationship with her best friend. With days to go before her daughter’s wedding, Yvonne is left to deal with both the betrayal and the loss of the one person she would usually have relied on for support. It’s a poignant and often funny piece about friendship, philosophy and learning to prioritise what’s most important in life, even when it hurts.

Metamorphosis, written by Lucy Dobson and performed by Cathy Jansen-Ridings, sees newly widowed Joy reflect on a life spent conforming to society’s expectations. Her daughter wants her to sell the house and move into a granny flat, but Joy has her own ideas for her future, and her delight at the scandal she’s about to cause is infectious. Though one of the shorter monologues of the set, this piece raises some important questions not only about the ways women are expected to behave, but also about why we’re prepared to go along with it.

One woman certainly not behaving as she’s expected to is Lisa, played by Julie Wood in Rebecca Hardy’s Come Closer. Trapped in an unsatisfying marriage, Lisa’s discovered an outlet for her disappointment: stalking her past crush and present-day rockstar, Howard. She knows she’s out of control; she knows she needs help. But somehow, she can’t stop. This piece is the only one to be performed with no set or props – just Lisa talking direct to camera – and could arguably be edited slightly to pack a greater punch, but nonetheless, what it lacks in physical movement, it more than makes up for in narrative twists and turns.

In a programme dominated by female voices, Whatever Happened to Abigail Winters? by Sophie White is another strong piece. Performed by Anna Constantinides, it’s the story of Abigail, a shy seventeen-year-old who seeks fame and fortune as a way to finally feel seen. But celebrity isn’t the solution she hoped it would be, and a very public breakdown ensues. This is a very topical piece following the recent release of the Britney Spears documentary and the death last year of Caroline Flack, and brings home with powerful emphasis the ways in which the cruelty of strangers can shatter an already vulnerable mind.

Public scrutiny plays an equally important role in The State of the Artist by Sebastian Ross. Owen, played by Daryl Bullock, enters an amateur art competition, but the response to his submission is far beyond his wildest expectations. Soon everyone wants to know what inspires him – how can he tell them there is no deep meaning behind his picture, that he just painted something he thought looked good? This piece is an interesting take on art, and questions why we feel the need to look for significance even where none exists, but like Abigail Winters, it also explores the ways in which a person’s life and work can be taken completely out of their control once it enters the public domain.

The last year has certainly been tough for everyone, but as we’ve heard in the news this week, one group which is often forgotten about is children. In The Sleep Stealers by Hannah Smith, we get to see the anxiety caused by the pandemic through the eyes of the eleven-year-old protagonist, played by Lucy-Mae Beacock. She knows her mum and her neighbour Juno and everyone on their estate is struggling, but doesn’t fully appreciate why – so when Juno offers her both a reason and a solution, she’s desperate to help, and is crushed when her efforts only seem to make things worse. It’s not easy to watch a child grappling with some very adult concerns – but at the same time, her optimism and willingness to believe that things will get better means the piece ends on a surprisingly uplifting note.

Finally, Neighbourhood Watch by Matthew Patenall and Gill Patenall explores the dangers of prejudice and jumping to conclusions – again, a hugely topical subject in the current climate. While out on his nightly run, James, played by Adam Cross, sees what he thinks is a suspicious transaction between his neighbour and a homeless man. Convinced he knows what’s going on, he decides to take matters into his own hands, with disastrous consequences. While this piece certainly poses some uncomfortable questions, the conclusion feels a little too open-ended; just as Come Closer could have been shorter, this story feels like it still has more to say.

There’s a reason Monolog is now in its fourth year, and it’s great to see that while Covid may have changed many things, the quality of both the writing and the performances at Chickenshed remains undiminished. Hopefully it won’t be another year before we’re back enjoying them live.

Monolog 4 ended on 20th February, but other shows are still available to watch online – visit Chickenshed’s website for more details.

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