Having become firmly established as part of their annual programme, Chickenshed’s showcase of new writing returned this year in a slightly different format. Monolog has evolved into the intriguingly named Eunoia – an Ancient Greek word meaning “beautiful thinking; a well mind” – and this year expanded its remit to include duologues as well as monologues, on a variety of different themes. With the nine short plays divided into two groups, each night’s audience saw only a selection; with more time it would have been great to head back and see the rest, but a short run and Covid chaos meant this time around I only got to see half.
Still, that half presented more than enough entertainment and food for thought. We kicked off with Sophie White’s Never Have I Ever, in which a very sober Archie (Callum Banks) seeks solitude at a house party in an empty bedroom – or at least what he thought was an empty bedroom. Unfortunately for Archie, the very drunk Cat (Stevie Shannon) got there first – and she wants to chat. They’re an unlikely pair, but over the course of their conversation they begin to find some common ground, and even the beginnings of a friendship. With a particularly enjoyable performance from Stevie Shannon, who’s clearly having a great time throughout, this is a funny and heartwarming story about two people who just happened to find each other at exactly the right moment.
There’s a similar theme in Pruning by Sebastian Ross, though the setting and characters are quite different. Edith (Cathy Jansen-Ridings) is recently widowed and dealing with her grief the best way she knows how: by caring for her greenhouse, and drinking gin. Enter teenage tearaway Nathan (Alex Brennan), who’s been forced by his mum to visit Edith and help look after her plants after he did something stupid to try and look cool in front of his friends. After a shaky start, the two begin to open up to each other about the difficulties they’re facing, and to help each other move forward into a happier, healthier life. The difference in the two characters’ ages and backgrounds offers plenty of opportunities for comedy, but there’s still plenty of time and space given to exploring the real problems they each face. I’d gladly watch a longer version of this play in which the developing relationship can be explored further.
Another generation gap is explored in Sabrina’s Party by Rebecca Hardy. Sabrina (Gemma Kirk) has had a falling out with her daughter Mindy, after she tried to force her to have a 70s themed party for her 21st. On the surface, that seems like not a big deal, but as we get to know Sabrina a bit better, we begin to understand the extent of her obsession with the 1970s. Her monologue is peppered with references to the songs, TV shows and culinary delights of her childhood years – but is she just being an annoying mum, or is there more to her determination to cling on to the past? In a monologue that’s necessarily a bit rambly and repetitious, directors Kyra Ancona-Francis and William Jones keep things fresh by moving Sabrina around the stage from one part of the house to the next, and Gemma Kirk gives a great performance, hitting all the right humorous notes but also tugging on our heartstrings as she wonders if she’s lost her daughter forever.
Probably the most thought-provoking piece was Just Imagine by Sara Chernaik, purely because it’s extremely open to interpretation; even the description in the programme seems to be deliberately vague. Touching on issues of identity, immigration, mental health and family relationships among others, ultimately it invites each of us to consider what makes us who we are – and also to take a moment to consider the thoughts, feelings and experiences of others. This invitation is presented to us with a smile by actor Arden Ridings, who gives easily one of the most engaging performances of the evening, really listening and responding to the audience as we respond to him. Whether or not you enjoy having to work to find meaning in your theatre, there’s no debating the quality with which this piece is delivered.
And finally, my personal favourite of the evening, Astonishing Light by Cathy Jensen-Ridings. Again, the charm of this play lies primarily in the performances – particularly that of Shiloh Maersk as Gabe, who likes to hang around the waiting room of a private cosmetic surgeon, talking their clients out of going through with their procedures. His latest target is Benedict (Daryl Bullock), whose fiancée is a wannabe influencer and has suggested his nose could be more “media-friendly”. Gabe is just the right mix of hilarious and sincere; he clearly genuinely wants to help the young men he meets see that they’re perfect just the way they are, and that perhaps they’re not the ones who have a problem. And by inviting the audience to participate in the play through the “magic trick” Gabe introduces at the start and explains at the end, the writer allows us to share in that feel-good glow, even if just for a moment.
It’s no secret that Chickenshed is home to some incredible talent; on this occasion, alongside the writing, directing and acting talent on stage, we also enjoyed a brief pre-show in the bar featuring some incredible young singer-songwriters. But what makes it really special is the way it gives everyone a voice, no matter the topic, genre or style – and while Eunoia perhaps didn’t have the variety that previous showcases have offered, it was still a great night out with lots to enjoy and think about on the drive home.