Review: Cracking at King’s Head Theatre

Written by Cally Hayes, co-director of Alright Mate?, Cracking is an eloquent, moving and informative portrayal of what it’s like to live with – and recover from – post-natal illness. What makes this production stand out, however, is that it gives the viewpoint of both mum and dad, with the particular aim of shining a light on the often forgotten subject of male mental health.

Sam (Tom Bowdler) and Rachel (Georgia Robinson) are a young couple with a two-year-old son. It’s been a year since Rachel recovered from the post-natal illness she suffered following Tommy’s birth, but something still isn’t right. Sam doesn’t want to talk about it, but is encouraged through counselling to open up and share some of the fears and anxieties that continue to haunt him – even though, on paper, everything should be “back to normal”.

The couple’s different approaches to talking about their problems is explored very well in the short but powerful play, which combines spoken dialogue with physical movement sequences. Rachel is very open, describing her pain in intensely visceral terms and constantly seeking reassurance from her partner that everything will be okay. Sam, on the other hand, deflects awkward topics of conversation by either joking around or getting angry. He can’t talk to his friends because that would mean admitting something’s wrong – and so he internalises all the pressure and worry, focusing on the day-to-day practicalities of supporting Rachel through her own illness and neglecting his own mental health in the process.

What becomes clear as we’re watching the play is that while post-natal depression in mothers is a defined, diagnosable condition, the impact it has on fathers is much more difficult to label, and as such it often goes unacknowledged. The moment in which Sam finally breaks down and admits he’s struggling is heartbreaking to watch but also feels like a breakthrough, when both he and we begin to realise just how traumatic the experience has been for him.

Tom Bowdler and Georgia Robinson give great performances, portraying very convincingly not just the hurt and bewilderment of the present day – as they each struggle to understand why things haven’t gone back to how they were – but also the joy of their early relationship, and the fear and despair of the months following their baby’s birth. Director Kevin Johnson’s use of movement and space is also important, evoking particularly effectively the isolation both characters feel, even when they’re sitting right next to each other, and their impotence in the face of a crisis they need to identify before they can begin to fight it.

The play is one of a variety of projects organised by Alright Mate?, a community interest company that aims to normalise conversations about male mental health. Much of Cally Hayes’ script is based on verbatim testimony from parents who’ve recovered from post-natal illness, so it’s no surprise that even the most shocking details have a ring of absolute truth to them. Cracking is a sad story, but it’s a story that needs to be told – to parents who may recognise their own experience and seek help, but also to friends and family who need to understand what their loved ones are facing before they can offer support, and to the wider public to promote greater understanding of this complex issue.

Cracking can next be seen at The Old Library in Bodmin – and you can also visit the Alright Mate? website for future dates and information about the organisation and its projects.

Review: Meat at Theatre503

A finalist in Theatre503’s International Playwriting Award in 2018, Gillian Greer’s Meat is just as topical, and troubling, two years later. The play follows exes Max (India Mullen) and Ronan (Sean Fox) through one messy, bruising evening at his fancy Dublin restaurant. Successful blogger Max has come to let Ronan know that in her upcoming book, she intends to reveal he once sexually assaulted her at a party. Horrified, he protests his innocence, claiming to have no memory or knowledge of the night in question – while his loyal restaurant manager Jo (Elinor Lawless) wonders why Max has waited until now to talk about such a traumatic event in her life.

Photo credit: Alex Brenner

These are complex issues, and the play explores that complexity in an open, thought-provoking manner, ending both literally and figuratively on an unanswered question. Most importantly, though we never doubt Max’s account, Greer avoids painting a picture of villain and victim; it’s far more nuanced than that. Ronan did “a shit thing”, but that doesn’t automatically make him a monster; Max may well benefit financially from putting the incident in her book, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, or that it didn’t have an effect on her. It’s particularly interesting to note that all three characters begin the evening with a fixed definition of what rape means, and to watch as those clear-cut lines begin to blur and shift.

Though all the action takes place over one evening, the timeline of those few hours is non-linear. This allows us to observe certain events, and in particular Ronan’s behaviour towards both women, in the light of later revelations – though it does also present something of a logistical challenge, given that each scene concludes with a bit more food or drink symbolically smeared across Ronan’s previously pristine walls and floor. It’s testament to the clarity of both Greer’s writing and Lucy Jane Atkinson’s direction that we never find ourselves lost or confused as to where in the story a scene is located.

The building tension within and between the two principal characters is played very convincingly by India Mullen and Sean Fox. As Max, Mullen visibly unravels as the wine flows and Ronan continues to resist giving her the answers she wants, while Fox’s performance swiftly makes it clear that beneath his amiable exterior Ronan was – and perhaps still is – more than capable of doing what Max claims. Meanwhile Elinor Lawless provides some much needed comic relief as the ever watchful Jo, but she also has a much more pivotal role: that of the outside observer, the one who listens to both sides and voices the opinions that always accompany an accusation of sexual violence.

Photo credit: Alex Brenner

The choice of setting is deliberately uncomfortable, setting the balance of power in Ronan’s favour – in more ways than one, as it turns out – from the off. Rachel Stone’s set is visually striking, and in line with the restaurant’s policy (“Vegetarian? Fuck off. Vegan? Fuck off.”) it’s in your face, makes no apology, and should probably come with some kind of trigger warning. Pig carcasses adorn the walls along with artistic renderings of raw meat, while in front of them Ronan cheerfully explains how foie gras is made to a less than enthusiastic Max. In the background, Annie May Fletcher’s sound design maintains a hum of background conversation, reminding us the pair are not alone, but acknowledges the intimacy between them at key moments by drowning out the crowd with the sound of a heartbeat.

It’s taken two years for Greer’s play to make it to the stage, but it’s been more than worth the wait.┬áMeat is an intense and thoughtful play, which doesn’t spoon feed answers to its audience but instead poses a set of questions and leaves us to process them in our own way and within the frame of our own experiences. It may not be a comfortable watch for everyone, but it is a vitally important one.

Meat is at Theatre503 until 14th March.

Review: Flights at Omnibus Theatre

Flights by John O’Donovan, on paper, is a play about three men, who meet as they’ve done for years to mark the anniversary of their friend’s death. But it’s much more than that; this is a story about a time, and a place, and a generation of young Irish men who could have left, but somehow ended up not going anywhere. It’s a story about loss – of life, love, opportunity – but also about friendship and the bonds that can hold people together, for better or worse, against all odds and expectations.

Photo credit: Ste Murray

Liam was seventeen years old when he was killed in a tragic road accident on this night seventeen years ago. His old friends, Barry (Colin Campbell), Pa (Rhys Dunlop) and Cusack (Conor Madden), are disappointed to find they’re the only ones to turn up this year for his anniversary, but nonetheless decide to make the best of it – particularly since Barry is about to leave for London with his long-term girlfriend Roisin, and new dad Cusack is having his first night out in months. As they reminisce, it becomes clear that while the three men’s lives may have gone in different directions, the circles in which they move have changed very little. And though the cast consists of just three actors, and the action never leaves the run-down clubhouse where they meet, O’Donovan’s beautifully written script paints an intricate picture of a whole community that seems frozen in time.

This feeling intensifies all the more as each of the three steps forward at different moments to deliver a monologue in the voice of their dead friend. Through these, we can start to piece together what happened, and why, and feel afresh the tragedy of a young life wasted – but also to understand that it could have been any one of these men who was lost on the road that, or any, night. Back in the present moment, and none of them is completely satisfied with their lot: Barry is full of anxiety at the prospect of leaving town at last; Pa just found himself homeless and unemployed; and even Cusack, who seems to have it all, questions what he could possibly have done to deserve it.

Photo credit: Ste Murray

The play, directed by Thomas Martin, isn’t action-packed or fast-paced, but it doesn’t need to be. Instead it follows the evening almost in real time, allowing the story to unfold through the interactions of the increasingly inebriated friends. Some of these result in unexpectedly tender moments, particularly in Act 2, while others are exactly as you’d expect when three old school friends get together: drinking games, darts, drugs and banter are very much the order of the day. Colin Campbell, Rhys Dunlop and Conor Madden are universally outstanding, utterly compelling and convincing in every detail; their chemistry as an ensemble is spot on, and their individual performances spell-binding. And the production looks stunning, too – Naomi Faughnan’s set, lit by candles and littered with what we assume to be years worth of discarded cans, feels both literally and figuratively like a shrine to Liam’s fading memory.

A poignant and powerful piece of theatre, Flights will resonate most strongly with people – particularly men – who’ve experienced what it was like to grow up in a tight-knit rural community. For the rest of us, the play is an evocative portrayal of that experience, and much like its central character, it won’t soon be forgotten.

Flights is at the Omnibus Theatre until 29th February.

Review: Netflix and Chill at Drayton Arms Theatre

I first encountered Tom Stocks’ Netflix and Chill in 2015, when I caught a ten-minute extract from what was then a very new work at an Actor Awareness scratch night. At the time, I described the scene – depicting a disastrous date – as light relief following some pretty heavy material from other writers. So it’s interesting to see that although that scene remains a pivotal moment in the full-length play, the story that frames it has taken a considerably darker turn in the intervening years.

Photo credit: Cam Harle Photography

Ben (Tom Stocks) is a working class chef, who’s struggling. His estranged mum (Julie Binysh) has just come back into the picture after leaving an abusive relationship; he keeps getting stood up by his Tinder dates; and Sophie (Emily Ellis), the girl he’s fancied for years, just went home with his infinitely more confident and charming mate Ryan (Joseph Lindoe). Inspired by Stocks’ own family experience, the play explores male mental health, and in particular the fear that talking about how you feel can somehow make you less of a man.

The play, directed by Luke Adamson, is very much one of two halves. Act 1 sets the scene, introducing all the characters – who also include Jill (Charlotte Price), a waitress at the local cafe – and firmly establishing Ben as the beta to Ryan’s alpha male; the nice guy who seems destined to always finish last. It’s in Act 2, however, that it starts to become clear what the story is actually all about – and no, despite the title, it’s not (just) sex. As Ben protests, against all evidence to the contrary, that he’s fine and doesn’t need therapy, the play builds towards a powerful and unexpected conclusion that really makes us stop and think, not just about what’s gone before on stage, but about men we may know who possibly aren’t quite as fine as they let on.

Knowing that the play began with the date scene and grew from there makes a lot of sense, because it’s around this point that the play really begins to hit its stride, drawing the audience into the story in a way Act 1 never quite manages (possibly a result of the Inbetweeners style war stories exchanged by the lads, which are funny but – let’s be honest – pretty gross). The use of the inner monologue, played as a voiceover to give us an insight into what each character is really thinking, works very well during the ill-fated date, making both Ben and Sophie relatable for an audience torn throughout between laughter and embarrassment. The same can’t quite be said for the opening scene, in which Ben has an awkward encounter with his mum; the interjections from inside his head feel at this point a bit too much like a device, to fill in the back story neither character is willing to speak about out loud, and at times risk drowning out the actual dialogue.

Photo credit: Cam Harle Photography

There are parts of Netflix and Chill that still feel a bit underdeveloped, but it’s encouraging to see how the play has grown since that first ten-minute snippet four years ago, and the important message that now comes through loud and clear about male mental health and the responsibility we all have to encourage frank and open conversation. A powerful and thought-provoking piece of writing, with much to recommend it.

Netflix and Chill is at Drayton Arms Theatre until 29th February.

Review: Monolog 3 at Chickenshed

The third outing for Chickenshed’s annual celebration of the theatrical monologue is also the biggest yet. While most evenings during the two-week run will feature only a subset of the pieces selected for inclusion, on press night we were treated to all nine, representing a broad variety of voices from across the Chickenshed community.

This bumper edition, clocking in at close to three hours, proved to be something of a rollercoaster ride, through the likes of bereavement, loneliness, self-loathing, dementia and domestic violence. Looking back over that list of topics, perhaps it goes without saying that laughs are in fairly short supply – though they’re by no means absent altogether; Grace Wolstenholme sees to that in her self-performed piece, Why Can’t You See Me? in which she paints a vivid and very funny picture of her life as a normal teenager, who just happens to have cerebral palsy.

Taken as a collection, the nine plays – selected blind by a panel – demonstrate talent and diversity, as well as the potential impact that a well performed monologue can have, and the many creative ways in which the art form can be interpreted. To pick out a few examples: On the Out by Peter Hastings is a quietly moving piece about a man (Olivier LeClair) who’s just been released from prison. As he waits for his sister to pick him up, he reflects on the life ahead of him – and the one he’s left behind. In Cathy Jansen-Ridings’ Pickled Limes, Marion (Julie Wood) berates her emotionally distant husband for everything and nothing, before poignantly revealing the true reason she’s angry with him.

Navigating the Twilight by Sophie Sparham explores the experience of dementia through the use of blackout poetry; as a mother (Ingrid Cannon) reflects on the birth of her daughter, the same text is repeated with certain words redacted, transforming a story of joy and celebration into something much darker. And in I Am a Shield by Sebastian Ross, a young woman (Sabina Bisset) is forced, finally, to question if she’s really the superior being she always assumed herself to be – or is she just an asshole?

Arguably the strongest piece, both in terms of its emotional impact and its creative use of the form – actor Tom Harvey collaborated with no fewer than four directors, each of whom worked on different content – is Pete Dowse and Alex Bremer’s A:live B:reaved, in which a father tries to process the trauma of losing his young daughter. If I could see any of the pieces from Monolog 3 again, this would be the one I’d choose; it has a depth in its content and style that makes it less instantly accessible than the rest, but simultaneously hints at layers of meaning waiting to be unpicked and explored in greater detail. And from a purely practical point of view, its positioning as the final piece of nine meant that on press night, it perhaps didn’t get the full attention it deserved from a tired audience.

Seeing all nine pieces in one evening is a lot, particularly given some of the weighty topics under discussion. So while audiences attending only a subset on other evenings may miss out in terms of the full range of themes and styles, they will hopefully be able to enjoy and engage with those pieces they do see in greater depth. There’s certainly plenty of excellent material, powerful writing and strong performances there to be experienced.

Monolog 3 is at Chickenshed until 22nd February. Those who do wish to see all nine pieces can do so on the last night.