Review: Voices From Home at Theatre503

Since its inception in 2017, Broken Silence Theatre’s Voices From Home has been championing new writers from across the South East, and more importantly from outside the capital. Volume 3 found the event in a new home at Theatre503 and showcasing five original pieces on a variety of themes and covering a broad emotional spectrum.

Anatomy of a Victim by Rachel Tookey (Surrey) is an intriguing and slightly unsettling piece about the murder of a young woman. The play starts with an unsentimental laying out of the facts from A (Abbi Douetil) and B (Ella Dorman-Gajic), who are a bit disappointed at the clichéd nature of the young woman’s disappearance, and convinced they’ve just uncovered a huge miscarriage of justice. Which is all well and good, until we’re taken back to the beginning of the story, and meet Rebecca (Hatty Jones) – the victim – who at this point is still alive and well and full of plans for the future, as she tells her friend about a frightening encounter she’s just had with the boyfriend that A and B are so keen to exonerate. The play ends on an abrupt and ambiguous note, leaving us to make up our own minds about what really happened that night, and slightly chastened by the realisation that behind every sensational true crime documentary, there first has to be a real victim.

From the first Kent writer to be featured in Voices From Home, Mark Daniels’ My Boys is a bittersweet portrayal of a grieving family as they take their first steps towards reconciliation after a lengthy estrangement. Stacha Hicks gives a particularly powerful performance as the newly widowed but still delightfully stoical Pauline, alongside David Ellis and Steven Jeram as her sons Jamie and Lenny. Tomorrow is the funeral of their late dad Len, and as he lies in his open casket, the remaining family members finally have a chance to say all the things they couldn’t say before – but have they left it too late? Funny and sad in equal measure, this enjoyable play about family and forgiveness will make you want to call your loved ones (especially if you’ve not seen them in a while) just to say hi.

Also on the topic of grief, Like and Subscribe by Berkshire’s Rachel Causer sees another awkward reunion, this time between two former best friends. One, Polly (Alanna Flynn), has gone on to become a successful podcaster, while the other, Kas (Antonia Salib), has been struggling to come to terms with her mum’s death. With Polly portrayed as superficial and self-absorbed, we’re immediately inclined to dislike both her and her brand of forced positivity, particularly when she appears to be trying to capitalise on her friend’s grief. But things aren’t quite as simple as they seem, and behind the weird podcast voice and fixed grin, there’s more to Polly’s positivity than meets the eye. Like and Subscribe is a witty and relatable story about friendship and the lengths we’re prepared to go to convince the rest of the world we’re fine – even when we’re anything but.

In Losers by Precious Alabi (Essex), two complete strangers meet outside a club. It’s 31st October 2019, and Her (Dominique Moutia) is having a bad night when she runs into Him (Andy Sellers). He thinks she’s superficial, she thinks he’s rude – but as the minutes tick down towards Brexit, they realise that maybe they have more in common than they thought. Though it may sound like it, Losers isn’t really a political play; it’s about two human beings finding a brief connection in a world that’s not treating either of them particularly well, and the many ways in which we make assumptions about others based on first impressions. The conclusion – in which Her has a revelation about how badly she’s behaved – feels a little bit too neat and tidy, but were the piece to be expanded into something longer, there’s potential here for some really interesting character development on both sides.

Last but by no means least, My first time was in a parking lot by Phoebe Wood from Norfolk is a powerful and disturbing story of one woman’s teenage trauma and the lasting impact it’s had on her life, relationships and mental health. Though Mira (Eleanor Grace) talks about her first time with seeming nonchalance, each time she returns to the story it becomes a little clearer that there was a lot more to it than we first thought – and not in a good way. Eleanor Grace gives a brilliant solo performance as this complex character who masks her pain with humour, and while it’s difficult to watch, at the same time this is the kind of piece you want to see again because there’s so much detail in those few short minutes.

With high quality writing, direction and acting across the board, the third outing for Voices From Home was as enjoyable, varied and thought-provoking as the previous two, and as always, it’s refreshing to see talent from outside London being given a voice. Roll on the next one…

For more details about Voices From Home, visit brokensilencetheatre.com or follow @BrokenSilenceT

Review: Voices From Home at the Old Red Lion Theatre

Following a successful first outing last year, Voices From Home was back this weekend for a second short but sweet stay at the Old Red Lion. Curated by Tim Cook of Broken Silence Theatre – themselves a Brighton-based company – the two-day showcase featured five short plays on a broad range of themes, created by an all-female line-up of emerging writers from across the South East.

The evening opened with Sungrazer by Sussex writer Clare Reddaway, directed by Peter Taylor. In Sweden, sisters Annika and Inga can’t quite believe they’re related. They hold very different views on just about everything, but particularly about Annika’s job at the local nuclear plant, which comes to threaten their future together in a number of different ways. With strong performances from Eleanor Crosswell and Emma Howarth as the two bickering sisters, this gently humorous piece explores family tensions against a backdrop of scientific curiosity and environmental concern.

The future of our world is also at stake in M** & Women by Buckinghamshire’s Sydney Stevenson. Directed by Tim Cook, the play introduces us to 1 and 2 (Melissa Parker and Eleanor Grace), who are standing guard over the last man on Earth. The rest have been wiped out by a mysterious epidemic, leaving the women in charge of a crumbling civilisation. Except women and men really aren’t that different; we all love, hate, make inappropriate jokes, run businesses, start wars… Despite the title, in reality this is a play not about men and women but about human beings – and it speaks just as clearly to us now in 2018 as in any fictional future that may lie ahead.

Flying Ant Day, written by Jo Gatford from Sussex, and directed by Elizabeth Benbow, offers a fresh perspective on the role of “women of a certain age” in society. Through the story of mum-of-two Alice, who’s played with poignant vulnerability by Jennifer Oliver, we’re invited to look again at a mother – but this time to see her, not her children. Alice has begun to feel like she’s disappearing, piece by piece; her husband barely notices her any more, and her best friend Karen (Emmie Spencer) is too busy being super-mum to her own three kids to lend more than a passing ear. This is an incredibly impactful play, and one that I’d love to see developed further.

Emma Zadow’s very funny Norfolk-based play The Cromer Special, directed by Charlie Norburn, takes place in a fish and chip shop on Christmas Day. Maggie’s working behind the counter, despite having no customers – or indeed any fish – and has been joined by her best friend Lucy, who’s been driven out of her own house by her sister’s avocado-loving boyfriend. The play doesn’t hold back in its witty dissection of the class divide that’s sprung up between the Cromer locals and the students at nearby UEA, and this – along with brilliant comic performances from Claudia Campbell and Abbi Douetil – earned it some of the biggest laughs of the evening.

After the hilarity of the previous play, the evening ended on a somewhat darker note, with Home Time by Olivia Rosenthall from Essex. Directed by Tess Agus and performed by Isobel Eadie, the monologue begins with a scene many of us will know all too well – the rush hour commute. A grim picture is about to get even worse, however, when a young woman is sexually assaulted on a packed tube train, unseen (perhaps) by her fellow commuters. It’s a horrifying scenario – not least because it’s all too easy to believe that it actually happens – and very powerfully told, with a conclusion that’s simultaneously mundane and devastating.

As well as much-needed support for regional talent, it was also refreshing to see a programme championing female writers and performers. Each of the five pieces in Volume Two of Voices From Home brought something different to the stage, resulting in another excellent evening full of variety and mixed emotions. Despite all being under fifteen minutes, each play is able to tell a complete story – although most would certainly work also as longer pieces – and each leaves us with something to go away and think about (even if it’s just the merits, or otherwise, of avocados).

For future Voices From Home events, visit brokensilencetheatre.com.

Review: That Girl at the Old Red Lion Theatre

Hatty is 29 years old and works in advertising. When one of her housemates gets engaged, she and best friend Poppy prepare to move into a new place together. Except Poppy’s just got a new boyfriend, whereas Hatty is still single, bored with her job and suffering from frequent bouts of anxiety – all of which is a far cry from her glamorous past as a child movie star.

Written by and starring Hatty Jones, That Girl is the story of a young woman who still hasn’t quite figured out who she is or where her life is going. Based on the writer’s own experience as the star of 1998 children’s movie Madeline, it examines how this early fame continues to affect her as an adult, long after giving it all up in favour of a “normal” life.

Photo credit: Sunny Smith

Although Hatty the character has the same backstory as Hatty the writer, it’s not clear how much the two now overlap – though it does seem unlikely that the Hatty on stage would allow herself to be portrayed the way we see her. Insecure and needy, this Hatty is unable to celebrate even her best friends’ successes and, despite her protests to the contrary, only really comes to life when given an opportunity to relive her childhood fame.

Even these opportunities aren’t as frequent as she’d like everyone to believe, and it’s often Hatty herself who brings up the subject, shoehorning her early success into conversation by any means possible. It’s clear that her memories of Madeline are a comfort blanket, a reminder of a time when life was exciting, and a stark contrast to her current mundane existence. These days, she’s just like everyone else – a young woman approaching her 30th birthday, watching her friends settle down with boyfriends and mortgages, and panicking about being left behind. While we’re able to relate to her motives, it’s difficult to approve of her methods as, in her desperation to hold on to her lifelong friendships, she ends up putting them at risk.

Whatever our feelings about the character, it’s difficult not to warm to the real Hatty Jones, who makes a powerful playwriting debut with That Girl, and also gives a thoroughly engaging performance as “herself”. She’s joined by fellow cast members Alex Reynolds as Hatty’s colleague Lola and housemate Poppy, and Will Adolphy, who plays Poppy’s boyfriend Adam and Hatty’s date Dylan. Both actors move seamlessly between their two characters with just a quick change of outfit, to show us a cross-section of the people that make up Hatty’s world – a superficial world of Tinder, bloggers, avocados and brunch.

Photo credit: Sunny Smith

Directed by Tim Cook, the action moves at a steady pace as we follow Hatty over two days. They’re not particularly eventful days – which is sort of the point – but that certainly doesn’t mean there’s a lack of tension. With cardboard boxes scattered around Sunny Smith’s set, we’re constantly reminded of the impending move and the pressure it’s placing on Hatty and Poppy’s already strained relationship. This eventually comes to a head after a deeply uncomfortable moment between Hatty and Adam, which is so well written that it feels like watching a car crash in slow motion; we know what’s coming, but can do nothing to stop it.

Simultaneously funny and heartbreakingly sad, That Girl is a very relatable story about fame, friendship and the pressures of adulthood. Madeline may be all grown up, but if this play is anything to go by, her adventures aren’t over yet.

That Girl is at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 15th September.

Review: Adam and Eve at The Hope Theatre

Traditionally, we’ve been led by books, movies and the like to believe that “happily ever after” starts when you get married and settle down. This is particularly interesting when you consider that one of the oldest stories ever told is all about a couple who proved that theory wrong in spectacular fashion.

In Tim Cook’s reimagined Genesis story, newlyweds Adam (Lee Knight) and Eve (Jeannie Dickinson) are moving to the country and buying their first house. It’s not quite Paradise, but they need to get on the ladder and it’s all they can afford, especially now they’ve got a baby on the way. Their “masterplan” is all going swimmingly – until English teacher Adam is suspended from work after being accused of improper behaviour by Nikki (Melissa Parker), one of his students. At first, Eve is more than willing to stand by her man, convinced the accusations are a fabrication and will soon blow over. When they don’t, the first doubts creep in and she begins to wonder just how well she really knows her husband.

She’s not the only one. Over the course of 65 minutes, the story takes multiple twists and turns, and the balance of power shifts back and forth several times, keeping the audience in a permanent state of uncertainty with no idea who we can trust to tell the truth. It’s difficult to talk too much about the performances from Jeannie Dickinson, Melissa Parker and Lee Knight without risking spoilers but I can say that all three are excellent, taking on board the subtleties in the script and giving us just enough to keep us guessing throughout.

All the characters have significant flaws, and both Adam and Nikki give us plenty of reasons to simultaneously doubt and believe their version of events; even when the truth is revealed, there’s still a lingering suspicion that the other party may not be entirely guilt-free. The play’s conclusion is cleverly seeded by Cook – looking back to the start of the play, we can see the clues we missed earlier – but left me wanting more: to understand more fully the guilty party’s motivation, which is clearly complex but only briefly explained, and to witness the fallout from the big reveal.

That should be taken as a compliment, however, because what’s already there is an hour of tense, gripping drama during which it feels like anything could happen. With just a couple of chairs making up the set, director Jennifer Davis makes effective use of the empty space, maintaining a physical distance between the characters so that every scene – even early on – has the potential to escalate quickly into a conflict. Add to this the way the characters continue to eyeball each other suspiciously during scene changes, and the result is an atmosphere of simmering tension that keeps us on our guard from start to finish.

In Adam and Eve, Tim Cook takes the themes of temptation, trust and accusation and proves that while we may now be living in a very different world – a world dominated by money worries, fake news and the relentless pressure to be perfect in the eyes of others – in reality, humanity has changed very little since the original Adam and Eve got kicked out of the Garden of Eden. If there’s a small consolation to this depressing fact, it’s probably that at least we have an excuse; if they couldn’t make it work in Paradise, what chance is there for the rest of us?

Adam and Eve is at The Hope Theatre until 9th June.

Interview: Jennifer Davis, Adam and Eve

Following its critically acclaimed debut last year at the Brockley Jack, Broken Silence Theatre’s Adam and Eve returns next week for a longer run at Islington’s Hope Theatre, now with new director Jennifer Davis at the helm.

Adam and Eve is about a young couple who have moved to the country in search of a better life,” explains Jennifer, who takes over from the show’s previous director Paul Macauley. “Everything’s going pretty perfectly until one day Adam is sent home from school following accusations made by a student… It’s a story about truth, lies, temptation and sin.”

Tim Cook’s play was a five-star hit last year, with reviewers describing it as “utterly phenomenal” and “absolutely chilling”. Unsurprisingly, Jennifer is pretty excited to be involved in its revival. “The writing is exceptional. In just 60 minutes Tim has managed to create a gripping, relatable experience that will leave an audience really questioning which version of the truth they believe. I’ve wanted to work with Broken Silence since seeing their production of Crushed at the King’s Head Theatre in 2015; I really admire their commitment to supporting regional writers and new work.”

Some might be daunted by the prospect of taking over such a critically acclaimed play, but Jennifer is looking forward to putting her own stamp on the show and exploring the opportunities that come with a new cast and venue: “I was honoured to be asked, and fingers crossed I create something that will do the previous production justice. We have two new wonderful cast members in Lee Knight and Melissa Parker – not forgetting the brilliant Jeannie Dickinson who was in the original run. There’ll also be a new set design and perhaps a few surprises…

“I’m excited about exploring the Hope’s space, too. It’s such an intimate venue and I can’t wait to see how the play develops when the audience are quite literally eyeball to eyeball with the actors.”

Jennifer studied Drama and Theatre Arts at the University of Birmingham, graduating in 2013. “Originally I wanted to be an actor but at university quite quickly realised that wasn’t for me,” she explains. “I’ve been freelancing as a director for five years now and have really found my happy place – working with new writing!”

Those five years have kept her busy; she’s now a Junior Associate at the King’s Head Theatre and an Associate Artist with Theatre Absolute, and she also founded Shoot Festival, which supports emerging artists in Coventry and Warwickshire. “I’ve been very lucky to work on some incredible projects, so highlights are hard to choose! But if I had to… I’d probably say directing (sorry) by Susie Sillett at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. It’s a one woman show that explores what it’s like to grow up as a millennial and the pressures we face in today’s current economic, social and cultural climate.”

Book now to see Jennifer work her magic on Adam and Eve, which runs at The Hope Theatre from 22nd May to 9th June.