Review: Contactless at The Hen and Chickens

Nothing sums up the British quite like our relationship with public transport. It’s a world full of unspoken rules, which we like, and we reserve the right to be furious – silently, because we’re British – when those rules are not observed. Because there’s no chance of escape, the most insignificant moment becomes a massive deal, whether it’s the person next to us having a loud phone conversation, the cute stranger opposite catching our eye for the briefest of seconds, or the agony of trying to figure out if someone’s pregnant or not.

These are all moments anyone who spends any time on the London Underground can relate to, and they make up the backdrop to Tom Hartwell’s new comedy, Contactless, which takes us inside the world of the Tube to meet annoying passengers, overenthusiastic station announcers and even the original voice of “Mind the Gap”, Peter Lodge. These characters appear in a series of sketches that take recognisable situations and stereotypes to comical extremes (one of my favourites was the night tube, where passengers are tucked in with a blanket and hot chocolate while the driver reluctantly reads them a bedtime story).

While these characters are familiar to us, they’re all fictional – but Contactless also draws on historical fact and current affairs in the development of its main plot threads. Besides Peter Lodge, the sound engineer who inadvertently became the voice of the Underground, we also meet Emma Clarke, the voiceover artist who eventually replaced him, only to be sacked for comments that appeared to criticise the Underground. Meanwhile, a hapless union rep tries to reach an agreement in the tube strikes over ticket office closures and night working, and Peter’s widow Susan – who still works at Embankment 30 years later – struggles to keep up in a constantly changing world of progress and technology.

Directed by Phil Croft and performed by a versatile cast of six (Adam Elliot, Rosie Edwards, Hannah Jay, Jeryl Burgess, Stanton Cambridge and Will Hartley), the show’s style is reminiscent of spoof documentaries like Twenty Twelve, affectionately poking fun at a British institution that we love to complain about, but also wouldn’t want any other way (I kept half expecting David Tennant’s voiceover to start). The scenes referencing the strikes, while undoubtedly some of the funniest, also make a sharp political point; as union rep Rachel faces off against an army of incompetent and – in one case – sleazy civil servants, there’s never any doubt whose side we’re meant to be on, even before the hilarious first date scene in which a striking tube driver hammers home the main points of their argument.

There’s a further case against progress for the sake of it in the story of Susan, an unexpectedly poignant diversion inspired in part by Margaret McCollum, the widow whose pleas saw her late husband’s voiceover reinstated at Embankment. Ultimately, Hartwell’s message seems to be that the Tube is about people far more than processes. Drivers, passengers, station staff and yes, even the voiceover guys and girls come together to form a tapestry that’s rich with comic potential, and makes this cherished British institution what it is, in a way iPads and driverless trains never will.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Review: Mum’s The Word at the Hen and Chickens

Good One Theatre’s last show, I Have Never, earned rave reviews for its depiction of three uni housemates about to go out into the real world. With the company’s new production Mum’s The Word, writer Robert Hughes simultaneously takes us forward and back in time, as four old school friends meet in a trendy Soho bar for their annual get-together, seven years after going their separate ways. But what’s become a meaningless ritual takes an unexpected turn when memories are stirred of an event the four women vowed never to speak of again.

Photo credit: Hannah Ellis
Photo credit: Hannah Ellis
Under Adam Wright’s direction, the tension is palpable from the start, as first to arrive Jess (Danielle Williams) touches up her make-up and tries to explain to the waiter – who’s also her boyfriend (Lewis Clarke) – why she’s dreading the encounter. And when Em (Emily Bairstow) turns up, followed by Heidi (Lizzie Grace) and Belinda (Bella Balfe), all becomes clear. The ensuing hour has all the bitchiness, petty rivalry and awkward silences you’d expect from four women who, we soon learn, have little in common besides the fact they once shared a room at school.

In fact, it’s hard to imagine how the four could ever have been friends at all; they’re so different. Heidi’s nice but dim, Belinda’s an ambitious feminist on the brink of a political career, Em’s always looking for her next sexual conquest, and Jess is a fading TV star who’s all too aware of the fact her fortunes may have peaked at I’m a Celebrity. This cocktail of personalities makes for a fascinating exploration of female relationships, with plenty of laughs and a few “did she really just say that?” moments along the way.

The social tension shifts to something much darker with the arrival of Nathan (Joseph Passafaro), a handsome stranger who immediately catches Em’s eye, but ends up giving them all a lot more than they bargained for. Joseph Passafaro has a disarming charm that catches us all off guard, and though his appearance lasts no more than a few minutes, it makes quite the impact.

Photo credit: Hannah Ellis
Photo credit: Hannah Ellis
Robert Hughes’ story is carefully structured to distract and surprise us throughout, with a concluding twist that’s so brilliant in its simplicity, you feel you should have seen it coming. Each member of the cast gets their moment in the spotlight, even the relatively minor character of Aidan the waiter/boyfriend, and there’s great chemistry between them; even putting aside the suspense of the deep dark secret, the sizzling tension keeps us gripped as we wait to see who – if anyone – will snap first.

In some ways, Mum’s The Word is an unlikely story – the fact that the girls keep meeting despite clearly not liking each other, the events that bond them, and the appearance of Nathan all seem just a bit farfetched. But the script absolutely nails the relationship between the women; some of the things they say to each other are uncomfortably familiar, especially to those of us who went to an all-girls school and didn’t enjoy it all that much…

Packed full of drama, laughs and surprises, Mum’s The Word is undoubtedly another triumph for Good One Theatre, and I for one can’t wait to see what they do next.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉