Review: Country Music at Omnibus Theatre

This Dartford resident felt very much at home last night watching Simon Stephens’ Country Music, in a new production directed by Scott Le Crass. Set against the symbolic backdrop of the QEII bridge connecting Essex and Kent, the play follows central character Jamie across two decades and four significant encounters, exploring along the way the lasting impact of one bad decision on his life and relationships.

Country Music at Omnibus Theatre
Photo credit: Bonnie Britain

We first meet Jamie (Cary Crankson) in 1983 as a troubled eighteen-year-old, on the run after committing a vicious assault back home in Gravesend. With him is his almost-girlfriend Lynsey (Rebecca Stone), who’s torn between excitement and anxiety over what lies ahead. Ten years later, Jamie’s doing time for an even more serious crime, and receives a tense visit from his younger brother Matty (Dario Coates). And another decade after that, he’s travelled up north to visit his teenage daughter Emma (Frances Knight) – but it’s not quite the joyous reunion he’d hoped for.

The play’s biggest weakness lies in its failure to make the exact timeline and details of Jamie’s misdemeanours completely clear, but what is very apparent is that the split-second choice he made just prior to his escape across the river with Lynsey has gone on to direct the disappointing course of the rest of his life. A short but powerful final scene brings us back to the start of the story, offering a glimpse of what could have been that also feels like a long overdue opportunity for redemption.

Given the subject matter, it’s to be expected that the play makes for a fairly intense 80 minutes, but director Scott Le Crass and a really excellent cast succeed in wringing every last drop of tension and significance out of both Stephens’ words and, just as importantly, the silences between them. Such is the quality of all four actors’ performances that these – often quite lengthy – pauses in the dialogue are enthralling to watch; I don’t think I’ve ever been so fascinated by two people sitting and eating crisps in complete silence. Cary Crankson in particular gives an outstanding performance as Jamie, his every gesture and expression conveying what the character’s immaturity and intellectual limitations often prevent him being able to put into words.

Though little of the action actually takes place there, Jamie’s home town of Gravesend is crucial to the story; even two decades later, he still speaks of it with a kind of pride, despite the fact it’s the place where his life took such a dramatically wrong turn. He seems particularly fascinated by the QEII bridge, and mentions it often – though when his story begins, it’s little more than an idea (it was built during the 1980s, and didn’t open until 1991). Liam Shea’s striking set also takes inspiration from the bridge’s towering and architecturally impressive structure, with ropes that converge on a simple raised platform in the centre where the action unfolds.

Country Music at Omnibus Theatre
Photo credit: Bonnie Britain

The tragedy of Country Music is that while it’s all too easy for a life to go off course, getting it back on track can be an impossible struggle. The Jamie who meets his seventeen-year-old daughter is an entirely different man to the volatile teenager who went on the run all those years before – yet he’s still forced to live with the consequences of that boy’s mistakes, however desperately he wishes he could undo them. The plot may at times be slightly muddled, but the sense of waste and irretrievable loss at its heart comes through powerfully in this excellent revival.

Interview: Caroline Byrne, Blocked

Playwright Caroline Byrne returns to the Brighton Fringe this month with her new play, Blocked, which uses comedy to challenge society’s unspoken rules against talking about infertility. “A famous stand-up’s successful routine – sending up love, marriage and babies – falls apart as she melts down. It’s fast paced and delivered as a stand up routine throughout.”

Caroline explains that Blocked was inspired by her own experience of failed fertility treatment: “There’s a taboo around discussing infertility that society imposes on you and you get crap advice from people. I wanted to explore this and use dark humour to engage the audience, so that’s why I made the character a comedian.”

The show’s performed by Laura Curnick, and reunites Caroline with acclaimed director Scott Le Crass, following a previous collaboration at the Brighton Fringe 2015. “Scott directed my play In A Better Place, which was set in a hotel room, in the rock n roll themed Hotel Pelirocco,” she explains. “He is extremely creative and also very tactful and calm, so I was relieved when he agreed to direct Blocked because traditionally writers aren’t allowed in rehearsal – so you have to trust your director completely or you’d go mad. Scott has been nominated for many awards, and recently had a West End Transfer with Sid, a fabulous show.”

Blocked promises something of a mixed experience for Brighton audiences: “I want them to laugh out loud at the stand up, and then slap them in the face with the final dramatic act,” says Caroline. “You should come and see it because it’s a provocative standup routine within a piece of theatre. Two genres for the price of one!”

As the Brighton Fringe gets underway for another year, Caroline has plenty to look forward to. “I can’t wait to watch Laura Curnick perform the show for the first time!” she says. “But I’ll also be catching up with other theatre buddies and seeing their shows. In particular I’m looking forward to Nick Myles’ Trouble with Men, three great shorts. Also Goddess by Serena Haywood and Purged starring Orla Sanders.”

After Brighton, Caroline has several exciting projects lined up with her company Pure Fluke Theatre. “We write daring, comic roles for women over 35,” she explains. “I’ve just finished a new sitcom about working in fringe, with my co-writer Rachel Goth. The material writes itself. I’m also planning to tour my farce How To Make Money From Art in Ireland.”

Catch Blocked at Duke Box from 18th-24th May.

Review: Kicked in the Sh*tter at the Hope Theatre

The title of Leon Fleming’s new play could hardly be more appropriate, because watching it actually does feel like being kicked, if not in the sh*tter then somewhere equally painful. Fearless and brutal, the play forces us to confront two of our society’s most common and damaging assumptions – that anyone on benefits must be a work-shy scrounger, and that anyone who suffers with depression must be a malingerer – and establishes an unsurprising but often-forgotten link between poverty and mental health issues.

Photo credit: Ashley Carter

We first meet the two unnamed siblings, Her and Him, as kids – planning their futures with an optimism that becomes increasingly heartbreaking as we flash forward to how things have actually turned out. She’s now a single mother of two, while he’s struggling with depression and living in squalor. Neither has a job – he because he doesn’t feel able to work; she because someone needs to stay home and take care of their sick mum – and both ultimately find themselves at the mercy of a system that deals in check boxes and endless forms, rather than the many shades of grey that make up real human lives. Which is not to say Kicked in the Sh*tter is necessarily a political play – Fleming’s careful to make clear that the health and social care professionals are doing their best within a flawed system, and that’s as far as the criticism goes. This is a story about people, not politics.

In keeping with this, director Scott Le Crass (who previously collaborated with Fleming on the critically acclaimed Sid) keeps things simple. The set, designed by Justin Williams and Jonny Rust, is made up of large boxes that resemble dark concrete, and are manoeuvred into position by the actors to become a bed, sofa, table… Consequently, our focus remains on the characters, and particularly on the powerful performances given by Helen Budge and James Clay. In a series of short, punchy scenes that jump around in time and space, they show us the despair of a mother unable to provide tea for her kids, and the helplessness of a young man fighting not only his illness but also the assumptions of those who think he’s faking.

Between the two we see genuine affection, but also a constant battle as to who’s got it worse, resulting in a downward spiral from which there seems to be only one escape. As Scott Le Crass points out in his programme notes, this is not poverty porn; there’s no abuse of the system here, no smoking, drinking or fancy phones at the taxpayer’s expense – just two people genuinely struggling to survive against ever-increasing odds.

Photo credit: Ashley Carter

At the heart of the 75-minute play is a raw, honest account of mental illness, and the sobering realisation that it can strike anyone, anywhere, at any time – even those who think they’re holding it all together. But it’s not all doom and gloom. There’s actually a lot of humour in the play, a hopeful message that desperate times may reveal us to be capable of much more than we thought, along with an encouragement to share our struggles with those closest to us, rather than battling on alone.

It’s not necessary to read the programme notes from Leon Fleming and Scott Le Crass to understand this is a passion project; there’s an intensity to the writing and production that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. And for those of us who are able to put dinner on the table every night, it’s a wake-up call – a reminder of just how fortunate we are, but also of how unfairly we sometimes judge those who most need our help.

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… 😉