Interview: Michelle Payne, Sad About The Cows

Michelle Payne is a playwright, director and performer whose work has been widely produced since 2015, when her debut play Orchid picked up two awards on its first outing. She’s also a founder of Caspa Arts, an acting school for young performers who can’t afford to go to drama school, and from tomorrow brings one-woman show Sad About The Cows to Tristan Bates Theatre for a week-long run.

The dark comedy explores the themes of female self-image through the story of Rachel, a young woman obsessed with consuming. “In the age of social media we are constantly bombarded with information and images, and it’s how her impressionable mind processes this,” explains Michelle. “I wanted to create a seemingly high-functioning character that happens to suffer with her mental health – it does not define who she is.”

Sad About The Cows at Tristan Bates Theatre

Though it’s not a directly autobiographical piece, Michelle did draw on her own experience to write Sad About The Cows. “I’ve seen a lot of theatre and TV about characters who face problems with their mental health, but hadn’t necessarily seen anything that resonated with my experiences,” she says. “I used my personal experience as a starting point for creating the play, but made sure that I adapted the plot so that Rachel is definitely a fictional character. This thought helps me to safeguard myself in the performance, to remember that I’m just telling an important story.”

Sad About The Cows transfers to Tristan Bates with a female creative team, after first being performed as part of the John Thaw Initiative Working Class Season with Actor Awareness earlier this year. “We stepped in for a gap in programming for the first full length showing as part of the John Thaw Initiative, which challenged me to finish writing the play,” says Michelle. “From this, the Tristan Bates offered us the week run. I was lucky enough to find a diverse female creative team who have shared slightly different views about body image and its relationship to mental health. Each creative in the team had something different to offer towards the piece, whether that be culturally different or from their life experiences so far! It’s been a great process with five different voices in the room.”

According to national charity BEAT, 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder – 75% of them female. Michelle hopes the play will break down barriers and start a conversation about the subject: “The main thing I’d like people to know about eating disorders is that it’s not necessarily that people who suffer want to be skinny, it’s often a way of keeping control. And also that people can function despite the illness. I’d like our audiences to be able to have an open discussion about mental health disorders. So often the stigma stops people from discussing this at all and people worry about what others might think if they admit they suffer.”

Review: Eggs at Tristan Bates Theatre

Florence Keith-Roach’s two-hander Eggs is a story of two very different women, known only as Girl One and Girl Two. They’ve been friends for years, but lately it’s been becoming harder for them – and even more so for the audience – to understand why. Girl One (Emily Curtis) is a struggling artist: always skint, often depressed and never afraid to talk loudly about sex toys in public places. Meanwhile Girl Two (Lauren-Nicole Mayes) has a steady job and an (almost) steady boyfriend – all of which has led her to the conclusion that it must be time to start having babies.

As they approach their 30s, the two friends appear to be heading off in very different directions, and more than once during the hour-long play it seems like they must this time have reached an insurmountable fork in the road. All that seems to unite them is a shared love of 90s pop classics (the B*Witched dance routine at an ill-advised student night is a real highlight) and the grief they both feel – but never quite talk about – over the death of their friend Rose at some unspecified moment in their shared past. So wrapped up in their own dramas that they’ve become incapable of actually listening to each other, they’re both entirely focused on trying to live up to what they think society expects of them – whether or not playing that role will actually make them happy. And yet, as frustrating and superficial as their relationship appears to be, when both women find themselves at crisis point, they still turn to each other.

Eggs at Tristan Bates Theatre

Given the play’s title, it’s no surprise that a recurring egg motif is worked in seamlessly throughout in different ways, from chocolate eggs to love eggs; it’s even reflected in the shape of the narrative, which loops back on itself at the end to conclude where it began an hour earlier. It’s most obviously referenced, however, in the characters’ views on motherhood. While Girl Two talks romantically about fulfilling her purpose by having kids without really thinking through the implications, Girl One appears to be horrified by the prospect – although her repeated, a propos of nothing reminders that she’s “a child of IVF” suggest her aversion may have as much to do with fear of failure as with anything else.

Despite several scene changes – all of which require a new costume for both cast members – director Chantell Walker keeps the action moving along smoothly, with a bit of help from an epic 90s playlist featuring the likes of Cher, Alanis Morissette and Planet Perfecto. Emily Curtis and Lauren-Nicole Mayes give great performances as the unlikely pair; they bounce off each other really well, and the fraught friendship between the two of them is completely believable in both its highs and its lows.

Eggs is the first production from all-female company Wake Up Theatre, whose aim is to “produce platforms that give women a new voice”. This play certainly ticks that box. It’s a witty and heartwarming story of female friendship that doesn’t try and romanticise; the characters are believably lost and flawed and at times incredibly difficult to root for – but they’re also not alone, and there’s something very empowering about the realisation that when it really counts they’re able to be there for each other. This is a really promising debut that’s definitely worth a visit during its short London run.

Review: Love Lab at Tristan Bates Theatre

Love Island meets Big Brother meets Black Mirror in Sam Coulson’s Love Lab, which sees two singletons locked in a room together for 7 days in an attempt to make them fall in love. It’s the latest reality TV show, watched by millions – but that’s little comfort to Perry (Michael Rivers), who doesn’t even remember applying. And he’s definitely not okay with being kidnapped and forced to live on cold baked beans for a week with a total stranger, while a cheerful disembodied voice asks them increasingly personal questions.

Photo credit: Sam Tibi

Livia (Harriet Barrow), on the other hand, is much more at ease. She’s watched the show before, which helps, but we also learn this isn’t her first time in front of the cameras. And she’s considerably more au fait with dating apps and social media than her selected match, who’d much rather meet up with his friends in person over a cuppa than follow them on Facebook. Livia’s even been allowed to keep her phone, whereas Perry’s is nowhere to be seen. She seems to have the upper hand, but then the mind games kick in and the balance of power begins to shift – until, in a final fiendish twist, the Love Lab pulls the rug from under both their feet.

Set in a perhaps not so distant future, Séan Aydon’s slick production embraces the technological theme with stark lighting and unsettling sound effects – and let’s not forget the frequent interruptions of friendly matchmaker Lucy, whose pleasant but mechanical enunciation begins to sound increasingly sinister as the play goes on. Actors Michael Rivers and Harriet Barrow have great chemistry as the mismatched pair, whether they’re engaging in rapid-fire banter or sharing a moment of genuine connection. In fact, despite some significant flaws both characters ultimately prove rather likeable, and by the end we’re almost rooting for them to run off into the sunset together.

My main complaint about Love Lab is actually a compliment in disguise: I wanted more. The premise is intriguing, and the play offers some fascinating (and slightly scary) insights about dating in the 21st century – but at only 50 minutes it feels too short, and as clever as the final twist is, it’s all a bit abrupt. Just as we feel like we’re starting to get to know the characters and what might have brought them here, it’s all over. I’d love to see a longer version of the play that lets us spend a bit more time in the Love Lab (and yes I appreciate the irony of that statement, given that Perry spends a significant amount of his time trying to get out).

Photo credit: Sam Tibi

Witty and insightful, the play asks “what is love?” in a world where off-line connection is starting to feel like the exception rather than the rule. We may lament the fact that nobody meets in person any more, but Love Lab leaves us wondering if that’s actually a self-fulfilling prophecy – are we all too glued to our dating apps to look up and see who’s right in front of us? The play doesn’t condemn online dating; even Perry acknowledges it’s a great idea in theory. But it still might make you stop and think twice the next time you swipe right.

Review: Getting Over Everest at Tristan Bates Theatre

Getting over a break-up is never easy. But when you’ve spent ten years – a third of your life – building a future with the man who’s just unceremoniously dumped you, recovery can feel like an impossible task. It’s no coincidence, therefore, that the ex in Natasha Santos’ new play is called Rob Everest, and that main character Libby is struggling to get over him. She’s not eating; she’s been spotted crying into a stolen pair of Rob’s pants at work (when she’s not listening to Sinead O’Connor on repeat, that is); and she’s started recording her farts – just because she can.

Needless to say, Getting Over Everest is a comedy, in which Libby (Natasha Santos) confesses all the crazy things she’s doing to try and get over her ex. When we first meet her, she’s leaving him yet another voicemail – in this case, a heartfelt rendition of I Will Always Love You. Later, encouraged by her friend Steph (Grace Dunne), she goes clubbing and ends up having an ill-advised sexual encounter with a floppy-haired random (George Vafakis) whose name she never bothers to find out.

It’s all very funny, and the cast of three play the outrageous material for every well-deserved laugh, with Grace Dunne and George Vafakis providing strong support as a variety of comic characters alongside Natasha Santos’ wry, self-deprecating Libby. But there’s a lot more going on here than just a newly single woman going a bit mad for a while, and it’s in its quieter moments that the play really touches a nerve. We never meet Rob (although we hear his voicemail message a lot), and there’s a reason for that – though he might have sparked it, Libby’s panic is never about him but about what he represents. She’s hurt and heartbroken by his rejection, but more than that she’s terrified of what the future holds for an almost-30-year-old whose entire life has been defined for a decade by her relationship status.

And you don’t need to have recently come out of a long-term relationship to identify with that feeling – anyone who’s ever gone through a bereavement, or lost a job, or simply woken up one day and realised their life isn’t going the way they’d hoped will be able to recognise a little of themselves in what Libby’s going through. (Though it’s likely – I hope – that most of us haven’t yet resorted to recording our farts.) In reality, this play isn’t so much about a breakup as it is about the importance of being able to talk about our fears and emotions; it’s only when Libby finally opens up and shares how she’s feeling with a kindly stranger that she’s finally set on the road to recovery. As funny as the rest of the play is, I wish we could have seen a bit more of Libby’s emotional journey instead of just the first steps, even at the expense of some of the earlier comedy.

Laugh-out-loud funny, at times unashamedly filthy and at others unexpectedly poignant, Getting Over Everest is an entertaining and relatable hour of theatre that touches on some very topical issues – and above all reminds us (repeatedly) that “it’s okay to not be okay”.

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: Locked Up at Tristan Bates Theatre

Possibly the only thing worse than being locked up and kept in isolation for an indeterminate amount of time is not knowing who’s responsible or why. This is the plight of the characters in Locked Up, a tense two-hander that’s both the professional London debut of writer Heather Simpkin and the first full-length play from emerging theatre company Bear in the Air Productions.

Locked Up at Tristan Bates Theatre
Photo credit: Rosalind White Photography

We first meet Declan (Samuel Ranger), who passes his time pacing the floor of the cell, attempting to do push-ups, and singing “99 bottles of beer on the wall” in an endless, mind-numbing loop. The opening minutes of James McAndrew’s production convey very effectively the monotony of Declan’s day-to-day existence, and after a series of short, sharp scenes it’s not long before we too have lost track of time. It’s as much of a shock for us as it is for Declan, then, when one day he suddenly finds he’s no longer alone. His new cellmate is Topher (Conor Cook), who’s equally clueless as to their captors’ intentions – or is he?

Time passes, and the two slowly grow more relaxed around each other, allowing us to get to know them better and fill in a bit of their backstories. We soon learn that they’re very different personalities: Samuel Ranger’s Declan is sensitive and risk-averse, while Conor Cook’s Topher takes a “no guts, no glory” approach to life – so it’s no surprise that he’s the one who ends up taking charge of their escape plan. The uneasy friendship and shifting dynamic between the two is interesting to watch as it develops, particularly as we’re also not sure who – if anyone – we can trust.

Locked Up is a story about human relationships, first and foremost, and asks some searching questions about trust, betrayal and the ways in which a crisis can bring together even the unlikeliest collaborators. But it also touches on current political and social issues that we can all relate to, like the threat of terrorism and government surveillance, and the fear of failure that so often holds us back from pursuing what we really want in life.

If Simpkin’s writing isn’t enough to keep us on the edge of our seats then the light and sound effects employed at each scene change will finish the job; lighting designer Euan Davies has a row of bright spotlights shine directly on to the audience, accompanied by loud and unsettling noises. This has the practical purpose of allowing the actors to invisibly reset the stage – occasionally disappearing from it altogether when one of the characters is taken away for interrogation in the mysterious White Room – but it also keeps the audience on our toes; there’s little chance of us getting too comfortable at any point during the hour-long play.

Locked Up at Tristan Bates Theatre
Photo credit: Rosalind White Photography

Similarly, Justin Williams and Jonny Rust’s set design is logistically clever, allowing the actors to leave and return seemingly out of thin air, but it also helps reinforce the play’s claustrophobic atmosphere. The characters aren’t the only ones who have no idea what’s going on outside these four walls; for the duration of the play, we’re as trapped and in the dark (both literally and figuratively) as they are.

The end, when it comes, is abrupt and catches us completely off guard, and though it’s frustrating that the story cuts off where it does, in a way it’s the perfect moment to stop and leave it to the audience to ponder answers to our many remaining questions. An intriguing and unnerving hour of theatre, Locked Up will keep you guessing to the end – and beyond.

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… 😉