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Dispatches

by on 16 March 2018

Scratch Sketches

Dispatches

OSO at OSO Arts Centre, Barnes 15th March

Review by Matthew Grierson

Dispatches, the OSO’s night of “scratch writing”, comprises eight short new plays selected from more than 100 submissions, and what makes them an interesting selection is the ways they resonate with one another – in fortunate and sometimes less fortunate ways.

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The maiden over is Heaven Help Us, a diverting but slight piece about a cricket team of literary luminaries, based on one that actually existed under the captaincy of J. M. Barrie. Writer Michael Staniforth doesn’t do much with this promising premise, however: there’s little story to speak of despite the script’s tendency for info-dumping, and it’s difficult to see where it would go given more time. Roger Hayward Smith makes for a lugubrious Jerome K. Jerome and Terry Oakes a swaggering Conan Doyle, while Mike Duran is charming as an enthusiastic and untested Wodehouse. It’s a shame, though, that Trevor Hartnup as Barrie laments his slow delivery on the pitch because it also draws attention to his halting performance, managing to miss his cue even with his script in his hand.

Different fare follows in the form of Matt Evans’ The Cabby, an altogether tighter conceit in which three young passengers are taken home by Stephen Riddle’s titular driver, their stories gradually revealed to be interwoven. Rosie Nicholls and Alice McGregor give very well-observed and engaging performances from the back seat, the first distraught with her humiliation at a teenage party, and the second playing drunk convincingly as she balances humour and vulnerability while failing to balance on her seat. We quickly warm to Riddle’s solid presence as he lends a sympathetic ear, and it’s thus no surprise that he is angered by his last passenger (Mike Davies)’s overfamiliarity and bragging about his conquests. What is a surprise is the dramatic turn the story then takes, too abrupt to work effectively in so short a piece, and which would benefit from a clearer set-up and a better-paced resolution.

Third on the bill is Three Women 2, comprising monologues from a trio whom we come to realise are each mourning the death of a loved one. Unlike Heaven Help Us, the script leaves us to infer the situation, and gives Fiona Monks, Sarah Penney and Anna Brooks-Beckham chance to express not only their characters’ grief but also their frustration at the way they are misunderstood by those around them. With this piece following The Cabby, I expected a similar kind of narrative build-up here and presumed the three would all turn out to be lamenting the same loss: it’s not a fault of the writing, more a function of the way this showcase is programmed, but I had to disabuse myself of this notion before I could appreciate the way one monologue responds to another and develops its themes.

Number four, For Love, is the highlight of the first half, and among the best of the evening. The economical script takes harrowing subject matter – the state-sanctioned torture and disappearance of LGBT Chechens – and makes it ring twice true, both in the monologues of a policeman and the father of a gay son, and in the naturalistic dialogue of the two writers who double as these characters. The sudden shift from heartbreaking personal accounts to offhand personal exchanges (“Do they play football in Chechnya? Let me Google it”) builds into the drama the distance, powerlessness and ignorance we feel in the West, and ratchets up the drama effectively in a little more than ten minutes. Rogerio Correa’s affecting script is matched by the outstanding performances of Tobias Grace and Will Jarvis, who manage the switches from comic to tragic subtly and superbly, supported by clever and simple changes in lighting.

After an interval in which the audience are invited to share their feedback with writers in the bar, there is a change of tone with Pancake Factors, an awkward title for a sweet vignette of adolescence. Kylie (Vee Tames) is a 15-year old willing her way into womanhood and a bra, albeit unsuccessfully, and is at first teased and then encouraged by Rachel (Sara Jackson), who I took to be her older sister despite her US accent. Although Tames slips between RP and yoofspeak in her delivery, both actors create a believably loving dynamic as the pair, doing justice to Brogan Gilbert’s carefully observed writing.

Love is a Minefield follows, its title unfortunately apposite given that it’s something of a mis-step after a run of effective and engaging pieces. The setting is the garden of a country house in 1945, where injured Lt Timothy Gregson (Simon Brandon) is visited by former fiancée Molly Blake (Georgia Riley), despite his mother Joan (Carolyn Pertwee)’s attempt to deter her. But Pertwee’s own script cannot decide whether it’s homage or parody, neither serious enough to engage as drama nor exaggerated enough to send up the genre. Indeed, the laughter prompted when Gregson announces he is impotent, “And of course, Mother knows,” doesn’t seem entirely anticipated. Where For Love uses comedy deftly to reinforce the drama, Love is a Minefield lurches from one to the other as though all the major beats of a longer play had been squeezed together to fit the limited running time. As Molly, Riley gamely plays it straight throughout, but Brandon struggles to convince as a well-to-do officer, and is not helped by the modern vernacular into which the dialogue veers. For most of his time onstage he lies beneath a blanket, and so the play misses another trick by revealing he can still rise to his feet to (re)propose to Molly – given that it’s perfectly possible he could have been missing a leg all this time, as the title and setting might have suggested.

From this misjudged account of masculine reserve to a surefooted engagement with modern masculinity: Numbers is the best of the second half’s offerings. Like For Love, Alex Blanc’s script succeeds because it is able to use comedy to engage us with something more serious, and the monologue running through it makes us, the audience, into participants as Jack (Adam Jessop) takes us through the statistics of his life. He begins by telling Jill (Zoe Greenfield) about the number of girls he’s kissed and goals he’s scored, but she gradually teases out of him figures he’s less willing to share. Jessop’s assured performance as Jack is sensitive and insightful, and he is well matched by Greenfield’s versatility as she switches into the parts of people he remembers. And for its concern with male identity and mental health, this still seems a hopeful piece; the moment the protagonists re-enact an awkward pre-adolescent dance and kiss is joyous and human, prompting the laughter of sympathy – or recognition – from the audience.

The evening is rounded off by Hannah, which picks up on the themes of troubled relationships and doubtful men and does something entirely unexpected with them. Samuel Topper’s Younger Man has come to Javan Ashong’s Older Man to find his ex, the titular Hannah, but Older is more of a mystic than a detective. Having exhausted his other options, Younger pays through the nose to spend six minutes in the company of Hannah, conjured into the bewigged person of Older. As in several of the other pieces, we learn about the lead as this exchange continues, although unlike the others we like him less the more we know. Topper’s reedy performance communicates Younger’s neediness and frustration, but he doesn’t quite achieve the selfish, controlling quality the script suggests. Mind you, the actor seems at times to be biting back laughter provoked by the improbable sight of Ashong in a long blonde wig; Ashong in turn is impressively impassive as the enigmatic Older and sensitive and suspicious in the guise of Hannah. If the two actors are competing then Ashong is the definite winner, but both manage to find enough truth to ground what could be an absurd scenario.

The artistic agility of individual performers such as Ashong, Greenfield, Jarvis and Grace is invaluable to playwrights flexing their muscles in these 15-minute exercises, and between them, the Dispatches explore what can – and cannot – be achieved in the format. On the strength of tonight, there should be much to look forward to as these writers and actors get the opportunity to stretch themselves further.

Matthew Grierson
March 2018

Photography by Laura Sedgewick

 

 

From → Drama, Fringe, Reviews

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  1. Reviews Live | Mark Aspen
  2. Dispatches 3 | Mark Aspen

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