“a stellar debut, thoroughly researched with keen dialogue”
It is rare for theatre to leave the audience silently stunned in the final blackout. However, Bottled will succeed in rendering you utterly speechless, trying and failing to hold back tears. For a debut playwright and performed by such a youthful cast, it’s an awesome achievement.
Katy, simultaneously played by Alice Vilanculo, Isabel Stone and Hayley Wareham, introduces herself to us on her fifteenth birthday. Over the course of the next hour we follow her as she gets a boyfriend, studies for her GCSEs and tries to get on with her mum’s new boyfriend, Brian. Brian seems alright at first, apart from his baking of strawberry flavoured cakes (Katy’s least favourite) he actually seems like a cool guy, offering to pay for Katy’s Spanish holiday with her mates and taking her fishing. But gradually her mum stops seeing her friends, Aunty Carol doesn’t come round anymore, and mum has quit her job because Brian can look after the both of them on his own. It doesn’t take long before Katy’s mum is isolated and Katy starts to notice purple patterns around her mother’s eye.
Exploring domestic abuse from the perspective of a teenager, and someone whose life is secondarily affected by manipulation, violence and fear is deeply emotive. Katy’s innocence and naivety means it just hurts harder. Each of the three actors portray their own emphasis and interpretation but form a hive mind on stage so that each is a distinct part of Katy.
Hayley Wareham’s script is cleverly balanced, introducing Katy as a bright, witty and ambitious young girl who’s aware of the absurdities of modern life. You immediately warm to her through humour but ultimately empathise with sincerity as you see how quickly circumstances can change. It’s a stellar debut, thoroughly researched with keen dialogue. The piece sensitively and subtly explores the current failings of the welfare system, in which refuge centres, hostels and temporary housing make it painfully difficult to sustain a life free from abuse, let alone thrive with one.
Chris White’s direction is necessarily stylised having multiple actors playing the same character. This has the effect of actually elevating the horror of the situation through echoes, amplification and repetition of sound and movement (Jess Tucker Boyd). Conversely, the set and lighting is sparse, with no more than a handful of props used with surprising utility coming from helium balloons.
Bottled makes for a truly affecting piece filled with emotional urgency that certainly proves it’s not about big budgets when it comes to impactful theatre.
“just the kind of gem of a production you always hope to find at a fringe festival”
A one-woman play set in a carnival just seems like an insurmountable challenge, made all the more difficult in such an intimate space as the Cavern in The Vaults. There are no circus acrobats, no bright flashing lights, no amusement rides. In fact, the stage is nearly bare, and Molly Beth Morossa appears wearing only a plain, though filthy, petticoat, with a pocket full of black feathers.
Young Poppy begins by telling the story of how she and Virginia came to meet Edward: The Laudanum sisters, as they would later be known, were living barefoot under a bridge, fighting over a corpse’s shoes when they were happened upon by carnival showman, Edward B. Friday. He resolved their squabble by finding a second shoed corpse, and from then on, they became a sort of family – “bound together with love and hate and need and spite. Like a real family.”
Poppy’s child-like excitement for Edward’s bloody carnival is infectious, and even as she describes the most gruesome acts, the audience is rooting for her dream of one day taking to the stage herself. The story is macabre in the extreme, but Morossa’s comic timing is enduring: even in moments where it seems the play has taken a nose-dive in to an inescapable tragedy, she wrenches a convulsive laugh from the audience. Not to sell her short though, she also creates moments of tenderness, and at one point, of genuinely terrifying menace. It is no surprise that Morossa is actor, writer and director all rolled in to one – it would take that kind of investment in a part to deliver that kind of performance.
There is no excess in this production – every element is used sparingly and to great effect: the set consists only of a frame draped in black cloth and a string of fairy lights; there are occasional snippets of carnival music but the soundtrack’s main feature is an intermittent children’s story-style narrator. This sometimes acts as relief for the almost too-gory details, and sometimes adds to the horror with its unflinching tone. Lighting is equally simple yet effective – long shadows dancing either side of Morossa on the old brick tunnel walls serve as a strange, ghost-like chorus.
The bare brick walls, and trains thumping rhythmically overhead come with the space, but seem particularly apt for this spine-chilling story; it feels almost like an immersive experience. In fact, I would go so far as to say it would be near impossible to reconstruct this atmosphere in a more traditional theatre set-up. This is just the kind of gem of a production you always hope to find at a fringe festival – Morossa and co-creator Celyn Ebenezer have achieved something that the West End, with all its high production value, would be hard-pushed to create.