As part of the ‘Working Class Stories’ season, the Tristan Bates Theatre opens its doors to the Loosely Based Theatre Company with ‘Classified’ which, in response to the growing inequality between classes, envisions possible eventualities in a gratifyingly old-school production. Writer, Jayne Woodhouse, creates three imaginative and perceptive worlds, with a strong feminine slant, to discuss causes and effects of this division and to reflect on how we are becoming trapped within our own lives through the control of data. Each play has its own style but they are connected by a portrayal of different human reactions to injustice and impotence.
In ‘Choices’, set in the present day, the offer of a better life for her new-born baby leaves Leanne disillusioned about the inevitable prospects facing her son, as an unnervingly persuasive ‘Interviewer’ reveals the effects that the negative algorithms of her lifestyle already have on her child. Anna Hallas Smith plays the young mother, swaying sensitively between tough exterior and internal vulnerability while David Lenik is an appealingly comic tormentor.
‘Classified’ takes us to 2080, when society has succumbed to an enforced class structure. Reminiscent of the ‘angry young men’ dramas of the 50s, a couple discover that their mismatched resistance to authority has unanticipated results. Kate O’Rourke and Aaron Kehoe show a very real and heart-felt dilemma, enhanced by the mindful character writing and unpretentious acting.
Moving ten years on, ‘The Watchers’ depicts two generations, mother and daughter, their grasp of the tighter restrictive barriers and their coping strategies. In stirring performances by both, Kate O’Rourke as the mother is shattered by her passive resistance to the system and resigned to her ensuing downgrading but her daughter, played by Anna Hallas Smith, knows nothing else. She feels protected against the ‘dangerous’ lower classes by the fierce authoritative constraints and reacts disturbingly to the taunting she suffers when she and her mother are forced to move to the other side of ‘the wall’.
Calum Robshaw’s direction is direct and unaffected, providing a welcome simplicity, though the initial set-up as the audience enters is becoming something of a cliché; in retrospect, it detracts from the straightforward nature of the concept. Jayne Woodhouse builds interest and tension in scenes with skill and observation and most of the time the dialogue is in keeping with the roles, occasionally becoming somewhat strident. As a personal note, it would be interesting to interchange the order of ‘Choices’ and ‘Classified’ to reshape the dynamics and make the audience’s participation more poignant. A refreshingly uncluttered trio of plays, ‘Classified’ encourages a consideration of our prevailing social climate with sincerity and charm.
“well-paced, with a clear narrative arc and some terrific, playful moments of theatricality”
The premise of STARCHEDtheatre’s debut production is a simple one: five neighbouring women in 1950s East London live out their lives and loves over their laundry. The company has clearly done its research – there is a wealth of lovely period detail, including the wonderful moment when Connie (superbly played by Jade Dowsett-Roberts) paints on her nylons with gravy – and it is impressively-shaped for a devised piece; well-paced, with a clear narrative arc and some terrific, playful moments of theatricality. The company is clearly ambitious, which is to be applauded, and for the most part its boldness pays off. Sarah Carton clearly has a future in sound design, though the persistent presence of music did occasionally distract from the dramatic action on stage, and the first introduction of a contemporary dance beat into the score does take away from the power of the later intense, wordless washing sequence, in which the women pound their individual frustrations out, drenched in red light.
This sequence, as well as the other powerful ensemble moment, which brings the play to its close, are, unfortunately, only fully visible to the people in the front row, which is a serious flaw in the otherwise excellent production design. It really is a shame to have so much excellent work wasted, and the audience frustration in the second two rows was palpable. Doubly disappointing, this, when there is so much creativity to admire elsewhere in the production – the pleasing use of the sheets in George and Elsie’s wedding scene, and again in Elsie’s moving solo moment in the latter stages of the play, to name but two.
The development of George and Elsie’s relationship is tender and beautiful throughout, from its tentative early beginnings through to its poignant close, and credit must go here both to Harry Elliott and Olivia Baker, who bring a touching level of emotional truth to these two rather understated characters. There is some terrific acting talent on display throughout. Particularly notable are Duncan Mitchell’s Arthur – a picture of roguish charm, deceit and emotional hopelessness – and William Reardon’s explosive turn as John, full of repressed steel and thunder. Anna Hallas Smith also lends a good deal of psychological heft to Betsy, the piece’s agent provocateur and tragic heroine.
The action was managed deftly for the full seventy minutes, and the stage was always pleasingly alive – a particularly impressive feat given that, as per the lack of directing credit on the cast and crew sheet, the company appears to have directed itself collectively. Overall, Laundry is an impassioned and ambitious debut from this young company, bursting with talent and drive. It would be exciting to see where all this creative energy could go in the service of a more contemporary story – something which truly belongs to these performers – and this reviewer, for one, would be first in line for a ticket.