“Alone on stage for sixty minutes, Hesmondhalgh holds the attention effortlessly”
How do you cope with a cancer diagnosis when you are only twenty-three and on the brink of a new life full of possibilities? If you are Rosa Hesmondhalgh, you write a frank, yet funny blog about your experiences, and then turn that material into an inspirational one woman show that plays to packed houses at both the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and then in London at the Pleasance Theatre in Islington.
It’s 2018, and Rosa has just graduated from drama school. She’s made resolutions about taking better care of her body, and “making some really good art.” She’s got a promising sounding date on Tinder, and it goes really well. But something—isn’t quite right. Dismissing the symptoms as just gas, Rosa waits to go to the A and E until she can ignore them no longer. What follows is the stuff of nightmares, but in Madame Ovary, Rosa guides us through an unforgettable experience of love, loss—and epiphany.
Alone on stage for sixty minutes, Hesmondhalgh holds the attention effortlessly, but it’s not just because of her uncompromising look at a disease that is well known for forcing an awareness of one’s own mortality. She meets the audience head on dressed in yoga clothes, using her body as well as her words to tell her story. It’s an ongoing joke that her increasing difficulty in doing the yoga poses that are supposed to make her healthier are some of the things that alert her to the inexplicable changes going on in her body. Her humour helps lighten the seriousness of the situation, but also preps us for the education that is about to commence.
It’s truly remarkable how much medical information this show delivers while focusing on the more relatable aspects—meeting the people, and their supporters, for whom the struggle to survive is all too real. Hesmondhalgh’s approach is to focus on the ‘F’ words—family, friends, and the future—in a way that doesn’t negate the pain or the brutality of the treatments that rob her of her hair and more significantly, her ovaries. In her “new normal” where connections may be brief, she, and we, discover that they are nevertheless important and well worth the effort. It is this awareness of paradox in the writing that makes Madame Ovary such a satisfying evening in the theatre, despite the difficulty of the material. When at the end of the show, the actress declares “I’m not better, but things are better” she succeeds in helping us to understand both the uncertainty and the faith in that statement. It’s an impressive achievement.
Madame Ovary is well worth your time if you can get to see it, so keep an eye open for opportunities. It’s a show that should be revived often—as long as battles against cancer are still there to be fought, and lessons to be learnt on how to take on this ancient enemy—and win.
“We’ve come to listen to the voices, and any visuals are just comic icing on the cake”
Spending an hour in the company of James Carney, Brice Stratford, Joey Timmins and The Unseen Hour is a bit like getting on one of those rollercoaster rides. It’s a gravity defying journey that turns your expectations inside out and upside down—and, as it gathers speed, leaves you realising that whatever notions of “real” you may have had at the start—well, forget reality, hang onto your hat, and for sixty minutes, just enjoy the ride. This is another theatre production presented as a “live radio broadcast,” (and this seems to be a thing on the London Fringe right now). Creator, writer and producer Carney has gained something of a cult following by making podcasts of fifty of these shows. Yes, fifty. So if you’re wondering what you’ve missed by not attending The Unseen Hour’s only appearance at the 2019 London Horror Festival at the Pleasance Theatre in Islington, fear not. You can revel in the experience either through your favourite podcast app, or, if you’re old school like me, catch the visuals and the audios by finding it on You Tube. Carney promises that number fifty one, which was performed last night, should shortly be joining its siblings online.
How to describe a show that begins by describing a dystopian future where a narcissistic scientist finds himself battlling robots and an evil corporation, to protect mutating teenagers? You could be forgiven for thinking that the future is already here. What sets Carney’s show apart though, is the way in which he and the company loop back into the past for their inspiration. Billed as a mashup of Welcome To Night Vale and The Goon Show, or Blackadder and The Twilight Zone, The Unseen Hour does indeed borrow its characterisations and voices from these earlier classics. But don’t arrive expecting the sleek production values of those past television shows. The stage is a mess of microphones and oddities for making live foley sound effects. The actors dress in costumes utterly unrelated to any character they might be playing. It doesn’t matter. We’ve come to listen to the voices, and any visuals are just comic icing on the cake.
Voices are the strength of these performers, and they provide a dizzying array of different characters, all with distinct accents. What gives the show its unique charm however, are the bumbling asides as the three performers juggle parts, sound effects and direct address to audience members—whom they seem to know a lot about. It gives the show an authenticity of being part of the experience that goes beyond removing the fourth wall. And there is an established pattern to the show, despite the running gags, anarchic storylines and just-in-time performance styles. Every show, including this one, includes a guest monologue and a guest musician. It gives Carney, Stratford and Timmins (and the audience) a chance to catch their collective breath. Anna Maguire (the monologue performer) and Kevin Maguire (the musician) on this evening, provided a welcome (and talented) change of pace at each interval.
It’s easy to get hooked on this kind of dramatic experience. That said, it is a bit bewildering for the first time visitor. There’s not really any “tune in” time, because the performers jump right in with their stream-of consciousness monologues and random associations, and assume you can keep up. As said before, it’s best to let go of expectations and be carried along in the show’s slipstream. As ancient sages have so often remarked, it’s not the destination that’s important, it’s the journey.
Reviewed by Dominica Plummer
The Unseen Hour
Pleasance Theatre as part of London Horror Festival