“They balance sincerity and comedy throughout, allowing the audience a laugh even when the situation is heartbreakingly hopeless”
With a title like that and a poster of a lone bear standing tall and magnificent (in a space suit), it would be easy to assume the general plot outline – quirky man goes for gold, sacrifices everything, comes out victorious. The American dream is real, people! You just have to sacrifice everything! And apparently buy a space suit. And be a bear…
‘Neck or Nothing’ follows the story of Jens (James Murfitt), a man with a dream to make the ultimate contribution to humankind; to be the hero the world needs. And he plans on doing this whilst living in his brother Frank’s garage, being funded by his wife Martha (Katy Daghorn) who pulls double shifts at a failing bakery.
Co-writers and directors Christopher Neels and Callum Cameron have created a character with all the trappings of a victorious underdog: obsessive single-mindedness, a plan that seems completely ridiculous, a loving family whose faith begins to waver, and a small town that laughs at his brilliance. But rather than taking it to its Rocky Balboa conclusion, instead they highlight the sad reality of this trope, and of the inevitable damage caused by self-inflicted isolation, and toxic masculinity in general.
Murfitt, Daghorn and North all deliver enthusiastic and engaging performances. They balance sincerity and comedy throughout, allowing the audience a laugh even when the situation is heartbreakingly hopeless. Their characters are all surprisingly fleshed out – another twist on the classic underdog story, where all other characters beside the lead are usually kept in soft-focus.
Costume and set design (Sophia Pardon) are efficient but good fun – the star of the show is of course Jens’ ‘invention’- a home-made ‘ironman’ costume, cupcake tray serving well as a steel six-pack and cycling knee pads making excellent superhero-square shoulders. The video and lighting design (Rachel Sampley) does well to create various spaces on a small stage without overcomplicating and distracting from the main event.
In all, Neels and Cameron have succeeded in creating an off-beat comedy with just enough heart to get their message across, but not so much that you want to look away for sheer embarrassment. I look forward to seeing what Fledgling Theatre Co do next.
“A relevant, well-acted play with brilliant story concept. If Wood can work out the kinks in the script, Alcatraz could be a powerful show”
On Christmas Eve, 11-year-old Sandy embarks on a rescue mission: she’s going to break her granny out of the care home where they’ve locked her up. Sandy’s seen Escape from Alcatraz enough times – if Clint Eastwood can do it, so can she. The exasperated head nurse and a well-meaning new staff member are just two of the many obstacles between Sandy, her gran, and freedom.
Alcatraz, written by Nathan Lucky Wood and directed by Emily Collins, questions the state of elderly care in modern society. It’s an excellent premise for a vital topic. A child equating her grandmother’s care home with Alcatraz, and carrying out a plan to rescue her, is a scintillating approach to the social commentary. It’s a promising concept that hasn’t quite reached its potential.
The beginning of the play is confusing. Sandy (Katherine Carlton) monologues about papier-mâché, and narrates her journey breaking into ‘Alcatraz’ while reciting the plot of Escape from Alcatraz. These sections feel as long as it inevitably does when an overeager person is describing their favourite film. It’s difficult to care, and Wood hasn’t given us a reason to. Unless you’ve read the programme (which the script should not require), it’s unclear what Sandy’s doing or where she is. The disorientation creates a sense of detachment: if we don’t know her mission, we cannot be invested in whether she’ll achieve it. Additionally, a child breaking into a prison (or care home) has little stakes. What will happen if she’s caught? A reprimand and a call home. The scenario doesn’t inspire the sort of apprehension necessary to hold interest without any context to support it.
The story picks up when Sandy reaches her gran, and they make their escape. There’s good interaction between the characters and solid acting all around. The adult Carlton is impressively convincing as an 11-year-old. Josh Asaré is charming as flustered trainee-carer Peter. Ellie Dickens brings adept lightness to Donna, Sandy’s grandmother who is suffering from dementia. Although described as “not nice”, Lainy Boyle brings humanity to burned-out head nurse Arden.
The script continues to hit snags. The faltering pace makes the play feel far longer than its 60-minute runtime. An abundance of opportunities for humour aren’t fully capitalised on. There’s an attempt to pack what could be a second full-length play into the final ten minutes: Sandy’s father (Alec Nicholls) is introduced, along with a barrage of information about his relationship with Sandy and Donna, and Sandy’s absent mother. The scene quickly escalates to melodrama that isn’t necessarily earned, considering we’re just meeting the father. We don’t have the connection to him we need to feel his devastation as he confronts his failings. This is an intriguing, complicated family. It’s a shame the play only scratches their surface at the very end.
Alcatraz is a relevant, well-acted play with brilliant story concept. If Wood can work out the kinks in the script, Alcatraz could be a powerful show.