“It’s a heavy mix but delivered with a light flavour so it never appears overcrowded”
The ‘Bitesize Festival’ currently running at Riverside Studios is a programme of selected play-readings and comedy, showcasing new material. The name speaks for itself, reinforced by the theatre’s website: ‘Sometimes you just want to experience theatre in bite size pieces. We understand… each performance is an hour or shorter. And each is guaranteed to move, excite and entertain you’.
“The Devil’s in the Chair”, the new play from Eoin McAndrew, boldly flouts the criteria by running at just a little under two hours. Thankfully, though, McAndrew meets the other criteria with his moving and entertaining portrayal of a Northern Irish family brought, somewhat reluctantly, together for Christmas in a remote cottage in rural Donegal. An actor, comedian and writer, McAndrew is a member of the BBC Comedy Writers Room and the Royal Court Theatre’s International Playwriting Group; both accolades evidenced by the sharp dialogue he gives to the dysfunctional characters of this new piece. Adopting the powerful story telling technique of Conor McPherson, with hints of Martin McDonagh’s ‘Leenane’ trilogy, McAndrew lets his own voice come through.
Without fanfare, the cast wander onto the stage before the houselights fade and introduce themselves and the characters they are about to present. Like the other showcases at the festival, the audience are required to build the set in their own minds, aided by (perhaps unnecessary in this case) spoken stage directions from the cast. With script in hand, the five strong ensemble paint a vivid portrait of the world this family inhabit.
Saoirse (Amanda Hurwitz) is the maternal figure, not particularly liked by her three sons, who is grudgingly dragged to the backwater when she would clearly rather be back at home watching re-runs of the ‘Father Ted’ Christmas Special. The well-intentioned but misjudged family reunion is instigated by city-worker and aspiring novelist Liam (Niall McNamee) while Jamie (Matthew Duckett) wallows in self-medication, self-pity and alcohol following a, perhaps, self-induced car accident and Darragh (Cavan Clarke) is trying to rebuild his life, not helped by his siblings who are all too ready to knock him back down like fledgling bullies kicking sandcastles on the beach. This sounds like hellish company in which to spend two hours on a Sunday evening, but the natural empathy of the performers, coupled with the affectionate and sympathetic naturalism of the script make these characters quite likeable. A view initially shared by the outsider Ellen (Emma McDonald), the cottage’s proprietress who repeatedly pops over to see if everything’s alright. She soon learns that it isn’t.
Many themes are tackled including, among others, alcoholism, Catholicism, mental health, suicide, child abuse, lies and betrayal, family obligations. It’s a heavy mix but delivered with a light flavour so it never appears overcrowded. The humour simultaneously brings relief to the gravity of the situation but impels us also to lodge the issue in our heads to consider later. But for the time being the entertainment value of McAndrew’s writing draws us into a very quirky and dark soap opera.
Being a reading rather than a fully staged drama, however, the cast obviously haven’t had the luxury of time to grow into their characters. And initially there are signs of maybe not quite enough read-throughs before the piece is unveiled to the public. But once in their stride, the cast wring out the emotions and we definitely feel the impact of the play’s potential. Watch out for the title; I’m sure we’ll be seeing it again soon.
“There is a shared passion that comes across from the young co-operative, and a generosity that allows each cast member to shine”
“A Level Playing Field”, which began its life at the Jermyn Street Theatre in 2015, explores the darker side of education. How, over time, it has become a commodity. Learning for learning’s sake is no longer valid. Schools are a business and, in their desperate pursuit to hold onto their position in the league tables, curiosity and individuality is stamped out. The pupils groomed in exam techniques with the teachers’ careers riding on the outcome. Bold yet familiar undercurrents to base such a play upon, and there is the danger that such a polemic might drag the narrative down. Instead, though, Jonathan Guy Lewis’ writing sweeps the audience along with a mix of insight, humour, and first-hand knowledge.
Lewis was originally inspired by listening to his son’s experiences of A Levels and the pressure that he was under, and the obsession with grades and testing. One small snapshot in time (an hour or two in the examination room) was somehow going to define his whole education and perhaps shape his whole future. The concept felt very wrong. “A Level Playing Field”, part of a trilogy, serves to showcase his disillusionment in the current system, and the damaging effects it could have on young minds. But the skill with which he crafts the dialogue packs the piece with positivity rather than makes it a slamming tale of doom. This positivity is clearly grasped by the fifteen strong company – all Drama Studio graduates – who have basically run away with the project to make it their own. Having performed it as their graduate production last July they formed their own company – Neck & Neck Theatre – to take it further and give the show a wider audience.
This is a rehearsed reading as part of the Riverside Studio’s ‘Bitesize Festival’. We are asked to imagine the set and props; stage directions are read out and the actors are on the book. Yet the performances are such that these potential impediments are removed from the outset. We are drawn into their world – the music room of a high-end grammar school in which the pupils are confined in ‘isolation’ before their next exam. Without access to phones and laptops to prevent them gaining any unfair advantage during a clash in the exam timetable, the locked-in pupils browbeat, brag, tease, torment and flirt. Resentments are revealed, but as the layers of bravado, incipient self-awareness and rancour continue to be torn away, deeper scandals are uncovered; and the damage is laid bare.
There are parallels that can be made to society as a whole, and deeper questions are asked. Yet the overriding sense of the evening stems from the sheer entertainment value of the piece. The script is cram-full of humour, and the authenticity of the language belies the generational divide between writer and performers. There is a shared passion that comes across from the young co-operative, and a generosity that allows each cast member to shine. In addition to the flowing narrative, each character is given a moment in the spotlight to give a brief soliloquy. Self-deprecation is the key to get us on their side. And we root for these fragile personalities. Yes, they intimidate each other, but rally round when it truly matters.
The harm caused to curious minds by institutionalised education is a topic that deserves wider debate, just as “A Level Playing Field” is a show that merits a wider audience now. This reading of it gives more than a taste of what it should be (and has been) and hopefully we can look forward to a full staging. Part ‘The History Boys’, part ‘Lord of the Flies’, “A Level Playing Field” is passionate, provoking and playful.