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.
“this play, written for a stonking all-female cast, perhaps needed a bit more darkness, a bit more bite”
This all-female cast and crew production is fun, dynamic and crowd-pleasing. A strong cast of four, directed by Charlotte Everest, brought Robert Luxford’s sometimes witty, energetic script to life, making some bold and engaging staging and performance choices. But a truncated flow in stage action and occasionally restrictive episodic structure mean it sacrifices humorous depth for giggling shallows.
Natalya Wolter-Ferguson, Cecile Sinclair and Rebecca Wilson are a terrific trio: perfectly balanced, wonderfully varied and each with their own outrageous showcase moment, they were a joy to watch. I found their commitment and passion exciting, and their clear support of one another inspiring. All embraced the challenges which their parts required, and the result was three female performers being free, uninhibited and brave onstage. Gillian Broderick joins the action later, but her reputation precedes her as the infamous Mother Superior, who turns out not to be so superior after all. Broderick adds a new flavour to the plot, and she played the inscrutable, but ultimately liberally persuadable, nun with growing conviction and nuance as the play progressed. The cast enjoyed themselves, which was reflected back at them in the auditorium.
Luxford’s script has clear intentions, which you can read immediately in the show’s aesthetic, and the performers’ characterisation: camp, mellow shock, sex and silliness – all habit-forming stuff. But each scene is so contained that the narrative never quite moved beyond stereotype. I was particularly frustrated by Mother Superior’s rousing speech about the church’s misogyny, in which the first example she used was that make-up is perceived as problematic. This dissection never quite unravelled and complexified to such an extent that the little shocks of the show amounted to the feeling of anything beyond being tickled. Being tickled is fine, but this play, written for a stonking all-female cast, perhaps needed a bit more darkness, a bit more bite.
Tara Usher’s set design is excellent. It perfectly frames, frills and sasses up the Tristan Bates space, with a gloriously kitsch combo of electric neon, which accents model angel wings and a garish central cross, and baby pink and blue velvet bedsheets, adorned with simpering Christs. It creates the perfect realm for playful debauchery, and Everest’s direction comes to its own when she incorporates the bed as the centrepiece of the Sisters’ lusty confusion. Sally McCulloch’s lighting design, using torches and creating different moods and textures with isolated neon lights, is inventive and thoughtful. However, much as I thought the sound choices were second to nun (not a typo; what a playlist), a couple of the tracks could have been cut, to let the dialogue and performances speak. Recorded voices illuminating context and offering different perspectives on nuns within the church were a nice touch, but used a little too frequently: pairing them with blackouts at points furthered the script’s feeling of incompleteness.
Nuns was met with a warm audience reception. The production team have made a production which is worth seeing, for its creative vivacity and committed performances.