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Cosy contemporary playwriting: City Slices & Country Crumbs

Repost: with One Stop Arts closing, I migrated this review here.

For a solidly entertaining hour in a low-key environment, City Slices & Country Crumbs serves well. New writing by four women around the country makes this an interesting look at contemporary English theatre. At the Hen and Chickens Theatre.

These plays are full of an affection for England that makes for a warm tonic on a cold night: there’s nothing earth-shattering in these four fifteen-minute plays, but sometimes an evening of solid fun will do. The intimacy of the venue helps the plays feel comfortable and easily digested rather than laden with heavy concepts like nationalism, urban/rural divide, and so on. They do in fact deal with big themes, but with a light touch.

First up is Judy Upton’s Milk, where lactose-intolerant lonely-heart Megan discovers love for dairy farmer Ricky and in the process accidentally brings to light a distressing secret about the nation’s milk supplies. Natalie Sheriff (Megan), Ben Fensome (Ricky), and Felicity McCormack (Dr Rowland/Jemima) deliver an energetic, cartoonish performance full of references to topical food-supply scandals.

Samantha Leverette brings to life a powerful and touching monologue as Marjory in Melanie Hunter’s A Little While Longer. Marjory is a Newcastle woman dead since 1932, as she blithely informs us at the outset. Through a series of anecdotes about learning to read, marrying, and her son dying in a mining accident, Marjory describes life in Newcastle in the early 20th century, a place where “men worked and women did what was expected of them”. Through all this she finds solace in Margaret Cavendish’s 1662 play Nature’s Three Daughters, Beauty, Love and Wit, a way of seeking inspiration from a strong Newcastle woman from the past. Leverette brings a real warmth and vitality to the part.

In Camilla Whitehill’s The Seaside, Amy (Nicola Coughlan) and Luke (Nicholas Clarke) watch the sun rise over Hastings whilst contemplating the world and their place in it. Death has brought them together: they’ve stayed up all night following the funeral of a mutual friend. There is a sense of the claustrophobia of small settled towns with long histories as Luke, too old to be a juvenile delinquent, rails against his inability to leave a place that fills him with rage. Amy, a teenager aspiring to worldly cynicism but actually full of bright optimism for her own future, tries to make him see it isn’t all bad. Though the favourite of my ticket companion, I found this to be an after-school special of a story. Nicholas Clarke looks far too endearingly boyish to be a man regretting his misspent youth, and Amy’s parting line that “it’s never too late” has a definite platitudionous ring about it.

A rowdy upper-class romp rounded off the evening with Georgina Clarke-Day and Natasha Dowd as the respective title characters in Wendy Thomson’s Chelsea & Henriette. Staged as a series of phone calls between the two rah-girl Sloanites, there’s some clever wordplay for these two deliciously cringe-worthy self-obsessed characters. I especially liked the way that the spaces between scenes were acknowledged as part of the performance, with Clarke-Day and Dowd stealing chairs from one another, demanding champagne top-ups, and littering the stage with debris to be cleared by long-suffering stage managers. If it all sounds a bit like rushing about in a junior Absolutely Fabulous, you’d be right, but it’s no less enjoyable for it.

The regional accents felt a bit burdened, but not ruinously so. Though the plays all share England as a theme, to me they didn’t gel together with a clearness of intention or singularity of purpose that would show off how they are natural companion pieces. Still, a very enjoyable evening peppered with standout moments of real thoughtfulness.

Originally reviewed for One Stop Arts, 19 September 2013.