Sparks, Old Red Lion

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There’s something elemental about Sparks. It’s all water and fire: two opposing forces meeting, like the two sisters at the play’s heart. Jess turns up on Sarah’s doorstep drenched, clasping a fishbowl in both hands. “Soaked,” she says. “All the way through. Think I’ve got. Got wet bones.” Sarah, when she allows herself to dream, dreams of the stars, burning fiercely in the sky. It’s the night before bonfire night, the country prepared to briefly ignite, but for now the water pours steadily down.

This is the tenor of Simon Longman’s play and Clive Judd’s production at the Old Red Lion: lyrical, dreamlike. Pared back to the basics, Sparks might not sound like much. A woman returns home to see the younger sister she abandoned twelve years previously, desperately attempting to turn back time. The domestic drama of the homecoming is hardly anything new. And yet … “transcend” is a word used too frequently and too carelessly, but it feels justified to say that Sparks transcends its premise, becoming much, much more than the sum of its parts.

There is, at first, a spikiness to the situation established by Longman and Judd. Sophie Steer’s Jess, vibrating with anxiety, vomits out a relentless flood of words. She can’t stop talking. Sarah, on the other hand, can barely wrench a single syllable from her throat. As played by Sally Hodgkiss, she’s frighteningly still, paralysed by shock. The older sister dances around the younger, her jittering energy spreading outwards in ripples to the audience. We’re tensed, waiting for the confrontation or revelation that dramatic convention dictates must be just around the corner.

But like Alice Birch’s Little Light – another dagger-sharp and devastating play about families and the passing of time – Sparks keeps us waiting. There’s a lot, in fact, that the two pieces have in common. Both take familiar, arguably even hackneyed dramatic set-ups and delicately subvert them, stretching the expectations of an audience almost to breaking point. And both revolve around the fragile relationship between two sisters, bound together by blood and memories yet ripped asunder by events.

In the case of Jess and Sarah, they are speaking across a gulf, one that only seems to widen for most of the first half. Jess is frantic, speaking to fill up the silence, while Sarah gives her little in return. One speaks in outpourings, the other in clipped half sentences. Yet, perhaps most surprisingly of all, it’s funny. Dark and desperate, yes, but funny all the same. The careful rhythm of the performances highlights the jarring humour of awful situations – that very British tendency to find something to laugh about even from the depths of despair.

Indeed, careful might describe the whole production. No choices feel thrown away. The style is naturalism shot through with memory and, at moments, a little bit of magic. Subtle (and one less subtle, but completely earned) shifts in Mark Dymock’s lighting take us back through time as both sisters gradually pick over the past; likewise Giles Thomas’s sound design, which you hardly notice until suddenly you realise it’s transported you. Jemima Robinson’s design, unfussy and realistic for the most part, uses the tiny but significant detail of peeled back wallpaper to suggest the tearing away of the years. Peeking through underneath, a Winnie the Pooh pattern – the one visual reference to Jess and Sarah’s fraught, shared childhood. And the swapping of the two central roles each night, a device that could be no more than a gimmick (albeit an impressive one), makes complete sense for a play that deals so much with the roles we fall into in a family.

In the end, what matters more than the discovery that we’re primed for – the unexpected twist, or the key to this strained sibling relationship – is simply these two characters in the same space together. I’m reminded, alongside Little Light, of Robert Holman: as in so many of his plays, Sparks is about the people and the conversation. Longman’s dialogue is exquisitely crafted, as accomplished in tense, terse exchanges as in meandering, almost poetic speeches. It doesn’t matter that little really happens to the two protagonists over the course of the play, because so much happens between them. It’s simple, perhaps, but startling nonetheless.

Photo: JKF Man.

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The Win Bin, Old Red Lion

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I have several friends who’ve recently graduated and are currently in the soul-destroying process of trying to get into the arts. We have a lot of conversations that go a bit like this:

“How’s it all going?”
“Oh it’s OK, I’ve just been doing this internship with [insert arts organisation].”
“That sounds like a great opportunity. Is it paid?”
“No, it’s not. Well, they pay travel, but …”
“That’s a bit shit. But it could open some doors I guess.”
“Yeah. I’m also doing this show at [insert theatre]. It’s only profit-share, and it’s costing me a fortune to get there and back – plus I’m knackered from the day job – but maybe it will lead to something else …”

You get the idea.

This is the culture that The Win Bin skewers. Set in a future dystopia, but taking aim at present day problems, Kate Kennedy and Sara Joyce’s show imagines a Britain in which there is just one remaining arts job. Competition, as you’d expect, is fierce. In a cross between The X Factor and The Apprentice, six shortlisted candidates fight it out for the prize: not a recording contract or six-figure salary, but a toe in the fast-closing door of the arts sector. Oh, and it’s not even paid.

Switching rapidly between roles as the six desperate would-be artists, Kennedy and fellow performer Wilf Scolding (both real comic talents) stand in for a whole army of desperate job-hunters, willing to do anything for a break. They sing. They dance. They screw each other over. Because in this constantly surveilled nightmare of ruthless individualism, there can only be one winner. And if you can manufacture a sob story along the way, then all the better.

It sounds brutal, but there’s a surreal, comic edge to these frantically competing characters, most of whom are as dotty as Bethany Wells’ spare but striking set design. Two of the candidates are exes, torn between revenge and lingering affection, and each with a dizzying range of foibles. One hopeful specialises in live taxidermy; another claims that his calves are his secret weapon. In a series of short, sometimes skit-like scenes, they make increasingly ridiculous attempts to outdo one another, responding to the cryptic, impossible demands of an unseen judging panel. It’s occasionally clunky, but mostly hilarious.

As entertaining as all the wackiness is, though, it’s the more subdued opening and closing moments of the show that really stick in the memory. Bash (played by Kennedy), the awkward and anxious protagonist of the piece, is in interview mode, blinking nervously into the single bright shaft of light that falls across the stage as she clumsily reaches for the elusive “right” answers. The desperation is tangible. And it’s in this situation, so depressingly recognisable to a generation of young people, that the laughter begins to die away.

Photo: Alex D Fine.

People Show 121: The Detective Show, Old Red Lion

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Originally written for Exeunt.

In The Coming Storm, Forced Entertainment’s latest offering, some critics saw an even greater self-reflexivity than usual; it was suggested that the show was in some way concerned with the company’s legacy and with deconstructing its familiar dramaturgical strategies. In the new piece from The People Show, an experimental company with a considerably longer history, there seems to be a similar focus. People Show 121: The Detective Show (the sheer accumulation of work indicated by the title alone is quite extraordinary) is as much a reflection on the company’s own techniques and its far-reaching influence as it is a dissection of the much-loved detective genre. It’s less whodunit, more how was it done.

Having been around since the 1960s, it’s hardly surprising that The People Show’s influence has rippled out to countless other theatremakers over the years. Now, however, the company is faced with the strange dilemma of being placed alongside the work it has spawned, much of which has caught up with – if not overtaken – its taste for experiment. As a way of acknowledging and negotiating this, People Show 121 makes no attempt to ignore or overcome the company’s history, which is immediately hinted at on stage by the presence of tireless original member Mark Long. Their techniques are flagged up, exaggerated, even lightly mocked for being hackneyed. As one performer apologetically explains, they are – like so many of the companies who were inspired by them – “just trying the postmodern thing”.

Here, the “postmodern thing” proves to be a knowing deconstruction of both detective narratives and the mechanics of theatre. In the rambling, charmingly chaotic plot, a hapless jobbing actor falls for an Agatha Christie obsessive with a dangerous secret to hide – a secret that soon sees her sprawled out inside the cartoonish chalk outline on the floor. Within the frame of this murder mystery, the structure of the show also manages to support a surreal game of Cluedo, a dancing Poirot and a hilariously hammy Italian waiter, along with plenty of over-the-top mime and some deliberately self-conscious narration.

It’s an intentional shambles, riffing on familiar detective genre tropes to generate laughs, while at the same time nodding to the now popular technique of presenting failure on stage. Performers Long, Gareth Brierley and Fiona Creese bicker between scenes, undermine each other’s performances and at times almost bring the whole piece crashing down around them, only to pick up the fragments of the show and carry on. It’s deliciously silly fun, effectively skewering a tactic of contemporary performance that has now become so prevalent it is danger of congealing into cliché.

Belonging to one of the generations created under the influence of The People Show rather than having direct exposure to the first shocks of its innovative approach, my perspective on this work is inevitably coloured by coming to it through its theatrical progeny. For me, however, the postmodern mickey-taking of People Show 121 – for all its undoubted fun – ultimately lacks any real bite of its own. Instead of offering the sort of bracing, experimental approach that has made them such a force over the years, The People Show attack an aesthetic that is all too familiar.