STAG’s autumn festival consists of three nights, each featuring three short plays. Each year it revolves around a theme that loosely links the plays together, with this year’s theme being ‘Opposites’. This allowed plays to vary from opposing forces, to opposite worlds, to opposite sides of the planet. Juxtaposition was rife, all stuffed into Stereo’s underground performance space.
UNTIL AUTUMN COMES
The first play of the festival was ’Til Autumn Comes, written and directed by Chris Duffy. It consisted of two couples, one in the 1800s (Laurence and Jennifer) and one in modern day (Lauren and James); what unites them is that the lovers are separated by oceans and borders, struggling to maintain their relationship from opposite sides of the planet. The play explores how they communicate and how it is possible for love to endure the distance. We follow Laurence and Jennifer’s epistolary exchange, and they both perform with earnest and compelling adoration, reciting the letters they are writing to each other. There is more interaction between Lauren and James, as we get to witness their Skype conversations and their text exchanges, in which Kate Hughes as Lauren is highly entertaining. Unfortunately, despite strong performances, the play does drag. The conversations (especially the epistolary) are rather bland and straight-forward, and the occasional intervals of physical theatre and platitudes about the sea do nothing to compensate for a lack of plot. The play acts as a pleasant, if slightly dull insight into two long-distance relationships, but does not move beyond this or provide anything more of interest.
Between the plays, we are informed there are several installations around the space, all following the theme of the evening. The most intriguing is one in the ladies’ bathroom, where each stall has a large sheet of paper with questions the attendee can scribble an answer to. Additionally, there is a disposable camera with which we are encouraged to take a selfie with friends or by ourselves. The idea of juxtaposing a private space with its occasional public use is subtle and sweet and offers a very pleasant interval.
The second play was Electric Dreams, inspired by the 1982 film Blade Runner, written by Rory Doherty. The stage has been converted into a cluttered flat from the near-future, inhabited by Jay (Ewan Shand), an awkward recluse who is addressing the conundrum of having taken in Pris (Brigita Pocyte), a malfunctioning android in need of help. The play is carried by Shand, whose discomfort is entertaining and the levity he brings offers great relief to an otherwise heavy plot. The balance between the high stakes and Jay’s humour is pleasantly maintained throughout his conversations with the android Pris, so the rapidity with which it transforms into what is meant to be an intense drama, with the arrival of the intimidating android, Roy (Tom White), is an uncomfortable adjustment and it is difficult to have much interest in the androids’ plot to seek a life-extension. As a result, the climax and end of the play is rather underwhelming, as it feels as if we have watched the compelling and well-constructed first two acts of a three act play.
Inny Endoville is the kind of village found in Cbeebies: everything is pleasant and colourful, the inhabitants are colour-coordinated and come with appropriately ridiculous names, and everyone speaks in a cheerful and high-pitched voice. The contrast, however, is that Inny Endoville is full of innuendo, murder and arson. Norliza Matheson’s piece is essentially faultless. The actors deliver convincingly grating and saccharine lines, and their crumbling into madness and chaos as they are murdered one by one is pitched perfectly. Swearing is used as a punchline one too many times, but apart from this, the humour is reliably hilarious. Especially memorable is Albert Ohlin as the fireman, whose dramatic collapse over how obsolete his profession is in Inny Endoville, because all he does is rescue cats from trees (to quote, loosely: “They don’t need my help! They’re cats! They climb up and down trees all the time!). Overall, the production deserves praise as it is a great conclusion to the first night of the festival.
Agnes Checka’s Sandcastles, which examines the near formation of a love triangle, succeeds best when it focuses on the indecisiveness and awkwardness of early adult relationships. The singing sections with projections, although somewhat strange, worked well to bring the emotional pitch of the very crowded basement it was into a nice point of focus. In such a short time the piece genuinely did manage to feel like it was getting you to like the characters and the audience all responded warmly to the bits of levity therein. The main drawback of the piece was sadly that much of the conflict and manipulation came entirely from a single character, Lily (Hannah Banfield), and as such felt like there was room for development.
Kirsty McAdam’s fun physical theatre piece revolved around two different neighbours and the pitfalls they encounter. The central pair of characters were most charming and broadly drawn; one entirely in black like Svengali, writing his first “small book of poems” and the other dressed far more brightly and more concerned with having fun regardless of noise levels. The piece was altogether fun with some strong comic touches throughout, from violent paper tosses to truculent frying pan placements. The broad logic of each character really carried and the lean into this simplicity paid off for the piece, with one small complaint being that certain pieces chosen as musical accompaniment felt incredibly on the nose.
IN SICKNESS AND IN HEALTH
The final piece of the night explored a simple (albeit somewhat incredulous) flip of perspective, portrayal of a world where over the past few years committed relationships lasting longer than a handful of encounter become deadly. The cast were all rather fun, giving big “Young Ones”-esque performances that the material seemed to demand and getting just the right amount of carried away whilst also showing us a world with no easy answers to its problems. Like a mish-mash between “The Comic Strips Presents” and “Black Mirror”, Morgan Noll’s piece showed characters not only opposite to us in terms of outlook but also conflicted within themselves, as the central figure Ezra (Ryan Rutherford) cheats and philanders whilst fervently pursuing the impossible ideal of a committed relationship. Despite a strangeness that may not have been everyone’s cup of tea, the imagination on display was thoroughly impressive.
SHADOWS OF MONTMARTRE
Isabelle Ribe’s Shadows of Montmartre was aesthetically beautiful, transforming the dingy stage of Stereo into a colour-filled artist’s studio in the famous Chat Noir Cabaret. The plot itself was enjoyable, if predictable, telling the story of struggling artists in France working at a cabaret. The element that made this production stand out was the shadow puppetry, through which the Japanese folktale “The Spirit of the Willow Tree” was told. It was beautifully created and projected with incredible shadow puppets. Ironically, the action within the production was a little overshadowed by this, with the rest of theatrical construct slightly clumsy in comparison (scene changes, for instance). However, the actors did a commendable job and as such the overall piece succeeds despite stumbling.
The second piece was Tom Lindsay’s Family Business which left a lot to be desired, with a plot composed of so many elements that none of it truly came together. The tackling of an abuse story was unfortunately shrouded with flippancy, as it was intermingled with the attempt to settle family affairs. This combination left the audience a little bemused, rather than intrigued. The ensemble’s acting was mostly dull and melodramatic, with attempts at physical theatre more amusing than effective. The experience was made worse by sudden lighting changes reminiscent of GSCE drama pieces, with red representing anger and blue indicating despair. Good intentions, though, were most definitely present and the audience could see glimpses of the intended narrative. Unfortunately, however, the brevity cut this short. A few more rehearsals and a reconsideration of narrative may have made this production much more entertaining in the long term.
Keeping Mum was the highlight of the evening; Anna Rattray’s superb script left the audience, and nearly the actors, in stitches. The audience were kept laughing from beginning to end with the story of a school’s PTA’s bake sale gone wrong, filled with middle class parents, baking puns and food fights. All the actors were wonderful, but the stand out performance was by Jenny Baron as the intense head of the PTA, Meredith, who had the audience completely captured by her creation of the character. The direction was witty and well-created, the only letdown being Elliot Thompson’s whiny ‘posh middle-class dad’ voice. Overall, however, the cast and production team should all be commended for their fantastic show.