STAG’s New Works 2017 Festival reviewed

Published

Credit: Rob Pongsajapan

Grant McKay, Felicia Bengtsson, Tom Aikman
Writers

Night One

Writer: Grant McKay

The County Fair

The opening night of STaG’s 2017 New Works Festival was a scrumptious lineup of silliness. The first play of the evening, The County Fair by Kirsty McAdam, was an extremely witty comedy which can most accurately be described as a baby of Hot Fuzz and The Great British Bake Off. Wonderfully timed punchlines and finely observed British countryside mannerisms provoked general hilarity as a mysterious string of murders was investigated and punctuated by butter statues being thrown at faces, country dancing and hotel keys systematically falling off their hooks.

The array of characters recreated the microcosm of the small town remarkably well, despite some issues in pacing. Indeed, the dialogue occasionally felt somewhat stunted, as though lines had been forgotten; and the large majority of the young journalist’s lines were delivered in a bland manner, lacking nuance in intonation. Overall, however, the cast captured the essence of their character’s stereotype and made the 20 minutes of the play very enjoyable. The County Fair, despite the occasional stumbling, displayed a true knack for intelligent observation of the comical in life.

All Hail the Big Bopp

The second play of the evening, All Hail the Big Bopp by Annie Saxberg, continued the evening’s laughter in a great crescendo of improbable scenarios and goofy, endearing characters. Backstage requirements and scene transitions were perhaps too ambitious-set changes, entrances and exits felt a little breathless and clumsy. The play was still an entertaining roller coaster, featuring models of comets and the solar system being crushed, flashing some cheeky Star Wars underwear, a microwave computer, kid’s size NASA blouses, tacky aluminium hats, and a rocket ship in which you can roll down your windows.

Amongst it all was a brilliant cast, whose versatility and ability to adapt to the play’s weird surprises was truly impressive. Special mention must be made of Flora Robson as Professor Thrisp: the controlled madness and unique mannerisms of the character automatically created an imaginary spotlight on her that remained throughout the play. I savoured every minute of All Hail the Big Bopp, my main regret being the lack of overlap between NASA and Uncle Monday’s cult of the Dearly Departed. But this first night of New Works was the perfect opening night, getting me in the mood for a promising rest of the festival.

Night Two

Writer: Felicia Bengtsson

Come Die With Me

Come Die With Me, written by Samuel Scott, centers around a group of friends gathering at a dinner party for what’s meant to be a reunion among friends and an introduction to the hostess’ boyfriend. Think again. Daniel (Ewan Shand) has returned from Romania a little paler and blood thirstier than his former self.

The quick-paced plot is packed with quirky comments that got the audience laughing, blood splattering and bodies dropping dead. The performances were nevertheless slightly stilted to begin with, and the chemistry between the hostess and her boyfriend could have been stronger. That being said, with the charming Daniel strutting about stage in his cape, and an endearing performance by the boyfriend Marcus (Elliot Thompson), the play kept the audience smiling throughout the comically deadly dinner party.

Leaving Heartland

The evening’s second performance, Leaving Heartland, written and directed by Agnes Checka, is funny and heartfelt. The mad scientist Penfield, adorned charismatically in a short dressing gown, has designed a memory extraction device. The test subjects are best friends Hazel and Arden, who are about to embark on a nostalgic trip back in time that explores the intricacies of friendship at its most challenging times.

The play features stellar performances from the entire cast. Easton and Emmett, the female scientists duo played by Hannah Makonnen and Norliza Matheson respectively, wins hearts with their celebratory dance number, while the portrayal of conflicting emotions of Hazel and Arden make the characters deeply relatable and sympathetic. The dialogue is clever and personal – taking a jab at everyone with an Art History degree and making popular references to Friends’ it-couple Ross and Rachel.

Although the play managed to reach a great level of depth in its 50-minute run, some concepts required further explanation that what was offered. While Hazel is unable to add to a memory when she misremembers a conversation, Arden is able to fully influence and change interpretations of past events; this appeared contradictory and slightly confusing to the audience. With that exception, the show is thoroughly well put together, from lighting during flashback scenes to detailed props. Leaving Heartland managed to be amusing, sad and touching all at the same time. It is an honest recognition of friendship – the ugly and the beautiful.

Night Three

Writer: Tom Aikman

The final night of STaG’s new works festival provided the audience with two pieces of really enjoyable (and nicely contrasting) theatre.

An Ordinary Life

The first piece was An Ordinary Life, written and directed by Chris Duffy, which featured multiple puppeteers animating a single large straw-man. The story chronicled, as the title would indicate, the puppet’s fairly ordinary life, but there was much to commend in the well-observed movements of the puppet. From preparing coffee, getting dressed, the drudgeries or work to daydreams of baseball, the production utilized the puppet well to capture the ins and outs of a daily routine. The lack of dialogue and the reliance on music and the puppet’s physicality to convey emotions was a risk that paid off for the production as the simple “break out of your routine” story really carried over. There’s a real enjoyment to seeing STAG do something out of usual, and considering how well this worked out it would be really great to see STAG do more puppetry in the future.

God Ltd

The second piece, a longer broad comedy called God Ltd written and directed by Ryan Rutherford was a world away from the former piece. Structured almost like a long form sketch, it told the story of three angels in heaven creating a variety of problems for themselves by trying to take a more active role in the world. Despite some perhaps overwrought gags at the start, the play worked very well indeed once it got going; the chemistry between the three angels shone throughout with excellent comic timing and sight gags which elevated the humour. Praise should also be given to the use of tech which was done admirably to create some enjoyable moments. A couple of choice props clearly created for the show showed the attention to detail that had gone into every aspect of the piece.

A small point of criticism, however, is that sometimes the piece went out of its way to shock the audience and, whilst surprising them through reveals can be said to be a central tenet of comedy, at times certain gags broke the finely tuned tone and pacing of the show for little pay-off. Other inclusions of characters, such as a suitably repugnant Westboro Baptist Church inspired protestor, didn’t really provide many surprises. Whilst the joke of how mistaken characters are about things is a good one, and two divergent logics onstage often lead to the best of comic misunderstandings, when the figures are as loathsome as this and the scene provides no twist or comic invention beyond “telling someone everyone thinks is wrong that they’re wrong”, it can grow tired very quickly. With this said the aforementioned breach of tone was only so vivid because for a vast majority of its running time God Ltd was a very well executed and energetic piece of comedy.