The downside of bringing a student production to the Fringe is that it faces going up against experienced acts, with the contrast between professional and amateur disciplines brought more to the fore. Out of the University of Southampton, Gone Rogue Productions have filed into the C Venues with four shows, including Quebecois playwright Évelyne de la Chenelière’s Strawberries in January, translated by Rona Munro.
In this comedy, bitter barista François (Will Hankey) pens a screenplay when not busy pouring coffee for his most regular customer, a literature professor named Robert (Liam Dyer). Through the literary smarts of both characters, the play seems to offer some play on the ‘Rom Com’ model, looking at romantic myths and their influence on our lives.
Unfortunately, Ruthie Pinion’s direction isn’t able to manipulate the iconography of these narratives, and falls into a predictable rom com of its own. François decides to set Robert up on a date with his ex-fiancé Sophie (Caithlin Hobbs), while Sophie’s childhood friend Lea (Joanna Mills) is in town, and coincidentally happens to be Robert’s one-time squeeze. Love quadrangle anyone?
Because it prefers the straight-up presentation of realism, it feels more contrived than subversive (a stage designer might have intervened here). The playing also isn’t great; Hankey is too cold for us to buy François’s pining for affection, and Dyer doesn’t move much from his one coolheaded note. The only merits are in the women actors: Mills is self-possessed in her many monologues, and you get the impression that the shyly Hobbs doesn’t know how funny she actually is.
“I think things taste better in the off-season” says Sophie, offering the eponymous berries that otherwise might offer an alternative to the dominant love stories of the day. It’s not that romance is dead, it’s just become damn tired.
Strawberries in January runs at C nova (Studio 2) until 31 Aug. For more information and tickets, see the Fringe website.