In the intimate setting of The Space on the Isle of Dogs, Matthew Gould’s double bill of new plays was a refreshingly human affair. Investigating the convergence of church and stage, literally (Stage Kiss) and spiritually (Baby Jesus Freak), these divergent plays offered a glimpse at moments of contemporary crisis. Relying on good acting and good writing rather than spectacle, these plays felt unusually earth-bound, as they addressed some common issues.
First up was Ian Winterton’s Baby Jesus Freak. After the funeral of Matthew’s mother, Lauren (Natalie Husdan) drunkenly sleeps with his super religious brother Daniel (Adam Lowe). That same night, Matthew begins to see visions of a punchy teenaged girl, his newly-conceived niece, Ruth (Gemma Flannery). As Lauren works through whether or not she can or wants to have a baby, Matthew spirals into a boozy breakdown as he deals with his mother’s death, the loss of Lauren to his brother, his estrangement from the two sons he had with his first wife, and the apparition of his playful phantom niece.
In this play, Winterton does a truly excellent job of dramatising the elements of the choice involved in the reality of a considered abortion. By exploring the extremely grey areas around morality, honesty, and religious fervour, Baby Jesus Freak manages the very difficult job of remaining neutral and questioning in the face of some very political issues.
With Gemma Flannery’s charming Ruth barrelling around the stage from the point of presumed conception, it would have been all too easy for the play to descend into preaching. But, from the moment that a counsellor, clipboard in hand, tells Lauren that, in making her decision, she can’t discount how she feels, it becomes apparent that the central issue of the play is actually one of emotion, intuition and feeling. As the characters try to reconcile themselves and their world views with their realities, it is clear that the only agenda this play could be accused of harbouring is one which advocates human empathy and understanding.
The cast was strong, and they really brought out the lightness and hilarity in what could easily have been a heavy play. Claire Dean was brilliant as Bethany, Daniel’s insidious American fiancée; Ben Jewell’s flawed-but-lovable Matthew infused the play with warmth and nuance. But Ruth, as she was written, staged and played, really stole the show. Encapsulated by proclamations like, “I’m a vision from God, but I turn out to be an atheist just like you,” she is mischievous, haunting, and very real. With its subtlety, warmth and depth, Baby Jesus Freak has all the makings of a contemporary classic.
Keeping the church, at least in the background, Andrew Jones’s Stage Kiss is set in the dressing room of an old chapel that has been converted into a theatre. The nature of this space is the point of tension around which the piece is wound.
Scheming actress Miranda (Lisa Baird) loves the space, while her visiting friend Amy’s (Sophie Melissa Howard) fiancé, Henry (Danny Wainwright) finds it rundown, and its use superfluous.
What follows is a fast-paced romp, which at heart, is the dramatisation of one woman’s conflicting desires.
As Amy’s old drama school pals Miranda and Daniel try to lure her back to the stage with a farcically bad play and promises of romance, brash businessman Henry pushes back with bravado. Caught between her life as a secretary, and her past as a romantic actress, Amy is forced to reconcile her values and her tastes, as she considers the relationship between truth, art and love.
Stage Kiss was fun to watch, and Lisa Baird’s portrayal of meddling Miranda was a delight. But I also felt like it was all on extremely well-trodden ground. I’m left unsure as to what its innovation is.
The plays, in the end, seemed a bit of a strange pairing. While they had similarities, I don’t think they necessarily played off of each other in any meaningful way. And while I found Stage Kiss entertaining, for me, Baby Jesus Freak was definitely the evening’s highlight.
The Stage Kiss/Baby Jesus Freak double bill is playing at The Space until 22nd April 2011. For tickets and information, visit http://space.org.uk/