Blackshaw Theatre runs a regular new writing night in Lambeth and is committed to nurturing budding playwrights. As part of the Wandsworth Arts Festival and Fringe, they have now brought two pieces of new writing to Tooting – and what they’ve got is a show of two halves so completely different, that it seems almost impossible they were produced by the same company.
First up is London Pride by Katie McCullough, a soap opera-style drama about a brassy London pub landlord, her one employee and her most loyal customer. As Shelly, Fiona Skinner succeeds in bringing a fair measure of warmth and even honesty to a character who nonetheless struggles to become more than a stereotype. All three of the characters feel slightly like cut-outs, in fact: there’s the no-nonsense barmaid with a heart of gold, the Polish cleaner trying to make a better life for himself and the yobbish football fan who likes to treat himself to a bit of casual xenophobia whenever he goes to the pub.
The cast do the best with what they have, and there are a couple of lovely exchanges, but the territory is too familiar to really showcase McCullough as a new voice. There is also something uncomfortable about watching Shelly being hit upon quite ruthlessly and constantly by two men she has openly rejected, but who refuse to take no for an answer. If this is supposed to make the audience feel a little desperate, it succeeds, but never quite has the pay-off you are waiting for.
Tom Slatter turns in a very watchable performance as Shelly’s Polish employee, Pavel, who is probably the play’s most interesting character – he has an intriguing complexity, both likeable and flawed. Martin Behrman, meanwhile, works as the slightly under-written Joe, but you come away feeling that the relationship between Pavel and Shelly is so much more compelling that the play might actually work better as a two-hander.
After a brief interval and a set change, it’s time for the second of the two plays: M. J. Starling’s Audience with the Ghost Finder, based on William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki series of books. Carnacki is an upright Edwardian gentleman and an investigator of the paranormal, who seems to owe a little to Sherlock Holmes, right down to the sidekick who accompanies him.
As with Watson, or Bunny in E. W. Hornung’s Raffles books, Dodgson is the more ordinary friend of the extraordinary man, the audience’s ‘way in’, and Starling has structured the whole piece as a series of flashbacks as Carnacki tells Dodgson about the events that have led them to this point.
Ceridwen Smith multi-roles as every character in the story besides Carnacki, which she does with real aplomb, one minute a young woman troubled by a curse, the next an upright rationalist gentleman. I couldn’t help feeling that too many directors would always have cast a man in a role that requires both male and female characters, but Ellie Pitkin matches her taut direction with strong casting throughout the evening. Smith is a joy to watch, both funny and surprisingly affecting.
Meanwhile Alexander Pankhurst, as Carnacki, pitches the great investigator somewhere between Sherlock Holmes and the Doctor; there is something a little inhuman about his Carnacki, generally played for laughs but occasionally quite unsettling, and Pankhurst has quite enough charisma to carry the whole thing off with a smile.
Starling’s script is silly and fast-paced, and although his inexperience as a playwright shows every now and then, this is still a production capable of being both funny and, at times, even rather creepy. Of course, it is a slightly unusual genre, so your enjoyment of Audience with the Ghost Finder probably depends on your appetite for this kind of thing: having been raised on a diet of ’70s sci-fi and TV repeats of The Devil Rides Out, I had a whale of a time.
Even if it’s not your cup of tea, you have to appreciate what Blackshaw Theatre is doing here, and both plays feel well-loved and well-intentioned. With Pitkin’s direction and Zahra Mansouri’s set and costumes added to the mix – beautifully understated and realist in London Pride, then all kinds of madly inventive fun in Ghost Finder – you can’t help but come away from the evening feeling that this is a company who really care.
London Pride and Audience with the Ghost Finder are playing at the Selkirk Upstairs from 8-10 and 15-17 May. For more information and tickets, see the Blackshaw Theatre website.