One of the most enjoyable aspects of Live Theatre’s 10 Minutes to Call Home series has been the consistent display of talented women, and Off Peak continues that trend.
This short piece follows two women on the Transpennine Express travelling home, Rachel (Megan McKie Smith) headed back to her mother in Durham, and Liz (Colleen Prendergast) having just left her daughter in Manchester. There’s an immediate clash of generations here that plays out well – not clichéd, but familiar and recognisable.
It helps that both characters are well established beyond the stereotypes of their age. The actors do a great job of making their characters likeable and find a way to make their conflicting voices work in harmony. Credit also goes to playwright Elly McNally – as a young writer, she does terrifically well to make an older character in Liz feel real and engaging. She imbues Liz with a wit and wisdom that chimes nicely with the youthful exuberance of Rachel. It’s great fun when Liz rebuffs an accusation of “okay boomer” before the younger woman can land the blow, and reveals a possibly unexpected kinship may be possible between them.
There is also a third character in Off Peak. A beleaguered train guard played by Annabelle Rich. It’s a great performance from Rich who steeps every part of her dialogue and movement with the weary energy of an employee stuck on the late shift without help. However, the character does feel like she’s hovering in limbo – partly a character and partly a plot device, used to control pace and setting. Subsequently, we don’t get enough of her as a person to warrant all of her interruptions; we only get fifteen minutes with these characters, and having one exist in a half-space is frustrating and slows things down a little too much.
The whole piece, in general, feels slightly too patient. This is a slow burn that takes time undressing its characters to bare its themes. It does get there in the end, and in the meantime there is some sharp writing, including genuinely funny moments from each character. This was clearly deliberate and demonstrates control in McNally’s writing, but there is certainly a little more room to explore here. We eventually reach an ending that nearly veers into being saccharine, and it may have felt more earned with some more character development in its fifteen minutes.
However, I was surprised and impressed to read that this is McNally’s first produced play. With that in mind, it’s worth noting that, overall, this is very watchable – an impressive writing debut and one to watch.
The direction from Jamie Eastlake is also strong. With many restraints on theatre and production at the moment, it would have been easy to lose the sense of place on stage. Instead, some understated and efficient lighting, by Drummond Orr, and sound design, from Dave Flynn, combined with clear staging are more than enough to focus the scene without becoming distracting.
Though there are a few teething pains in Off Peak, they are mostly forgettable thanks to excellent work in writing, acting, and directing. It continues an impressive run of fresh and relevant theatre from the 10 Minutes to Call Home series.
Off Peak is streaming on the Live Theatre website.