The Death of Norman Tortilla is a modern, black comedy and the first play written by Charlotte Coates. It centres on Norman Tortilla, an elderly sufferer of Parkinson’s disease who desperately wants his memories to be recorded before he dies. Robert Gill created moments of surrealism and comedy through his body posture, gestures and his delivery of Norman’s muddled thoughts to the audience. He played an aging individual who is mentally falling apart very effectively. The strange Polish care worker, played by Nicholas Ruben, was obsessed with personal hygiene and brought an almost dehumanising aspect to the play, chilling the audience with his views on the human condition and his treatment of Norman. The woman attempting to flog gas insurance was stereotypical, yet being brought to life by Morag Sims and her interesting story stopped the character from being predictable.
The setting was mostly minimal with the exception of hundreds of pictures cut from celebrity magazines plastered over a coffee table and cabinets. These pictures created an eerie atmosphere and also highlighted Norman’s mental deterioration.
However, as a piece of writing the play did not flow well and at many points it felt disjointed. The transitions between comedy and drama were too brief, which often made the audience feel uncomfortable. This was particularly noticeable at the climax of the play where a blood effect was quite gratuitous and did not aid drama or comedy. The play contained a lot of bad language that I do not believe was at all necessary as it did nothing to aid the plot or the development of characters. There were certain props which could have had more thought put into them, such as an obviously blunted kitchen knife. Despite these aspects which spoiled the piece it was a good first play by the writer and well presented by Sheer Drop Theatre.
What happens when an alcoholic meets a 16-year-old drug user? This new play by Jon Cooper presented the answer through poetry and rap. Cassandra, played by Joyce Greenaway, is a writer crippled with grief and guilt for the death of her girlfriend. Jasmin (Tia Bannon) is a young runaway who never wants to go home. Through a night’s drink and drug binge the two women form an unlikely bond, united through the spoken word which may just save them both before it is too late. Greenaway grasps the audience’s attention beautifully with moments of anger and then quiet unhappiness. One particular moment when she is crying on a sofa makes the audience empathise with her, and desperately want her character to break free of the clutches of alcohol. Tia Bannon’s Jasmin has comic moments, and she brought energy and pace to her speech and movements which highlighted Jasmin’s age and desire to live despite her troubled home life. The realistic presentation of seeing a 16-year-old snorting cocaine shocked the audience and the casual attitude of the older Cassandra towards this drug-taking only added to this.
The setting was a black box stage furnished with neutral wall paper, removal boxes, cabinets, and a sofa and coffee table downstage. This successfully conveyed a home to the audience, but a disjointed one, reflecting the broken characters of the two women. Sound design by Ed Lewis was used to highlight scene breaks and moments of darkened lighting from Miles Fisher exemplified the gloomy mental state of the characters.
Jon Cooper’s writing slipped easily from dialogue into lyrical and poetic monologues and the contrast of hip hop with more traditional poetic technique indicated the different generations of Jasmin and Cassandra. The references to ‘the click’ from Tennessee Williams’s play Cat On a Hot Tin Roof delicately indicate that Cassandra is an educated and clever woman, yet, like Williams’s character in his play, she is dependant on alcohol to make her relax and forget her troubled life. These references indicate an attention to detail in Cooper’s creation of the characters and therefore in the play as a whole.
This was a dramatic and powerful play, where tension was delicately cut with comedy and where difficult subjects were approached with consideration in a very successful way.
The Death of Norman Tortilla and A Lady of Substance are playing at the Tristan Bates Theatre until 14 April. For more information and tickets see the Tristan Bates Theatre’s website.