Shortly before IdeasTap was sadly forced into closure earlier this year, the charity announced the winners of a playwriting competition; subsequently, these four playwrights were left without a showcase for their winning works. Step in JayBird Productions – led by director Simon Jay – and producer/playwright Robert Holtom, who took it upon themselves to give them the reward they had earned.
Each piece is a one-act, one-person play, but Jay has decided against the usual staging of a monologue showcase – bare stage, static performer, simply presented – and instead adds a comedic framing device themed around a flight. As The Hostess, Joanna Rose Barton throws herself into the role and exudes a bubbly personality and natural rapport with the audience. The musical interludes, too, are well performed by Barton and Thomas Simper. I applaud the effort to present the monologues in a creative way, and it keeps us on our toes; however, this garnish feels unnecessary and detracts from, rather than enhances, the main meat of the production. We are entertained, but Jay could have trusted these winning works to do their job without so much embellishment in between.
To the monologues themselves – we open with the highlight of the evening, Marietta Kirkbride’s Hole. Here Simper gives a sterling performance as Josh, a man desperately seeking something to fill a void in his life, yet when he finds it he is mocked and ostracised by society. Kirkbride’s primary skill lies in the way she is able to turn the comic into the tragic in just a word, and Simper beautifully renders the emotional see-saw, leaving us constantly teetering between laughter and a lump in the throat.
Next we are flown from a lonely man’s living room to a man’s lonely prison cell. Conor Carroll’s Universally Speaking focuses on a man about to face trial – a celebrity, the programme notes tell us – and follows three different possible outcomes. This work lacks the clarity of the first piece, and the multiple universe strands are not made clear, to the extent that I wouldn’t have grasped this point without reading the notes in advance. Ken McLoone is certainly engaging, but the work doesn’t allow enough of a rounded character or coherent script for a fully developed performance.
Fat, our third stop of Act I, again takes us in a very different direction. Samantha Shaw is hilarious and captivating as Su, regaling us with her graphic love of food despite being condemned by doctors as dangerously overweight. While Robert Holtom’s script doesn’t really take us anywhere, Shaw’s performance raises it a few notches; this short piece makes us laugh while also facing the reality of mortality, and surprises us with its flashes of poignancy.
Finishing the quartet of monologues, Don Grimme’s The 7-11 Butterfly Effect is the weakest of the set, and the evening ends on a bit of a flop. Pallas McCallum Newark gives an evidently nervous performance as a teacher in the future giving a lesson in twenty-first century history. The concept is full of potential as a piece of political satire combined with absurdist humour, but it doesn’t achieve the heights it promises. The gags quickly grow repetitive and my interest unavoidably waned – despite the intelligence of the initial idea, the comedy doesn’t have enough punch to keep the energy bubbling.
As ever with a compilation of works, there is mixed success. Yet it’s fantastic to see these pieces finally on show, and there is a charm to the evening that manages to paper over the cracks.
Universally Speaking is playing at the Bread and Roses Theatre until 17 October. For more information and tickets, see the Bread and Roses Theatre website. Photo: JayBird Productions.