[Review:] BARE ESSENTIALS, The Arts Studio, London.
Encompass Productions's twelfth year of Bare Essentials, a night showcasing the works of new playwrights from across the globe, takes place this year in its new home, The Arts Studio in Leicester Square, London. This year, Bare Essentials presents its audience with six plays: 'Should've Gone to Lourdes', 'Monstrification of Eastern Europe', 'Town Meeting', 'Chekhov's Gun', 'Roommates', and 'Generation Disconnect and Other Love Stories'. After providing a short introductory review of the overall night, this post will review and rate each of the six plays individually.
In this review:
Host: Liam Fleming.
Producers: Jonathan Woodhouse, Róisín Walsh and Liam Fleming.
This was a diverse, entertaining and lighthearted night, showcasing a wide range of writing and performing styles from talented theatremakers. The pantomimic and engaging hosting by Liam Fleming combined the plays well, creating a jolly and interactive atmosphere. Although, perhaps his nerves were a little too visible, as pacing back and forth became quite distracting. Nevertheless, his energy was flawless.
One thing I would like to draw attention to, however, is the objectives of Bare Essentials. At the beginning of the night, it was highlighted that directors and performers are handed over scripts for which they have limited time to rehearse and produce the action. As such, the focus is drawn to the performers themselves and away from fancy theatricals (i.e. we see how theatre can be made and enjoyed using only the "bare essentials"). I found that this aim, whilst its hypothesis is objectively true, was flawed. Wheelchairs, costumes, props all count as extraneous theatrical elements, and I feel it would have been interesting to really work on this concept of "bare essentials" and use the audience's imagination: a character who is a wheelchair user, performed without a wheelchair - what effect would that have? These explorative outcomes could have made for interesting theatre. However, as the claims were not strictly kept to, I couldn't help but feel they were unnecessary, or simply unconfident excuses.
I also couldn't help but feel that the material created was somewhat self-uninformed, particularly in the case of 'Town Meeting'. Fleming's reaction to it caused it to seem somewhat out-of-place or unexpected - but not in a way that complemented its style.
As for the inclusion of the audience, the Twitter competition was very clever, providing room for personal in-jokes and an intimate ambience. However, the final reading of the tweets felt somewhat out of place with the rest of the show. Whilst recognising the audience's input was a nice idea, I felt it would have been better to stick with just the winner and to give spectators something to peruse alone after the show. As for the layout of the audience, I found this very problematic. The heterogeneous array of chairs, stools and sofas, whilst a cute idea, provided varying height levels and hence minimised the stage's visibility. I would have suggested a more rounded seating area.
“A rousing night of talent and diversity but somewhat misdirected.”
'Should've Gone to Lourdes' by Stephen Kennedy
Director: Kayla Feldman.
Cast: Edward Bell (as Chris) and Eddie Usher (as Brian).
The writing of this short play was comical and realistic. Its pacey and mysterious reveal of the location of the characters was effective, and the leakage of other narrative elements (such as backstory, allusion to other characters, etc.) was intriguing. Energy was seldom permitted to fall; however, I felt that the long silence as Chris leaves to converse with the prostitute was much too lengthy. This would have been more apt in a longer play, but for such a short one, this caused the momentum to become a little lost.
An exceptional performance from Usher who emoted the character of Brian well; unfortunately, I felt that Bell's characterisation was somewhat wooden in places, and this took away somewhat from the piece. Nevertheless, the two together fitted well and served as a humorous duo. The two seemed to understand their characters well, and a clear relationship between the two was effectively encapsulated.
“A comical and endearing piece of theatre, despite conflicts with pace.”
'Monstrification of Eastern Europe' by Nina Wieda
Director: Justin Murray.
Cast: Rimca Karmakar (as Natasha), Ramzi DeHani (as Viktor) and Mark Keegan (as Serguei).
This performance started with a crescendoing soundscape of modern-day news reports. Whilst this was a typical way of introducing political content in a performance, it did set up the rest of the action quickly and well. The singsongy self-preparation from Natasha that then followed was a nice metatheatrical hint to the fact that she was about to perform. However, Natasha's character was very inaccessible. Karmakar realised her in a very robotic, emotionless and dazed way, and whilst I understood this to be a homage to the mechanical nature of the press, when bits of her personal feelings towards her reports began to surface, the effect was less poignant than it could have been.
The physical movement aspect of Natasha's scenes were very unpolished and literal, making for an awkward watch. Whilst the idea of having Natasha at the heart of the news story she was presenting was an interesting one, it was taken too literally. The repetition of and themes of corruption within her scenes, however, I found most effective, and this was intensified at the end with the gas mask being removed and placed on Natasha's face. Moreover, the use of the gas mask and bike helmet worn by DeHani and Keegan poignantly alluded to war and modernity. Effective.
I found this performance to be very textured, which was effectual. The performance style of Natasha's scenes vs those of Viktor and Serguei juxtaposed each other nicely and was successful in providing varying viewpoints on the same story, marking well the ubiquity and unreliability of the news industry. However, towards the end of the piece, this became somewhat bipartite and monotonous. DeHani and Keegan's characterisations, however, made these scenes flourish in a comical absurdity.
“A lot of potential can be drawn from this performance, but development is needed.”
'Town Meeting' by Toby Parker Rees
Director: Sam Dunstan.
Cast: Josh Morter (as the Bandleader) and James Unsworth (as the One-Man Band).
This piece was endearingly convoluted, chaotic and ludicrous. It tackled the very notion of plot in an original and almost melodramatic way. However, there was perhaps a bit too much confusion taking place, especially for such a short duration. It needed something to tie it all together so that the audience could engage with the material. Perhaps this thing was what was intended by "the tragedy", but because this was made cryptic and left unexplained, its potential to be a concrete platform to secure the audience's understanding of the chaos of the piece was flawed.
It was unclear what time period this was set in: costumes were periodic, and yet the characters spoke modernly, referring to parts of modern everyday culture, as with the One Direction lunchbox. This would perhaps have been workable if that necessary grounding motif was left for the audience to be able to comprehend the world of the play.
The interaction between Morter and the audience was good, immediately marking this performance as an immersive and loud one, and the pantomimic relationship between the two characters was comical and endearing. There were many moments, however, when Morter came out of character, and this severely disrupted the otherwise alluring mayhem.
One thing this piece did certainly demonstrate is the difficulties one can run into when enabling audience participation, as, on the night I watched this performance, a spectator was invited to the stage and refused to leave. Whilst Morter clearly understood the piece well enough to be able to improvise his way out of awkward situations, moments like these - which are almost bound to happen - should be noted in rehearsals, for it was clear Morter did not know what to do.
“Endearingly chaotic but missing a layer to thread the havoc together.”
'Chekhov's Gun' by Ben Beck
Director: Liam Fleming.
Cast: Duncan Mason.
This piece victoriously manipulates the psychology of its spectators. The recurring motif of a pink elephant was an efficacious way to control spectators' imaginations, and the constant predictions of spectators' thoughts, and claims that someone in the room will die, were bold and fruitful.
What was perhaps the most successful element of this piece, however, was the ominous skulking from Mason. Mason wandered on stage during the interval only to have attention drawn to him after a sudden blackout. This was then followed by moments such as the revealing of the gun, and Mason weaving through the audience. This constant movement and remaining eye contact served as a powerful omen.
The only largely negative thing about this performance was the ending: Mason is dragged away by the host of the show, Liam Fleming. Whilst this was a clever idea, the execution was terrible. The shouting/kicking/screaming from Mason was over-exaggerated and wooden, and the whole drag-out was very tacky and awkward to watch. I felt that a simple blackout, or even having Mason leave the room to finish the job in private, so to speak, would have been much more effective and haunting. Followed by a pathetic gunshot sound effect, the ending was very anticlimactic. However, I will note that the twist of having Mason attempt to shoot himself was smart.
“A thought-provoking and ominous piece of theatre.”
'Roommates' by Matthew Fowler
Director: Ali Wright.
Cast: Rebecca Hutchins (as Molly) and Phoebe Batteson-Brown (as Emily).
This was a quirky and humorous piece of theatre. The ambiguity of the twins' location was charming and engaging, taking twists and turns with references to "prison" and the outside world, as examples of many. This ambiguity was even present in the title. The identical costumes (pink hoodies, white trousers and fluffy socks) paired well with flippant dialogue to portray a relationship between the characters.
Whilst pauses were sometimes overdone, energy was kept high, and momentum, smooth. Performance was very good from both performers, and the lack of movement made for an intimate, self-contained feel, enhanced by the mother's music playing from outside.
“A smart and lovable performance.”
'Generation Disconnect and Other Love Stories' by Kate Christopher
Director: Lucy Foster.
Cast: Andrew Gichigi, Roann McLoskey and Alexander Pankhurst.
This piece gave an interesting and stylised angle on the concept of love. The whooshing sound effects between scenes gave the piece structure and coherence as well as being reminiscent of the scene transitions of a TV show or something of that calibre (i.e. they gave the piece movement and prepared the audience for a different scene with every sound).
Characterisation was OK from Gichigi and Pankhurst and good from McLoskey; however, I would have preferred this play to have pulled more upon the notion of performers as opposed to actors. That is to say, I felt that the recurrent characters of Peter and a birdwatcher, amongst others, weakened the focal point of the piece. In contrast, the stylised scene in which characters expressed emotions through the use of terms commonly found on social media (e.g. "Follow me", "Like me"), although somewhat unoriginal, was effective, and more moments like these, as opposed to naturalistic dialogues, would have served the focal point better.
Some physical movements were superfluous but, on the whole, fitted the style of the piece well.
“An interesting starting point for an interrogative piece of theatre.”
Photography Credit: Encompass Productions.