[Review:] FLIGHTS OF FANCY, White Bear Theatre, London.
In this review:
Flights of Fancy is an evening of five short plays, staged at the White Bear Theatre. All short plays were written by James Mannion and directed by various directors, and tech was operated by Liam Wise. I shall start with an overview of the evening and then review each playlet one by one.
Flights of Fancy
James Mannion most certainly demonstrates in this evening his versatility as a writer, insofar as conceptualisation, plot development and, above all, comedic ability. All of the plays performed were sufficiently variegated and each had their own redeeming features and particularities. These were: 'Powerless', 'The Contract', 'Cabbages', 'Honey', and 'The Patient'. Whilst 'Honey' and 'The Patient' were ever so slightly unoriginal in terms of concept in comparison to the rest, these were all most endearing and qualitative performances.
I will say, however, that there is an overall issue with realism, something I will come back to repeatedly in this review. It is often better to tackle absurd, extreme or melodramatic scenarios and situations with severity and seriousness; this is oftentimes much more comedic. The most successful moments within the performances in this compilation are those which deal with subtlety and naturalism.
Whilst stage management was, for the best part, smooth where transitions were concerned, tech rather hindered this. Closer attention should be paid to the fading out of music. This was in places too sharp and the lyrics were cut halfway a few times, which made for jilted and sharp beginnings for some of the plays. The small overtures, however, where characters can be seen within the environment of the play before the true action begins, brought cohesion, coherency and style to this evening. Although, these should have all remained at equal lengths.
Overall, set design was very coherent, the perfect amount of props and features to allude to the various worlds of the playlets, without being too lacking or too overpowering. However, the topography of the stage was rather biased to one side of the partitioned audience. It is worth paying extra attention to the layout of the performance space when making directorial decisions.
“An enjoyable evening of absurd humour, though in need of closer attention to style and matter.”
Directed by Marcus Marsh
As the audience walk into the room, they are greeted with the overture of 'Powerless': Brian (Josh Hull) sitting on an armchair, centerstage, staring absently forward, slowly munching an oversized packet of Wotsits crisps; Charlie (Michael Timney) in the far corner of the stage, diligently tending to his mobile phone; and Anne (Belle Kavanagh) to the side, typing on a laptop. Once the houselights dim, a stagehand wheels in a small table on which sits a monitor. The action begins, and we hear a voiceover of David Attenborough narrating the behaviour of a snake.
The play has only just begun, and yet there are a few things that are already niggling me: Hull’s eating was sometimes mimed and other times not, making for an oddly inconsistent visual. The light of the monitor is replaced by a blue stage light, rendering the monitor an obsolete and lifeless, and hence unnecessary, prop. The extension lead alone would have been sufficient enough for Charlie to swap the plugs and charge his phone. Not only the monitor but also the mobile and laptop were switched off, meaning that the actors were made to mime their utilisations rather over-performatively. Superfluous, exaggerated or altogether needless elements like these combined take away from the believability and intrigue of a performance.
This lack of realism was also evident elsewhere. It was difficult to understand the characters’ motivations and concerns in places. Whilst I understand the comedy behind the millennial concerns, such as beyond-important retweets and urgent essay submissions, these were rapidly lost as the focus dwindled towards Charlie and Anne constantly punishing Brian for insignificant things such as not having charged his phone — a reality upon which the plot seemed to rely on heavily after a short while. Without much climax, Charlie then attempts to stab Brian who is also revealed to be a drug dealer...
Everything in this short play seemed as though a passing comment: the reason behind Charlie’s retweet, the primary reason for his anger during the power cut, for example, was alluded to only once; the trip to the park was soon forgotten; and then the stabbing and drug dealer reveal. I felt that the dramatic text aimed to incorporate too many of these so-called millennial realities without thinking of their reception in a play setting or how they combine to create one unified plot.
Characterisation, on the other hand, was appropriate to the given text, and all performers were humorous and engaging to watch. Although, I will mention that Hull frequently came out of character to laugh.
“A convoluted performance with humorous elements but no clear direction.”
Directed by Mike Cottrell
The plot of 'The Contract' was definitely a good foundation for a humorous and intriguing play. However, there were some inconsistencies that dampened its efficacy for me.
In the beginning, when the couple first meet, the two seem incredibly awkward with one another, and we can see instantaneously that this is a failing relationship. However, this does not at all cohere with Ron’s (Ikky Elyas) perspective of it. Given his attempts to hug and kiss Janine (Nassima Bouchenak) several times later on, and given the denouement where we find him to be truly in love with her and heartbroken that this is not requited, this initial tension seems extremely bizarre.
Being a lawyer, Janine’s lack of specialised terminology when introducing the contract to Ron made her character far less credible. ‘Provision’ would have been a better word than ‘law’, for example. I felt this particular intelligence could have been a means of exposing this ‘seriousness’ or ‘superiority’ that Janine supposedly regularly holds over Ron in their relationship. Then, her ‘dumbing it down’ for him would have further exposed their incompatibility.
For me, Bouchenak’s characterisation was far too performative overall, whilst Elyas’s characterisation was too reserved and, in places, rather bland. Whilst the comedy was enabled to shine through, I felt that this performance also required a lot more realism from the actors overall in order to intensify impact, particularly at the end when Ron is left alone on stage, discarded and heartbroken.
The set design was very good in this performance, however, facilitating the movements of the performers but also conveying the setting quickly and effectively.
“A performance with a good foundation but lacking continuity and pathos.”
Directed by Lizzie Fitzpatrick
I must admit that this play was my personal favourite.
I will start with the set design. However minimal, set choices were particularly efficacious in this short play. A mere pair of foldable chairs and a brown rug with four cabbages on top successfully evoked the setting of an allotment. But perhaps slightly less superficial than this, the set’s features facilitated a subliminal unity of the two characters, Jackie (Wendy Fisher) and Carol (Samantha Wright). The same chairs and magazines, and a mirrored pair of cabbages, connected the two characters together well, aiding the credibility and comprehensibility of an otherwise hostile and disparate relationship.
This dramatic text definitely dives further into character dialects and idiosyncrasies than the others, and this is its primary selling point, enhancing the characters’ legibility. The common parlance of the two, combined with the characters’ reflections upon sources in the real world beyond the play, such as mentions of Uckfield, the BBC and Monty Don from Gardners’ World, equally make for relatable and well-formed characters as well as the formation of a realistic microcosm in which the characters can operate.
Wright and Fisher’s characterisations were optimal for their roles. All dialogue — and interruptions — were tackled naturalistically, and both performers were sufficiently expressive in their physicality. I shall mention as well that the comic timing for their miming watering the cabbages was superb. Mime can often be extremely tacky, but this was a good execution.
However, this narrative, being very simple, is in slight danger of becoming monotonous and repetitive, particularly if it was to be extended, and the same can be said for the tech comprising an absence of music and a singular lighting state. However, being a short play, this was acceptable and sufficiently entertaining.
“A wonderful and captivating short play, texturised and endearing.”
Directed by Livia Sardao
This I found to be the most unoriginal of the short plays, unfortunately. That being said, this performance had the most realised plot and the smoothest plot development. It was easy to find a sense of rhythm and progression in this short play.
This performance was also a good demonstration of how an absurd scenario is best treated with realism. However, I feel that Honey’s (Jemima Murphy) manipulation could have been more insidious and less overplayed. Her significance to Tom (Samuel Lane) was told rather than shown, and this is a common and fatal error in theatre. The lead-up to the murder at the end of the playlet should perhaps be facilitated by a more harrowing subplot lurking beneath the main one and exposing itself slowly throughout the playlet’s duration.
Laura Román’s characterisation as Clara was very convincing. She portrayed her character’s anger, frustration, lovingness and impatience very well. Jemima Murphy’s voice acting was equally as sound. Whilst her lines were quite overemphatic by nature, Murphy did not allow her portrayal to become too exaggerative, which was most effective. In places, Samuel Lane’s characterisation as Tom was perhaps a little too over-energised, particularly in moments of denial or supplication, yet this balanced out towards the end.
Set design was adequate, though I would be careful as to where the actors position themselves within the space: Lane went behind the furniture quite a few times, obscuring view of him.
“Unoriginal and insipid in concept yet well executed.”
Directed by Siwan Clark
For me, this play pivoted upon an overly simplistic premise. In this short play, a Doctor (Oliver Rednall) reveals to Simon (Charlie Collicutt) that his so-called terminal cancer was actually a misdiagnosis. Disappointed that he has already arranged his own funeral, Simon fears the embarrassment of telling his friends and family that he is, in fact, not going to die. This absurd situation is most certainly an appealing foundation for a short play, though there is little which launches the plot further than this initial concept.
As with 'The Contract', this text suffered from a lack of specificity, hindering the texture of the play. A few mentions of Simon's father, girlfriend and chosen funeral parlour are not enough to create a solid, tangible character. A focus upon an absurd situation can only remain substantial for a while; character development is needed to convey the humour of this premise. It seemed here as though the characters were, instead, simply vehicles for a funny scenario. Furthermore, the lack of specialised language use by the Doctor also made his character less credible. Perhaps this was to expose his unprofessionalism or to intensify the absurdity further, but, if so, this was not elucidated.
There is an incoherency for me when the Doctor seems intrigued by Simon's ‘symptoms’, writing down his answers and stating, “Interesting.” Given that he is aware of the misdiagnosis, it is unrealistic that he should be so inquisitive. I would have preferred more sarcasm from the doctor so as to belittle Simon as a ‘hypochondriac’. Instead, the doctor’s ‘coolness’ about the situation came rather as an absence of intention and persona.
The set also inhibited a sense of realism: two chairs, a white plastic table and an exercise book for the doctor to write in. A simple poster, or something else upon the desk, just to dress the stage a little and to signify a doctor’s office, would have been an effective touch. Additionally, a laptop was used in 'Powerless', and this should have been used in this playlet as well; an exercise book was rather bizarre. Perhaps these decisions were intended to be comical, to convey the doctor as incompetent and unseemly, but if this is so, this fell flat.