Guy Rhys

Bird

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10/06/16

Studio Theatre, Royal Exchange

While The Night Watch continues to enthral audiences in the Royal Exchange’s main theatre, down in the more intimate setting of The Studio, you’ll find Bird by Katherine Chandler, the winner of a judge’s award in the 2013 Bruntwood Prize Competition. Chandler is playwright in residence at Sherman Cymru Theatre and her play is a bleak examination of families and friendship.

Ava (Georgia Henshaw) has grown up in care, after being thrown out by her mother, Claire (Siwan Morris), mostly because she’s accused Claire’s partner of abuse. Now Ava lives in a children’s home somewhere in the backside of South Wales. Soon, she will be sixteen and sent out to fend for herself – but where is she supposed to go?

Essentially this is a series of short, punchy duologues – Ava confronting her mother, who has moved on and now has a two-year-old daughter to lavish all her attention on – Ava confiding in her best friend, the mysterious Tash (Rosie Sheehy); and there are some telling exchanges with two very different men – naïve teenager, Dan (Connor Allen), who confides that he might just be looking for something more than casual sex; and the older Lee (Guy Rhys), who is quite clearly grooming Ava, plying her with alcohol at every opportunity, in order to get her to bend to his will. Lee is always seen from Ava’s point of view – a scene where he cuts himself in order to get her to go along with him is particularly disturbing – which means that his manipulation is all the more sinister: he offers the care and attention so lacking elsewhere in her life, and his ulterior motives are opaque and shadowy.

The performances by the five strong cast are uniformly good and Henshaw is particularly adept at conveying her character’s inner conflict through her coiled, unresponsive body language. The edgy duologues are interspersed with more exuberant moments, such as the scene where Ava and Tash throw themselves around the stage, dancing in Northern Soul style. Parallels with birds constantly emerge though the writing – a caged bird occasionally let out to fly around a tiny room, the peregrine falcons nesting in the abandoned tenements nearby. They seem to represent the freedom that Ava yearns for but repeatedly fails to attain.

If there’s a criticism of this play, it’s that the signposting of issues is occasionally rather heavy-handed; it all feels a bit like we’re being hit over the head with them – and it’s clear early in the proceedings that anyone who was hoping for a happy ending is going to be disappointed. Still, it’s a hard-hitting piece that deserves your attention.  Bird is at the Studio Theatre until June 25th.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney & Susan Singfield

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Pomona

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03/11/15

Royal Exchange, Manchester

Something decidedly strange is happening on Pomona – the deserted concrete island that sits between Salford and Manchester in the middle of the river Irwell. In this dystopian future world, women are going missing in worrying numbers, while Gale (Rochenda Sandall) is taking extreme lengths to conceal what’s actually happening to them. Meanwhile, security guards Moe and Charlie, are charged with the task of guarding something hidden beneath the ground, something they don’t know anything about; and what does all this have to do with the ancient octopus-faced god, Cthulhu? It’s a good question and one I’m still not entirely sure I have the answer to.

Fresh from its success at the National Theatre in London, Alistair McDowall’s Pomona now makes its debut in the city where it’s actually set. It’s a labyrinthine tale, featuring seven disparate characters. The play’s themes: prostitution, sexuality and murder are probably intended to shock, but in truth these elements aren’t anything like as convincing as the ones that deal with Role Playing Games, something that seems to provide the main clue as to what’s actually going on here. The story isn’t told in a linear way – instead, it switches back and forth in time, so sometimes we know what’s going to happen to a character before he or she actually gets there.

The play begins with underwear-clad wheeler-dealer Zeppo (Guy Rhys) performing an extended monologue based around the climactic scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark for Ollie (Nadia Clifford) who is looking for her missing twin sister. Zeppo advises her not to look too hard, pointing out that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. But she goes looking anyway…

Individually, the ensuing scenes are mostly good, nicely acted and occasionally very funny – the ones featuring the hapless Charlie (Sam Swann) are particularly successful in this regard – and there are some nicely choreographed sections, where everything promises to fall into place, but never quite does. The fragmented nature of the work makes it feel more like a collection of short pieces in search of a story arc, so the overall play is somehow less than the sum of its parts, even if many of those parts offer much to admire.

Ultimately, I felt that Pomona was a little too pleased with itself for comfort – but the enthusiastic applause from tonight’s audience suggested that others found it captivating. One thing’s for sure. Here’s another play that will have you discussing its meaning long after you’ve headed for home.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney