This May bank holiday weekend, actor and theatre-maker Amy Blake introduced a new theatre festival to Sheffield. Titled ‘Early Fest’, it gave the stage to ten different 40-minute shows, ranging from thrillers to farce, new writing to improv. I went to have a look at some of the work on offer.
Bummer and Lazarus
Bummer and Lazarus is a verbose, high-energy production that takes on the big
questions in life through the eyes of two dogs. Enthusiastic but intellectually-challenged Lazarus calls on his best pal Bummer to explain to him the whats and whys of life – a conversation that starts with Bummer telling Lazarus his own name, and soon escalates into a detailed description of quarks, time and death. There is a dynamic, fast-moving rapport between the two characters that is very engaging, even though the energy is a little overwhelming at times.
The production has a weird sense of timelessness caused by its lack of context. Who are these characters, and where have they come from? We are only given limited information, woven cleverly into the dialogue through throw-away comments and anecdotes. The subtly of this is nice, but it would better for there to be a more substantial narrative to the show.
A Live Adventure with Wine Mum
A Live Adventure with Wine Mum is a blog made into a theatre show. A truly 21st Century piece, the story is told through a combination of comedic photos of toddlers up to no good, memes, snapchat stories, audience interaction and some high-energy storytelling by actor Gemma Windle.
The format of the show is simple, but no less engaging for it. Following an amusing opening monologue, Windle asks the audience to choose one of a series of mystery blog posts, all rolled up inside wine bottles. The pieces range from hilarious anecdotes of parenting disasters to a deeply moving ‘letter to my first born’, and all are read out by Windle with alacrity, charm and humour. Her style is entertainingly animated: she launches herself into physical comedy, and serves the text of blog well with a range of funny voices. Sapphire Ogle deserves equal praise for her witty, light-hearted and hugely funny writing.
Set over the course of one man’s life, Branches explores the tensions between art and science, facts and creativity. It’s an all-too-clear debate with an all-too-clear conclusion, and the creatives would have done well to stage it in a less obvious way. But the fact is that 35 minutes is a very short time to present a nuanced piece of theatre, and that time restriction shows.
The two actors take on a range of characters with varying levels of success. Some are nicely played with subtle characteristics (it’s nice to see the all-male cast playing female characters in a way that isn’t ultra-feminine), yet there are a couple of roles that veer too much towards the stereotypical.
The style of story-telling is nicely balanced: naturalistic, colloquial conversation combines with poetic narrative interludes. Motifs are used with subtlety, never drawing too much attention to themselves, and the show has a nicely understated feel that works well with the intimate space of The Cellar @ DINA.
Fallen Rockstar and open mic
‘When people said to me, “don’t employ your drug dealer as your manager”, they were talking crap.’
Elliot Benn plays a rock musician whose career was gone down the pan after an embarrassing incident onstage. In this short, sharp sketch, he talks to his agent about the possible ways he can get back to his former glory – without much success. The piece is comfortable only lasting 10 minutes – and one can’t help but feel that it would have been wise for other shows in the festival to take this advice. It swings neatly onto each plot development, with plenty of comic moments along the way, and is overall a very engaging production.
In the following open mic, three varied acts give enjoyable performances. Ian Whitehead has a great authentic feel to his performance, creating a good rapport with the audience and putting his vocals to good effect with catchy self-penned songs. Morven Robinson performs an engaging, lightly humorous monologue from Blink displaying some nicely subtle acting skills. Clarke Bannerman’s stand-up routine is well-constructed and very witty. She knows the value of a good punchline, and has a strong sense of comic timing.
Twitch is one of the strongest shows in the festival, with an able cast and some good quality writing. Set in a chaotic, low-security mental hospital, the show weaves multiple storylines together to create a sitcom-esque sense of farce. The title character seeks to solve the mystery of a perceived supernatural force, one character sets out on a quest to find her lost cat (which it turns out doesn’t exist), and the residents put on a surprise birthday party to cheer up one of the nurses (the surprise being the fact that it isn’t the guy’s birthday). Jordan Maycock puts in a very strong performance in this role.
Alongside these comic sequences, a more sombre storyline is played out between Mrs Stewart and her nurse. Together, the pair face the pain of Mrs Stewart’s lost partner, and there is a touching scene where the nurse reads one of her husband’s letters to her. Sarah Spencer is excellent in the role of the older woman, and displays skilful subtlety in her performance. Overall, the storyline has a tenderness that translates beautifully to the studio space of The Cellar.
Peace Of Meat
Peace of Meat is a harrowing show that examines the links between the cruel treatment of animals and the objectifying treatment of women. The slaughtering and entrapment of the characters, along with (movingly) the taking of their babies from them are portrayed with heartfelt anguish, most notably from Amy Blake.
The staging and design of this production are both commendable. Dance sequences are used to illustrate the more emotive moments in the play, and the thrashing music that accompanies them creates a sense of claustrophobia that mimics the characters’ circumstances. The costumes are particularly effective. The actors are clad in black underwear, and their torsos and limbs are covered in labels: ‘breasts’, ‘back’, leg’. It’s objectifying and undignified, and presents the characters as nothing more than produce.
Justified is a show where the positioning of the audience is important. Starting in complete blackout, sat facing out on a circle of chairs, the initial feeling is of intense isolation. Fast forward to the end of the show and that feeling is reversed. The audience have now been moved into a standing, inward-facing circle, holding hands and with the space properly lit. We now feel a sense is a feeling of connection and support.
This is indeed a show about those two themes, and about improving the current isolated state of certain groups of people. An audio narration is played, monologue-style, detailing the plights of various social victims – from refugees to misunderstood victims of rape. It’s a harrowing collection of stories, all excellently served by Amy Blake’s skills as a voice actor. By turns husky and emotional, by turns powerful, hers is a detailed and nuanced performance that really carries the show.
Between Us aims to explore ‘the love, the laughter, the pain and the hate of modern relationships’ – and boy, does it succeed. In 40 minutes of completely improvised theatre, Alex Keen and Rachel E. Thorn create a moving, detailed story of what happens between two people when they meet and fall in love. It’s funny, poignant, witty – and always completely engaging.
Both actors turn in powerful performances. There is an intimacy between the pair that makes their relationship touching and believable. They effortlessly weave a wider world around them, creating whole other characters and histories, and there is some beautifully detailed character observation – subtle mannerisms that give clues to their deeper lives.
What’s particularly impressive is the ability of these two to be funny on the fly. Their humour has a wry, British edge to it, and is full of inventive wit. But the show isn’t all light-hearted: nuanced changes in mood permeate each scene, developing the story with extraordinary deftness to moments of anger, frustration and tenderness.
This is a piece where the unspoken has as much power as the spoken. The performers aren’t afraid to have moments of silence, and there’s a real sense of uncertainty about where the show might go next: the audience is aware that the performers have as little idea as they do. This is live theatre taken to a whole new level, and the spontaneity of it gives the show a real sense of naturalism.
You can find out more about Early Fest here.
‘Bummer and Lazarus’ artwork by Lucy Arron