Friday, 10 February 2017

Review: Playing Up 4, Northern Stage

For its fourth installment, Playing Up relocated to Northern Stage for a sold-out performance of seven short plays. It may have been trying to snow outside, but the audience was treated to an infernally hot auditorium. But the play’s the thing…

Jane Pickthall’s ‘Bingo Wings’ came first, in which pious vicar Peter (Richard Gardner) and slightly lascivious bingo caller Graham (Kevin Gibson) compete for the attention of their waning crowds. The performances were slightly hesitant, but the play featured some humorous turns of phrase and drew a good reaction from the crowd.

Patrick Robertson’s ‘Ganymede’ followed, and was the highlight of the evening. Actor Francis (Colin Jeffrey) receives a visit backstage from his friend Gary (a subtly nuanced performance from Alex Blenkey) after a performance of As You Like It, and the two discuss changing views on gender and sexuality from the ‘fluid’ Shakespearean period to a more ‘defined’ modern world. These were interesting characters, well established during this short performance, and I wanted to see more.

From the theatre to the modern office environment: Chris Wilkins’ ‘Cow Juice’ began as a convincing portrait, featuring stand-up meetings and ‘scrums’, but veered close to farce in its later stages. Myopic middle-manager Hurn (Chris Iddon) terrorises his office juniors while attempting to curry favour with his superiors (a convincing performance from Zoe Hakin as Bridget). Wilkins’ ‘Smile!’ was one of the highlights of the previous Playing Up, but at times this play felt like an excuse for the actors to shout and swear. However, the performance generated an enthusiastic response from the audience, and the withering manner in which consumers were defined by their supermarket milk preferences was highly entertaining.

The second half began with Sharon Zucker’s ‘A Moment’, in which Alice (Sara Jo Harrison) celebrates her female attributes (‘Her Breasts’, portrayed by Donna Tonkinson). I had reservations about the premise, but the play turned out to be a moving tale, beginning with a retrospective history of shared experience (Alice’s body developing physically as she progresses emotionally through puberty to adulthood, motherhood, and towards marriage). The play then shifts to a Miami bar, where Alice is faced with difficult choices.

Lewis Cuthbert’s ‘Chad’ featured a committed performance from David Parker as obnoxious former child star Chad Schweizer, star of the ‘Geek-O-Tron’ and ‘Weenies’ series. Perhaps more of a straightforward satire than some of Cuthbert’s earlier work (although given Parker’s Woody Allen-esque delivery, there were still plenty of neuroses on display!) The play’s reliance on pre-recorded voices was a little alienating, but the main character’s frantic dialogue was warmly received. 

Next the evening took an unfortunately ugly turn with Katie Ann Hunter’s ‘Misophonia’: a grotesque piece about a new mother suffering from a fear of certain noises, as well as apparent post-natal depression. This short play led predictably from sleepless nights and domestic arguments to infanticide. A facile piece of writing which did not explore the complex issues involved, opting instead for archetypal characters and distorted wailing noises. I'll stick with Eraserhead.

And finally, modern airport procedures in the post-9/11 era: John Harrison’s ‘Scanners’ allowed the audience to eavesdrop on the egregious jobsworths at a baggage check-in department. I’m sure that anyone who has travelled by air in the last 15 years can relate, although this apparently under-rehearsed piece lost its way when one of the actors forgot their dialogue.

Playing Up 4 benefitted from Northern Stage’s technical support (the sound was noticeably better than at Playing Up 3), but the quality of the writing was variable on this occasion. Perhaps some more time rehearsing would also help matters, but when Playing Up is good, it is very good indeed.