This mixed bag Box of Tricks venture features six fifteen minute plays centring on the idea of 'tradition' written by six different playwrights.
Paradoxically, some of the pieces are succinct enough to make one feel they leave room for further expansion, while others play themselves out more like audition scenes than actual moments of theatre. As is often the case, whether the pieces are successful or not depends nearly as much on the acting and directing, as it does upon the writing itself.
Box of Tricks is known for being a highly experimental troupe in that most of the plays they have staged have been written by one of the members of their company. These six pieces are directed, three each, by two of their directors – Hannah Tyrell-Pinder and Adam Quayle.
The programme begins on a rather traditional note with a couple of chairs placed before a small dining table with a lacy cloth and potted posy on it. We meet an older woman and her Beefeater husband who live in the Tower of London's small village of Yeoman and their families, thirty-seven of them to be exact. It is an intriguing setting and situation and seemingly, a hallmark of Box of Tricks' playwrights to focus upon the everyday things which co-exist with us, but somehow, twist themselves out of our immediate line of vision.
The Boys in the Tower by Becky Prestwich, as directed by Adam Quayle is an alternatingly amusing and poignant piece about the catch phrases and habits one adapts through life which, over time, become traps for buried emotions. Its characters, Irene (Fiona Watson) and Phil (Richard Woolnough) are recognisable, on a number of levels and the relationship between the husband and wife, who don't really relate, has the sting of truth about it. By paralleling the much larger, seemingly crueller history of the Tower of London as related by Phil, in the course of his job, against the smaller memories of two damaged people, through Irene in their home, a sense of pathos and futility emerges.
The Miracle Killer by Kenny Emson, centring on a young Irish Catholic couple dealing with the aftermath of abortion (again directed by Adam Quayle) is far less credible, largely due to the fact that Valene Kane as Sadie tends to say her lines, rather than inhabit them, making it difficult to empathise with any emotion intended between them. Drawn out, rather melodramatic passages as spoken by Kane not only need trimming, but also firmer direction and possibly a more experienced actress capable of making them credible. Sam Lester fares better as Joe, though most of the piece's potentially more telling moments are left to his leading lady. The intentions of the piece are clear, though in this case, one of its problems is that they are far too clear.
Daniel Kannaber's fifteen minute offering, The Escape, about the trials and tribulations of three brothers as metaphors for the human condition is written in language more indicative of Ben Jonson than kitchen sinks. Despite the challenges that aspect entails, it also features solid performances from its players: Sam Millard, the very excellent Oscar Ward and Patrick Rowe. It doesn't seem to matter that we aren't exactly sure where we are in terms of locale, though a bit more trouble could have been taken over costumes as Rowe's flowered net curtain, draped 'toga' detracts from credibility, as do the varied styles of jeans the actors are wearing. Perhaps dressing them in more similar garb would help enforce the generic theme the piece seems to be striving for. Nevertheless, there is fine work here from Director Hannah Tyrell-Pinder whose actors also make good use of space as they perform in a way that is somewhat reminiscent of a Greek chorus, albeit an all male one.
Following the interval, The Right to Choose by Helen Bennett, as directed by Tyrell-Pinder is just the piece to refresh its audience, as it opens with a rather irritating, but somehow, comic fellow slowly removing items from a tattered suitcase and carefully placing them on his desk. Laughs ensue when the final item, a sign simply saying 'Doctor' on it is placed at the front. The Steve Martinesque moves of Atli Gunnarsson heighten the humour as his patient, simply called 'Woman' (Is Bennett trying to tell us something?) played 'straight' by Olivia McDonald provides the perfect foil as she 'returns' the baby girl she has had in order to try for another more 'perfect' baby boy. Science fiction or soon to be fact – you decide. This piece drew the most laughter of the evening, although those prior to it were not necessarily meant to be funny.
At its outset The Crow's Wake by Jacqueline Mc Carrick has a slightly Moon for the Misbegotten air about it with it's tom-boyish character Rose (Valene Kane again) and her father Dan (John Gunnery) in a field, discussing crops or the lack thereof with 'Da' later asking his daughter when or if she intends to marry. There the similarities to O'Neill end, however, as we learn why the relationship between this father and daughter is not as it seems. The writing hints at the possibilities for expansion. Though once again, Kane's overly excited delivery sometimes threatens to derail its drama, though Gunnery's fine performance adds to it considerably.
November by Ali Taylor was, for me, the most successful piece of the programme, with four female characters of differing ages, placed in a scene in which they must react to one another, as well as their circumstances. Mary (Fiona Watson) continually (in fact, daily) visits the spot along a highway where her husband and seven year old daughter were killed in a crash five years before, putting a 'cross' in her diary. On this occasion, which appears to be the actual anniversary, she is joined by her mother Jean (Beryl King), sister Elaine (Olivia Mc Donald) and daughter, Chloe (Tessa Mabbitt) each of whom have varying reactions to Mary's obsession. The writing, which features moments when the actors speak to the audience to show what they're thinking is intriguing and dares to convey, not only the inevitable futility of sustaining the rituals of grief, but also, the waste and eventual dark humour inherent to such situations. By moving between strong ensemble moments and mini-monologues, the audience's connections with the characters are strengthened and empathy is quickly and firmly established. The nuanced acting in this marvellous little gem, written by Taylor and directed by Adam Quayle not only holds the attention, but generates curiosity as to whether its premise might be expanded upon in future. Once again, Olivia McDonald imbues her all too brief performance with the proverbial 'spark of life' as does Beryl King as Jean.
Whether fifteen minutes seems like a long or short time may be relative. But how short or long each piece seems in the case of these six plays may, in each instance, be directly related to how convincing its actors are. However, during segments of Word: Play when the writing, acting and directing are in harmony, fifteen minutes isn't nearly, long enough.