In A Nutshell
Bare Essentials may be new writing produced with minimum guff, but it still manages to blows you away. Theatre at its most nude and impactful.
Encompass Productions again choose six plays submitted from around the globe, to produce on a shoestring for their renowned showcase. But this isn’t a scratch night, even if the dressing for these pieces are scant. These are six fully formed short plays, fully directed and performed by six professional directors and a cast of professional actors. It’s just that there’s hardly any props, no scenery, and scarcely any lighting changes. It’s a pure and elemental approach that allows the focus to be solely on the quality of the writing without any razzle dazzle or distractions.
The remit really hasn’t changed since I went to see the last Bare Essentials, and neither has the quality of the plays: still as high and unexpected as before. However, I’d say that the sextet of new short plays is actually slightly stronger this time around. With this, the standard of direction and acting, something which shouldn’t be ignored, excels off the back of it. Although, interestingly, this fresh batch of plays shows that whilst Bare Essentials emphasis on minimum production is often effective, it’s not as easy a ploy to pull off as you’d think.
Build A Wall, by Cary Pepper
Dir: Michaela Frances Neal
Two builders are building a wall to keep the other out. Why? Because they’re one of “them”.
This is an interesting little absurdist piece on the absurdity of xenophobia. It certainly puts the established maxims that we’re so sick of hearing in a different light, showing them up from what they are: idiocy. However, what’s interesting is that Pepper portrays their characters as misguided rather than malicious, which makes for a piece that’s easily accessible and surprisingly affectionate.
The only problem with this is that, especially with the circular and repetitive language, such a plain performance of the text still makes the show a little flat. Although Neal makes a good attempt at incorporating plenty of physical movement to keep the visuals dynamic, this is a piece that could really do with a bit more production to keep it from dragging. But even then, the effect of a few more props, or some other production values, would only add a little rather than a lot.
Letting Go, by Rhea McAllum
Dir: Annemarie Highmore
Two sisters gather at a beach to give their deceased mother the send off she’s requested. But whilst their mother rests, old rivalries and family dysfunctions are still very much alive.
Family bereavement and bickering siblings isn’t exactly something that’s unique to the theatrical canon. For the most part, it makes Letting Go does feel a little derivative. However, MacCallum’s characters are more real and complex than you’d expect, pitching this above your average fayre. MacCallum’s sisters produce something bittersweet, deeply truthful, and quite touching through the autopsy of their relationships between themselves and with their parents.
But although that characters are interestingly, the piece as a whole feels a little disposable. There’s also not much Highmore can really do with the piece other than give the actors the space to breath, which she does quite well. It’s entertaining, especially with specks of black comedy here and there, but it’s not something to write home about.
I’ll Take A Dozen Accountants…With Sprinkles, by Matt Hanf
Dir: Jonathan Woodhouse and Zuri Warren
An accountant has skipped breakfast and is working in the break room on some figures, but there’s a box of Gregg’s donuts on the table. Not only is he tempted by them, he hears the donut’s voice, and they try to seduce him. Will he give in?
This is beautifully barmy play to end the first section of the evening. Hanf has written a brilliant send-up of “food porn”, blurring the lines between sex and hunger. Forget being “hangry”, this play is about being “hurny” (?). But despite it being utterly bizarre and very very wrong, there’s wonderful nuance in Hanf’s main character on which the jokes are launched off of. Although it plays more on stereotype of the personality of accountants, he uses this to tease out little jokes that keep on coming (pardon the pun) thick and fast. It’s an affectionate mocking that plays on the weaknesses and desires of us all, with a touch of Schadenfreude.
Alexander Pankhurst is brilliant as the mild-mannered and straight-laced number-cruncher, quivering with fear and arousal. As it’s mostly him on stage throughout, he commands the entire comedy of the short play, making it his own, meticulously gauging where to aim his delivery of the jokes. Carly Halse, projected over the sound system as the filthy, flirty, dirty donuts themselves has a wonderfully over the top seductive tone which feeds (pardon the pun, again) Pankhurst’s performance, even if not physically on the stage with him.
Friend Roulette, by Adam Lowe
Dir: Rachael Owens
Two people meet in the ether, sparking up an intense and sensual relationship without ever meeting. But can it last?
LGBT History Month Poet Laureate pens this interesting piece about online dating. But whilst plays on the exploring the sex and deception of cyberspace aren’t exactly uncommon, Lowe has created something that is unique and surprising.
Whilst this had every opportunity to become a piece about forged identities (and indeed this is where you think it’s going to go) what Lowe has done is actually explore hermitage and addiction to dating apps/social networking in a really unique way. The high prose of Lowe’s text gives this really strange and ethereal feel to the piece, but also the poetry prompts you to peer at the situation from an un-thought of angle. The only problem is that the ambitious language of the text does make it a little awkward and dense at times, making it a bit difficult to get into.
Jonathan Woodhouse and Robert Wallis, as the play’s two protagonists, do a wonderful job of switching between the numb and inert nature of our digitally projected selves, and bringing the strange poetry to tender and provocative life. Furthermore, Owen’s decision to light the majority of the piece with only the glare of the character’s screens and reading lights creates a literally dark atmosphere which compliments the unnerving and mysterious feeling of Lowe’s text. It’s a wonderful little trick that is incredibly effective, requiring pretty much nil production to achieve thus embodying the brilliance of ingenuity of what Bare Essentials set out to achieve.
The Maltese Walter, by John Minigan
Dir: Katie Turner
Walter is a superhero. His power: turning any moment into film noir. But can his shrink help him make a life-chaning decision: to give up his powers for the woman he loves?
Minigan has created an uproarious short comedy. It’s one that’s really for the film buffs in the audience, as most of the jokes riff off references around the ineffable and well known genre. But what Minigan does best is using the comedy as a slight of hand that distracts from an completely unexpected climax. It’s short, it’s snappy, but it’s far from something fun and flippant, demonstrating Minigan’s wonderfully concise ability to surprise as well as chortle in the space of less than 15 minutes: a veritable talent indeed, especially given the very knowing intelligence of Minigan’s humour here.
Josh Morter is fantastic as Walter, switching from timid and squeaky to brooding and commanding when his powers are activated, wonderfully hinging the comedy of the entire piece on his performance.
My only gripe with this is that it’s the most noticably produced of all the plays in the evening, with costumes, lighting, props, and sound: somewhat stretching the remit of the showcase. But then, Turner’s direction would simply not have been able to do the piece any justice without any of this otherwise. But in saying that, given the just how laugh-out-loud funny Minigan’s play is, I can’t complain, and it just goes to show that Bare Essentials’ goal is far from an easy and cheap cop-out.
Little Boy, by John Foster
Dir: Liam Fleming
We meet American Air Force veteran Claude by himself in a mental ward. He has nightmarish visions of dropping the bomb on Hiroshima. Falling from WWII hero to criminally insane, Foster’s piece explores the frailty of the human mind, the absurdity of masculinity, and the cost of guilt.
The evening ended on a completely different and intense change of pace and timbre courtesy of returning playwright to Bare Essentials, John Foster. His piece at the last Bare Essentials evening, Sniper, was absolutely outstanding, and here Foster once more does not disappoint.
Foster’s character explores some deep and intense themes in a very uncomfortable and unrelenting manner. The descriptions he conjures through his character’s broken state of mind are striking and incredibly unsavoury. Even though the character’s accounts are fractious and rambling, Foster’s construction of peaks, troffs, and bread-crumb trails that slowly reveal a bigger more harrowing picture is unfathomably precise. Foster’s text allows your curiosity and the charisma of Claude to grip you by the gullet rather than directly doing so: a masterful catalyst that turns this troubling, provocative, and horrifying into a utterly excellent piece of writing.
Propelling the play’s brilliance even further are James Unsworth’s performance and Fleming’s direction. Unsworth, already a domineering hulk of a man in size and physique, fills the entire space with an unavoidable presence. But his portrayal of someone suffering from severe schizophrenia is so realistic it’s upsetting to watch. With this, Unsworth brings a chaotic sense of unpredictability to his character, snapping from playful and harmless to uncontrolled and dangerous at the drop of a pin. It’s outrightly scary to be in Claude’s presence under Unsworth’s hand.
If Unsworth’s performance wasn’t intimidating enough, Fleming cruelly turns the performance into something terrifying. As an audience we’re so used to having something contained to the stage: the auditorium being a safe haven where we’re separate from any horrors that take place on the boards. But Fleming slowly takes down the fourth wall to petrifying effect. As the play goes on, Unsworth inches closer to the edge, confronting the audience up close with his unstable persona. But then Fleming does the unthinkable: he makes Claude walk among us. The space becomes a contained and immensely uncomfortable prison, as Unsworth wanders around chattering, muttering, and flipping out. You feel trapped and fretful, unsure what Claude is going to do next or what he’s capable of. It’s an unprecedented achievement in immersion that, when put together with Unsworth’s performance and Foster’s writing, chills and haunts you to the very core. A remarkable and unsettling end to the evening.
Once more, Encompass Productions has brought together a wonderful sextet of brilliant breadth, variety, and quality. But what’s more, in stripping the production back to it’s absolute minimum, Bare Essentials shows that good writing, direction, and performance is best and most beguiling when it’s naked. Another astonishing achievement. Miss the next Bare Essentials at your peril.
Bare Essentials took place at the Take Courage Theatre, London, SE14 6TY, between 17-20 February 2015. For more information about Encompass productions, visit www.encompassproductions.co.uk.