Camden Fringe Review: The Words I Should Have Said to Phoebe Lewis (Phoenix Artist Club, London)

press-shot---full-(website-and-social-media)Rating: *****

In A Nuthsell:

Bittersweet, hilarious, and honest to the point of wonderful absurdity, this is a tremendous piece of new writing with an outstanding cast.

Overview

Wannabe young writer, Frank, is a bit messed up after the death of his mother, causing an estrangement with his father and the rest of his family. Instead of going to university to study creative writing, he’s stuck in Sidcup in debt, a freezing cold flat with his friend Bailey, and a relationship with Shropshire girl Chelsea for all the wrong reasons. But out of the blue comes Phoebe Lewis and Frank’s life turns even more turbulent. As drug-dealing becomes a means of keeping him and Bailey afloat, can Frank keep it together and overcome his cowardice when it comes to crunch-time?

Writing

Writer, Jim English, is pretty fresh out of Rose Bruford College having only graduated last year. However, his lack of experience is made up for an incredibly deft gift for observation and insight. His characters feel incredibly real and personable, steering well clear of turning them into clichéd working-class caricatures, and avoiding forced funniness and being over maudlin. It’s this ability for fine characterisation that really drives the entire play. Everything is outrightly honest and straightforward, just like real people are in all their little idiosyncrasies and inanities. English manages to make you easily connect with them through their humility and humour, making the jokes and laughs come naturally, never feeling contrived. It’s the most brutally honest observations that are the most absurd and side-splitting, yet the more emotional moments are surprisingly near heartbreaking for the same reasons.

The real genius behind English’s text is that when it comes to the climax. It feels so grounded and real you really can’t predict which way events are going to turn as it’s as feasible that it could go either way, making it genuinely thrilling. You quickly realise that this is because you’re actually with the characters for the entire show rather than getting caught up with the narrative. The whole affair feels as if it’s something palpable and true-life rather than fabricated and predictable.

In short, you’re with the play’s people through and through, gripped in both fascination and through a wonderfully casual connection.

Direction & Production

It’s very difficult to find much to say about direction and production in a space that’s so compact and Spartan. However, David Zoob ensures that nothing is static despite being so cramped. Yet he also cherishes the stillness in moments that don’t require much activity, particularly employing some nice little stylistic touches to explore intimacy and fantasy, making great use of what little space there is.

Steph Hammersley also employs some great sound design, with music and background ambience creating time and place aurally in lieu of any set. Whilst subtly colouring the production, it leaves plenty of room to allow English’s writing and the cast’s ability to do the rest of the work.

Cast

It might be a small ensemble, but you can’t really find a better six actors for this play. All embody their characters and perpetuate the believability that English so effortlessly writes. Leads James Craze, as Frank, and Sara Huxley, as Chelsea, are really exceptional at doing this. Both revel in their roles, even bringing little physical quirks to them, like Craze’s little wiggle when getting in and out of his onesie. Craze also does a brilliant job at really building a rapport with the audience in his asides to the audience, cherishing and reacting to the responses he gets from them. Huxley, on the other hand, really exudes a presence of both sensuality and sensitivity as a headstrong girl who has naively fallen in love with the wrong guy: all portrayed with a really endearing air of sweet vulnerability. Together, there’s a really touching reluctance and awkwardness in their chemistry as well as charming tenderness.

Verdict

This is some of the best new writing I’ve seen to date, not to mention supported by a top-notch cast who really get English’s text. It’s such rare serendipity to find it pop up among the great wash of shows that is the Camden Fringe. You’ll absolutely laugh, and probably almost cry, at this elating and effortlessly human tale of Nandos, “Mandy Moore”, and finding the strength in yourself as a person.

The Words I Should Have Said to Phoebe Lewis plays at the Phoenix Artist Club, London, WC2H 8BU, until 2 August 2014, as part of the Camden Fringe Festival. Tickets are £8 (concessions available). To book, visit www.camdenfringe.com.

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