Theatre Review: Bare Essentials (Take Courage Theatre, London)

Rating: ****

In A Nutshell

Encompass Productions’ stripping back of performance to just an actor and little production budget brings out the best in some exciting new writing.

Concept

The more cynical may think that the gimmick of there being no gimmick is probably something born of pretence more than substance. But Encompass Productions very firmly proves doubters otherwise. Their ethos of having minimum/no production budget means that focus is squarely on the writing itself, with no smoke and mirrors to distract from it: just the text, the actors, and directors.

Their choice of pieces to showcase in this evening is also strong, and they gone for ones that are different and daring rather than pieces that are more familiar. That’s not to say all of them work or are as brilliant as each other. But overall, they certainly have a real eye for new and original works; the sort of stuff that is perfect for this treatment.

Elsewhere they have an excellent collective of actors and directors on board who bring the pieces to life, and in some places take them beyond what any complicated lighting and scenery could ever do. Their emphasis on essence really makes these plays grip and astound.

Yet it’s a bit of a crime that the focus is more on the writering than everything else, because some of the most astonishing feats achieved in the evening are also directional. With only actors to work with, this is direction at it’s most pure. So, as good as Bare Essentials is for tipping you off on the writers to watch, exactly the same can be said of some of the exemplary directors involved in the evening.

Freya Parsons in "Poison". Photograph: Courtesy of Encompass Productions.

Freya Parsons in “Poison”. Photograph: Courtesy of Encompass Productions.

Poison, by Rebecca Robinson
Dir: Jonathan Woodhouse
Rating: **

An unlikable, obnoxious, and boring office worker is late for work after a bit of a bender the night before. Then, they go about being unlikeable, obnoxious, and boring throughout their day. Oddly, the problem here not that the characterisation is bad. On the contrary, Robinson and actor Freya Parsons actually do an excellent job in creating someone who is believable as much as they are odious.

However, the narrative spends a lot of the time endearing you less and less to the character to the point you don’t care about them anyone, losing interest and sympathy too quickly after a few cheeky little laughs at the beginning. When the proverbial hits the fan, you just can’t muster any remorse or empathy, making some of the more serious points the piece tries to make lost to the accidental apathy it’s created.

Noor Lawson in "Rebekah: Female Soldier". Photograph: Courtesy of Encompass Productions.

Noor Lawson in “Rebekah: Female Soldier”. Photograph: Courtesy of Encompass Productions.

Rebekah: Female Soldier, by Nicola O’Connor
Dir: Alice Kornitzer
Rating: ***

What’s best about this is O’Connor’s red herring. Whilst so much could be explored about the conflict in Afghanistan from a female perspective, O’Connor instead chooses to have her character, Rebekah, talk about class and her upbringing on a housing estate. The writing is very descriptive and almost poetic, but here-in lies the problem. You just don’t ever feel like the words being spoken by actor Noor Lawson are that of the character’s. They feel very much like the musings of the author. That’s not to say they’re not insightful and surprising, but it’s that the disconnect between character and text is just a bit too off-putting. Despite this, Lawson does a brilliant job in engaging the audience, by interacting with them by way of acknowledgement, with little touches like moments of direct eye-contact with those she’s speaking with. She makes you want to listen to the story, even if you feel it’s not exactly hers.

Laurie Harington and Carly Haise in "The Art of Tea. Photograph: Courtesy of Encompass Productions

Laurie Harington and Carly Haise in “The Art of Tea”. Photograph: Courtesy of Encompass Productions

The Art of Tea, by Daniel Damiano
Dir: Rachael Owens
Rating: ****

New York writer, Damiano, takes a loving pot-shot at British sensibilities creating a comic piece of nuance and intrigue. Everything is very well observed, from the faux pas of licking the sugar spoon before putting it back into the bowl, and the small delusions we can create out of decorum and etiquette.

What’s great about this is that Damiano manages to keep you completely unaware of where the narrative is going to go, with a wonderfully unhinged character played superbly by Laurie Harrington, making it a real quiet thriller of a comedy. Hats off to Owens too, who ensures that Damiano’s nuances are brought to the fore, thus elevating the piece.

Alexander Pankhurst and Robert Wallis in "Love in Freefall". Photograph: Courtesy of Encompass Productions.

Owen Collins and Robert Wallis in “Love in Freefall”. Photograph: Courtesy of Encompass Productions.

Love in Freefall, by Simon Jackson
Dir: Liam Flemming
Rating: ****

Another comedy nugget, this time from Scottish playwright, Jackson, placing a soap opera-esque storyline in an unusual and outrageous situation: infidelity and sabotage mid sky-dive. However, what makes this piece shine is Flemming’s direction. Whilst an amusing and entraining piece, there are better written plays amongst the rest of the programme. But Flemming’s direction makes this one of the better performances, turning it from something funny to something outrightly hilarious. He uses space and the actors’ physicality to bring additional humour to the piece, with superb aplomb. The entire cast, Alexander Pankhurst, Owen Collins, and Robert Wallis, really revel and enjoy their roles making this piece a heck of a lot of fun.

Steven Mortimer, Marcella Corelli, and Zuri Warren in "End Up Like Julie". Photograph: Courtesy of Encompass Productions.

Steven Mortimer, Marcella Carelli, and Zuri Warren in “End Up Like Julie”. Photograph: Courtesy of Encompass Productions.

End Up Like Julie, by Ilan Wachsman
Dir: Jonathan Woodhouse
Rating: *****

Certainly the most daring and original piece of the evening from Israeli writer Wachsman. Mixing absurdism and existentialism, we get two polar but close friends arguing over the meaning of workouts/life in the gym over the corpse of their dead-ish friend, Julie. Dark, sharp, and wonderfully suspect, it’s one that pricks your attention and then keeps it with just how subtly mad and sinister it is. There are some brilliantly energetic and subtly caricatured performances from all three actors too, making this a deep and thrilling dark horse of a piece.

Matthew Leigh, Jordan Kouame, and Zara Malik in "Sniper". Photograph: Courtesy of Encompass Productions.

Matthew Leigh, Jordan Kouame, and Zara Malik in “Sniper”. Photograph: Courtesy of Encompass Productions.

Sniper, by John Foster
Dir: Michaela Frances Neal
Rating: *****

Award-winning screen actor, Foster, uncomfortably probes the shallow sensationalism of crime and layman criminal psychology that we see in the media. We join the ghost of a killer in purgatory with his victims, as he recounts his motives and his reasons with us and the people he killed.

Foster’s use of brutal language – short, awkward, and evocative sentences – creates an incredible tension to the piece. James, his main character, becomes a presence that is both intensely sardonic and intimidatingly sadistic, and it’s almost terrifying.

Actor Jordan Kouame gives the performance of the evening with an unsavoury carefree, playful, and downright despicable portrayal of James, making him a petrifying presence to be in. Actors Zara Malik and Matthew Leigh also add a stinging sense of ethereal fluidity mixed with pathos and disdain as the victims and the voices of the prying and voyeuristic media.

Frances Neal’s direction here is also excellent, using the proximity of the characters to each other to really bring out the uneasy and oscillating power shift between perpetrator and victims, bolstering Foster’s text with a visual depth on top of the casts’ electric performances.

The best was certainly saved until last in this utterly thrilling piece, and would have been worth the ticket even if the rest of the evening wasn’t as good as it was.

Verdict

An excellent evening of using the least the bring out the most in some new and exciting writing. Anyone who’s into new theatre writing should definitely be sure to attend their next showcase: it’s unmissable theatre.

[youtube http://youtu.be/6X9Y6WxAO9Y]

Bare Essentials was performed at the Take Courage Theatre, London, SE14 6TY, between 22 – 24 October 2014. For more information about Encompass Productions, visit www.encompassproductions.co.uk.

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One response to “Theatre Review: Bare Essentials (Take Courage Theatre, London)

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