Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Unreal - The Customs House, South Shields

Writers: Alison Carr, Louise Gallagher and Joe McLaughlin
Director: Jackie Fielding
Reviewer: Ian Cain

Following the decision of two leading new writing producers, The Customs House and Cloud Nine Productions, to join forces in a three year partnership, the first product of this exciting collaboration is ‘Unreal’ – a show which comprises three brand new one-act plays.

The theme at the heart of each piece is that things aren’t always as they first seem to be, that appearances can sometimes be deceptive. All three plays are directed by Jackie Fielding and are performed by Chris Connel, Tracy Gillman, Louis Roberts and Christina Berriman Dawson.

Second Most Disappointing By Alison Carr

Set at the foot of The Angel of the North, the audience are introduced to Alan and Louise on a day out. The step-father and his teenage step-daughter are sharing some ‘quality time’ in an effort to form a relationship that will, at the very least, end up becoming mutually civil. However, as the pair bicker and snipe an enigmatic kiosk attendant, Pamela Frisbee, appears and informs them that an entrance fee is now applicable before they can absorb the cultural enlightenment that the monument has to offer. Apparently, the thinking behind this decision is that people will make more of an effort to enjoy themselves if they have paid for the privilege.

Superficially, the woman appears to be an eccentric charlatan who is out to con as many people as possible before she is rumbled. What transpires, though, is quite different and her bizarre interference actually initiates a real connection between Alan and Louise.

To begin with, I was sceptical about the piece and assumed that the playwright’s intentions were to be as off-the-wall, wacky and quirky as possible in an attempt to be seen as ‘cutting edge.’ I have to admit that I was wrong. Carr’s writing is punchy, honest and believable and the performances are first-rate. Chris Connel and Christina Berriman Dawson, as Alan and Louise, are completely convincing and beautifully understated, whilst Tracy Gillman is the perfect foil as barmy Pamela.

Double Nuts By Louise Gallagher

The second piece is located in a mental health institute where Tanya, a paranoid schizophrenic patient, is planning her escape. Attempting to convince her doctor that a break from the institute would be beneficial to her treatment programme, she is informed that an appropriate adult with a fixed home address is required to act as a carer and take responsibility for her well-being. As she digests this information, a chance encounter with an affable window-cleaner, Paul, seems to present the perfect solution. Claiming to be PA to the doctor, a romance burgeons between the pair as they meet regularly on their ‘tea breaks.’ What Tanya doesn’t realise is that she is not the only one who has not been entirely honest about who and what she really is.

Christina Berriman Dawson (Tanya) and Louis Roberts (Paul) are a delight to watch and the scenes that they share are genuinely touching. The script and the performances compel the audience to reconsider their initial conceptions of people who are affected by mental health issues.

Mind Games By Joe McLaughlin

Perhaps the strangest setting of the evening is that of a gents toilet. During his engagement party, Sam (Louis Roberts) sneaks off to the loo for a sly ciggie and makes small talk with another man (Chris Connel).
But how does this apparent stranger know so much about Sam? And how does he seem so anonymous, yet so familiar? The ensuing conversation develops into a taut, psychological thriller that has the audience on the edge of their seats throughout.

Focusing on themes of friendship, jealousy, tragedy and retribution, McLaughlin’s script is magnificent. The dialogue goes back and forth like a game of verbal tennis and, as is the case throughout the three plays, the performances are stunning.

The Customs House and Cloud Nine Productions are to be commended for their determination in showcasing the work of upcoming new playwrights and their foresight looks set to ensure that live theatre in the North East has an exciting and vibrant future ahead.

‘Unreal’ runs at The Customs House, South Shields until Thursday 4th June 2009.
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