I was really looking forward to Jaybird Production Company’s Universally Speaking, featuring four new one-act plays exploring the absurdities of 21st century life. Each of the playwrights is an IdeasTap prize winner, who never got their promised showcase before the organisation sadly closed down. It’s this situation that Universally Speaking was created to amend.
Now that I’ve seen it, my feelings are mixed… But there are some moments of genius, so let’s begin with those. The first play, Hole by Marietta Kirkbride, is a powerful reflection on the demands of consumerism, which expects us to fill the holes in our lives with more and more material things. Josh, played sympathetically by Thomas Simper, has found what he needs to fill his own hole – but to his frustration, society can’t deal with his choice. I really loved Hole, and look forward to seeing more from both Kirkbride and Simper in the future.
Another piece, Fat by Robert Holtom, features the brilliant Samantha Shaw as Su, an overweight lady trapped in her car in a Tesco car park. Unable to get out, she takes time to consider, in graphic detail, the nature of her relationship with food. But then we learn that Su’s doctors have told her she eats too much. She’s clearly resigned to the stigma and imposed fear associated with her condition as a fat woman – and yet it’s clearly only when she’s talking about food that she’s truly happy.
Conor Carroll’s Universally Speaking is about a trial – more specifically, a celebrity on trial for a serious crime that’s destroyed his career. To make matters more complicated, the piece sees three versions of the events unfold simultaneously, each with a different result. The writing does a great job of setting the scene as we move from cell to car to courthouse, and Ken McLoone gives an understated and ever so slightly creepy performance as the fallen star, who remains desperate to be in the spotlight – even for the wrong reasons.
My least favourite of the four plays was the last one, The 7/11 Butterfly Effect by Don Grimme. A biting satire reflecting on the knee-jerk American response to 9/11, the piece takes place in the future, featuring Pallas McCallum Newark as a teacher explaining 21st century history. While undoubtedly a very clever piece of writing, it did little for me; the play is essentially a series of one-liners and word play, and doesn’t seem to ever really get to the point before its abrupt end.
Director Simon Jay has intentionally created a show that not only presents the monologues but guides us through them, allowing a pause between pieces for us to reflect on what we’ve just seen. And so we meet The Hostess, who appears during each pause, wearing a new outfit and ready to perform a song, tell a joke, or just rearrange the furniture.
It’s not that these interludes aren’t enjoyable; Joanna Rose Barton, who plays The Hostess, is a great entertainer with a larger than life personality, and it’s hard not to like her. The issue is that the whole flight scenario feels slightly superfluous. We’re kept constantly on our toes, never sure what’s going to happen next – in fact there are elements of the show, like the abrupt switching on and off of the lights, that seem designed to keep us constantly off balance. And while I love a bit of unpredictability as much as anyone, I personally didn’t feel it was necessary here, because the monologues are more than capable of standing on their own.
The four plays featured in Universally Speaking each make a powerful point about the modern world, designed to make us think and reflect, while the comic interludes provide a little light relief. JayBird specialise in ‘new writing, political satire and absurdist nonsense’, and there’s plenty of all three in this production. It’s a charming show, with some great personalities – including the director, who makes a brief appearance – and, most importantly, it provides a stage for four talented new writers, which can only be a good thing.
Review by Liz Dyer
Hole by Marietta Kirkbride – Josh is alone. The whole world is against him. Only Steve understands. Sit with Steve and listen as one man unburdens his woes.
The 7–11 Butterfly Effect by Don Grimme – A teacher in the distant future tells their young students about the dark days of the early 21st century, a time shrouded in myth.
Fat by Robert Holtom – A lone woman sits in a Tesco’s car park whilst contemplating her favourite foods, sexual predilections and a super sized coffin.
Universally Speaking by Conor Carroll – Watch as one man’s grim reality is played out in three different ways. A dark take on celebrity and crime.
Running Time: 90 minutes (including interval)
13th – 17th October 2015
The Bread and Roses Theatre
68 Clapham Manor Street
Clapham SW4 6DZ, London