I once had an argument with a friend about an urban fox. It used to go into the courtyard of his apartment block at around 2 in the morning and chill out on a small patch of grass until the inhabitants started stirring. He wanted the fox got rid of but I said it should be left there, a thing of beauty doing nobody any harm. I only mention this anecdote into my life as an urban fox forms the backdrop to A. C. Smith’s new play Phoebe being shown as part of #Festival46 at the King’s Head in Islington.
Phoebe (EJ Martin) is an odd girl. Although outwardly appearing normal, if a little shy and reserved, she has trouble connecting with and understanding the world. Phoebe works in an opticians and lives in a block of flats by herself. Her life is pretty well ordered and every weekend she has Sunday dinner with her parents. For some reason, her older sister, Ingrid (Louise Torres-Ryan) doesn’t have to go through this familial ritual and her brother Freddie is not around to attend. Phoebe doesn’t seem to particularly enjoy the time spent with her parents although she has a lot of affection for Ingrid who she turns to whenever things happen in her life. For example, a man by the name of Paul (Loz Keystone) has recently been coming into Phoebe’s shop far more than is normal for someone just buying a pair of glasses and while Ingrid warns her to be careful, phoebe thinks maybe Paul will be able to help her in finding her ‘missing’ brother. Apart from Ingrid and Paul, Phoebe’s only other connection seems to be with an urban fox that she befriends and feeds as it wanders around her estate. Unfortunately, most of the other residents want the fox to be removed and so petition the council to have it killed. Phoebe may have to go to drastic measures to stop this happening and will she ever find out about Freddie and if Paul’s intentions are honourable?
Most plays have a tendency to move in a very logical way through their narrative. There is a start where characters are introduced, a middle where the majority of the action occurs and an ending where the denouement occurs. Phoebe isn’t like that. Writer A.C. Smith has created a series of short, snappy vignettes to move things along, some of which seem to last literally seconds. As a way of telling a story it sort of worked for me but, it also lead to some confusion. I didn’t feel that we ever really got time to understand the relationships within the play. This is especially true of the relationship between Phoebe and her parents which at times seemed to be verge on abuse. I also wasn’t that sure about Phoebe herself. Thinking back, I’m still not certain what age she was meant to be. Her speaking style varied from childish to mature and I have assumed that she was facing some mental health issues but if so, her family seemed extremely unsupportive. Having said that, the writing is really interesting in the way that no character, possibly with the exception of Paul, really stands still and each time we see them, we find out more about them and possibly re-assess our own thoughts about them.
Turning to the actors, and I have nothing but high praise for them. Louise Torres-Ryan and Loz Keystone played a variety of characters and played each one extremely well, ensuring that with minimum costume change the audience always knew who was on the stage at any one time. However, EJ Martin is quite simply splendid in the role of Phoebe. Mousy yet, tall, beaten yet determined, shy yet able to take the lead, EJ brings every facet of phoebe’s multi-layered personality to life in fine style. Director George Smith is a graduand of the King’s Head Theatre’s Directing programme and obviously knows the performing space like the back of his hand. He uses every inch of it to translate the story from page to stage and along with some really effective lighting manages to make the area appear so much bigger than it actually is.
All in all, whilst I will admit to having some trouble with the overall story, which I think could do with a little more work to help its flow, I did enjoy the production as a whole. Any production that puts urban foxes above humans is pretty bang on for me.
Review by Terry Eastham
“I’m writing a petition. To cull stupid people.”
Phoebe doesn’t quite see the world like everyone else. When her brother goes missing, she sets out to find him, enlisting help wherever she can find it. Meanwhile, she faces a battle with locals attempting to kill the neighbourhood fox she has befriended. As she starts to lose the battle with her neighbours and the truth behind her brother’s disappearance becomes more troubling, she must defy those who underestimate her and find new allies.
This heartwarming new play from A.C. Smith, shortlisted for the Adrian Pagan and the Verity Bargate Awards, portrays one young woman’s attempt to make sense of the world, and the people and creatures who occupy it.
Directed by George Smith
Performances: 23 July, 26 July, 30 July 2016