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Encompass Productions: Bare Essentials at the Arts Theatre

Should've Gone To Lourdes
Should’ve Gone To Lourdes

As Encompass Productions were so keen to stress that Bare Essentials is not a scratch night, I begin by laying it on record that I can only concur. The six plays presented at this twelfth edition are all short plays, whole and complete in themselves. This isn’t the first two scenes of a play, the last two scenes of another and an abridged version of a third (and so on). Each is to be treated on an ‘as is’ basis, prepared for public viewing.

Should’ve Gone To Lourdes by Stephen Kennedy is a delightful play. Brian (Eddie Usher), is a wheelchair user, enjoying a vacation in Amsterdam with his brother Chris (Edward Bell). Brian is apprehensive, perhaps not quite appreciating how liberal Amsterdam can be, about how his physical condition will work out as he pays for – well, adult entertainment. It does not all go according to plan, as the play’s title suggests. The flashes of humour are well-timed, particularly an incoming call to Brian’s mobile from an unwanted caller, prompting cries of “Turn it off! Turn it off!” from Chris – a subtle and knowing acknowledgement easily applied to many a disrupted performance.

Monstrification of Eastern Europe by Nina Wieda sees Natasha (Rimca Karmakar), recording a news report, in which details are altered to the point where it becomes, as a certain current political leader would put it, fake news. A schoolboy is apparently fictionalised into becoming a Christ-like figure. “The only thing he did was speak Russian. They took him and they nailed him to the cross in front of all the people.” Quite rightly, Viktor (Ramzi DeHani) and Serguei (Mark Keegan), both Ukrainian soldiers, dismissively conclude that if that story were true, then perhaps they ought to be crucified themselves, as they speak Russian too. A further story is likened by Serguei to The Iliad, where Hector was killed but, instead of being buried, Achilles had the corpse tied to a chariot and dragged around the walls of Troy. The boundaries of taste and decency in the name of propaganda are eventually pushed so far that Natasha refuses to accede to her employer’s demands. While the consequences of this are ambiguous as far as the play is concerned, the suggestion that what we see on the news broadcasts should not be taken as gospel is crystal clear.

Town Meeting by Toby Parker Rees has something of a resonance with any sort of community that has undergone a major tragedy. The tragedy itself is, as far as I recall, unspecified, as it quickly becomes secondary – not in a distasteful or inappropriate way, mind you – to some hammy and hilarious antics and audience participation. The Bandleader (Josh Morter) attempts, with varying degrees of success, to rally the townspeople, ‘played’ by the audience to come together. The Band (James Unsworth) – there were to be others, but they couldn’t make the meeting – bangs an improvised instrument with gusto. It’s all “authoritative but approachable”, to use the play’s own words, to which I would add accessible, and above all, anarchic.

Chekhov’s Gun by Ben Beck takes as a starting point the dramatic principle that every element in a plotline should be there for a reason, and if it can’t be justified, it should be removed. The Actor (Duncan Mason) presents a deep and meaningful monologue, which questions audience responses to any theatrical performance very philosophically. I personally found it intriguing; others may find it to be mere navel-gazing. After asking a series of ‘what if’ questions, his train of thought suddenly snaps back into the real world: “Maybe the playwright wrote down everything I just said.” The ending was, to me, unexpected and unanticipated. I’d have liked this to have been a much longer play, as it wraps up only really having provided a surface-level treatment of some pertinent issues.

Roommates by Matthew Fowler has identical twins that momentarily reminded me of the 1989 motion picture Look Who’s Talking. There is one notable exception (aside from twins as opposed to just the one baby): this play, unlike that film, was genuinely amusing. Molly (Rebecca Hutchins) and Emily (Phoebe Batteson-Brown) are still in the womb. Some significant suspension of disbelief is required to even accept the premise that the pair are aware of things like wi-fi and air-con. Their apparent inability to live in civility (the kicking of the mother in anger and frustration struck a chord with some in the audience) said much about adult disagreements and, for the most part, their relative pettiness.

Generation Disconnect and Other Love Stories by Kate Christopher was too bitty and disjointed for me to properly appreciate. Andrew Gichigi, Roann McLoskey and Alexander Pankhurst play a large number of characters in a series of quick-fire scenes, some lasting barely a minute. The frequency of the scene changes was frankly distracting in a play which, in any event, uses lots of words but without saying very much other than to make the point that certain people over-rely on social media. It wasn’t, in the end, too difficult to follow events, and I suppose the frenetic nature of the play parallels the quick-swiping, liking, following and commenting (and so on) of the online world.

I was appreciative of host and co-producer Liam Fleming’s warm and welcoming nature. Having been invited to see a work-in- progress later in the day, I had to make my exit after the show rather sooner than I would have liked – the networking opportunities are ideal for anyone looking to get their work produced, or for anyone with an interest in new writing. The relaxed and informal atmosphere combines with high-quality acting to provide a worthwhile and admirable experience.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

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