FLIGHTS OF FANCY is a suite of five short plays all by James Mannion, with some of them based on concepts by Edward Mannion (credited as a film-maker in the programme). Various directors, including Rebound Productions’ Laura Román (who also acts in one of the playlets, Honey) helm Mannion’s work.
The Hen & Chickens is a staple in London’s vibrant pub theatre scene and has been the launch-place of serious comic performers – The Mighty Boosh, amongst others. Sometimes when I attend a production upstairs at a pub theatre, I feel exhilarated by the quality of talent on display and the frisson of new ideas emerging, even if in humble surroundings at the start of a career or with some obvious rough edges. No matter what, I am always impressed by the hard work and tenacity it takes to mount such an endeavour but, at a ticket price of £15, pub theatre must be judged as a professional undertaking. Staging your own work in a 54-seat venue like this takes courage and unbelievable commitment but, even with these qualities, there is no guarantee of success. Sadly, the efforts of Román and Mannion have not been particularly fruitful on this occasion. The four two-handers and the one triad on offer come across as monotonous and feel inconsequential and self-indulgent. With a few exceptions, the theatrical experience offered plays much more like a student showcase than professional pub theatre.
This show is not a total failure, but if it wants to claim a legitimate place as professional entertainment, it needs to start with some major re-writing. James Mannion would benefit from honing his ear for more truthful dialogue (particularly from women) and practice his craft to deliver tension without relying on hostility and vulgarity. The scripts suggest Mannion has a taste for Beckett and Pinter, but he needs to delve much deeper into characterisation and visual imagery if he wants to produce comedies of menace with any substance or entertainment value. He also needs to go back to first principles of story-telling rather than just riffing on a pleasing idea. Perhaps if he’d committed to writing a single play and taken the time to develop characters and their arcs and conflicts he could have built his early ideas into something dramatic and interesting. But, as presented, his five sketches range from tedious and painful to passable but predictable.
In the first playlet, Powerless, Mannion and his chosen director, Marcus Marsh, mistake arguing for conflict. In the best of an underwhelming bunch, The Patient, he tries to pass off blindingly obvious reveal as dramatic reversal. The Patient, however, is the one episode that brought FLIGHTS OF FANCY’s average to a passing grade thanks to Oliver Rednall’s distinctly professional-calibre turn, which stands out from the largely am-dram vibe of the majority of the cast.
In Honey, Mannion re-enacts the premise of Spike Jonze’s 2013 film Her to an extent that it owes more to plagiarism than homage. Honey’s one glimmer of originality and intrigue was when the (unnamed and equally two-dimensional) real-life girlfriend, played by Laura Román, suggests that the sentient and seductive electronic home assistant be turned male. But Mannion sadly abandoned this note of promise and infuriatingly sent the story flitting off back to Jonze’s plot. Paul Davey, however, does a respectable job as a performer in this vignette, even if the material is stillborn and hackneyed.
In Cabbages, Mannion, unfortunately, shows little more nuance or humanity to his female characters than a libidinous Amazon Echo. Wendy Fisher and Samantha Wright demonstrate some craft in enlivening the sketch but can’t change the fact that it is a string of clichés. Cabbages’ primary offence is its lack of humour although it also serves up a disappointing parade of stereotypes (women, working-class people and generational conflicts).
Contract is perhaps the most painful sketch in the collection. Making high-concept bland and tedious, Mannion’s script, along with indifferent directing and single-note performances, is a wad of exposition and precious little drama. It is an achievement to make a 15-minute sketch feel like purgatory, but he and director Laura Román succeed. Their cast of Nassima Bouchenak and Nelson Ekaragha have very little with which to work and, sadly, Bouchenak over-acts and indicates her role. Ekaragha equally fails to connect, but the lazy material and static direction don’t help. Both the story and the dialogue feel hollow and like Mannion is guessing at something he doesn’t know well enough to create emotional connection nor present convincing characterisation.
I would really like to see Mannion work hard to draw his women from real life and dramatise complex human experiences and feelings, even if he wants to operate in sketches and absurdity. Perhaps he might like to look at works like Pinter’s Old Times or Genet’s The Maids and study carefully how Kate, Anna, Solange and Claire are constructed. Absurdist theatre doesn’t mean two-dimensionality – in fact it requires more depth and consideration, it just may not be on display to the audience.
Mannion’s ear has clearly been exposed to some quality dramatists but the theatrical experience he and Román offer through Flights of Fancy is like watching someone who is watching someone watching Gogglebox: derivative, tone-deaf and facile whilst seemingly fancying itself as hilarious (not). What passes as a witty germ of an idea does not make a play. If Mannion wants to do more than dramatise first drafts of blog-posts or notes in the margin of essays he might one day write, he must try harder and be even braver and more committed than the Herculean effort just getting to the Hen & Chickens requires.
Whilst it’s preferable to see him writing what he may know (as opposed to the inauthenticity that feels like distant guessing based on other people’s televised interpretations of life evident in Contract and Cabbages) Powerless (and to some extent Honey) infuriatingly replays every unsavoury cliché about millennials without adding an editorial point-of-view. Is he self-flagellating to the lazy-reasoning of a tabloid god or trying to reclaim and subvert the pejorative application of ‘millennial’ but just not up to the task? If he is, in fact, trying to make a point about ‘identity’ he needs to establish that identity first through human characterisation, then lure the audience into that world and make something happen. But he doesn’t. Instead, there’s some shouting in lieu of drama and the lights tell us the act is over because the action can’t. Then this happens another four times.
Sadly, Flights of Fancy seems to have two gears: Tell and Shout. For it to have had a chance of succeeding, it needed Show and Connect to be abundant. Alas, they are not really present at all.
It also didn’t aid the theatrical experience nor convey that this production respected the artistic commitment it requires, that the Press Night audience was populated by friends of the production who behaved as if they were hanging out in Starbucks rather than attending the theatre. For a moment I thought the crowd’s conspicuous phone-surfing during Powerless (a play about tech-addicted twenty-somethings) was part of the gag, but apparently, that meta-absurdity was purely coincidental – which didn’t help to move this show into the realms of proper professional theatre.
I can see Mannion writing some short-form interstitials for narrowcast and actor Oliver Rednall going places, but if Mannion and Román want their work to be seen indisputably as professional theatre, they are going to have to focus in greater depth on their most promising ideas and re-write and workshop extensively to turn them into stories; ideally finding some mentors who have really paid their dues… and telling everyone to turn off their phones at the theatre.
Review by Mary Beer
Powerless, directed by Marcus Marsh and performed by Michael Timney, Belle Kavanagh and Josh Hull. Three millennials’ plans for a relaxing Saturday are thrown into turmoil by a sudden and unexplained power-cut.
The Contract, directed by Mike Cottrell and performed by Nassima Bouchenack and Nelson Ekaragha. A couple are forced to evaluate their relationship when they reach the end of a newly-implemented short-term marriage contract.
Cabbages, directed by Lizzie Fitzpatrick and performed by Wendy Fisher and Sam Wright. Two women who share an allotment fight out a bitter rivalry while discussing the last episode of Gardener’s World.
Honey, directed by Livia Sardao and performed by Samuel Lane and Laura Román. A couple’s relationship is tested by the introduction of a manipulative smart home operating system into their apartment.
The Patient, directed by Siwan Clark and performed by Oliver Rednall and Charlie Collicutt. Terminally-ill Simon receives some devastating news when he visits his doctor for a check-up.
Duration: 1 hour 15 minutes.
Twitter: @ReboundProds @LauraRomanLR
Booking to 21st June 2019
Hen & Chickens Theatre
109 St Paul’s Road
London N1 2NA