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Voices From Home at the Arcola Theatre | Review

Voices From Home at the Arcola TheatreA single night showcase at the Arcola, producer and curator Tim Cook, and his co-curator Sophie Drake, presented five short monologue or two-hander pieces featuring new writing from the South East of England. Of the performances, only one, Runaways by David Ellis, made a specific thematic link to its home county origin of Bedford. The other four performances were riffs on mental illness (Sea Legs by Zoe Glen), homelessness (Bank of Love by Isabelle Stokes), the politics of questionable sexual politics ‘The Tory Who…’ by Ella Dorman-Gajic, and teenage love through the mists of time (Spark by Sian Rowland).

The first piece, Sea Legs was enacted with great energy and physicality by Ella McCallum but the writing didn’t land for me. A lyrical extended metaphor comparing beach footing and wave-walking to an unstable inner emotional world (sort of), it lacked the specificity of telling someone’s story to enable its themes to connect. Although it had a few pretty turns of phrase, it was neither really a poem nor a monologue with any dramatic structure.

Runaways, in contrast, was strong and punchy as a piece of theatre – even if only an excerpt. Ellis constructed a beginning, middle and end and gave us two actual characters, Ricky (George jones) and Joanna (Alice Hutchinson) who both brought depth and humour to their roles. Director Charlie Norburn used the single prop/set item to great effect and focus. Hutchinson’s dialect was consistent and added another layer to the story, which also pleasingly had a sense of locus. Jones’ reactions to his co-star were sharp and present – offering strong comic timing as well as dramatic engagement.

Isabelle Stokes’ Bank of Love had some sharply-written dialogue and Tim Cook’s direction was polished, but the work seemed mostly a platform for declarative statements about capitalism’s failures rather than for dramatic connection. Stokes created polarity between her characters, Maria (Olivia Rose Smith) and Becky (Niamh James) as well as built ebbs and flows of energy, but ultimately the piece felt sketchy.

Ella Dorman-Gajic both wrote and performed The Tory Who…. This was the stand-out piece of the night with a very funny and clever device revealed early in her delivery. Dorman-Gajic shows great promise as a writer and a performer but the piece was just too long and eventually lost energy. She was effective in managing tension, suspense and identification but the points were landed within the first 5 minutes or so and it lost zest the longer it went on. Seeing as I scan probably 20 press releases per week that announce the next ‘Fleabag meets…’, I do wonder if the market of women real-time narrating their sexual experiences and disappointments without a fourth wall is soon to be oversaturated, if not so already. And unlike Fleabag, Dorman-Gajic did not give us hints of a deeper emotional truth of which the amusing antics are a proxy. Nonetheless, brave, droll and wickedly committed writing and performing are always in style. I’d like to see Dorman-Gajic mentored further and write with strict time boundaries (as for radio or TV) and a ruthless sense of structure, and see where she goes – I will be watching for her again.

Spark is well-written by Sian Rowland and well-directed (by Sophie Drake). Although also depicting the experiences of youth (as was universally so in this showcase), Rowland asked us to gaze from the modern age into a teenage love set in the 80s, placing the audience at the vantage of wistful middle-aged memory. Drake gave some nice touches to the simple staging and had fun with the costumes. Eleanor Grace (Carrie) and Ned Cooper (Graham) showed skill and range in the short performance. As a study in nostalgia and characterisation, the work hit the right notes. However, as a work of drama, whilst it had structural competence, it didn’t have the heft to demand significant emotional investment from the audience.

Overall Tim Cook put on a respectable show but the suggestion that his universally white and almost exclusively millennial/post-millennial perspectives on life, love and sanity (only depicted by actors of that generation) are the ‘most exciting writers’ from the South East strains credulity. It is indeed exciting to see new writers experimenting and developing, but let’s not pretend the voices featured are representative of the best the region offers. Cook would be better off with a more honest narrative about how he ‘curated’ his offering rather than implying he methodically scoured the writing of southern England, whittling it down to the five authors he presented last night.

Review by Mary Beer

Voices From Home is a curated festival of short plays and spoken word theatre, featuring the most exciting emerging writers from the South East.

Presented by multi-award-winning Brighton-based Broken Silence Theatre, the evening is a celebration of unheard voices and of the South East itself, enabling new and emerging talent to work side by side to create an extraordinary night of new writing. The ethos is simple: to champion regional writers at the peak of their powers.

Listings Information
Venue: Arcola Theatre
24 Ashwin Street, London, E8 3DL
Sunday 2 February 2020


  • Mary Beer

    Mary graduated with a cum laude degree in Theatre from Columbia University’s Barnard College in New York City. In addition to directing and stage managing several productions off-Broadway, Mary was awarded the Helen Prince Memorial Prize in Dramatic Composition for her play Subway Fare whilst in New York. Relocating to London, Mary has worked in the creative sector, mostly in television broadcast and production, since 1998. Her creative and strategic abilities in TV promotion, marketing and design have been recognised with over 20 industry awards including several Global Promax Golds. She is a founder member of multiple creative industry and arts organisations and has frequently served as an advisor to the Edinburgh International TV Festival.

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