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Review of The Poetry We Make at The Rosemary Branch Theatre

The Poetry We Make I don’t listen to Dolly Parton’s back catalogue very often, though I did see a production of 9 to 5 The Musical which toured the UK when it stopped over at New Wimbledon Theatre, in 2012. Perhaps the most memorable moment for me was when Parton had the Glastonbury Festival 2014 main stage crowd raising their arms in the air, apparently toward heaven, yelling, ‘Hallelujah!’ The Poetry We Make could not be further from either of those experiences, though as it draws from Parton’s songs to help drive the narrative, there’s inevitably some loss and disappointment along the way. As the Canadian comedian Stewart Francis put it, “What do you get when you play a country song backwards? You get your house back, your wife back, your dog back, your truck back.

With all this in mind, it was clear to me that this wasn’t going to end well. But – and this is a significant ‘but’ – the storyline is not in chronological order, flitting as it does across several years, from the start of Elliott’s stand-offish initial encounter with Robin through to their post-relationship stage. More often than not this makes a production more complicated than it needs to be, simply because a scene will just be getting going before it has to, well, get going and jump ahead or fall back. Repeat, ad infinitum. There is, arguably, still an element of that here, but there’s method in the madness, so to speak. Hilarity and heartbreak are maintained throughout, in almost equal measure – the hilarity, thankfully, just about comes up trumps overall.

The lyrics are tied in well with the plot. The use of selected excerpts, for the most part, keeps this show far from being anything approaching a jukebox musical. I don’t recall, for example, any verses from ‘Jolene’. Now, the pair have separated and are now ex-lovers. So why does it matter to Elliott that Robin is a woman trapped in a man’s body, beyond wishing Robin well for the future? The answers are gradually revealed, peeled off layer by layer. Robin’s friend Paul (there wasn’t a cast list available at the performance I attended, so actors shall have to be uncredited) had his reservations, mostly to do with the possible stick Robin might receive at sporting fixtures – I assume, although this was unclear, they are season ticket holders with an unspecified local football club.

In the portrayal of awkward social situations and misunderstandings between Elliott and Robin lies some raucously funny scenes. Elsewhere, Elliott’s distress is quite clear, and though Robin wishes to be female, the male reticence not to voice an opinion or go into detail about feelings and emotions remains impossible to shake off. As ‘Dolly’ puts it, “Lack of communication is the root of so much ill.

The performances are acted convincingly throughout, helped by clear and substantial character development. Throw in an element of absurdity (isn’t having Dolly Parton as an imaginary friend such fun?) and some actor-musicianship too (live means live, you know), and a busy but excellent concoction of theatrical elements combine to provide a thoroughly engaging 90 minutes.

The rendering of ‘Islands in the Stream’, an eleven o’clock number of sorts in this production, sees Elliott and Robin outdoing Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers, despite (or was it because of?) its sheer corniness. Furnishing audiences with lots to laugh over and think about, this is a fervently amusing and tenderly poignant play.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

The way I see it, if you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain. – Dolly Parton
When Elliott discovers her ex-boyfriend Robin has started to transition into a woman her world turns upside down. With the help of her hero and spirit guide, Dolly Parton, she examines her memories of the man she loved – re-imagining what it means to be a woman, and what it means to be in love.
Nominated for the 2017 Beyond the Fringe award, Flugelman Productions presents Jaswinder Blackwell-Pal’s touching new play about love, loss, Dolly Parton and understanding love beyond gender.

Cast
Elliott – Elena Voce
Robin – Elijah W. Harris
Paul – Sam Thorpe-Spinks
Dolly – Mia Hall
Musicians – Ella Bellsz and Tucker McDougall

Company
Writer – Jaswinder Blackwell-Pal
Director – Edwina Strobl
Executive Producer – Victoria Strobl
Producer – Katherine Rigg
Associate Producer – Ryan Brown
Dramaturg – Lucinda Dale
Music Director – Ella Bellsz
Movement Director – Carissa Rickeard
Designer – Alexandra Kapsala
Lighting Designer – Jess Bernberg

20.06.17 and 21.06.17
http://www.rosemarybranchtheatre.co.uk/

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