The Rooms 2016

Three plays by Sarah Gonnet, Laura Lindow and Becci Sharrock

Alphabetti

Alphabetti Theatre, Newcastle

From 27 October 2016 to 05 November 2016

Review by Peter Lathan

To get to Alphabetti’s theatre, you have to descend a set of steps from a dark alley next to the entrance to a multi-storey car park.

Narrow corridors lead into small rooms, the largest of which is the actual theatre itself but even that only holds 60 people. It is very reminiscent of many Edinburgh Fringe venues (but without the drips of water from the ceiling that used to be—I haven’t been for a couple of years—a feature of a number of the Underbelly spaces).

It is—shall we say?—atmospheric, and I love it! It’s just right for the edgy kind of new writing it promotes.

The Rooms 2016 follows on from last year’s The Rooms, new plays which are specially created to fit into their spaces. And ‘spaces’ is the right word, for each of the three plays is performed in a different space, some of which are not normally open to the general public. The audience is divided into two or three groups (depending on the numbers attending on a particular evening) and move from space to space.

Last year’s plays were all performed by women and directed by men. There were two male writers and one female. This year, the writers and directors are all women, the performers men. In the order I saw them, there were Word Salad, Night Trade and A Terrorist’s Guide to Romance.

Word Salad by Sarah Gonnet

Directed by Rosie Stancliffe
Performed by Robert Nicholson

This takes place in the ladies’ toilets. We are given the obligatory Health and Safety pep talk—“don’t sit on the washbasins”—and we are left alone. We look at each other. We look around. Three cubicles are open and one closed. We can see the red indicating the door is locked.

A man enters, carrying a black bin bag. Did we not see the notice? Oh! It’s crumpled up on the floor but it said no one should enter because the building’s dangerous. Never mind. He tells us to get on with doing our make-up or whatever and turns to whisper through the locked door.

He is Matthew and he is seriously weird. He freely admits to being obsessive but he obviously has serious mental health issues. As he talks—sometimes rants—we glean fragments of his story. He’s a film-maker but he’s fallen out with his colleague Catherine and she’s in the cubicle and won’t come out.

There’s an almost frenetic quality to his speaking as he jumps from subject to subject, as emotions come and go, and actor Robert Nicholson captures him exactly, at times desperate, at times scary and at times almost pathetic.

It’s Rosie Stancliffe’s first time as a director and she works with a light touch, trusting both text and actor to produce a powerful and thought-provoking piece.

Night Trade by Becci Sharrock

Directed by Karen Traynor
Performed by Matt Miller

For this play, we move outside, back up the stairs into the alley. We’re given an umbrella in case it rains and offered a blanket against the cold—and it is cold!

Again we stand looking at each other, wondering. Then a bright light shines at the end of the alley and comes rushing towards us. A voice is yelling behind it. It’s a man pushing a trolley (a sort of food trolley kind of thing) on which the light sits. He pushes it past us, to the other end of the alley, then swings round and passes us again.

This is Zed. He sleeps rough, he tells us, but he doesn’t really seem to be a tramp. He’s an entrepreneur, so he says, but whether that means he’s a pusher, a pimp or something totally different, who knows? He is certainly strange. He’s a bit calculating, too, and when he separates us into two groups, moving two young women away from the rest of us, we start to wonder.

With a great deal of subtlety, actor Matt Miller (with, obviously, director Karen Traynor) conjures up a sense of menace but without actually being menacing. This perfectly suits the alleyway in which it is performed with its darkness, its vague black shapes against the wall, its graffiti and the grille at the far end cutting it off from the bright lights of Pilgrim Street and the Tyneside Bar Café opposite.

A Terrorist’s Guide to Romance by Laura Lindow

Directed by Rachel Glover
Performed by James Hedley

At first, I thought we were being led into the theatre for the final play but no, when we passed through the black curtain there was a large wooden box. We were ushered in, took seats on crates and the door closed behind us. There was a figure sitting in the almost darkness. He pulled a cord and a single bare bulb above lit up.

He doesn’t have a name, this man, and he, like the others in The Rooms 2016, is a damaged individual. He inhabits the spaces underground—and, of course, we are underground, in a box in a basement. He’s a terrorist, but what his reasons are—or even whether it is actually true—these things are not known. He cannot form relationships because once he turns his face away from you, he forgets you and needs to ask, “who are you and what is your relationship to me?”

His talk of terrorist mayhem, of death by explosion, of horrific sights, is so matter of fact, so devoid of emotion, that it’s chilling. And we are left disturbed and yet wondering if this is just the fantasy of a sad, damaged man.

And yet he has loved and has been loved. But he turned away and lost her, and now he hopes she will find him: "what is your relationship to me?"

As with the other two, the performance is faultless and the direction light but compelling.

Alphabetti is on to a winner with this formula and with a goodly supply of exciting writers, fine actors and sensitive directors in the region there is no reason why it shouldn’t work for a long time—unless, of course, they run out of hidden spaces!

All credit, too, to Alphabetti’s Literary Manager Ben Dickenson for curating the event and for his work as dramaturg.