4 Words: Love, Life, Longing and Laughter
Val McDermid, Rachel Barnett, Noreen Rees, Lee Mattinson
InterACT, Northumberland Theatre Company
Northern Stage, Newcastle, and touring
4 Words is an evening of four plays by Northern writers: Stranded by Val McDermid, Boiling Point by Rachel Barnett, Not Some Kind of Side Show by Noreen Rees and Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit by Lee Mattinson, performed by the same company of six actors and directed by the company's artistic director, Gillian Hambleton.
It's a well balanced programme, mixing the comic and the serious, the gritty and the fanciful, giving the actors - some very experienced, others at the start of their careers - the chance to show their versatility.
Val McDermid is best known for the crime novels and the TV series Wire in the Blood and this play is based on a collection of her short stories of the same title and is structurally and stylistically the most complex of the four, with a number of very different stories set in different places running in parallel.
More than any of the other plays, Stranded challenges the actors' ability to play multiple roles within the one play with only minor costume changes to help them which means they have to make full use of a range of accents and different body languages to differentiate one from another. It has to be said that they handle the changes very well and director Hambleton helps then - and us, the audience - the use of tableaux, still pictures, to signal transitions.
Barnett's Boiling Point looks at the joys and tribulations of 35 years of marriage from the point of view of the four kettles that the couple have owned in that time. It's cleverly written and often very funny, but there are also moments of great poignancy, giving us a clear picture of the development of the relationship over such a period of time, starting from the moment the newly married couple enter their home for the first time.
Not only are the couple's characters well drawn but so are those of the kettles themselves, including the novelty cow kettle!
After the interval comes Not Some Kind of Side Show by Noreen Rees, a deeply serious (but not without some humour) piece which deals with the plight of amputees from the Afghan conflict. Put so baldly it sounds grim - and there are parts which are grim indeed, not just the event which causes the injury but the reaction of family and fiancé at home - but the overall tone engendered by the preparation of the amputee to take part in the Paralympics (emphatically not some kind of side show to the main event) is triumphant and positive. There is very definitely hope and even joy amid the pain and sadness.
The final play is Lee Mattinson's Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit, set in plain Linda's Ann Summers party during which secrets are revealed, selfishness receives its comeuppance and there is hope and happiness ahead for the downtrodden.
In all four pieces, the company get to flex all their acting muscles and Hambleton's direction, helped in no small measure by Michelle Huitson's flexible set, keeps everything moving smoothly.
All in all, an enjoyable and entertaining evening's theatre which did end on a sad note, for NTC has lost its NPO status and, from April, will not receive Arts Council funding. It is determined to continue in spite of this and the audience were asked to give their support in any way possible. It is hard to believe that there would be anyone in the audience who would not go away believing that rural touring - for NTC is primarily a rural touring company, not just in the North East but nationally - is being deprived of one of its jewels.
Reviewer: Peter Lathan