Five by One

Tom Kelly
Customs House, South Shields
(2006)

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The first of this year's Customs House February Drama Festival plays was by a writer who is beginning to establish himself, Paul Buie, and the second was written by new kid on the block Rosalind Wyllie, which makes Tom Kelly, author of the five monologues which make up Five by One, the grand old man! He has a long writing history, of both plays and poems, and a year at the Customs House would not seem complete without a Kelly production.

The five monologues give a voice to five oddball characters who are played by David Whitaker, Pat Dunn and Jackie Fielding (who also directs, taking over at a late stage from Chris Elphinstone who had to withdraw due to illness).

No More Groundhog Days, performed by Whitaker in a long blonde wig and a robe, introduces us to a man who tries to break out from his repetitive life and announces it by posting a notice with the words "No more groundhog days" on his front door. It strikes a chord and soon his door is covered with similar notices from a wide variety of people. The local paper picks up the story and, as it's a slow news day, the local TV station does a piece. The tabloids get in on the act and before he knows where he is, he is hailed as a new Messiah and is holed up in a sleazy B&B in Blyth, dressed in his Messiah gear, while the paper pumps him for his story.

Bewildered by what's happened to him, this sad little man unfolds his story for us, evoking sympathy and amusement in almost equal measure.

The next piece is a real contrast. The Clockwork Whippet, performed by Jackie Fielding, undoubtedly falls in the "weird" category. In the modern, thrusting, go-ahead North East, whippets (along with other symbols of the past, like flat caps) are banned. They have all been culled. For a while they are replaced by clockwork whippets, but even they are too much of a reminder of the industrial past and they have to be scrapped. Just one survives and she does so only by sheltering in the houses of whippet lovers, rather like Catholic priests in Elizabethan England.

Pat Dunn then takes the stage in Elsie Rides Again, the story of sweet 77 year old spinster Elsie and her late marriages: sweet granny figure on the outside, cold and murderous inside. As her story unfolds, the clichéd exterior is slowly broken down so that we see the appalling reality beneath - and the equally appalling fact that we continue to find her story amusing!

After the interval it was Pat Dunn again, with Mother Theresa of Jarrow, the story of a cleaner in a hotel whose charming and helpful exterior conceals a calculating thief. There's no slow unveiling of hidden secrets here: she is not just open but actually proud of her crime and deceitfulness as she manipulates everyone around her.

The final piece is The Club Doorman, with David Whitaker portraying the "canny fella" who keeps the door at the local CIU-affiliated working men's club, everyone's mate, who has driven his family away by his total selfishness.

These monologues are beautifully crafted little gems. We've met all these characters before (well, not the clockwork whippet!) and almost certainly thought what nice, ordinary people they are, but Kelly lifts the stone and we see the creeping, scuttling and writhing nasties that lie underneath. It's done slowly, bit by bit. He makes us laugh - and feel guilty for laughing - and sets us to wondering just what does lie beneath the surface of the people we meet in our daily lives.

The monologue form looks easy , but the temptation to prolixity, to overdoing it, is easy to fall into. Kelly has the skill, sensitivity and experience to avoid this trap. He is well served by his actors who give well measured, sensitive performances. Indeed, all the production values are high, with lighting, sound and design subtley focusing our attention on the characters and their words.

Although this year's FebFest may not have attracted the size of audience it deserves, it has set a standard of writing and performance which will be very hard to beat.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan