Having it Rough

Lewis Gray
Alphabetti Theatre

Hidden away—and almost inside the NCP car park—Alphabetti Theatre is a little gem of a venue where the spirit of the fringe is alive and well. There’s a tiny bar, an even tinier lounge and a small black box of a performance space intimate enough to read the actors’ clothing labels.

Alphabetti’s founder (it was first called Alphabetti Spaghetti) is Ali Pritchard, who with others has worked hard these last three years to establish a regular venue, moving into the current site at the end of last year. It feels like a natural home.

Arts Council England grants have helped support these efforts, funding which among things allows the luxury of a 16-page, full-colour brochure with 17 separate events from September to December. These include performance poetry, a film club, a site specific promenade work, a play-in-a-day, impro comedy and a folk musical.

Alphabetti has a similar grassroots, bohemian feel to the Star & Shadow Cinema, another Newcastle city centre alternative venue (at present in transit). They are both places which do (and should) encourage the kind of experimental risk-taking bigger more established organisations might shy away from.

Having it Rough is written directed by Lewis Gray from a devising process working individually with a quartet of actors during the summer months. Each actor created his or her own character, each character hailing from that actor’s home town; the four characters were then brought together for the alchemical process of creating a play. Inevitably the end result is a little like ships that pass in the night.

The narrative sees the slightly bruised young character Flo (Sisley Henning) taking up temporary residence / refuge in the home of Arabella Arnott’s middle-aged, middle-class Jane, whose surface appearance of a laid-back New Age permissiveness barely disguises an anally retentive obsessiveness for order and control. This character’s quirkiness could easily spring from a Mike Leigh production. The two women have a vaguely defined family connection.

Into the mix (though from where we’re not certain) enters the unruly, northern, small-town lad Dick, (Jacob Anderton), young, provincial, gobby and with that ignorant ‘know-all’ sense of those with limited experience. He believes his native Pontefract—‘Ponty’—to be the centre of the universe. Well, (he boasts) it is the home of a castle, a race track and Haribos. Dick’s got his eye on a quick shag with Flo and we realise he and house-owner Jane are potentially as combustible a mix as petrol and a box of Swan Vestas.

Except, mystifyingly, the two don’t meet till the play’s end. Enter, after Dick and Flo’s Halloween boozy night out, the unbalanced character Stan (James Hunter) and again we have slightly wonky logic (why would Flo bring this duo back home?).

The trio’s late night antics bring us a lot of laughs (and a good magic trick) plus some insight into contemporary youthful excesses and insecurities but do slightly put the play’s dramatic development on hold, the two men being too similar and Flo—the potential protagonist of the whole piece—being underwritten and somewhat static. This latter fact undermines the dynamics of the play and the actor seems ill at ease at how best to portray her.

When Jane does eventually re-enter, we sense the tensions grow. Some fine comic writing in here and much energy bouncing out into the audience seated on two facing sides. At its best, it’s infectious stuff. And there are neat little domestic touches such as Jane subtly moving Dick’s mug of tea onto a protective coaster.

Both Jane and Dick are vivid creations, impressively animated by Arnott and Anderton. And Stan could be the man alright, but may be in the wrong play.

Full marks for the bold experiment. Each having been developed individually, these four characters are probably not a natural dramatic quartet, but we do experience some well-observed and interesting theatre discovering this shortcoming.

Reviewer: Peter Mortimer

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