Little Boxes

Joann Condon and Leonie Rachel
Alphamum and Lights Down Productions
53two, Manchester

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Little Boxes Credit: Cat Humphries Photography
Little Boxes Credit: Cat Humphries Photography
Little Boxes Credit: Cat Humphries Photography

Little Boxes is an autobiographical play based upon the acting career and life story of sole performer Joann Condon. Condon explores the boxes into which, over time, she has been placed and examines why people feel obliged to accept when categorised in such a manner. The use of boxes as a metaphor for a means of compliance is hardly new, a fact Condon and her co-author Leonie Rachel acknowledge opening the show with Malvina Reynolds’s hymn to conformity "Little Boxes" playing in the background.

As the show is about challenging the pressure to conform, Condon opens by listing the reasons—social background, weight issues and an inability to sing—why she does not fulfil the conventional image of an actor. Taking the viewpoint such a perception is self-limiting, she goes on to describe how she succumbed to peer pressure and attended drama classes where an inspirational teacher (and Boy George on Top of the Pops) helped her break out of her self-imposed box and pursue a successful acting career. Except, she notes wryly, in musicals.

As a raconteur, Condon is not in the same box as, say, Rupert Everett. Her showbiz recollections are far from salacious or scandalous being more a rueful assessment of the difficulties facing middle-aged, overweight actors such as unsympathetic costume designers. A member of the audience is persuaded to feed Condon a list of dumb questions asked whenever she mentions her professional career at parties.

Plays featuring an actor talking about acting appeal to only a limited audience. However, Little Boxes covers everyday concerns applicable to most people as the subject matter is expanded to cover Condon’s personal life while retaining the same non-sensational approach. There are more tales of problems encountered at parents’ evening or the school sports day than, say, coping with drugs.

Director Daniel Brennan ensures the show is theatrical rather than stand-up observational comedy, but it is hard to avoid that box completely. The script by Condon and Rachel is witty to the extent many of the statements are close to being punchlines. Condon reports at her age she has noticed people making "switch off, the old lady is talking" faces in her presence. Condon even has a catchphrase—gleefully reporting devastating acid responses made to people who gave offence before back-peddling and sighing, "I didn’t say that".

Brennan emphasises moments of low-key liberation and empowerment in a humorous manner. The theme from the Rocky movies belts out as Condon recalls triumphantly completing the school run. Realising she has a captive audience, Condon unashamedly dances without any concern as to whether the quality is satisfactory.

Little Boxes does not avoid sentiment but is too truthful to become cloying. The grief experienced at the loss of parents or friends is gently but movingly recalled. Condon’s attitude is resigned irritation at the tendency to conform and comply with expectations. The only time she expresses anger is on behalf of her children—demolishing the wall of boxes representing the preconceptions to which they might be expected to adhere.

Little Boxes is a gentle but very funny look at the acting profession, and life in general, staged in a warm, intimate manner.

Reviewer: David Cunningham