Testing Times

Steve Burbridge
Peoples Theatre Newcastle

Pauline Fleming, Christopher Strain and Jamie Brown

Writing, producing and directing your own show, can be exhausting, exhilarating and frustrating, a Herculean task not for the faint-hearted.

Tackling such a challenge for a relatively inexperienced writer is especially daunting—and not always advisable. Not that such factors stopped the early Orson Welles blazing a trail. Nor the precocious Quentin Tarantino.

The Welles and Tarantinos of this world are rare. Most of we dramatists benefit from a critical and often firm second eye cast on our efforts, an objective analysis to send us back for that extra draft we never knew was required.

Take Steve Burbridge’s play. It’s a three-hander, with Christopher Strain as Dominic, a young man who learned he’s HIV positive, Jamie Brown plays his partner Chris and Pauline Fleming is Dominic’s mum, Brenda. The piece centres on all three’s personal and social struggle to come to terms with this life-changing news.

The majority of the play is delivered via monologues, the three actors perched on high stools on a bare set in the People’s Theatre’s intimate Studio Upstairs. Only occasionally do they descend from the stools and interact with one another as against addressing us, the audience. On these occasions they also briefly take on other roles.

Dominic is a bit of a smart-arse drama queen, given to the Julian Clary style dismissive remarks. Chris is more earthbound and compassionate, while mum Brenda is slightly angelic in her attempts to understand all aspects. Only once does her halo slip. And only once do we hear a single line delivered from the character of her homophobic husband spouting his anti-gay spleen.

Dramatically we need more of this material for the play to test itself out and drag itself from the comfort zone it tends subconsciously to inhabit. And much as I admire Steve Burbridge's enterprise and single-mindedness, an independent director may have spotted this and asked for more dramatic animation and a restructuring.

Characters tend to pronounce from ringside as it were rather than getting inside the ropes and slugging it out. Good directors, of course, don't come cheap, which may be a factor.

But this ommission means the play's full potential can not be realised and to my mind it remains unfinished. There are a good deal of interesting factual realities about growing up gay and humour comes with such lines as, “he has more mince than a Dixon’s pie’, or “the wheelie bin gets out more than me”.

Nor is it easy for actors to cue in from such static positions or to perch silently for long spells (Jamie Brown doesn’t speak for the first 15 minutes). All three handle these problems with ease and are word perfect. The play is full of good intention and last night’s audience were obviously supportive.

But an excess of monologue brings a tendency to pontificate and deliver pat homilies. The summary device is effective enough in the early scenes as they whizz through the surface of Dominic’s troubled early school days. Later on, as the couple get together, move in and the play focuses on specifics, we feel it straining for a more naturalistic framework which would allow it to get its hands dirty.

My advice? Lose those stools.

Reviewer: Peter Mortimer