The Rooms

Three plays by Nina Berry, David Raynor and Michael Brown
Alphabetti Theatre
Alphabetti Theatre, Newcastle

Arabella Arnott in Paper Walls
Rosie Stancliffe in Meat Factory
Jessica Johnson in Dreaming Is Free

The Rooms consists of three short one-woman plays inspired by and performed in some of the hidden spaces in the venue which is itself the basement of the old Odeon Cinema.

The audience is divided into three small groups which circulate between the plays. This means the actors have to perform their plays three times each evening which, given the nature of the plays, is extremely demanding.

The publicity describes the evening as “harrowing and chilling… [and] immersive” and that’s a pretty accurate summary. You could also add “in-yer-face”, not only because the rooms in which the performances take place are small, cramped and bring the audience in very close proximity to the actor (often in touching distance and occasionally even breaking into an audience member’s private space) but also because they bear some resemblance to the confrontational and designed to shock plays of the nineties, best exemplified by Sarah Kane, Anthony Nielson and Mark Ravenhill.

In the order I saw them, the plays are Paper Walls, Meat Factory and Dreaming is Free.

Paper Walls by Nina Berry

Directed by Lee Rosher
Performed by Arabella Arnott

It is sometime (probably) in the sixties, although it could be earlier, and a woman crouches on her bed, surrounded by torn-up paper, much of it wallpaper which she has ripped off the walls.

She is clearly very disturbed and, although nothing is explicitly stated, we begin to realise that she has been sectioned and has had her child taken from her for in some way failing to be what society would deem to be a proper mother.

She is given drugs and electro-convulsive therapy and her mind is clearly in total confusion, teetering on the edge of insanity. There is something, she believes, written down which will make things better but she can’t find it as she tears apart every piece of paper she comes across to find this elusive something.

It’s harrowing, for we are voyeurs, standing around observing this “mad” woman. I began to feel like one of those middle-class Victorians who used to pay to observe the “lunatics” in their local Bedlam—although I hope that I and my fellow audience members have more empathy than our ancestors.

Arnott’s performance is heart-breaking: there’s pathos and anguish, fleeting memories of what once was, flashes of hope, but an overwhelming sense that nothing will change.

Writer Nina Berry—in my opinion one of the best young writers working in the region—wisely leaves the piece open-ended. I found myself hoping that the ECT would fry her brain; being in a vegetative state would be better than this. Lee Rosher’s direction is tight but sympathetic, channelling the emotions but allowing us to feel their full force.

Meat Factory by David Raynor

Directed by Ali Pritchard
Performed by Rosie Stancliffe

We are a group of Tory MPs (or at least Tory supporters) and we are welcomed to a meat processing factory by NE businesswoman Shirley Dobson OBE, who, it transpires, is a fan not only of Cameron and Osborne but in particular of Ian Duncan Smith.

We are invited to try one of their products, chicken nuggets, as, moved deeply (she tells us) by increasing poverty, the influx of immigrants, the growth of food banks and the cost of benefits, Ms Dobson has come up with what we might call the final solution to the benefits problem, which would have the beneficial side-effect of saving her partner’s failing meat processing plant. We are asked to invest.

Stancliffe is everything you would expect, the perfect exemplar of those who are focused on profit to the exclusion of all else. She has that blithe self-confidence which cannot imagine that any right-thinking person could possibly disagree. We are, she believes, all like her.

As one of the venues for this play is a corridor, we are offered blankets in case we feel cold but nothing physical could chill us as badly as the realisation, as we move into the little room along the corridor, that what we had begun to suspect is all too true…

Stancliffe, under Ali Pritchard’s direction, plays the character perfectly straight. This may be satire (I hope it’s satire!) but there is no attempt by writer, director or actor to give even the merest hint of comedy. So the realisation dawns slowly and we are not sure until almost the end that this rather cold and arrogant person is actually a total monster.

A really nice piece of political theatre.

Dreaming Is Free by Michael Brown

Directed by Matt Jamie
Performed by Jessica Johnson

Now this really is in-yer-face, for Johnson addresses audience members directly, not from a distance—this is not a conventional lowering of the fourth wall—but face-to-face, close-up, intruding into an individual’s personal space.

The girl is asleep when we arrive but soon wakes and begins to talk, about being in this room, about her mother and the open countryside, about her “kind friend” who brought her here and looks after her but now seems to have disappeared. Nothing is clear but gradually I began to suspect that she might be trafficked, her “kind friend” the trafficker.

She buttonholes individual audience members; there’s a febrile, even occasionally manic quality to her movement which suggests uncertainty, even fear; there’s a sense of longing but it seems to be unfocused.

Her emotions are clear—the intensity of Johnson’s performance under Jamie’s direction ensures that—but the “why” is not. Brown is the least experienced of the three writers and, although he is already able to write convincingly speakable and emotion-bearing lines, the narrative does not come through with enough clarity.

Narrative by suggestion is difficult and the ability to handle it comes with experience—and there is enough in this piece to suggest that Brown could have a bright future as a playwright.

Three faultless performances from three talented and experienced actors, given sympathetic direction in three fascinating plays. For a small venue like Alphabetti, a run the length of this is a big risk. It deserves to succeed.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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