Laura Harper, Alexandra Keelan, Katherine McDermott, Jan McVerry, Ellen Taylor and Keisha Thompson
Hope Mill, Manchester
HER Productions, a new female-led theatre company, makes an ambitious debut with Vignettes: half a dozen short plays by established and emerging female Manchester-based playwrights. Vignettes covers a wide range of genres (science fiction, domestic drama) and styles (monologue, full cast) and shows an awareness of how to tackle the challenge of telling multiple stories using props, rather than sets, as a means of quickly communicating a sense of place.
Director Megan Marie Griffith sets a suitably forensic mood for the futuristic Porn Paradox. A laboratory technician (Matty Holt) testing a new sex robot, Candy (Michaela Forbes), makes the mistake of using pornography as a teaching method and finds himself having to justify and explain its purpose. Author Laura Harper takes a respectful approach to science fiction mentioning Asimov’s three laws of robotics. More significantly, she examines the paradox of whether pornography is a harmless way of acting out taboo subjects or if showing simulated sex between teenagers in a society where actual teenage sex is illegal encourages unlawful acts. It is a sharp script but the limited running time does not allow a full exploration of the complex subject.
Keisha Thompson’s Tinderbox is a deceptive play giving the initial impression of a family comedy of manners before moving onto the darker subject of coming to terms with the onset of mental instability. The script is a thoughtful examination of friends and family assessing the limits of what can be achieved in such a situation but a lack of urgency reduces the impact of the conclusion.
Jan McVerry’s Dancing Out concludes the first act in fine comic form. Victoria (Oxley Shelley) is a wonderfully conflicted and very human character, cheerfully gossiping about the fine details of running a dance troupe while agonising over the implications of a rash course of action. Oxley Shelley gives an excellent performance as a woman who is aware of her limitations but determined to find a solution to her problems, making Victoria a character to whom everyone can relate. Although Dancing Out is a monologue. director Chantell Walker creates a very physical tone including Shelley breaking into a sprightly dance.
With a full cast, Guess What? by Alexandra Keelan is the most ambitious of the plays and is a very funny but exceedingly grim portrayal of a pair of teenagers indulging in desperate hedonism. One needs distraction from the unwanted attentions of her mother’s boyfriend while the other sees no other options than empty sex and drugs. Jo (Evelyn Roberts) is secretly afraid of sex but intrigued by the attentions of Jerome (Jason Lemar-Ricketts) while Toni (Charlotte Reynard) is hell-bent on a pattern of self-destructive behaviour. Meanwhile Bernie (Pegeen Murphy), past her best, staggers drunkenly around the club like a warning of their possible future. Although realistically bleak, a strong script and excellent performances and direction make Guess What? compelling; even if it is like watching a car accident.
The final plays act as bookends—both featuring mismatched couples. Katherine McDermott’s Night Night Love is a poignant tale of loneliness and coping with grief. The distracted and anxious Mary (Kate Hampson) and brusque, indifferent Jason (Andrew Bentley) fall into unwanted intimacy on a late-night bus and discover they have more in common than expected. Realistically, Night Night Love concludes with the possibility the characters have perceived a way of resolving their problems rather than their actual resolution. In Ellen Taylor’s bittersweet The Cat Sitter, the highly-strung, borderline neurotic, Jeanette (Louise McNulty) hires the taciturn Belle (Paula Lane) to look after her cat. An accident forces the duo to overcome their reservations and compels Belle to reveal the reasons she prefers cats to people. It is a gentle and moving end to the evening.
The initial run of Vignettes has already sold out but interested customers should keep an eye out for its return in October.
Reviewer: David Cunningham