Kobie Francois, Jan McVerry, Pegeen Murphy, Joanna Nicks, Ravi Thornton and Chantell Walker
HER Productions, Alex Keelan and Kayleigh Hawkins
Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester
The second set of Vignettes follows the format of the first. Which is to say there is no format—nothing connects the six short plays other than being written and directed by women. In a neat touch, however, the casts of all the plays remain on stage throughout adding background detail to the individual shows.
The evening starts strongly with Joanna Nicks’s Fresh Meat. Abby (Carrie Crookall) risks a walk on the wild side visiting a strip club and paying Frankie (Shireen Ashton) for a private dance. Yet Abby finds her preconceptions about sex work being challenged. Crookall and Ashton are an excellent mismatched couple: the former glamorous and imperious and the latter gauche and nervous but sharper than she is willing to acknowledge. When Frankie turns the tables and asks Abby if she enjoys her work in a nursery, she gets the reply: “Well, I don’t have to shave my arsehole.’’
Although very funny, Joanna Nicks’s script can leave the audience uncomfortable. It avoids all the cosy clichés upon which we rely in order to perceive sex work as acceptable. Frankie does not find stripping to be empowering and is not working her way through higher education—she is motivated purely by the money. Fresh Meat is a tightly written well-acted play with a very satisfying ending.
Although there is much to admire in Jan McVerry’s Wildfires, the play is uneven. Niamh (Amy Gavin) seems a fish out of water when she joins a trip to the wilderness organised by lifestyle guru Greg (Michael Loftus). Despite her misgivings, Niamh forms a connection with the group until an unexpected discovery shows they have less in common than seemed apparent.
There are some fine performances in Wildfires: Barney Thompson’s jittery recovering addict who has switched his addiction from drugs to desperately pursuing a healthy lifestyle and Gavin’s confused and conflicted teacher. But the shift from comedy to tackling the topical issues of conspiracy theories and populism feels too contrived to be completely convincing.
In the programme, the plots of the plays are summarised in just two lines except XYV by Ravi Thornton which takes two paragraphs. This is not surprising; it is a wildly ambitious play set in the near future and covering an entire century drawing in topics such as abortion rights and mandatory gender separation. Cramming so much into such a short running time results in the play becoming a list of ideas rather than a drama—there is simply not enough time to explore the concepts. Statements that ought to be profound (‘’freedom is the absence of power’’) end up sounding like trite slogans.
To Have and to Hold by Pegeen Murphy is the only play to use the COVID pandemic as a background and is a real charmer. Ange (Joanne Heywood) and Barry (Shaun Hennessy) were dance partners from childhood until Barry formed a relationship outside of the partnership. An unexpected meeting raises the possibility of a type of reunion.
Pegeen Murphy finds mundane daily life to be both magical and ludicrous. Joanne Heywood describes the partnership in an ecstatic manner with a beaming smile recalling past glories. Shaun Hennessy seems devastated, unable to believe that something so perfect has been lost. Yet the script makes clear the duo had no measurable success—their total winnings amounted to £62 and a trip to Cleethorpes. Even so, their pleasure is so intoxicating you are automatically on their side—Ange and Barry are winners rather than pathetic.
Murphy’s script constantly balances poetic descriptions with dull reality for excellent comic effect. Barry is glimpsed gliding swan-like past the turnips in Asda. To Have and to Hold is a cheerful reminder friendship is more important than pride and a pleasure to watch.
It is not clear when It’s a Pea Picking Privilege takes place but the behaviour of the characters—constantly smoking and engaged in rough manual work—suggests it is in the past. This allows author Kobie Francois to take an old-fashion approach to race and relationships. Single mother Aggie (Sophie Ellicott) and her daughter Alice (Carla Rowe) work together. Alice is of mixed race and believes this is hindering the achievement of her aspirations. Aggie feels Alice ought to exploit her light skin tones and pass for white.
It’s a Pea Picking Privilege feels like it might have been extracted from, or is the basis for, a longer piece of work. The conflict between mother and daughter is set-up but not fully examined and the conclusion feels unresolved.
Signs by Alex Keelan takes a surprisingly bittersweet approach to the heavyweight subjects of grieving and maintaining faith. Siblings Jess (Liz Simmons) and Amanda (Francesca Waite) feel obliged to humour their terminally ill sister’s belief in the supernatural and accompany her to spiritualist Eileen (Wendy Albiston). Despite having misgivings, when tragic events put the relationship between the sisters under strain, Jess turns to Eileen for guidance.
Keelan takes a gentle approach to potentially depressing subject matter. The need to accept loss and come to terms with grief are treated with respect, but there is always the reminder life goes on. The spiritualist Eileen seems as concerned with her lunch just as much as offering contact with the next world. Wendy Albiston walks a fine line avoiding making Eileen a charlatan by drawing out her concern for her clients. Liz Simmons is the emotional centre of the play—devastated, pushed to the limits of faith and struggling with survivor’s guilt—it is a powerful performance.
Reviewer: David Cunningham