Plays by Helen Bennett, Kenneth Emson, Daniel Kanaber, Jacqueline McCarrick, Becky Prestwich and Ali Taylor
Box of Tricks
Union Theatre, Southwark

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To the uninitiated in fringe theatre, the Union Theatre provides a real treat. This theatre is authentically down at heel, with tatty and retro seating filling the space in front of the stage, which is in fact on the same level as the audience.

The concept behind this performance is that six up and coming playwrights are given one word to inspire them to write a fifteen minute play. The word in question is tradition and has produced some radically different, inventive and original productions.

The performance kicks off with The Boys in the Tower, a moving piece depicting the journey of a mother and father struggling to come to terms with the violent death of their youngest son, Simon.

Both characters deliver their message directly to the audience and although these monologues interlace and together increase the intensity of the story, this device serves to reinforce the separateness and between the couple.

Emson's contribution, The Miracle Killer follows. This piece delivers a packed fifteen minute slot with a strong performance by Valene Kane as Sadie, one part of a young couple struggling to come to terms with the abortion of their child.

Joe (Sam Lester) naively wants to put the experience behind him but Sadie is still grieving for her loss, and trying to come to terms with what she has experienced. Joe leaves the stage and Sadie continues with her own monologue.

Despite her tortured angst this final communion with the audience outlines the power of Sadie's voice and ability to articulate her emotional and traumatic experience.

The next performance, The Escape, is an ambitious and stimulating piece, which one can hardly believe fits into its allocated fifteen minute slot. Kanaber uses a selection of great literary voices to express the life story of three brothers.

The first employs the style of ancient Greek literature, with the three brothers metaphorically and physically finding their way in the world. Their youthful innocence drives their curiosity as they explore the wider world around them.

The shift to the Shakespearean element becomes notably more smutty and sexualised in language and tone, with extensive use of punning and innuendo. The characters have a coming of age feeling with all the confidence of youth but with the power and authority of young men.

The final section with three considerably aged and decrepit brothers has a perceptibly bleaker undertone. Potentially violent objects such as a razor blade for shaving lend an uncomfortable atmosphere. The piece closes with the suicide of one of the brothers, with the impotence of the remaining two through blindness and total mental withdrawal keenly felt.

The Right to Chose follows the interval and poses some interesting questions around the morality of so called designer babies, the role of mother and the value of girl babies, this last point echoing the practice of female infanticide in China.

Despite its serious content the play delivers some welcome light hearted relief through the parody of a fertility doctor, exposing him as a fraud with revelation that he is a) childless b) has pictures of children he has cut out of magazines adorning his office as if they were his own.

The Crow's Wake is a bleak depiction of a fragmented family in Ireland after the Good Friday agreement. John Gunnery plays a convincingly aggressive and domineering father, Dan, to Valene Kane's Rose as his daughter.

The tension between the two is palpable throughout and the menacing tone of the play is established right away with a noose hanging at the front of a stage. In a sinister twist the audience realises that Rose is not all that she first appears to be and the shift in authority of voice shifts away from her. The end is brutal and final with the death of both characters at each other's hand.

In the final performance, November, Taylor captures the agony of the loss of a father, husband, brother and son. The characters use a mixture of direct addresses to the audience and communicating with each other.

There is a strong sense of repetition and of playing out the roles assigned to each remaining family member. Fiona Watson is convincing as the grieving Mary, tormented with the loss. Beryl King lends an air of the older wise figure, soothing and strong in the face of the volatile emotions of her daughter.

Six plays, written by six playwrights with just one word for inspiration has produced six widely different plays, each entertaining with its own style but each with the common theme of life and death.

All of these plays remind us that death is a part of life and something that is inevitable for all. The Union Theatre has triumphed again by showcasing original and ambitious new writing.

Reviewer: Eva Ritchie

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