Culture writers Alice Landray and Frankie Rhodes review a selection from the REP’s Foundry Works
Presenting an excellent opportunity for exposure and appreciation of fresh talent, ‘The Foundry Festival’ at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre allowed up and coming creatives to showcase their work. The festival (13th-24th November 2018) was made up of a collection of short plays, each cleverly crafted to convey important and interesting perspectives on key societal issues, such as cancer, grief and mental health. Although most are still a work in progress, the talent shone through, making them an incredibly thought-provoking and enjoyable watch.
I was given the opportunity to view just two of the plays performed at the REP during the two-week festival: ‘Mr Muscles’ and ‘Butterflies’. They were shown twice, both times as a double bill: ‘Mr Muscles’ followed by ‘Butterflies’. Both used a simple set and two-person cast to address sensitive and personal topics with an unapologetic honesty, making it an emotional and insightful evening.
The first play was the shorter of the two: ‘Mr Muscles’. Written by Sue Townsend, mother of Danny, the play demonstrates an intimate and personal account of friendship and loss.
Set in an average, familiar-looking café on the sixth anniversary of Willy’s death, the play opened with just Danny, the survivor, on stage. Willy enters soon after, whether as a figment of Danny’s imagination or as a ghost is unclear, and most of the play is made up of a reminiscent conversation between the two friends. The simple scene, and lack of action, meant that the audience’s attention was undistracted, focusing only on the two men. I felt this made me more attentive, giving me a sense of privilege for being given the opportunity to observe such a meaningful and honest conversation, and this also made the sincerity of the two men’s friendship more profound.
As they talked with both seriousness and humour about the night when Willy was murdered, as well as life for Danny now, the strength of friendship and cruelty of life was portrayed with clarity. I laughed, I shivered, I felt angry at times, and I came away at the interval with a real appreciation for the unpredictability of life and thankful for the friendships that I have. A real story with depth and honesty, when ‘Mr Muscles’ is shown again, it is a must see.
Fast-paced, frantic and real – Lorna Nickson Brown portrays the individuality and difficulty of every cancer survivors journey through her clever two-woman show.
Named after the butterfly-shape of the thyroid gland, ‘Butterflies’ is a personal account of one woman’s life after thyroid cancer. Demonstrating a journey through an overwhelming number of thoughts and feelings, Lorna expresses the confusion one is faced with when told they are finally ‘cancer free’.
A compilation of different people’s experiences of surviving thyroid cancer were presented through short acts and recordings. I felt that too many recordings were used overall, making the play hard to follow. Despite this, it was a powerful tool; hearing the people’s voices to whom the experiences belonged added a realness and honesty to the message.
Lorna also showed her own journey to define her own feelings, allowing the audience another level of insight into life post-cancer. Although I should imagine that audience members who are cancer survivors will have a far different experience when watching the play from me, I found that the combination of accounts allowed me to glimpse the long-term impacts of surviving the disease, particularly on one’s mental health. Through Lorna’s struggle to find clarity, I was able to understand how being told you are ‘cancer free’ is by no means ‘the end’.
In summary, ‘Mr Muscles’ and ‘Butterflies’ showed interesting and honest accounts of real-life issues, demonstrated through inspired theatre production. Although there are some areas in which execution is not perfect, these plays are thought-provoking and emotionally-stimulating; ‘The Foundry Festival’ has discovered talent.
As the first performance I witnessed as part of a Double Bill showing at the REP, I was particularly interested in this play as it deals with issues surrounding social media and mental health. These are topics that are often discussed but rarely dramatized in such a way as to reflect the genuine experiences of those who become dependent on online approval. With just two characters making up the cast, performing a combination of individual monologues and interactive scenes, this play is intense, unpredictable and somewhat haunting.
This production presents the emotional journey of a young woman, (portrayed by Charis McRoberts) recovering from a mental health crisis induced by a destructive online relationship. Visited each day in hospital by the man who brought her to safety, the pair form an unlikely friendship, but one that is nonetheless fraught with dissension. A paper calendar placed center stage is frequently ripped off to signify the passing of time, indicating the progression of the relationship between the two characters, as well as the development of the girl’s mental state. This allows the audience to feel as if they too are part of this emotional journey, yet it also creates a daunting sensation of feeling trapped within time, with each day offering a new struggle.
Through McRoberts’ characters’ monologues, we learn more details about her experience with social media, beginning with a reassuring sense of identification and culminating in acts of self-destruction, coerced by a threatening online presence. Once removed from this virtual world, the young woman is left stripped of her identity, which is expressed powerfully through bundles of paper strewn across the stage, resembling social media content. This appears to symbolize a life defined by tweets, images and online interactions, rather than genuine qualities. The way that McRoberts’s character is ferociously protective of these documents, yet also frequently ripping them apart, indicates the power of social media to be simultaneously alluring and repellent.
In terms of the other character, Laurence Saunders embodies an adult who acts as somewhat of a Father-figure yet is also her antagonist, hopelessly trying to understand her condition. Dressed in some outside coat and smart trousers, he directly contrasts McRoberts’ characters’ disheveled appearance, portraying his practical approach to everyday life. Through their communication he visibly grows more in touch with his emotions, forming an attachment with the young woman that builds to a heartbreaking crescendo. I found the development of this relationship to be interesting, as it challenged the stereotypical depiction of mental health sufferers needing to be “saved” by a romantic interest. In this play, the characters in a sense both “save” each other, through no dramatic display of affection, but through mutual understanding and support.
Despite the use of the calendar to indicate a passage through time, I still feel that the play requires a little more development, with an abrupt ending that leaves the audience slightly dissatisfied and confused. The subject of social media, despite being the catalyst to the young woman’s mental crisis, is hardly touched upon, which restricts us slightly from relating to the plot. Perhaps, this is to emphasize that often the cause of a mental episode is not the social event itself but the way in which individuals respond to it, yet I still feel that more could be done with such an interesting theme. What is explored prominently, however, is the relationship between the two characters, allowing a dreary room to come alive with sentiment.
My second viewing of the evening was an autobiographical piece, written and performed by Zeddie Lawal, documenting a young woman’s struggle growing up between the liberation of her sexual identity and the restraints imposed by her culture and religion. The audience are invited to share her journey, performed in a way that is witty and ironic as well as highly engaging.
Cycling onto stage on a child’s bike, she is the naïve seven-year-old eager to explore the world beyond her home and Church. Returning as a teenager on a BMX, she becomes a satirical narrator on the expectations of her Diasporan heritage. Finishing atop an adult bicycle, as the young woman she continues to live as today, she laments on being gay, Christian and inherently proud of her identity.
As this was the first time I have witnessed a one-woman show, I was impressed to see the different characters that Lawal is able to create, including the impersonations of her mother, which are both a source of humour and an eye-opener to cultural expectations. In fact, this is one of Lawal’s many creditable attributes- that she can be chatty and hilarious, whilst also maintaining a mature discussion about important, controversial issues.
The set is decorated in a simple manner, appearing as a make-shift bike-shed, with a single curtain and pride flag decorating one wall. Of course, one’s eye is constantly drawn towards the flag, which seems to represent the presence of queerness within Lawal’s life growing up, as something that has always been there, quietly and colourful in the background. The room falls silent whenever Lawal addresses the audience, showing not only the skill of her engagement, but also the importance of her words.
One of my favorite parts is the inclusion of a list of “letters to Mum”, performed partially through a voice-over before being concluded by Lawal. These letters reflect her many (perhaps imaginary) attempts to come out to her Mother, including heartfelt remarks such as ‘I’m sorry that my love is political.’ There is a real sense of melancholy amongst the audience during this section, as many are able to share in this experience of possessing a love that is hindered by society. Again, Lawal is able to expertly match this hard-hitting scene with one of humour, including a live blog of a Nicki Minaj cover to break up the difficult themes.
Towards the end, it is clear that the performance has taken a turning point from dramatization into real life, with Lawal speaking to the audience no longer as a performer, but as a real person. Whilst this reminds the audience of the authenticity of the content, I feel that it also confuses the genre of the play slightly. There are, understandably, an extensive list of arguments to be explored around such topics as race and sexuality, but the ending could be refined slightly to bring the performance to a sense of completion. Still, the way that Lawal is able to build such a connection with the audience is certainly credit-worthy and thus, some could argue that the final monologue is perhaps the most powerful element of the entire piece.
Overall, ‘Exhale’ is an entertaining, touching performance that reminds us to breathe, to live and to stay true to who we are.