“The prospect of four one-act plays around the theme of The Night Riviera, the overnight sleeper train to the West Country, brings to mind Agatha Christie and murder most foul. It seemed entirely reasonable therefore that death and mystery were our constant companions at Mad Apple Collective’s most recent presentation of new one act writing, staged on the upstairs sales floor of Foyles bookshop in Chelmsford.
The first play, The Devil’s in the Detail by Michelle Roberts, started the evening with many of the qualities of a traditional whodunnit. But as the scenes progressed, it became less and less clear exactly ‘who’ had done ‘it’ to whom.
There was effective, economical characterisation from Andy Poole as Patrick. A New Year’s Eve party in the train’s saloon car saw him pitched against three companions in a narrative that swung about as much as a commuter train crossing over the points outside a station. And like the commuter’s nightmare, just when you though you were safely on the way to your destination, something would happen to throw you off track.
Chris Piper and Anna Rogers played two of the travelling companions with confidence and bravado. One remarked, “Hell is being trapped in a room with other people.” These two carried some of the hallmarks of hell, but it was Andrea Dalton’s screeching, squawking Hilda who really brought out a sense of the underworld. As Patrick was increasingly harangued, his three fellow travellers appeared to be, if not exactly Hell’s Angels, then avenging angels for his prior misdeeds. It was not a pretty piece of theatre, but powerful narratives are rarely pretty. As primarily a work of symbolic drama, it had many other qualities including comedy (when Patrick identified the threat of death that seems to pervade soap opera plots on New Year’s Eve) and melodrama. Through its themes, it communicated a sense of the epic, and could have expanded into elements of Greek tragedy had the piece run more than 30 minutes.
The second piece of the evening was And You Can’t Even Hear Me, by Nicola Rushen. This was a virtual monologue by Sarah Bell as thirty-to-forty-something Zoe, who finds herself with an unexpected companion on the bottom bunk of her sleeper compartment after the train guard, played in a delightful cameo by Angie Budd, appeals for help. Zoe is distraught at the break up of her latest relationship and seems intent on drowning her sorrows at the buffet car. Although her new acquaintance is deaf, it does not stop Zoe from going into detail about what’s wrong with men – and what’s wrong with her. In fact, the peculiar intimacy of revealing innermost feelings to virtual strangers resonated well. The fact that the woman below, played by Jyoti Fisk, was deaf, just seemed to add to Zoe’s forthright assertions. “The more men I’ve had, the least wanted I’ve felt”, Zoe lamented as she took another swig from her hip flask. Bell’s was a bravura performance, physical, articulate, emotional and hitting just the right degree of drunkenness. She made the most of some very deft writing, laced with observations about love and loss that are probably shared by many women of Zoe’s age.
Third up was The Last Carriage by John Mabey, in which the writer appeared as one of four guards working on the train during its overnight journey. Set in 1947, the dialogue started with wonderfully authentic banter, with men of a certain age – and in a certain era – exchanging wisdom and wit in equal measure. The performances of Jesse Powis, Terry Cole and Tom Tull as the other three guards were extremely well-judged with Powis’ performance as the stickler-for-the-rules, Henry, particularly enjoyable. His was a lesson in being able to create character with the minimum of artifice. As the plot developed, it began to feel increasingly like a Cold War Sci-Fi drama, where the contents of the crate in the adjoining carriage took on a menacing demeanour. The limitations of the staging at Foyles did not do justice to the dramatic finale, but there was enough commitment by the performers to enable the audience to suspend sufficient disbelief to see it through.
The last piece of the evening was bang up to date and featured Lewis Schaefer is his own play I Travelled Through Light, along with Bruce Thompson, Nikita Eve and Paul Macklin.
This was an accomplished, assured piece of writing, which had tremendous energy from the moment the train left the station. But it was not all 90-mph words; the awkward silences as (former) friends jostled to get one-up on their companions said as much as any dialogue. Those silences contrasted beautifully with fiery talking-over-each-other-so-no-one’s-listening exchanges. Structurally, and cleverly, the build up to the ‘reveal’ of the story behind the frostiness was sometimes shunted into a siding. That only served to whet the appetite even more. The reveal, when it came, was not what anyone was expecting. The silent tableau scene towards the end, set to music, did not sit comfortably with the dialogue and seemed rather at odds with the free-flowing verbosity that proceeded it. Schaefer’s fine writing was rewarded with excellent performances by all four members of the cast. Such was their focus, one could easily forget we were upstairs at Foyles and, for a moment at least, feel the sway of the railway carriage and the rattle of wheels on steel.” Peter Jeary
We were proud to present:
And You Can’t Even Hear Me by Nicola Rushen
The Devil’s in the Detail by Michelle Roberts
I Travelled Through Light by Lewis Schaefer
The Last Carriage by John Mabey