My mother listens to the Archers religiously, every night, at 7pm. And every time I listen with her, I am struck by the level of drama this supposedly small sleepy town of Ambridge seems to be inflicted with. Every week there’s a new fight, a new marriage, a new divorce, maybe even a lost cow. You name it, they’ve done it. Families are constantly embroiled in dramatic shenanigans.
In that vein, enter Charlie Sinclair, written by Adam Spencer and directed by Kerry Douglas. This play was simply filled to the brim with more family drama than you can shake a stick at. The titular Charlie, played affably by Shehryar Sheikh, has more issues than Reader’s Digest, between his writer’s block, his disintegrating relationship with his girlfriend Delia, his strained relationship with his parents and unseen soon-deceased grandpa and the fact he’s sleeping with his sister Grace’s fiancée Jenny.
That last part came as a bit of a revelation. In fact, Spencer’s plot twisted and turned faster than a game of Mario Kart and although his script was filled to the brim with witty one-liners and good gags, I felt that some of the plot was a little shoe-horned in, especially monologues directed towards the audience which could have been signalled more clearly with a light change. However, I can understand this may have detracted from the naturalistic feel of the play. In spite of this, a fourth-wall breaking aspect I really enjoyed was the inclusion of a live pianist (James Green) on stage, who actually took part in the action and to whom the characters spoke intermittently. Both the incidental music composed specially by Spencer for the production and Green’s comical reactions to plot points from his place outside of the action contributed to the play’s self-awareness, being as it is a written piece about a writer.
Overall the play was comically good fun, if a little confusing, especially with the entrance of May who climbs in through Charlie’s bathroom window in the middle of night and straight into his bed, only to be discovered by Charlie and his mother in the morning. Ellie Connon took instant control of the stage with this character and never failed to draw a laugh from the audience between her light-hearted delivery of lines and a brilliant Scouse accent. But it is never truly established who May is and instead Spencer chooses to constantly dangle the truth in front of the audience only to snatch it away; in one memorable monologue May admits she’s 273, only to instantly retract the statement. It is implied she could be an imaginary friend like that which Charlie had as a child, but we never find out. This ambiguity happened a little too often for my liking, and perhaps dialling it back a little could increase the mystery of who May is.
Low levels of energy in the first half of the play rendered some of the acting a little uninspiring but nonetheless there were some good performances. One of these was Ellie as May of course, but also Sarah Crawford as Jenny, a conniving and two-faced seductress who at once insults Charlie to his face and later croons over him in bed. Zoe Voice as Charlie’s mother Pam was a wonderfully comic and sweet figure and she really brought a sense of motherliness and age to her performance. Gabriele Uboldi as Charlie’s father Franco showed potential for real power in his final scene where he raged at an increasingly nihilistic Charlie about the painfully real aspects of his book in relation to his own father.
Charlie Sinclair was bizarre, and yet it worked. I felt that some of the scenes dragged, the blocking felt static and unsure at times, and it could have benefitted from stronger direction and acting choices. However, I really enjoyed the script and the plot. Spencer has concocted a fun, topsy-turvy world full of drama, comedy, and intrigue. He also managed to draw the play to a surprisingly sad conclusion as everything Charlie has been doing wrong comes to light and one by one his ex-girlfriend, his father, his sister, his mother and finally his only friend May leave the stage. Charlie ends up alone, slumped over his desk as his photograph for his now published book is taken. But is he simply sleeping or he is actually dead? Will it be, as May says, just his books on shelves left to keep his memory alive? Charlie Sinclair kept me guessing and I truly commend Spencer for managing to weave both a beautiful sentiment and a real sense of self-awareness into what is ostensibly a light-hearted comedy, opened by a monologue on how people fold their crisp packets.
STARS: * * *
Photos by Francesca Ffiske