Liliana Potter reviews two of last semester’s Freshers’ Drama Festival productions, Life is Shit and Almost, Maine, performed in the Barron.
Life is Shit As a put-upon millennial in a very deadline-y time of year, I was enticed enough by the name of this new play to, despite knowing nothing else about it, pop to the Barron and check it out. Life is Shit, part of the Freshers’ Drama Festival, brought a sizeable audience to the Barron that evening. A cast of six whirlwinds the audience through a snappy series of vignettes under a common theme of life’s injustices and, well, shittiness in its many forms. From a fading star’s late-night radio interview to a Black Mirror-esque solution to an ageing population, Life is Shit is formatted as a series of short scenes, showcasing the admirable versatility of its cast. Supported by changes in costume, accent, physicality and (in one case) actual shape, each performer succeeds in embodying multiple characters throughout the show. Although emotional punches are not shied away from, newcomer Matthew Gray’s script casts away the subject matters’ potential to wallow in its own misery, leaving room for moments of humorous absurdity alongside life-ruining tragedy. Although it feels like a discredit to the ensemble cast to single out any one performer, many laughs were provided by the mannerisms of a silky dressing gown-clad Charles Vivian, seeking a pouty refuge from ‘thinking too much’ in the white noise age of T.V. There was also some lovely physical comedy in a scene in which helicopter parents anxiously spectate on a school performance, to contrast with some of the more poignant and vulnerable ways in which the ‘shittiness’ of life is highlighted, such as a sardonic teacher’s recollections of a painful upbringing, or a couple’s panic which ends in tragedy – all emotionally demanding scenes, delivered with honesty by the cast. Credit is also due to Ben Hawkens’ sound design, well-managed throughout and consistently effective in immersing the audience in whatever world we find ourselves in next. Projections, when used, provided atmosphere, and the use of lighting, although otherwise minimal, was particularly impactful in the first scene’s dramatic spotlighting of the defendant (an enigmatic Piers Murphy) in an ambiguous sexual assault case. From my seat at the back of the house, a few lines were unfortunately lost here and there, to diction or speed issues - however, this mild hitch detracted very little from an otherwise solid performance from the cast. I look forward to seeing their future appearances in Mermaids’ productions, and also to the future writing (and directing) of Matthew Gray, who has shown an impressive level of confidence and promise here in this short-and-sweet (or perhaps that should be sour) snapshot of life’s woes. Almost, Maine Welcome to Almost, Maine. A small town whose residents were too disorganised to register it as such (hence the name Almost), where the Moose Paddy pub is at the utmost of its social agenda and where the snow means you would be crazy to leave the house without plentiful woolly layers . . . And if this description seems lacking in the escapism that might draw one to the Freshers’ Drama Festival, Almost is also a town where broken hearts are literally carried in paper bags, lost shoes fall from the sky and spur-of-the-moment kisses between strangers are an everyday occurrence. In Almost, Maine, a talented cast of seven tour us through the flurry of heartaches, confessions of new love and relationships gone wrong amongst Almost’s perpetually lovesick residents. The sound of softly strummed acoustic guitar paired with vocals from Emma Johnston was the perfect introduction to a show which (despite its icy setting) was to draw me in with similar warmth throughout, with its snapshots of hearts full, broken and mended. Each cast member played multiple characters, bringing such earnest depth of feeling to the roles as to make the weirder elements of magical realism fit naturally into this world. In one scene, a woman (Emma Johnston) shows up at the house of her ex (Anna Caroline Burns) to demand the return of all the love she was given in the relationship - and the love is indeed physically returned, in three large bags. In another case, a self-deprecating chat between two mates on the woes of dating (Martin Caforio and George Watts) finds them unexpectedly falling in love with each other, in a hilariously literal sense. It’s the charm of the cast, under the direction of Alice Rickless, that prevents the never-ending rapid-fire bursts of stark honesty and impulsive kisses from becoming cloying. The actors shine in their countless different characters and confessions of love, fear and pain, bringing both whimsy and intensity to Almost. The script favours dropping both punchlines and gut-punches in the last few seconds of a scene, and I often found myself heartbroken by the moving chemistry between the actors, fully immersed in every slice of life by the intimate space of the Barron, an ideal match for the show. Eva Fexy’s lighting was subtle but effective throughout, with a particularly magical moment as Sophie Gerlach’s hapless Glory witnessed the Northern Lights she’d been waiting for. Overall, this wholesome play was all I could have hoped for from the start of the festive season, and I left the theatre with a smile and a warm heart. Congratulations to everyone involved for putting on such a charming show, I’m excited to see what you all get up to next! Theatre Editor: Sarah Crawford