Pros: An evening full of variety that includes a couple of classy performances.
Cons: Some of the plays drag a little due to sluggish direction and delivery and the writing isn’t all of an equally high standard.
Bookends comprises four short plays, performed one after another without an interval in the tiny upstairs room of Camden’s Oxford Arms. It’s a lot to take in during a single evening, especially when Arsenal fans are cheering in the pub downstairs, but there’s some real quality to be seen here.
First up is Alice Springs, in which Alice, an acquaintance from a long-ago holiday in Australia, turns up unexpectedly, seeming to know everything about the life of frustrated teacher Zoe. She knows how she likes her pizza, how she feels about her students and even that she’s considering quitting her job. This last revelation comes as a shock to her fiancé Tom, who’s even more surprised to discover that his own stress-related sexual dysfunction has also been made public. All, of course, through Zoe’s revelations on Facebook. It’s the least satisfying play of the evening, but it’s saved by an enthusiastic performance from Dani Arlington as Alice.
This is followed by A Novel Approach, which features a writer of romantic fiction welcoming the return of her muse, a physical being dressed in ancient Greek regalia, who helps her overcome her writer’s block. As she writes, her lead characters appear on stage and perform the actions and speeches she gives them. It’s not long before they start to make suggestions of their own and directing their characters.
The third play is Almost the Birthday Party, featuring two camp, elderly actors in dressing gowns and pyjamas. They relate to the unseen Mrs Percival the story of how they tried to set up their theatre group, The Parlour Players, while ‘resting’: ‘I like to keep a free diary, just in case the odd Midsummer Murder comes in’. We also learn the story of the imprisoned vicar and the mystery cheesecake, hear about their former cat – ‘Life didn’t turn out well for poor Clement, so we had him dried and stuffed’ – and their attempt to stage a production of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, despite only having the first half of the text. Exquisitely played by Gil Sutherland and Roger Sansom, the two men never move from their sofa; nevertheless, it’s a bravura performance, full of energy, wit and theatricality. The oldest members of the evening’s cast, their experience and their handling of Paul Kalburgi’s taut script gives them a gravitas that really makes them shine.
The final offering of the evening is Four O’Clock, which opens with a 15-year-old schoolboy searching for the right park bench at which to meet a girl from school. He’s joined by a man in his twenties who, we gradually learn, is his future self, here to instruct and direct him on how to behave on his first date. He is in turn visited by his own older self, who gives only a few tantalising glimpses of the future. ‘You must be on your third robot hip. So what’s it like in the future? Aliens? Jet packs?’ The old man grudgingly admits to the existence of the latter, before clamming up: ‘Shh. Spoilers.’ It’s an interesting and often touching piece, although it suffers from a lack of pace and the characters are occasionally hard to relate to. The final scene, however, rounds off the programme poignantly.
This certainly is a varied evening, but the overall tone is optimistic and there’s a lot to enjoy. Almost the Birthday Party stands out for its sheer verve and professionalism, both in the writing and the performances, but the other three plays are also uplifting. An intense, but satisfying quartet.
Authors: Siân Rowland, Annie Power, Paul Kalburgi and Matt Brothers
Director: Scott Le Crass
Producer: Open Page Theatre
Box Office: 020 7482 4857
Booking Link: http://www.etceteratheatre.com/details.php?show_id=1888
Booking Until: 7 December 2014