Walking from Piccadilly station along Dale Street in the Northern Quarter of Manchester I was impressed by just how magnificent most of the old mills and warehouses are… then I came to Chatsworth House. Don’t be fooled by the name, this isn’t a grand stately home, but something of a grey, midSeventies eyesore; an anachronism amongst the other older, finer buildings of this part of town. But inside on the ground floor is Chapter One Books, which I’ve passed many times but never noticed, which is a hidden gem, a secret space where you can meet friends and drink coffee, or get away from friends and relax alone with a pot of leaf tea and a delicious cake, including vegan and gluten free options. It’s pleasing and pleasant and calming, a little haven of tranquillity in a bustling city.
The small theatre adjoins the bookshop. It is a bright, open space. There are white drapes at the wide windows. The walls are whitewashed, the furniture is white. Most theatres are dark, but this is the opposite. There is a stone balustrade skirting the small stage and potted shrubs dotted about. It looks like we’ve come to witness a wedding service.
There are only two dozen or so people, but by Fringe standards that’s a fair amount. It becomes apparent that this is a read through and the team will have scripts in hand and would welcome feedback. It is about government cuts to disability benefits. Lisa is a professional woman struck down with ME; she has been totally incapacitated by the illness in the past, but is somewhat better at the moment, but her outlook on life is very negative. Her sister-in-law, Maria, is kind and helpful and is supportive and enthusiastic about Maria’s future. Oh, and Lisa is interested in the Fey, that’s fairies and spirits to you and me. This piece of information will make sense later.Unfortunately.
The script by Ben Spencer is poignant in parts, as Lisa’s condition is very real, no one disputes that she has a debilitating illness or that she is genuinely suffering, but it becomes difficult to be sympathetic towards her as she seems to have labelled herself as unfit for work and sick, and pours cold water on all Maria’s positivity. Because of this she sometimes comes across as self-pitying, defeatist and wallowing in her illness; this is very likely how you would feel, but I’m not sure this is the intention.
Maria is the antithesis of Lisa; hopeful, encouraging, supportive and kind, genuinely concerned, but unable to get through to Lisa, who has effectively written off her own future. For people with long term illnesses it’s very common to feel like this, to feel overwhelmed, defeated, paranoid and overlooked, so it is a very real portrayal.
There is a scene where Lisa faces her benefits assessor, which is very entertaining. It’s the downtrodden versus the oppressor. That’s how it’s intended to come across. It is both well observed, humorous in parts and tragic in others, but it makes a point. Unfortunately, I felt it made a point like a sledgehammer. There is very little subtlety and I felt it started to become a one sided rant rather than looking at different sides to the argument. However, I’m guessing this is written by someone who has first-hand experience of how dehumanising and demoralising this type of process can be.
So far it’s all been set in the real world, with very real situations and very real politics, then, for reasons I won’t go into (to protect the plot) Lisa finds herself in the Realm of the Fey, basically the world of the fairies. This is possibly all hallucinatory; it isn’t really made clear. I didn’t like this at all. I thought it was long winded and tedious and detracted from the seriousness of the theme, trivialising the issues that were being explored.
However, Lisa’s experiences with the Fey serve to give her the breakthrough she needs, to show her she must fight and stand up to the wrongs that the Conservative government is perpetrating. The play ends with what is essentially a rallying call to the audience to join them and stand shoulder to shoulder to fight this oppression. Some people cheered in solidarity; some wondered which cakes were still left in the café.
There are some very real issues here, issues clearly close to the writer’s heart and to at least one member of the three woman cast, as the actor playing Lisa emotionally revealed at the end that this was in memory of her friend, Dawn, who sadly died recently.
It was a read through, with scripts in hand, which was an interesting experience. All three actresses Hayley Cartwright, Kelly Efthymiou and Sue Twist emoted well and considering they were holding a script, were convincing. They worked hard and I think they successfully managed to convey a lot of emotion.
Personally - and it is just a personal preference - I don’t care for fantasy and I felt the fantasy elements went on too long and were quite out of place and really detracted from the seriousness of the subject matter, trivialising it in many ways.
So my opinion is somewhat mixed. It presented an interesting and valid point of view, but was quite one sided, but was credibly enacted and staged in a beautiful venue. With cake.
Reviewer: John Wood
Reviewed: 21st July 2016