After rushing into the Arts Centre – as usual having underestimated how long the walk across campus would take, and quickly joining the café queue for my cheese sandwich fix, I looked up and there seemed to be a new sort of hustle and bustle around. A performance had just ended in the Creative Learning Space, a duo were singing acoustic covers on the sofas upstairs and people were flicking through SOLO Fest brochures. There was a fresh buzz around the arts centre.
A Hundred Words for Snow by Tatty Hennessy
Munching on my sandwich I quickly picked up my tickets and took my seat in the Helen Martin Studio for the first show of the evening, Tatty Hennessy’s A Hundred Words for Snow, directed by Lucy Jane Atkinson.
The set-up was simple: a fan was positioned downstage centre in-between the audience, an urn stage right, a small pile of photographs and books stood stage left and an explorer backpack was positioned upstage centre. This minimalist staging worked in favour of the piece, putting all our focus on the performer and the words being said. Rory, played by Gemma Barnett, is a young 16 year old who has just lost her father and to process this grief embarks on a trip to the North Pole, a destination she learns her father always wanted to visit after having snooped through his office. Gemma Barnett captured the audience’s attention from the very start with direct address and through comedic asides. We were there with her. She acted as storyteller and took us with her as she began to construct an arctic world in this big open studio.
A touching coming of age story, on her travels Rory learns to fend for herself, has sex for the first time and learns more about her father with every step she takes. Whilst Gemma Barnett achieved a believable portrayal of a complex 16 year old, the script itself took on somewhat of a whimsical dimension, which at times stopped the audience from fully empathising with Rory’s situation. The fact that a 16 year old is alone in the North Pole with her father’s ashes seems a bit far-fetched. Logistically we struggled to see how she would have crossed the border and how her mother hadn’t found a way to contact her or sent out search teams, especially considering Rory stole her credit card. The play enters the realm of the hyper-real. As an audience we become even more aware of its fictional dimension. This lulls us into a false sense of security. The play appears to us as somewhat of a harmless story, which in a sense diminishes the stakes Rory is facing. We are convinced everything will turn out all right in the end. And it does. The play takes on a poetic and allegorical feel, dancing on the edge of realism and fantasy. This climaxes when Rory and her mother are in the helicopter above the North Pole and Rory pulls open the urn, throwing her father’s ashes in the air. Small bits of paper were used to represent the ashes, an image which partook in the whimsical feel of the play. Paper acts as the storyteller’s means to communicate stories, a tool of fiction. It also links Rory with her father, a man who kept journals and notes constantly scribbled on pieces of paper. This throwing of the ashes constituted a beautiful poetic image which tugged at the heartstrings and worked as the climax of the play. However it didn’t end there. We then saw Rory and her mother return to England and prepare to continue on with their lives, with Rory going back to school and them learning to share their grief together. Whilst this ending grounded the two characters and showed how they would move forward with their lives it felt a little dragged out and predictable. As an audience member I would have found it more thrilling for the play to end as Rory through the confetti in the air. Overall Gemma Barnett delivered a stunning performance of a touching play, aided by Lucy Jane Atkinson’s direction which really showcased the performer’s talents.
Man on the Moon by Keisha Thompson
After a quick drink and loo break we all went into the studio for the second show of the evening: Man on the Moon, written and performed by Keisha Thompson.
As soon as we entered the studio Thompson put us at ease. The set was strewn with books and Thompson was centre stage, by a drying rack on which numbers were written. She welcomed us and asked us if we knew about numerology, offering to give us a numerology reading based on our name. The studio is a black box space with raised seating. It can be quite daunting and immediately sets up a divide between the audience and performer. By means of this opening Thompson made the space feel relaxed and comfortable. It set the tone for the show and quickly created a complicit relationship between us and Thompson.
Like A Hundred Words for Snow, this piece put a large focus on stories, words and how they work as links between individuals, specifically between both Rory and Keisha and their fathers. In this piece books worked as the backbone of the play. Thompson used them literally to dress the space and as props. She created shopping isles with different rows of books on the floor, made a bus stop with a pile of books, used a small book as a phone and made use of books as a letterbox. Thompson experimented with different forms of storytelling, ranging from prose to poetry to song to looped sounds. This helped her construct the world of her play, a world of words with different textures, soft and harsh sounds, soothing melodies and broken short snappy dialogue. Whilst this use of varying forms was impressive, at times it felt somewhat gimmicky. The transitions between different forms weren’t always as smooth as they could have been. It didn’t always feel like there was a reason for her to delve into poetry or song to express a stronger emotion for example. It felt slightly mapped out. Looped sounds brought texture to the show and helped physicalize the political paranoia Thompson felt but they were used in quite a similar way each time. It would have been interesting to have seen some variety. The show climaxed with an impressive set device: the sofa began to rise, allowing Thompson to join her father, looking up at the moon. In this play the use of books worked as a physical representation of her relationship with her father. By rising on this sofa, her father’s space, she was lifted away from the books and instead seemed to join him on a metaphysical level, looking up to the moon. Throughout the play Thompson talks of her father’s religious journey and how he converted to Islam. This focus on the moon allows her to distance herself from his religious affinities and instead join him in a simpler manner simply by looking up at the moon. It recalls the famous children’s book Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney in which a child says to their parent ‘I love you to the moon and back’. Not only was this image of her on the sofa visually impressive but it also recalled when Barnett would have her father read books to her as a child. This referral to a tender moment from her childhood strips Thompson of all her anxieties concerning her father. It was a moving note to end on and brought the whole performance together. I really enjoyed the performance as a whole but felt that at points Thompson lost her connection with the audience. I think this is due to issues with the space and the similarity of songs and loop sounds used. The studio was also slightly too big for such an intimate piece. I would be intrigued to see it in a smaller space or potentially in the round.
SOLO Fest is a great platform for emerging artists and a brilliant way to further original work. I am excited to see where it goes in future and hope the Arts Centre will go on to host more events like this.
You can find out more about upcoming theatre shows here.