After spending three days following a Shakespeare history trilogy, I felt in need of some short sharp pieces to redress the balance. Hence, I headed for three online monologue dramas all of which clocked in at less than 20 minutes a piece. Like so many other projects Signal Fires (conceived by English Touring Theatre and Headlong) has been truncated by lockdown. The original idea was to bring together 40 of the UK’s touring companies who would run local events by firelight reinforcing the notion that story telling lies at the heart of drama but, of course, much of this had to be cancelled. Some of the work survives in a different format online and the first two of the following have arisen from the ashes of the hurriedly extinguished bonfires.
The Ghost Caller starts out when you send a “Hello” text to a number and then start receiving instructions on your mobile phone from a departed spirit. An incoming voicemail then takes you to the short piece proper as a disembodied voice properly gives you the creeps as it talks hypnotically about loss and mourning. Gradually this turns into something more motivational as we are bidden to consider the lives we are living. The voice is played by David Morrissey (apparently a “Heads or Tails?” choice means there is a second version by Leanne Best) whose tones are suitably ethereal and funereal and who leaves suitable pauses in case you feel inclined to fill in the blanks – not that you’ll get any sort of response. The script by Luke Barnes is both personal and impersonal at the same time and the whole thing is rather unnerving, delivered, as it is, on your personal device. I can attest that listening to it on headphones in a darkened room is an unsettling experience and a highly novel way to deliver a play during lockdown.
Phoenix is by the prolific Mike Bartlett and an intriguing listen it is. Bertie Carvel narrates the story of a man sitting by a outdoor fire pit musing on his actions over the past 24 hours. The country is in some kind of health crisis and in order to protect his wife and child he has driven across country to his parents’ home where he can take refuge. He is in some sort of powerful position advising the government and realises that, if the story gets out, he will cause untold damage to them, to the nation and to his own career… but family comes first… right? Sound familiar? You bet it does and Bartlett involves us in a fascinating fifteen minutes as he takes us into the head of man who concludes that he is above the rules because he is a special case. The use of third person narration lends the speaker a distance from his own actions which perhaps helps him to justify himself to himself. Carvel’s measured narration shows exactly how someone might be able to think themselves into a perhaps genuinely believed position; he regularly makes difficult choices for a living but when it really matters puts self above all others. A powerful and really interesting piece.
Mrs Goldie vs The World is a kind of companion piece to Original Theatre Company’s Watching Rosie with Miriam Margolyes (which has been rereleased), both of which examine elderly characters’ responses to the pandemic. This is written and performed by Nicky Goldie and is a monologue about her 94 year old mother which while largely humorous in tone also has its serious side. Mrs Goldie Senior’s family fled from persecution in Nazi Germany and so, to her, the current pandemic seems like very small beer in comparison. She remains feisty and independent defying attempts to curb her freedoms while at the same time claiming that she just wants to die. Nicky Goldie cooks spaghetti while recounting her mother’s exploits and transforms herself into the old lady and back again with an alteration of stance and a change of voice. Playing both women works well and although she claims to be exasperated it becomes clear that she has more than a sneaking admiration for her mother’s cussedness and longevity. Empathy is always useful in a play and having a mother of the same age as the older woman portrayed, I could fully recognise some of the situations and behaviours which were being described. While I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it quite so much had this not been the case, this was a humorous and touching vignette which deserves to be seen.
This is an intriguing trio of short pieces which use various methods to draw you in to their worlds and raise some interesting questions about life … and death… in 2020.
The Ghost Caller can be accessed by texting HELLO to 07401 336814 and then following instructions
Phoenix can be accessed on the EET website – click here
Mrs Goldie vs The World is available on the Original Theatre Company website – click here
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