Small venues are facing a particularly challenging time artistically and economically. There are rules about social distancing and avoiding contact both onstage and off which put them in a uniquely difficult position. One way of keeping actors at a remove from each other is to opt for solo shows/monologues where the situation simply does not arise. With empty seats left in an auditorium so that the audience can be kept out of close contact with each other and any performers there is a consequent shortfall in permissible ticket sales which may mean that the theatre has difficulties covering its costs. The solution here seems to be to offer streaming of the product (live or recorded) as well as in person attendance to help make up the difference. I “visited” a couple of venues online which are employing both these tactics to keep their theatres open and try and make ends meet.
The Space is a converted church on the Isle of Dogs in London’s Docklands which would normally (whatever that is now) hold 90 people but is currently limited to 35 – 40. They are currently streaming their reopening show Lovefool, a solo piece written and performed by Rachel E. Thorn. Steeped in nostalgia for the 1990s, Thorn’s tale starts with her talking about failed IVF treatment and how this leads to the breakdown of her relationship with her partner Alex. She decides to move out and move on returning to the maternal home and getting herself back in the game (that’s “in” and definitely not “on”) by dating the seemingly more empathetic Matt. But she feels in need of advice so what better than to turn to her stash of teenage acquired Sugar magazines which offer hints and tips about getting and keeping your man. Quoting directly from and displaying genuine articles from the teenage journal, Thorn has great fun at her own expense and also makes the serious point that these sorts of publications did (do?) much to prolong the patriarchal structures with its Dear Tony advice column, idealised body shape and beauty tips and its “does he fancy you?” quiz.
Thorn is an engaging performer with a nice line in deadpan delivery who delivers the comedy well. Her story is given a visual dimension as the other characters are channelled through her childhood toy collection of dolls, trolls and a china pig with which she holds conversations. There are also references in the dialogue to popular songs of the era; the title of the piece itself is borrowed from one such and at one point the question arises about not only what she wants but what she “really really wants”. There are probably lots of other examples but this not being ‘my era’ I’m sure some of it rather passed me by. Although I thoroughly enjoyed this piece I did feel it lacked a bit of pace at times and felt it was the sort of thing much better enjoyed in the company of an audience with whom I could laugh along. That’s not Thorn’s or The Space’s fault and it’s good to see them opening up again with a positive piece reflecting on a time when nobody had heard of coronavirus.
The intimate Jermyn Street Theatre right in the heart of the capital was apparently created out of the changing rooms for staff at the Spaghetti House restaurant and can “normally” hold up to 70 audience members. Again, current limiting restrictions are in force, but nothing daunted the team there have embarked on a very ambitious programme, the 11 week Footprints festival consisting of over 40 pieces of theatre; this is welcoming live attendance and also being streamed to our personal devices. So, I settled down to watch Hole another solo piece performed by its author Hannah Morrish. Loosely (very loosely) based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice, the narrator takes a journey inside herself as she tries to discover the basis of an eating disorder which has developed and the hole that exists in her life.
Morrish is a very accomplished performer and in the opening couple of sections I was hooked in. She describes her “hunger”, her perceived need to binge and fast, her relationship with her mother and her life as a drama student. There’s a particularly good scene where she takes us into her drama class as she delivers a speech from Antigone and receives criticism from her tutor. His comments about delving inside the character seem to provoke an actual crisis in which a girl appears to guide the protagonist throughout the rest of the piece as she embarks on her inward looking journey. At this point I’m afraid I rather lost a good deal of interest. The piece became far too dreamy and introspective – appropriate to the inspirational text but not something with which I felt I could really connect. I don’t think that it helped that the piece was so static with the barefooted Morrish more or less rooted to the spot and only the lights changing periodically to promote visual interest. Perhaps this inertia was necessary in order to keep socially distanced from the live audience, but the dynamism often needed in solo performances was somewhat lacking.
I’m glad that both venues have managed to open their doors for live performance again but hope they will keep on top of the game when it comes to the likes of us home streamers. Directors particularly need to ensure that the experience received is as good as it can be for both live and streamed iterations to keep us coming back for more; in the case of both these venues that is certainly what I intend.
Lovefool is available via The Space website – click here. Hole is available via The Jermyn Street Theatre as part of their Footprints Festival – click here
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