When I was rather younger than I am now, one of the things I always used to look forward to at this time of year was the Christmas selection box. Pioneered by Rowntrees in the early 20th century they were a way (and still are) for confectionery manufacturers to promote their product. I recall there was always a cut out game on the back to enjoy but, of course, the main event was the goodies inside. It is with this concept very much in mind that Tower Theatre in Stoke Newington is presenting a parade of treats developed as part of their writing group and entitled Writers’ Room. It’s an eclectic mixture and not everything is candy coated even if the brief was to create a response to the festive period.
No Room at the Inn by Lily Guy-Vogel takes the traditional nativity story and adds a few modern twists. The main characters are a gay couple Mario and Joe (Norbet Szabo and Simon Christian) who are having trouble finding anywhere on Air B and B for a weekend break. They eventually find a repurposed stable/barn where more than a few home truths are bandied about. Flitting in and out of their story is Gabrielle (Alexa Wall) – more stand up comedian than archangel. The latter is especially good value and gets the audience keyed up with some traditional panto call and response moments which makes the piece a good opener.
The mood is entirely different for the second play, The Pictures of Dora Gray by Melanie Bell. Taking obvious inspiration from the Oscar Wilde novel, Bell also throws in a heavy dash of Dr Faustus, as budding painter Dora (Arabella Hornby) sells her soul/ health for artistic success and recognition to a sinister figure (Matthew Vickers). Colin Guthrie’s excellent directorial touches and beautifully haunting musical motifs turn this short play into something quite special. I didn’t really see any connection to the festive season, in fact it is quite a bleakly pessimistic piece, but it certainly stood in complete contrast to the plays on either side.
The first half concluded with the satirical Saturnalia by Ian Hoare. With a nod to events of last Christmas we find ourselves inside Number 10 Downing Street where a wild party is in full swing. Political aides Cornelia (Kornelia Adelajda) and Marcus (Liam Brown) are following the PM’s instructions in reviving an ancient Roman festival predicated on Bacchanalian excess and an inversion of the social order. However, it all goes rather further than their boss (Simona Hughes heading into Liz Truss territory) might have intended and the tables are well and truly turned. There’s some whip smart one liners in this play which also makes some timely comments about politics, democracy and our apparent need to keep changing our leaders quite so frequently.
Part Two opens with A Make Believe Summer by Kate Roche. There’s a healthy mix of the comic and the serious in this piece of writing which questions whether and how a childhood friendship can survive once the element that bound them together has gone. Leon Wander and Lira Stroeter as long term next door neighbours make an excellent job of the well balanced duologue and strongly suggest the children that they once were – the slightly nerdy introvert Simon and the more exhibitionist (on the surface anyway) Paloma. This particularly comes across in their body language and the choice of character costumes. The last few minutes of the play are particularly poignant and forcibly remind us of what it is like to be alone at this time of year.
Bringing proceedings to a rousing and hilarious conclusion is Waiting for Grotto – love the title – by Janet South. Beleaguered Garden Centre Grotto supervisor Veronica (a comically uptight Katie Smith) is inducting three new employees into their festive duties. These are nervous Graham (Tommy Saunders), bolshie and pregnant Kate (Helen McGill) and taciturnly angry Paul (Paul Graves). It’s one of those comedies where everything that can go wrong does go wrong. The trio’s character costumes are a constant source of annoyance, the presents are not Health and Safety compliant, the grotto lights refuse to co-operate, Santa himself hasn’t turned up and don’t even ask what’s happening amongst the reindeer in the petting zoo! All four actors prove adept at the verbal and physical comedy required and under Emma Mile’s fast paced direction conjure up a healthy stream of non-stop laughter throughout which brings the evening to a joyful close.
Given that Tower Theatre has only recently staged Improbable Fiction, Alan Ayckbourn’s play about the inadequacies and inabilities of a writing group, it is good to see a corrective about nascent authorship via the five pieces which make up the current production. Writer’s Room is a great showcase of talent in terms of the scripts, performances and staging and, just like that selection box, full of tasty treats for these dark winter evenings.