Eleanor Diggle settles into Empty Shop’s intimate studio space for a showcase of brand spanking new student writing.
As I sat down to watch The Picnic, elbow to elbow (quite literally) with my fellow audience members in the intimate space of Empty Shop HQ, I had no idea what to expect. I knew I was in for what they call a ‘scratch night’, a fast and loose, exploratory experience, but beyond that I had no idea what was about to transpire. The lights dimmed. A hush fell over the chatter. The Picnic had begun.
- “Lift” by Zac Tiplady
The night opened with a comedic play about two men trapped in a lift that malfunctions. The centre of this play was the developing dynamic between the two characters, one of whom is an overly morbid, slightly bizarre man, the other of whom is late for a meeting and panicking. For a play in which nothing happens (they are stuck in a lift), it was engaging and I found myself ensnared in the story unfolding in front of me, and the dialogue and pace moved on without ever dragging its feet too much. Watching the ‘straight man’ react to the bizarre actions of his lift partner was endlessly entertaining, and the comedic timing was generally very effective. It was a very promising beginning to the night.
- “Torts and Tina” by Victoria Bull and Athena Tzallas
This performance was split into three segments, sandwiched between ‘Hiraeth’, ‘Untuned Harmonies’ and ‘Eve’. Whilst this gave the fairly unstructured piece some structure and saved it from becoming overly formless, it also gave the audience emotional whiplash between the serious performances, and the goofy, absurdist, nonsensical interactions between Torts and Tina in the bargain aisle of Tesco. Nonetheless, this was one of the most ridiculous pieces of theatre I have seen in a very long time, with creative costume jokes, effective prop comedy, and a dance sequence set to ABBA. But the gems of the script were Torts and Tina themselves, and their insane, absurd interactions, both constantly trying to one up each other and being embarrassed by the spectacle in turn. I could have watched sixty minutes of Torts and Tina in the Tesco aisle.
- “Hiraeth” by Sophie Wright
Hiraeth was a very touching monologue about growing up, leaving home, and growing apart. The script was very beautiful and poetic, and we got a very full sense of character (despite the fact they made no reference to themself during the whole performance). Monologues can often be tricky beasts, because you usually need to make the thoughts appear natural and logically connected, whilst also making them sound polished and coherent. Wright achieved this to a very high degree, and the character on stage felt as real as we were in the audience. The staging was perhaps a touch stationery, and some subtle movement around the space could have lifted the monologue and given it new life.
- “Untuned Harmonies” by Maddie Lock
Untuned Harmonies was the abstract story of a woman struggling to survive during the Second World War. Very experimental and emotional, it used interactive technical elements in a way the previous pieces hadn’t, to great success. Through innovative technical elements and interesting staging, Lock managed to create a very tangible story, whilst still giving the audience room to interpret what was going on for themselves. There were a lot of themes being drawn on, and recurring images were used effectively. For a ten-minute piece, it was perhaps too ambitious – it would have worked fabulously as a twenty or even thirty minute play, where it would have been given the time to breathe and fully embrace the themes and characters it touched on. I would actively encourage Lock to try and take her material and turn it into a longer performance.
- “Eve” by Carrie Gaunt
Gaunt’s piece was a confrontational, aggressive interrogation into the treatment of women, but also into the mechanics of a failing relationship. The foul-mouthed Eve was a memorable and energetic character, and her anger made me feel uncomfortable for all the right reasons. The fact that it was Adam and Eve conversing was quite understated and clever, as for much of it, they appear to be a normal couple. The actress playing Eve was filled with an incredible manic energy, and brought Gaunt’s words to life in the most vivid of fashions. It was one of the most technically bare performances, but also one of the most immediate.
- “Now It’s Your Turn” by Joe Norris and Alex Rome Griffin
Norris and Griffin followed a more traditional format for a short play in a way that the others didn’t, but was still very special and memorable. The staging was very effective, and performers were of a very high quality. The dynamic between the two strange characters was well developed and happened at a natural pace, which is quite an achievement for a short play, as was the ambiguity within the performance. The characters developed at a natural pace, and though the audience was always kept on the back foot, we never felt like we couldn’t understand the characters. The black comedy was also very well handled, never indulging itself too much in the darkness of the piece, but never quite forgetting it was there. Overall, a very successful, slick, and well done piece.
KEITH. is Buttered Toast’s sketch comedy troupe, who write their own skits and have performed in all but one of Buttered Toast’s termly showcases, since their fruition last year. It was a good way to end the line up, with a little bit of lighthearted nonsense. Sometimes the comedic timing was slightly off, and moments were left to linger for slightly too long, but KEITH. excelled at the creation of comedic but consistent character and relationships, such as Draco Malfoy and his husband Harry Potter, the two Anglo-Saxon soldiers, the sailor who hadn’t guessed anything correctly in thirty years, and the songwriter endlessly writing about how love will make you feel like a full cup. When KEITH. embraced the elements of absurdity specifically, it fully grew into itself, and was very entertaining.
(As a side note, kudos to the man who bit into a raw red onion.)
The night ended with some music from Mo Hafeez, and a room-wide singalong. I left the room in a daze, mind spinning with the various stories and lives that had just been brought before me, and left me with much to think about for hours after I returned home.