5 December 2017.
On the other side of a brick wall, eight characters are waiting. All we know about them are a few lines on a piece of A4. Clues, glimpses, pointers. Angry and volatile. Jolly hockey sticks. Glory boy. Down on her luck. Searching for a little security. No pitch from the actors, just these few typed words. You make your choices before you enter the theatre, before you’ve clocked who’s who. Pick four from eight. And then the four with the most votes get to perform.
Votes cast, numbers counted, in we go.
The eight sit on a bank of seats facing us as we enter the theatre. Neither the actors nor the audience know who has been selected. A simple spotlight appearing above one of them signals that they have been chosen. As soon as their face is illuminated, they are on, their 15 minutes starts now…
Our choice of four characters are finding ways to cope, to evolve, to go on. They’re all trying to make sense of who they are. Each has a distinctive voice and story – a gauche teenager, a cynical high-flyer, a battle-scarred ex-soldier and a weary single parent. All are more complex than those headlines suggest – they variously surprise, appal, intrigue and move us. Some have survived big bangs others have taken hard knocks. Ella Hickson’s script heads off in strange directions, poses questions and challenges perceptions. Everyone is brutally honest, they may be putting on a front to the world or deceiving those they love but they keep nothing from us.
Design-wise it’s kept simple, the actors sit in rows of chairs exactly like ours – these are our contemporaries, faces in the crowd. The lighting is often bright and unsparing. Characters are brought to life with minimal props – a coffee cup, a story book, a plastic bag. There’s occasionally a little help from other cast members to set the scene, the odd touch of music, but otherwise they’re on their own.
As each actor gets chosen it’s difficult not to be affected by those left waiting. There’s a definite sense of ‘to the victor the spoils’ as those who have performed take a bow and lap up the applause. The final four get up from their chairs and walk off unpicked, unheard and unacknowledged. It feels cold and brutal. These are the rituals of talent show television and the production plays that up with mild suspense and the use of the spotlight to identify the ‘winners’. The 15 minute segments are also perhaps designed to reference Warhol’s comments on fame. Yet there is something more elusive at work – a sense of loss, of letting go.
Originally performed in 2008, Hickson’s ‘democratic’ play now comes laced with a more bitter-sweet taste in an era defined by the fallout from recent votes (Brexit, Trump, the Conservative-DUP agreement). Actions have consequences, you don’t always get what you want. The promise that we, the audience, “have control” of the evening is of course illusory. You don’t get to see all your individual choices – subsumed as they are within the collective will. Decisions are made with little real information, there is no way to predict which way things will go and we find ourselves transported to unexpected places.
Director Chris Lawson (on generous loan from Oldham Coliseum) tweaks the original format by making use of Hickson’s rarely performed ninth monologue. This allows him to squeeze in more story-telling and give one actor each evening a guaranteed appearance. On the night I saw it, this worked well as Lawson’s chosen performance was a perfect fit to tie things up at the end. A piece about a final goodbye, a sad anger, a plea to talk more and recognise common ground. Whether others will work as neatly remains to be seen.
Ultimately a concept such as this is built on the strength of the acting and Lawson’s streamlined production ensures nothing gets in the way of the performances. Each monologue has a unique feel and distinctive approach. City trader Miles (Darren Jeffries) is all business as he coolly recounts his callous behaviour. Teenager Jude (Simon Hallman) breathlessly remembers an unlikely romantic infatuation (and even gives the stage an almighty kick in sexual frustration). As art dealer André, Jake Ferretti gradually sheds layers of fashionable disdain to reveal a deeper truth while Abraham Tiyamiyu brings a moving understatement to Danny, an ex-soldier whose physical strength conceals a gentle vulnerability. The performances are uniformly excellent, with special mention to Charlie Young who, as struggling young mother Bobby, lets rip with an emotional explosion of tearful rage.
Whichever stories you get to see, it’s human nature to wonder what you missed out on. You’ll just have to live with it! Don’t let the lucky dip concept put you off. With Chris Lawson’s assured production, however the numbers stack up, you’re guaranteed a satisfying pick and mix of powerful performances.