Octagon Reveal - TRIAL-246-

Bolton Octagon at Bolton Town Hall.

26 April 2018.

Bolton Octagon’s annual REVEAL Festival promises “original and exciting theatre” although it also offers the additional bonus of seeing performances in non-theatre venues across Bolton. So far I’ve perched on a bar stool to watch a performance in a pub and sat on a row of grand carved wooden benches within the grand surroundings of Bolton’s town hall. I wasn’t planning to write reviews about either of the shows I saw but both When We Were Brothers and Trial impressed with good quality writing and strong performances. So here are some brief thoughts.

Monkeywood Theatre’s Trial is a collection of four new plays primarily focused on women’s experiences of sexual exploitation and violence.

Bolton Council Chamber was formerly a 19th century court room, and verbatim scenes from a real court case frame Trial‘s individual pieces of writing. The cold, solid, formal surroundings are in stark contrast to the hesitant voices and messy realities that we are presented with. Those court transcripts seek to make a similar point about the disconnect between the rigid unsympathetic legal formalities and the women desperate to be heard. However the stop/start nature of their presentation means that their narrative thread never really succeeds in matching the sting of the four individual plays, each of which is distinctive in voice and form.

Rosina Carbone’s Astral Twin is a lyrical lament to a school friendship cut short and spoiled by the ‘slut-shaming’ her friend suffers at the hands of former boyfriends. It’s a piece that looks back through older, wiser eyes and is infused with sadness and regret. Waiting for her friend in a coffee shop, she believes she is being listened to by the barista, but fails to notice that they are busy cleaning and enjoying music through their earphones. Her story inevitably falls on ‘deaf ears’, as so many more of Trial’s testimonies will.

The party is abruptly over for the fun-loving young woman in Sara McDonald Hughes’ Small Town. Details are murky. Something in her drink. A taxi ride. Lost hours. It has the feel of a bad dream as her character slips back and forward between details of the drunken night out that ends in rape by a well-known footballer, a subsequent court case, a media mauling and the fallout. Bad memories mix with good – thoughts of her family and close friend seem her only solace. Alcohol which once oiled the wheels of her social life seems to serve now only to dull the pain. McDonald Hughes’ words and performance convey a woman made numb by what she has endured, fractured and in free fall.

Nisa Cole’s Muck was for me, the show’s standout sequence. Cole shows a sweet, aspirational young woman, almost child like in her innocent optimism, brought low by insidious abuse. Life is a cheerful game at first, she’s on a roll and then the rules change. A new relationship brings disorder to her life and one by one her dreams disappear from view. There’s a raw energy to the play, laced initially with references to cruelty within nature and then spiked with anger and a confused mental decline. Cole takes you with her every tortuous step of the way, and as her performance suddenly shifts into something more abstract and physical, it is transfixing. Muck is a highly accomplished piece of writing delivered with fearless commitment.

A ‘meat wagon’ brings four women from prison to their day in court in Eve Steele’s gritty, raging Unreliable. With justice finally in her sights, Steele’s character has come to testify against her uncle in a case of historic child abuse. While she worries that her criminal record may damage her credibility, the script smartly chronicles how at every turn it’s actually the system itself and its agents that prove unreliable in bringing offenders to justice. It’s a fitting play with which to end as, although Steele’s troubled tough cookie may ultimately be denied her chance to speak out, she isn’t going to forget or give in. Her anger rages on and her final words are a solemn promise to dole out her own version of justice when released.

Themes consistently reoccur within each of the four plays. Deceptive and manipulative men. Women not being listened to and not believed. Being judged harshly by other women, as well as men. The failure of those in positions of power to offer justice. The inability of those charged with safeguarding to offer effective protection. Reputations destroyed. Damage and vulnerability.  Missed chances. Anger and frustration. Flaws in the system. Needle marks on an arm. Feet on a ledge. Nails in a coffin.

Director Martin Gibbons uses the space well, actors address us from the ‘bench’, share their stories from the floor of the chamber or weave in and out of the blocks of seating. The audience is asked to ‘all rise’ at the beginning and then sit silently while the final ‘verdict’ is read out from within their ranks. Karen Lauke’s wonderfully atmospheric sound design seems to echo ominously within the wood-paneled chamber. Sometimes the electronic pulse swells, haunting and nightmarish. Other times it is more insistent, a warning sound – like the tap of a gavel, a bell tolling, a death rattle.

Silenced in court, disbelieved by the authorities and discredited within society. Trial‘s dramatic testimonies, offer a powerful timely insight into how much needs to change for women to finally get justice.

Bolton Octagon.

Monkeywood Theatre.

You can read my thoughts on Freedom Studios’ When We Were Brothers here.

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