Stepping into the frame to entertain the Theatre Arena audience queuing outside in the rain, the men from Spanner Theatre offer a slapstick walk through their ‘audience manual’, which they hand out to unsuspecting punters.
Syrus Lowe in Fragile/Penny Layden and Christian Bradley in Incoming at the Theatre Arena, Henham Park Photo: Hannah Price/Peter Everard Smith (Bill Knight, previous pagel)
Dressed in workmen’s boiler suits, a duo deliver an amusing rundown of audience do’s and don’ts. Their treatment of an actor who is held hostage and manipulated with sweets, and the promise that he can deliver a soliloquy are hilarious. In such horrendous weather, it is a welcome diversion to see the poor actor thrashing about trying to escape, and his captivity is made all the more comic by the endless supply of mud his guards force him to roll around in.
Once inside, Theatre Uncut’s message is clear from its four very different plays - the cuts don’t work. First up is A Bigger Banner in which a student protester holed up in her university building encounters a young woman from 1950 (Emily Bowker) who is able to see and hear her.
The dialogue is simplistic (“You’re a woman from a normal background - are you at university?” asks the idealistic fifties girl) and, in order to emphasise her normality, the student (Kate O’Flynn ) is that theatrical default - the straight-talking northerner. However, the concept is still intriguing and the tale is played out with warmth and vitality.
A Scottish woman (Judith Faultless) talking about her severely disabled child is up next, and is a depressing but well-executed monologue. Delivered with poignancy, it is an undisguised dig at coalition cuts delivered by a mother who must dress as a clown in order to see her daughter, since conventional parental visits have become too distressing for the girl. The statements she makes about what she’d say to Cameron and Clegg if given the chance, are where the piece makes its greatest impression.
The third show in the quartet, Things That Make No Sense, is the weakest, consisting of a man who is being framed by the police. It tries but fails to create a claustrophobic atmosphere - however, the playful camaraderie between the two police officers contrasts nicely with the suspect’s growing resignation and despair.
Fragile is Theatre Uncut’s final attack on ‘Austerity Britain’ and, boy, does it make a statement. “We’re all in this together” is a strong theme, which is frequently mocked by the jaded Jack, brilliantly brought to life by Syrus Lowe.
Jack breaks into the home of mental health worker Caroline so that he can discuss the closure of his centre. Using the audience of festival-goers to read out Caroline’s lines is a brave move that pays off, and the show gets a standing ovation, both for its power and the audience’s pleasure in their own participation.
Poet Andrew Motion’s play Incoming tells the harrowing story of a dead soldier’s dialogue with his widow and the terrible consequences war has for those fighting, those left to grieve and those unwittingly caught up in the conflict.
Conjuring up powerful images of death, suffering and love, Motion’s first play clearly demonstrates his aptitude as a playwright.
As Danny (Christian Bradley) relives his experiences of fighting in the Afghan war with his wife Steph (Penny Layden), the audience cannot escape the devastating impact his words have on her as the projected image of her face reveals a multitude of mixed emotions.
While less violent, Steph’s story is also shocking, as she reveals the way she was told of Danny’s death. She seeks solace in the belief that her husband died a hero and the war had to happen for a reason, but Danny thinks conflict is pointless, that he went out there to stop people fighting and now he’s part of the reason it goes on.
Motion also examines Britain’s place in the world. At one stage, Danny points out that “glorious sadness is what England does best”, while also asking why we can’t be proud of something other than fighting.
While there’s some hope to be gained from man’s capacity to love, Incoming leaves you with a feeling of overwhelming sadness.