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Monolog review at Chickenshed, London – ‘funny, poetic and heartbreaking’

Belinda McGuirk in Her Big Chanc, part of Monolog at Chickenshed, London Belinda McGuirk in Her Big Chance, part of Monolog at Chickenshed, London
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Despite the curiously variant US spelling, the title sets us straight, Ronseal-style. However, an ‘s’ should really be added, as this production is comprised of four separate one-person performances.

It kicks off with Alan Bennett’s Her Big Chance, written for TV in 1987 as part of his Talking Heads series. As Lesley, a wannabe actress who naively hopes a one-line sexploitation role will forge a path to thespian artistry, Belinda McGuirk gives a finely controlled, poised performance offering glimpses of sadness. The topic may be timely but Bennett’s treatment is not. While there’s no doubt where his sympathies lie, being invited to laugh at a vulnerable woman being repeatedly exploited makes for rather unsettling viewing.

Following like a warm hug is Diane Samuels’ autobiographical This Is Me. Its starting point is a picture of herself as a child that the writer came across, on the reverse of which was scrawled the title. In a novel role-share, McGuirk and 15-year-old Lucy-Mae Beacock alternate as Samuels. It was former Matilda actor Beacock’s turn at the performance I saw, and she proves a captivating, precocious presence.

With the order of recounted memories suggested in part by the audience, the structure of the piece movingly supports its thesis that who we are is the sum of the myriad moments and people that have shaped our lives.

Chickenshed has commissioned six new works, which rotate so that two make up the second half of Monolog. I saw Natasha Zacher’s Dinner With My Dead Dad, a tale of a young woman coping with bereavement and anxiety in which Jessica Barron gives an affecting, sympathetic performance, and Last Piece of the Sun. Alesha Bhakoo is astonishing in the latter, a collaborative piece about the aftermath of a one-night stand co-written by Dave Carey, Milly Rolle and Bhakoo herself. At times funny, poetic and heartbreaking, this was the highlight of a strong quartet.

The last time I went to Chickenshed, I saw a performance featuring a cast of hundreds. It says much for the breadth of work being staged at this essential venue that it can also grip the attention of its largely young audience with just a single performer on a sparse stage.

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Varied selection of four solo plays united by superb performances