Broken Biscuits. Paines Plough and Live Theatre at the Stephen Joseph Theatre Scarborough.

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Production image from Paines Plough.

It’s a shame that there are not more plays like Tom Wells’ Broken Biscuits. It is a warm,touching piece of theatre that tugs at your heartstrings without ever tipping over into sentimentality. Thanks to his gift for writing strong, vernacular dialogue it all feels completely real and absolutely believable and there is also a strong structure which comes from the counting down of the weeks as the three would be band members rehearse for a Battle of the Bands contest and their relationships ebb and flow. They are sixteen and about to leave school after having an undramatically unhappy time. They have never been the cool kids- this is their chance to arrive in college with style and gain new respect from others, but also, above all, from themselves. They are a gay lad, Ben, who is trying to work out what this means for him and whether he will ever fit in anywhere, Megan, a loud, overweight steamroller of a girl who doesn’t understand how to work with others and lead but desperately wants to, and Holly, a geek, who is pretty and clever but held back by being a gentle soul with no confidence. They are an unlikely threesome who have only come together in Megan’s shed simply because there is nowhere else where they can find friendship and acceptance. They are all very touching characters, especially for someone looking back at teenage years from quite a distance.

I am guessing that the three actors must be a little older than sixteen but the first thing that impressed me was how believable they all were as teenagers; vulnerable, raw, well meaning, and so likable that you really felt for them and wanted them to succeed. I particularly loved Grace Hogg-Robinson as Holly. There were many times where you could see what she was thinking and her performance of her song about the lad in the supermarket was a real highlight. It had been cleverly written by Matthew Robbins, good enough to work as a song but not so good that it wasn’t credible for Holly to have written it. Faye Christall also had some nice moments as Megan, so anxious to be a leader, prove her worth and have friends but with no real idea how to achieve this and Andrew Reed as Ben was a delightful mixture of vulnerability, eagerness and misery waiting for his chance to grow. This is a coming of age story for all three of them and we have all been there in our different ways. It is rare for the average theatregoer to have teenage characters put in front of them and that in itself was refreshing, but when they are as well written as these three it is a absolute joy.

The set, Megan’s shed, is an old style slice of realism, meticulously designed by Lily Arnold, and there are a lot of small clever details and changes through the course of the play that mark the passage of time. The play moves forward quickly and has plenty of pace thanks to the direction of James Grieves and the fast, sassy dialogue which the three actors are able to relish. All in all it was a real treat and we were lucky to see it on its short tour. The group of teenage girls in the audience who were there in their school uniforms, chaperoned by their teacher, loved it and came out energised and talking to each other about it. It might have been an afternoon of nostalgic reminiscence for me but for them it had been a slice of the life that they were living right now and that’s probably the best compliment Tom Wells’ writing could get.

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Jumpers For Goalposts. Paines Plough, Hull Truck and Watford Palace Theatre at the Stephen Joseph theatre, Scarborough.

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Andy Rush as Geoff, Vivienne Gibbs as Viv, and Jamie Samuel as Danny.
Production photograph by Elise Marks.

Tom Wells has written a cracking play. It is full of charm, heart and the kind of sentimentality which only someone with a lot of talent and an ability to write totally believable dialogue and characters that live and have you rooting for them can get away with. It’s also beautifully structured and there is a real attention to detail, threads are woven together and returned to, something which pays off beautifully at the end. This kind of writing is gold dust for actors and all five members of the cast make the most of the opportunities that it gives them. They are a hapless five a side football team playing in a small local tournament brought together by Viv, a pub landlady, and we see them in the changing room after each weekly match as the tournament progresses and their relationships develop. Each of them is there for a reason. Viv is wanting to feel a sense of achievement that goes beyond a grinding daily routing of serving pints and clearing glasses, Joe is still mourning his wife, Luke, a young librarian, is trying to overcome his crippling shyness and find the courage to start out and make a relationship, Danny is also trying to find the courage to face his secret and find find a way forward, and Geoff, well Geoff is the kind of lively, happy guy who is full of life and into everything with dreams and hurts of his own. They are a fascinating and loveable bunch. I don’t want to give away what happens but I promise you that you will laugh a great deal and care a lot.

The acting is first rate from beginning to end. Given writing of this quality a group of talented actors really can’t lose. Vivienne Gibbs is sharp, funny and touching as Viv, as during the course of the play she realises that there is more than one way of winning. Both she and Matt Sutton as Joe have an ability to make us see the pain behind their eyes and let us imagine a whole scenario for their characters. I liked Andy Rush a lot as Geoff. He was the kind of out and proud gay guy (I don’t mean camp necessarily) who can sometimes be overplayed but this was an honest and vibrant performance which never went over the top. The heart of the play and the real motor of the plot, is the will they won’t they get together situation between the remaining two gay characters, Philip Duguid-McQuillan’s Luke and Jamie Samuel’s Danny. They are both utterly heartbreaking in their vulnerability and loneliness and lovely portraits of good decent people who deserve a break.

The set has the same kind of attention to detail that shines through the rest of the production. It has the grubby seediness that haunts all sports changing rooms, a seediness that you can almost smell from looking at it, but shot through with a kind of wistful beauty as light shines in through a corrugated roof scattered with leaves.

I think that the greatest pleasure for me was feeling the quite sparse matinee audience change its mind about this play as it went on. An elderly Scarborough matinee audience are quite cautious and perhaps unused to a lot of swearing and gay kisses. You could feel them wondering what to make of it for the first quarter of an hour or so but once they settled into it and fell for the characters they really got behind it and were so anxious for the ending that they wanted that one or two of them were whispering out loud. It was delightful. An ability to write honest, straightforward plays that can have that kind of effect on people is a real gift. I have not managed to see a play by Tom Wells before but I won’t be missing the next one and I bet the actors in Jumpers For Goalposts won’t either if they get a chance to be in the cast.

Love, Love, Love. Paines Plough and Drum Theatre Plymouth at the Stephen Joseph Theatre Scarborough. 2-4-11

Mike Bartlett’s play Love, Love, Love is a traditional three act play, with living rooms and set changes. It is a welcome surprise to find that a modern award winning playwright is still interested in writing a play like it. The time span is wide, starting with the beginning of a relationship in 1967 when Kenneth carelessly steals his straight laced friend’s girlfriend Sandra, going on to the day that the resulting relationship implodes in 1990, and finally examining the long term damage caused by the selfishness of the couple, particularly to their children in the present day. It is a merciless examination of the selfishness of the baby boomer generation and its consequences and nobody escapes blame. Yes, the parents have been lucky to be born when they were, and yes the two we are shown have certainly been selfish and self indulgent, but at some point each person has to take responsibility for their own life and their children can’t escape that fact. I really enjoyed seeing a play that sets out an argument without hectoring the audience or losing sight of the fact that its characters also need to be real and believable. There is some blistering dialogue, particularly in the very fine second act, which is fast and naturalistic and makes considerable demands on the actors. It shows us very clearly the kind of cruelty that people who know each other only too well can indulge in when a relationship goes sour, and how this can destroy the lives of children who are innocent bystanders.

Dialogue as good as this is a gift for actors, so long as they are up to it, and this is a very good cast indeed who rise to the occasion with great panache. The central couple, Kenneth and Sandra, are a fascinating pair of middle class monsters. They are a good match for each other, both wilful, self indulgent and selfish, seeming to be completely unaware of the damage that they are causing to those around them, and blind to the needs of their children. They will survive, their kind always do, but it will be at someone else’s expense. Ben Addis and Lisa Jackson have great rapport as Kenneth and Sandra and they play off each other with great speed and accuracy. They could take on the roles of George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf with no trouble at all. Their daughter Rose is a trier, a good girl who wants to please, driven to extremes by the fact that her parents don’t seem to notice or care much however hard she works, or whatever she does. She is screaming out for someone to take an interest in her but nobody even bothers to remember what she is doing let alone care about it. Rosie Wyatt gives a fine performance, particularly as the sixteen year old Rose in the second act. Her younger brother Jamie is brighter and sharper than his sister. The lack of guidance and understanding from his parents leads him to opt out. He is content, in collusion with his father, to slob around and achieve little. It is a waste of a life, and you wouldn’t want to see the results of his behaviour when he reaches middle age. James Barrett does a good job and makes the most of a part where he is not given quite so much to work with as the other characters. A lot has to go unsaid.

It’s not often that a back stage team gets a mention but having watched them do two complete set changes, including flats, in front of an audience I feel the need to give them a pat on the back. They were slick and efficient and didn’t waste a moment, and that mattered.

This play deserved a bigger audience for the matinee here in Scarborough. When writing and acting this good come together it reminds me why I keep coming to the theatre. I am very pleased that Paines Plough and the Drum Theatre Plymouth are alive and well and able to send theatre of this quality all the way up north.