"We hold a mirror up to the audience and show them themselves” isn’t the least pretentious-sounding summary that Never Properly Born theatre company could have chosen for their flyer, but it gives you an idea of their goal.

Three short plays are presented against the nicely-lit black-box backdrop of the Tristan Bates studio theatre. The first is Strangers. Two young people meet for the first time in a seeming attempt to push a few personal boundaries. Wondering aimlessly around a plant pot with their hands in their pockets are Olivia Wood (Lizzie MacGregor) and Jeremy Smith (played by Oliver Cudbill, though I hope I have the character and actor names the right way round as the characters are inexplicably given surnames in the programme despite little reference to names in the play). The flirtatious dialogue is awash with snappy jousting but with Cudbill underplaying, MacGregor overplaying and a complete lack of direction, I felt like I was watching an episode of Skins, with something far more at home on a screen than a stage.

The second instalment shows us two lovers, Luke Morgan (Jamal Lowe) and Emily Hart (Samantha Sherratt). They are a young couple, living together. He works in a bar, she is teacher and they both struggle between paying rent and leading a fulfilling life together. I could certainly appreciate the premise. Her speech about looking out of the window and seeing a garden with a trellis and birds that aren’t just one-legged pigeons was both witty and moving. Luke’s city-boy response of “what’s a trellis?” nicely captures his character. However, I found myself desperately wanting to see more physical contact between them in both their affection and frustration. Whilst both actors are touchingly melancholic, Lowe needs to relax instead of firing bursts of words out and flapping his arms like a penguin. Again, the stage direction wasn’t strong, and there seemed to be a lot of going-through-the-motions. Whilst some of the text has merit, there are sections that don’t scan. Emily recounts a story of a woman at the Jubilee celebrations, but gives so much prologue to describe the setting that it lacked naturalism and believability. There was too much unnecessary exposition.

Throughout the production, a lot of the monologues were played at the same level (or with the same action, if you want to get technical), lacking variation in the delivery. This means that you feel the point has been made after the first few phrases and the rest of the speech adds little. As it was, I felt that about half of this production could have faced the editorial knife.  

The final piece of this "tryptich" of plays is The Lost Friends. Three ex-students meet at a mutual friend’s wedding and find themselves comparing their successes since they last met. Andrew Russell (Matthew Simpson) was the drop-out who now struggles for money but tries to keep his head up. Claire Bright (Bexie Archer) was the diligent student who is now very successful but lacks a social life and secretly feels lonely. Katie Appleby (Lucy O’Connor) provides a connection between the two as their apparent friendship falls apart. This is a nice idea and writer/director Ash Rowbin is reasonably adept at switching a scene between amicable and aggressive as tempers flare and ebb. Simpson is wonderfully emotive and stands out as a confident performer.  I wanted more from all three characters, however, and felt there was greater scope to manipulate the audience’s opinions. At first, "Andy" is the hard-working man down on his luck who seems ridiculed by the snobbish Claire, with some killer one-liners. Then Claire explains how she earned her success whereas Andy is paying the price for partying too hard. I wanted to then warm to Claire as she reveals how lonely she is, but Archer played her as if she were embarrassed to be there and would have burst into laughter at any moment. A few line drops not only showed a greater need for rehearsal, but also that the cast need to work together. It was clear that the actors were saying their lines in turn and had little interest in really listening to each other. "Are you still making money?" asks Katie of the impoverished Andy, who delves into his reply about making music before she has chance to correct herself.

This is a work by students, and the result is more of an extended showcase performance than a finished play and needs a few years to mature. In that light, there is enough promise here and I would be interested to see where they could take it after a little life experience.

 

SHELTER, at Tristan Bates TheatreTom Oakley reviews Shelter at the Camden Fringe.2