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Seasonal
The Old Red Lion Theatre
18th December 2012

★★★★☆

It's nearly Christmas and we think we may well make it to the end of the month without seeing any traditional panto. No bad thing. Following the current trend for fringe productions to nod at Noel but not go overboard with the ho ho hos, BackHere! Theatre are presenting Seasonal, an evening of seven short plays with a festive twist.

Michael Gilbert's Happy. Now. kicks off the night, with Joshua O'Connor playing Greg, an anxious looking man, recalling a recent night out in December. With plenty of repetition and excellent pacing, O'Connor's comic timing lifts the monologue, before Gilbert throws in a dark, unexpected twist. One of BackHere!'s co-producers, Craig Henry, directs this piece, helping to set the scene with some loud choral music and moody lighting.

The next play, Bombshells, written and directed by Ian McGowan, is more predictable in nature. The bait and switch technique of Ryan (David Tudor) and his special friend Tom (Vincent Enderby) coming home from university to see Ryan's parents, Moira (Julia Faulkner) and Dave (Andrew Loudon), and break some big news is not particularly original, but the execution is good, building to one big punchline. This is a light-hearted, pure comedy sketch, with Faulker responsible for most of the laughs.

Madeline Rice's piece Got It In One, in which she stars as Sarah, is unfortunately one of the weaker vignettes of the night. Directed by Sophie Ivatts and also starring Joshua Jenkins as Dan, this story of a one night stand doesn't quite manage to find its footing somewhere between completely realistic and totally far-fetched. It's perhaps the constraints of the medium which prevent Rice from hitting the mark - with more time to unravel a plot, we imagine we would warm to her characters more.

Having seen Chloe Ward before in Camden Fringe show Gap Year and site-specific production Open House, it made a change seeing her name billed as director. Ward directs David William Bryan's Merry Christmas Gordon - perhaps the short play with the most depth to it. There is plenty of humour, but also a darkness and melancholy interwoven into the script, which Ward maximises. We meet recent widow Maureen (Rebecca Tremain), her disabled adult son Gordon (Sam Goodchild) and her new boyfriend, Wallace (Paul Sheridan). With a low mental age, Gordon has a youthful fondness of jumping in fish ponds and Wallace has a pond of his own. So on the face of it it's not a bad starting point for a new blended family, but all isn't as it seems - leading to a wonderfully bleak ending which Ward emphasises with the fade-to-black.

BackHere!'s other co-producer, Helena Doughty, stars in Bobby Hirston's Crimble, along with Hirston himself. They very believably portray an ordinary young couple over the holiday period, complete with channel hopping struggles, naff jumpers, cheesy Number Ones and an overwhelming feeling of boredom. Both Doughty and Hirston make their characters very relatable, with Hirston's facial expressions a highlight. This is boosted by some nice touches from Hannah Bannister, such as the physicality of the sofa gymnastics.

Matthew Radway's Best Worst Christmas is another strong offering and certainly the most openly on-theme play of the night. As writer and director, he manages to bring his vision to life with gusto. Over two scenes, we meet festive fanatics Geoff (Christopher Rithin) and Elaine (Harriet Layhe), being judged by Guinness representative Roy (Damien Hughes) on whether they've celebrated the most Christmases ever. Hughes provides Rithin and Layhe with something to bounce off, but it's the creepy comedy couple who truly shine here, with some demented dad dancing from the pair. The fade-out between the two scenes leads to some confusion, given the same lighting technique is used to herald the end of each of the short plays, but it's difficult to suggest what Radway could have done instead in a small venue without a curtain. The final scene is arguably unnecessary, but extending the time we get with Geoff and Elaine is very welcome.

Ending the night, Henry reverses roles with O'Connor and this time takes to the stage with O'Connor directing. Jade Parker and Laura Morgan play sisters Lara and Eve, one a real party girl and the other a bit more homely. When Mark turns up on the 25th in their home, the drunken happenings of the night before come to a head. Henry is always great value, and the twist here was the best of the night, providing a strong ending to an incredibly enjoyable evening.

Seasonal may be shorter than BackHere!'s last production Unseasoned, at less than an hour and a half straight through, but it's no worse for it and it does have a more consistent thread. The venue is also far more suited to what they are trying to do, The Old Red Lion is a dedicated theatre pub and a great little space, whereas The Shooting Star is just a pub with a function room.

The running theme (bolstered by the music blasted out between pieces) could easily be written out of many of the plays, but nonetheless it helps the event feel more carefully curated and we're glad for it. Without it, they might all feel too kitchen-sinky, as high-concept most of them aren't. The short plays which Doughty and Henry get most involved with are the more successful and maybe they should extend their influence in future events. But bringing together new writing under one roof is a noble aim and we remain keen to see what BackHere! come up with next.

Seasonal ran from 18th to 21st December 2012.

Nearest tube station: Angel (Northern)



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