Phantasmagoria – 4 stars

‘Phantasmagoria’, we are told on the front of the program, is a noun meaning ‘a fantastic sequence of haphazardly associative imagery…’ and Gravel Theatre Company have certainly succeeded in producing that with their latest collection of three 20-minute plays.

The first one is ’80 Miles East Of Nowhere’, written by Ciaran Dowd and directed by Owen Roberts – the two people responsible for setting up Gravel Theatre last year. Set in a seemingly post-apocalyptic wilderness in an undetermined time, we witness three soldiers as they cope with the mundaneness of being holed up in the woods for over five years.

It is quickly established that the three men have fallen into the role of an average, bickering family, with Dowd as the grumpy, crabby father Crabcalf, James Sheppard’s Hickey adopting the mothering role, and Simon Grujich as the naïve and simple child, Plank. It works nicely, and the three actors display a comfortable rapport with each other as they play out these roles. The uncertainty of what is happening and what has happened is quite Pinteresque, and the building of tension is handled well by director and actors. And Dowd, in his Dylan Moran-like rants, is particularly entertaining to watch.

Next is ‘Blackpool’, a dark comedy by Matt Roberts. This piece is a short and simple play that “follows the isolation of a family stranded in a town where roller coasters and donkeys just aren’t what they used to be.” The piece is very nicely directed by Amelia Sears. The pacing is just right, and the moments of broad comedy and more intimate tenderness are both pitched perfectly. The performances are great too; Anthony Wilson as Paul, fiance to Nicola played by a confident and assured Sarah Ovens, and particularly Helena Lymbery as crotchety, old fashioned and domineering mother Eloise. She certainly gets the advantage of having the most fun character to play, with all her swearing and un-PC views and comic business with the cigarettes and inhaler, and Lymbery takes it on and runs with it.

The one disappointment with Blackpool is the ending. In fact, this is true of all three pieces; each ending seems to happen far too suddenly and without any satisfying resolve – as if the 20-minute slot is suddenly up and they have to end the play halfway through. But with Blackpool in particular, with such strong and enjoyable writing, I felt slightly cheated and let down by the ‘freeze-frame’ fade to black.

The final piece is ‘Soap’, in which an Alan B’Stard-like CEO Paul – a wonderfully confident and unashamed performance by Sam Wilkin – spends 20 minutes ridiculing and berating his nerdy pitch-writer Alan, played by Sam Fletcher.

The two are skilled comic performers and their exchanges are highly enjoyable to listen to and watch. They are both completely believable in their roles; Wilkins as he wonderfully inhabits the body of this brash CEO, stalking and staggering around the stage, and Fletcher as the small of stature put-upon underling. During the course of their conversation the power status switches, perhaps a little forcedly and pointed up by the unnecessary entrance of the client character right at the end (played well, nevertheless, by Benjamin Jason Reeves).

Minor criticisms aside, all three pieces are very good; interesting, enjoyable, and well performed. Gravel Theatre certainly have assembled a ‘fantastic sequence’ here, and it’s well worth catching it if you can.

(originally posted 8 December 2010)

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