Site specific – Bolton Grand Council Chamber.

Part of Reveal 18

Written by Rosina Carbone, Nisa Cole, Sarah McDonald Hughes and Eve Steele

Directed by Martyn Gibbons

Monkeywood Theatre in association with the Octagon Theatre, Bolton

I am a liar. We run, down the steps, past the celebration, past the crowds. He is not guilty and I am a liar.

Bolton Grand Council chamber was once an actual courtroom. Sitting in this space feels alien, slightly scary like maybe I’ve done something wrong. An authoritative voice says “All Rise” and so Trial starts with four women in a courtroom performing a verbatim piece that is the framework for this new piece by Monkeywood Theatre. Chillingly the words we hear are transcripts from an actual court case about the historical grooming and sexual abuse of young girls. Interspersed through the transcript are 4 original pieces written and performed by the 4 actresses on stage. They share a common theme, highlighting women on trial in the courtroom and in society – women’s experience of being disbelieved, discounted, shamed and vilified.

This is a strong and powerful piece which conveys its #MeToo message eloquently and is at times incredibly poignant, hauntingly sad and is at all times a strong statement that change must come in our legal system and our Society. The verbatim pieces are perhaps the weak link in this piece but that is most likely due to how they struggle to flow, undoubtedly hindered by the information rescinded to protect the individuals involved. However it remains a searing indictment of our legal system and its treatment of women on the witness stand in sexual assault cases. A study by the CPS (Criminal Prosecution Service) found in a 17 month period there were with 6000 rape prosecutions and only 35 for false allegations, yet only 6% of complaints resulted in convictions.

Astral Twin by Rosina Carbone is a two hander highlighting the callous and vicious bullying and systematic shaming of young girls in school. It perfectly describes the in group/ out group mentality in the classroom. How we can all shine and blossom in the warmth of acceptance and friendship but shiver and shrivel when that warmth is removed. Carbone infuses this piece with a poetic flow and evokes some beautiful imagery that creates a vivid snapshot of lost friendships and the unfairness of double standards for girls.

Muck by Nisa Cole is a monologue describing a schoolgirl being groomed by a teacher with a catastrophic outcome for her education and her future. It is a powerfully written and performed – electrifying the space with the brutal unfairness of a vulnerable child discounted and written off because of her background. Cole bring an emotive physicality to this role that is mesmerising and haunts long after the performance ends.

Small Town by Sarah McDonald Hughes describes a young woman who likes a drink and going out with her friends to party and meet boys. Her character is fun loving and carefree until an assault results in rape and a lurid court case. This piece snapshots the double standards for men and women and is an acute observation on the lasting harm of being raped twice over by the assailant and by society. All the positives of loving being a girl and loving family and football are stripped away, leaving only alcohol as a constant comforter and ballast.

Unreliable by Eve Steele brings all 4 women on stage as prisoners going into court to plead their cases or in the case of Steele to be a witness against her uncle in a historic abuse case. This is a women already wounded and irrevocably damaged by her early experiences and therefore somehow unreliable as a witness against her abuser. There is simply no happy ending for some of these women and Steele’s performance crackles and fizzes with the injustice of her situation compares to the regard and protection afforded by society to her abuser.

I saw this piece in development at Reveal17 and it has clearly been a labour of love, tenderness and justifiable outrage. The stories told all ring true and authentic. Working as a psychotherapist I have listened to similar haunting stories and the importance of being heard and really listened to is always tantamount to any path to healing. There has clearly been a lot of work done with women’s support groups so this piece is an important validation for the women in those groups. Trial is a powerful piece that has a lot to say for women for women who are often voiceless. I was slightly surprised to find that the director was a man however men are also affected by assaults to sisters, mothers, partners, daughters, granddaughters and friends. Martin Gibbons has ensured that it is the women in this piece who are clearly heard and remembered.

Part of Reveal 18 until April 28th

I Capture the Castle

Octagon Theatre, Bolton

Book : Dodie Smith

Adaptation and Lyrics : Teresa Howard

Music : Steven Ellis

Director  : Brigid Larmour

Five years in development this is the musical adaptation of a much loved coming of age novel. It is surprising that it has taken almost 60 years to produce a musical on stage as Smith herself an accomplished playwright adapted her book as a ‘play with musical notes’ in 1954. A labour of love by Larmour and her collaborators it is an enjoyable affair but sadly not terribly satisfying. 

Set in Suffolk in the mid 1930s it is narrated by its heroine the sweet but fiercely perceptive Cassandra. She aspires to be a writer and through her journal seeks to literally ‘capture’ the crumbling castle and its inhabitants. Her family the Mortmains are an eccentric bunch in the book but here they become faded characters stepping bleary eyed from the dusty pages of the original book.

James Mortmain, Cassies father, hides away in the turrets struggling with chronic writers block. Author of a successful and revered piece of literature he has written nothing for 10 yrs. Topaz his wild and bohemian  second wife is a former artists model who floats around making oatcakes to feed her impoverished family. The actors are severely limited by the script. When a major song for Ben Watson suggests his passion and adoration for his ‘very particular girl” it jars as though it speaks of characters from another stage. There is little sign of the delicious Topaz floating around wearing nothing but her boots or of a frustrated genius who has written the equivalent of Joyce’s Ulysses. This weakens the plotline. We never really get to see what Cassie sought to capture or understand the importance of nurturing a great second book beyond monetary gain.

Lowri Izzard is delightful in her professional debut singing beautifully and capturing the essence of Cassie. She shines and this coupled with weaknesses in the script and in the performances of her sister, their American suitors and her friend Stephen mean that it is hard to care about the other younger characters. The older women blaze a trail across the stage bringing energy and waspish humour. The standout number has to be ‘They’re only men’ delivered with gusto by Julia St John and Shona White. 

 The music is always good and effectively evokes both the countryside and the castle, and the glamour of the city.  The dance routines and use of physical theatre do not always work. They can  seem under rehearsed or poorly conceived especially when they are all in London dancing barefoot and Stephen is just wearing an overcoat like a would be flasher or when we see a randon human gargoyle who looks more like a hoodied thief trying to raid the castle.

The visual portrayal of the castle is a chaotic heap of old spindly furniture which is witty and memorable. It towers over the performers like a crazy croque-en-bouche at a buffet.

There is a lot to enjoy but it somehow fails to deliver what was originally intended. This was intended to take a classic book and give it the flavour of LaLa Land success with a nod to An American in Paris and Oklahoma. Good intentions but perhaps too many ingredients and cooks in the mix. 

At Oxford Playhouse 16-20 May