An offshoot of Framework, the Bike Shed Theatre’s artist development arm, From Devon with Love continues to play an invaluable part in Exeter’s thriving arts ecology, offering a safe space for county-based companies and performers to put new work on its feet and in front of an audience. Some of the pieces have previously been scratched at the Bike Shed, or been supported through the use of rehearsal space, and work shown here for the first time often goes on to bigger, more developed lives elsewhere. This year, for the first time, Plymouth’s Barbican Theatre also hosted work under the banner, with the best work from each city’s programme playing at the other venue and in a closing night showcase at the Bike Shed.
As always, the programme was diverse, and the quality variable, but there was some impressively accomplished work on show, not least of which was Documental Theatre’s Score, a thoughtful, funny two-hander about friendship, addiction and the restorative power of music. Basing the narrative on what must have been hard-hitting conversations with women about their experiences of parenthood while battling addiction, writer Lucinda Bell has crafted a moving and engaging piece that navigates tricky terrain with candour and intelligence.
Kirsty (Lara Simpson) and Hannah (Kathleen Fitzpatrick Milton) have been friends since junior school, when Hannah’s family provided a model of stability that Kirsty’s drug-addicted dealer father never could. As time passes, we drop into episodes and experiences throughout their still entwined lives, as babies arrive, difficulties mount, and their existence becomes ever more focused on heroin.
The segues between different stages in their lives are subtly handled and effective, pulling us from a childhood nativity through teenage pregnancy to motherhood and darker times, always with drugs and music a constant refrain. While the whistle-stop journey seems a little too pat at times, what comes across most clearly is the strength of female friendship, its rhythms, harmonies and counterpoints. Both actors have powerful, soulful voices (musical arrangement courtesy of Verity Standen) that highlight beautifully the capacity of music to raise us up, to heal and restore.
The linear structure hampers the credibility at times, and I wonder if focusing on one part of the women’s lives, then pulling out and back to reveal the hows and whys would overcome the occasional triteness. There is great comedy here, too, most of which rings true, even if some of the lines are clearly from the writer rather than the characters – possibly a result of dialogue constructed from myriad conversations with different individuals. Ultimately, though, this is a wonderfully assured piece from a company to watch.
Also using music to add texture and balance was Two Blind Dogs, a show that gave space to an intense presentation of spoken word performance from poets Alice and Peter Oswald alongside singer/songwriter Mae Karthauser. All three presented character-driven pieces, which were intriguing and detailed – with Alice Oswald a particularly mesmerising presence, utterly still and irresistible to watch – but for me the highlight was Mae’s beautiful, ephemeral voice and music, as if she was beaming in from somewhere else entirely, somewhere as yet undiscovered but completely knowable.
Aminal’s Midnight. Dream. Sleep. created a similar effect in its exploration of intimacy, in this instance through a one-to-one walking performance that follows the contours of a relationship with the midnight city as backdrop. Meeting by the cathedral as the clock strikes twelve, writer/performers Kelly Miller and Jonny Rowden are each paired with one audience member, who puts on headphones to hear the story unfold while walking the streets together, sometimes hand in hand, sometimes in a near embrace. Poetic and lyrical, it maps desire and distraction, connections and disconnections, that feeling of losing yourself completely. It’s about knowing someone more than you know yourself, about understanding – intuiting – their ways of seeing and doing, about being inside their lives so completely that you feel part of their very pulse. And in wandering the city at night – abandoned and star-lit – it conjures those any-hour walks in which time and distance cease to matter, because this succession of minutes and miles is just for you two, here, now. And how those minutes and miles gape once love is gone. This is a quietly beautiful piece that might prove a challenge for some audience members, in that it demands a certain level of ease with proximity to the performers, but it absolutely reaches into the intensity of emotional experience.
Also intense, in a decidedly more unsettling way, was Substance and Shadow’s revival of Christie in Love, Howard Brenton’s 1969 three-hander about serial killer John Christie, who was hanged in 1953 for the murders of eight women, the bodies of which were found hidden around his house and garden in West London. It’s a disturbing play, still powerful in its depiction of a warped and dangerous mind, and this is a strong production, faithful to the text, and a perfect fit for the Bike Shed’s subterranean space.
A constable digs for bones in Christie’s garden, discomforted by the crimes and the air of deviant sexuality that surrounds them; to calm himself, he recites obscene limericks. Shovelling aside piles of scrunched up newspaper, he eventually unearths Christie himself, who emerges as if conjured by that strange combination of moral outrage and seedy titillation so peculiar to the tabloid press. An inspector interrogates Christie about his crimes, and although Brenton doesn’t offer us any answers to why he did what he did, it is implied that the line between passion and perversion is anything but straightforward.
As the constable and the inspector, Sam Pike and Nathan Simpson convey that tension with real skill; and Pike’s manipulation of a mannequin to play out one of Christie’s murders is particularly adept. As Christie, Midge Mullin delivers just the right amount of sinister banality and repressed malevolence, by turns meek and subservient, then furious, then gloating, so proud of his ability to creep about in his ‘plims’, silently delivering his judgments on women’s right to life. Chilling.
In complete contrast, Nuts & Volts’ Lucky Dip was a playful piece of utter silliness based on the conceit that the company is suffering artistic differences, its internal conflicts played out in two competing shows, The Good One and The Rubish (sic) One. Audiences pick tickets out of a hat and are then separated to either take an innuendo-soaked tour of the ‘back passages’ of Exeter, or stay in the auditorium to witness the tricks of the acting trade. Very funny, the show makes the most of the performers’ ability to camp it up outrageously while poking fun at theatre’s potential for pretension. Good, old-fashioned fun.
Also big on laughs was Hugh McCann’s one-man show Ensuite, a gonzo tour of the first year experiences of art student ‘Hugh McCann’ as he gets to grips with living away from home, appreciating art and finding his way in the world. Careening round the performance space in shorts, a sports jacket and woolly hat, ‘Hugh’ is a credible mix of eager naïf and savvy bullshit-detector who also harbours a semi-secret love of musical theatre. When he purchases 150 Russian anti-depressants off the internet as a way of greasing the social wheels while also earning some money, he pulls us along on a surreal journey of self-discovery via pints of wine, Marcel Duchamp and the floral pleasures of Kew Gardens. McCann is an incredibly likeable performer, and this piece reveals that he is also a gifted writer adept at weaving numerous narrative strands into an engaging whole. It needs some tightening up and further development, but this is already an impressive piece of performance work demonstrating considerable skill.
The festival wrapped up with a day of hosted conversations and presentations that brought together the artists taking part in the festival, other venues, producers, designers and arts organisations, and provided the space to forge new connections, share ideas and advice, and generally start a dialogue. Representatives from the Arts Council offered advice on funding applications, and there were opportunities to talk to professionals about artist development, press and marketing, festivals and touring, and working with a producer. It was free to attend, and the Bike Shed stumped up for breakfast to get proceedings going, then a delicious soup with bread and salad for lunch, and the room was filled with a happy hubbub of conversation for the whole day. And a really positive way to close the festival.
Main image: Christie in Love, photo: Matt Austin