Reviews Imaginary Reviews Published 27 April 2020

Imaginary Review: Try Again, Again

“A play about failing. Sign. Me. Up.” – Naomi Obeng imagines a tentative, hopeful performance in a brand new Loughborough venue.

Naomi Obeng

Loughborough town centre

The theatres are closed. What now? Commissioned and co-curated by Greyscale, Imaginary Reviews is a series that invites critics and artists of all stripes to write about a fictional performance at their local theatre. The series continues with Naomi Obeng’s welcome injection of experimental theatre into Loughborough’s town centre.

Audio version by Nigel Barrett:

 

Well aren’t I glad that I didn’t have to travel to some random arts festival in some random city, properly planning a day or possibly even overnight (!) trip, and having to book spensy trains, in order to see this. Isn’t it magical that Loughborough has finally created Spring Scene, a little theatre celebration – plus a new theatre space that isn’t the town hall – and is now programming and touring experimental new writing. What a glorious world we live in.

Is it unfair of me to expect the masses to flock to this here present market town to experience a show that really does rival any “must-see” fringe production? No. We have trains too! Next question.

Having transformed one of the closed down shops in town into a studio theatre venue, new touring festival Spring Scene has promised to inject theatre into choice cracks of small towns to see what might bloom. The tiny front of house foyer teems with fresh newness and possibility – inevitable chipboard walls, a few houseplants, the classic chalkboard aesthetic. The playlist is a mixture of summery tunes and chill jazz. Waiting around for the show to start, there are kids from the local schools, arts students from the uni, and locals who’ve pay-what-you-can’d to check out what’s new. You can just glimpse Queens’ Park out of a side window. That’s where, we’ve been told in the programme, a short gathering will take place, and everyone’s invited.

The first thing to note about Try Again, Again, this first of hopefully many productions here, is that it is April. This isn’t a fact about the production, I just really like leaving a dark theatre into thick golden sunshine (weekend matinees for life) and thinking “wow, we really did just go somewhere together didn’t we?”, and then popping into a supermarket to buy fresh berries or ice cream and savouring the memories of a show that made me Think.

The programme over this weekend is a mixture of brand new work and shows that have been in Leicester, Nottingham and Derby. The play we’re about to see is the first of the festival, and was developed by an ensemble of six with roots in performance in Loughborough and Leicester. The new studio space is the classic black box, nothing special, but when before there was nothing at all, this feels luxurious.

Despite not being billed as such, Try Again, Again is extremely funny. Like, funny in a way that dramatic plays don’t usually dare to be. If you called this a comedy you wouldn’t be wrong, but then what it does in alarmingly honest colours is unite a constellation of extremes that slot together like a stunning mosaic. The humour only increases the sadness of the play’s central premise, which is failure. A play about failing. Sign. Me. Up. A succession of scenes dive flailing arms first into what it means, and feels like, to try, and not to succeed – from both the outside (a societal pressure to always be doing more), and from the inside (in this case whether perfectionism can be unlearnt). Whose judgements are important? And who judges whose judgements are important? Endless fractals to fold yourself into.

In one scene, a woman tries to balance stones while we listen to a voice, describing what it feels like to write, rewrite, and rewrite, trying to capture the feeling of failure – which is different, as we will see, from the reality of failing. The speaker eventually arrives at a scene involving stones, the one we’re watching, and then scraps that idea too, continuing to iterate further as we watch the performer struggle with the stones and finally…well you have to watch the play to find out. Not everyone in the audience is convinced that this isn’t pretentious nonsense, but that’s ok.

Try Again, Again feels like an act of faith, an embodiment of the ever present possibility of failure. It has so many sections that it could easily lose focus entirely, but there’s such a huge thrill in drawing out those small seconds when the stone could stay standing, until it slips and falls. These expressive bodies on stage capture the slippery and precarious feeling so well. The performers play people caught in internal struggles. Occasionally these battles spill out of their mouths and onto whoever is near. It’s hard not to relate to it. When people can’t help but be themselves however hard they try, it’s funny. And sad. Is it failure? Is it success? Who knows. There’s an invigorating thrill in the potential for something to all fall apart.

“Look I drew you a picture” a woman says. “It’s a picture of you”, the woman then proudly holds up some paper. The man she’s talking to radiates with glee. On the paper we see a series of scribbles, a great looming shape like a bird of prey seen from below. Not a traditional portrait. The man’s crestfallen, his whole body expressing this disappointment. He was expecting, presumably, something hyper-real. The woman doesn’t ask for his feedback. “Don’t you want to know if I like it?” he says. “Of course not. I’m drawing what I see. I don’t want you to like it. If you liked it then it wouldn’t truly be you.”

After the hour and twenty minutes has elapsed and we return to the small chipboard room for cold drinks, an audience member suggests to me that parts of the play felt like watching paint dry. And, I mean, I cannot disagree. (The experience of watching Buster Keaton in slow motion also springs to mind.) But if you get stuck into it, you have time to think so many new thoughts while the wet leaves the walls. I’m not sure if he agrees. Sometimes what we’ve seen percolates in our minds in ways we can’t grasp and over periods of time that we can’t quite predict.

We spill out into the park and the production team join us. Young people ask the performers what it’s like being on stage and whether they could be too. Groups who were in the park already come to ask what all this is about. The performers and creative team explain. “We’ve never had anything like this as far back as I can remember” they hear. This connection feels important, a way of reinforcing that the endeavour of theatre isn’t just for other people in other places. Even if Try Again, Again didn’t succeed in everyone’s eyes, it made us laugh, it made us think and it’s created a new space for the next group of creatives to come and tell stories, and the next, and the next.

A new Imaginary Review will be released each morning over the next 10 days. Read them all here. This series is commissioned by Greyscale; read more about the company’s work here

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Naomi Obeng

Naomi Obeng is an East Midlands based writer and arts journalist.

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