Sharply written and with a hugely engaging performance at its core, Hannah Sowerby’s one-woman show 10 Things to Do in a Small Cumbrian Town is a delight. Tackling tough subjects by way of broad comedy isn’t an easy balance, but it’s a trick the production carries off well, as we see the protagonist Jodie navigate grief, mental health and the loneliness of small-town living.
19-year-old Jodie is stuck living at home with her Nan in Penrith, applying for shelf-stacking jobs in Sainsbury’s while her best friend is off at uni. Devastated by the loss of her father and abandonment of her mother, she spends her time surfing Tinder for matches (disappointed that the only available women in the area are — the horror — vegans, or even worse, her friend’s Mam, and the only men seem super creepy), the sole focus of her ambition to work her way through every available crisp flavour, all while alternately lying to and fantasising about her therapist.
Although the piece is fictional, it is informed by Sowerby’s own experience growing up in a small Cumbrian town — and the love/hate relationship such a childhood can inspire with your hometown. That authenticity shines through. Sowerby’s writing taps into the best traditions of northern comedy, from Alan Bennett to Victoria Wood, with its juxtaposition of big ideas and mundane details tempered by a keen eye for the absurdities of everyday life. The writing mixes dry wit with bawdy jokes, with plenty of physical comedy thrown in, and Sowerby handles both the lighter moments and the heavier emotional beats with aplomb.
The production is never insensitive about the challenges Jodie faces, but it’s also not afraid to see the humour in the bleakness, with Jodie herself self-aware enough to make jokes at her own predicament. And while Sowerby is incredibly likeable in the role, the show doesn’t let its protagonist entirely off the hook, giving us glimpses of how wearing her behaviour can be to those around her, especially the best friend who is the source of her almost-obsessive focus.
The piece is well-served by Anna Robinson’s versatile set. Ostensibly little more than stacks of cardboard boxes, it is cleverly used to suggest both location and state of mind, marking the narrative’s progression. Film and voice recordings give Sowerby something to interact with and are used well to move the action along.
Jonluke McKie directs with pace and empathy, although there isn’t quite enough plot to sustain the 80 minutes run-time, and the production might benefit from a slightly tighter edit. But these are small flaws in what is otherwise a fresh, accomplished and wholly endearing show.
10 Things To Do in a Small Cumbrian Town runs at Alphabetti Theatre until 11th December. More info.