National Theatre Connections 2016: Bolton Octagon

what are they like

It’s clear from watching Woodhey High School’s slick and confident performance of Lucinda Coxon’s play, What Are They Like?, that a huge amount of work has gone into the piece. It’s composed almost entirely of monologues, and the cast cope brilliantly with both this pressure and the play’s loose, disordered structure.

What Are They Like? is set at a parents’ support group meeting, with each character delivering their thoughts on raising children directly to the audience. Casting young people as adults works brilliantly here, probably because each cast member is in part holding up a mirror to their experiences with their own parents.

From the entertainingly angry mum explaining to her teenage son – who she has caught watching porn – that real women don’t resemble Barbie dolls, to the poignant account of the adoptive mother and the spot-on portrayal of a laidback dad, the cast play each different kind of parent with confidence and perception.

With its high proportion of monologues, this piece has the potential to be quite static, but Woodhey introduce some welcome sections of movement – firstly, in the mime montage that opens the play. Set to a timeline of pop hits, this comical sequence depicts the circle of life, with the parents starting as children and tracing their lives to the present day. It’s entertaining, but it also encourages the audience to see the connections between generations.

A colourful toybox in the corner of the stage also helps to introduce movement and break up the piece. Characters dip into this box at regular intervals and pull out items such as steam trains, tutu skirts and story books, before playing with them in slow motion.

This play is a true ensemble piece, requiring a cast that work well together and sharing the spotlight equally between characters. It would have been interesting – and entertaining – to see the workshop leader character interacting more fully with the parents however.

 

it snows

In It Snows by Bryony Lavery, a dull town and its teenage inhabitants are overwhelmed by an overnight fall of snow – an everyday act that this production by Octagon Connections transforms into a fairytale of magical realism.

Chiefly narrated by its two central characters, Cameron Huntley and Caitlin Amoretti, It Snows initially focusses on common teenage woes: crushes, gangs of bullies, rowing parents and painful social interactions.

All of these problems are swept away – or temporarily covered – by the snow, which this production proves can be portrayed in a clever and beautiful way (even without a West End budget). A gentle piano score soundtracks the characters playing in the snow, while the gangs strip off their different coloured shirts so that everyone is briefly dressed the same. White umbrellas hang closed like icicles, before being opened out and rolled along the stage to depict snowballs.

There are plenty of comic moments, particularly in the party scene, which sees its host become so panicked by the amount of damage her guests are causing that she ends up throwing them out. There is also poignancy in the isolation of the ‘weird girl,’ who sits at her window all day before throwing out a message asking for help attached to her teddy bear. Unfortunately, her predicament is never fully explained and a potentially interesting storyline is left unexplored.

The set consists of several large pieces, including the girl’s window frame, a scaffolding tower and several blocks. The cast perform their own set changes, working well together – their teamwork is also evident in smooth transitions between sections of crosscut dialogue.

The best thing about this production though is the sheer sense of joy that Octagon Connections manage to convey in the play’s key moment – exactly the feeling that everyone can relate to on waking as a child and seeing fresh snow.

 

 

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