Seeing three monologues on the trot throws into sharp relief both the possibilities and the pitfalls of the genre. Heretic Voices at the Arcola Theatre combines three pieces selected from a national competition judged by Michael Billington, Lolita Chakrabarti, Mel Kenyon and Monica Dolan, and it saves the best until last. New writing remains the underfunded, understaged and unwelcome relative at the family gatherings of established drama and so initiatives such as Heretic Voices – with real tangible outcomes for successful new playwrights – are to be applauded. The three pieces between them cover an expanse of creative variations in protagonist, plot, and dramaturgical shape, yet at the same time the trio form a cohesive evening: the first half consists of two separate monologues which are beautifully woven together by their stage design, and taking the evening as a whole generates a kind of commentary on the monologue which goes above and beyond the sum of its parts.
We open with A Woman Caught Unawares: the millennial tale of a digital naked picture, hatefully captioned and doing the rounds of a university campus. But at the eye of the storm is not the young woman we might expect but Mary, a cynical lecturer of art history. #crone #nevergetold. This is a new perspective on a now all-too-familiar story, and Amanda Boxer plays the part of the subject almost flawlessly. The PC university campus is a particularly prickly place for the story to play out: Boxer has been trained in counselling students on cyberbullying (“I wondered where I’d put that booklet” she muses, “filed somewhere around spotting FGM and well before Prevent”), and her own Line Manager is a much younger man whose response is to offer coffee and counselling whilst not meeting her eyes. Monologues make continual decisions about the extent to which the audience is addressed, and A Woman Caught Unawares makes the most of this opportunity in its climatic final scene in which Mary delivers a lecture (“we sent out invitations and here you all are”) to us, the audience-cum-university-members. It’s the kind of lecture you’d only dream of delivering in Boxer’s situation, in which she not only reclaims her body but points out the uneasy voyeurism which gives the troublesome picture so much power. A live theatre performance, it turns out, creates a sharply defined space in which to comment on how we look, see, and represent others.
With minimal yet effective scenery changes we are thrown unawares into the start of Sonya Hale’s Dean Mcbride. Billed rather unhelpfully as “a poetic story of loss and redemption”, this is not what this monologue uniquely does in an oversaturated market of new writing, either in terms of telling a story, or making some kind of cultural or aesthetic point. Whether this is a result of the acting, writing or direction is difficult to say – and something else which emerged from the evening was how much harder it seems to be to untangle those three with only a single actor on stage. Ted Reilly takes on the role of a sixteen year old boy with a chronically ill father and a drug-using and absent mother with energy and aplomb, but even had he been fully off-script during the performance it would have been hard to sustain a character who was represented to us in a range of weakly connected plots points including the saving of a seagull, the return of his mother, and the fortuitous appearance of a girlfriend whose unerring beauty and cheer was reminiscent of a Dickensian youthful love interest. Shot through with “innits” to convey the Croydon council estate, the script of Dean McBride is at times almost too anxious of its own, or the theatre’s, “class” status, and Dean lacks a stable enough core for the erratic orbits of violence, vulnerability and love through which he turned to form a convincing character. The play took the thought-provoking decision to address the audience as “you” in the first half; but when “you” transpires to be a character in the plot, the possibilities of that aspect of the script are closed off along with the direct engagement of the audience.
The teenage protagonist of A Hundred Words for Snow also struggles with the loss of a parent, but this time the plot is intricately crafted without the jarring ending or disjointedness which might be criticised in the first half of the bill. Lauren Samuels is an outstanding Aurora (or Rory, as she prefers to be known), who grieves for her explorer-loving geography teacher father by embarking on an expedition to the North Pole with his ashes. It’s an unlikely premise but Samuels and the skillful writing of Tatty Hennessy together get away with it. Aurora addresses her father’s ashes in touching and witty terms: “you can’t stay in here, Dad. People eat in here. Nothing personal but it’s creepy” raises a laugh, as does her justification of reading his diary: “it’s okay to read someone’s diary when they’re dead, right? Like, we read Anne Frank’s in school”. When Rory has sex for the first time it’s billed at first as a funny story in which she worries about her bad bra and contrasts Andreas with the boys at school who flick water on your boobs “to make them grow”. But even as we’re laughing, Rory grows anxious, is unsure, is in pain…. And suddenly it isn’t funny anymore. Despite the driving force of its plot, this is a play about a lot more than a trip to the Arctic.
All three actors take on the phenomenally difficult task of taking not only embodying one character, but the close circle of characters with whom they interact as remembered or imagined by the protagonist. They jump backwards and forwards in time, remember things, get distracted, divert attention, and seek realism with a narrative frame. I can’t even begin to image how difficult it must have been to select three winners from the 1136 entries to the competition, in which no doubt other deserving, brave, and skillful pieces had to be cast aside. How to set them against one intangible “ideal” standard of what a monologue might be? When she travels north, Rory explains how there are in fact five North Poles, not one. When you’re that far up, you can put a flag almost anywhere in the ground and call it the summit.
Heretic Voices continues at the Arcola Theatre. For more information and to get tickets visit here.