If the Shoe Fits
Among the Missing
The Space Arts Centre, 18.01.17
The One Festival is a showcase of plays written for a single actor. The plays in Programme E present stories which vary wildly in content and style, but which share a nuanced, tender focus on individual human stories.
Searching Shadows is an hour-long play, written and performed by Emily Orley. It carefully weaves together diary entries, science writing and cultural theory to tell the parallel stories of a radiologist – the speaking character’s grandfather – and the broader historical narrative of xrays – how they were discovered, what they were first used for, how their risks became apparent. It’s a very elegant piece, and also a very scholarly one – not just because its discussion of xrays is scrupulously backed up with references and statistics, but also because of the way it manages a delicate emotional collage with well-judged quotations and timely repetitions. The core story follows the radiologist from his first journey to Geneva to begin his medical training, and explains how his participation in World War Two was curtailed when a medic reported a fictional lung disease in order to get him off the front lines. We later hear how he became stuck in Poland and then escaped to Berlin, then to London and finally to Guernsey; we hear about his two marriages and the family tragedies of his later life.
The emotional backbone of the piece is rooted in several repeated quotations which propose that the xray, revealing how similar we all are on the inside, could bring people closer together. Particularly evocative is a quotation from John Berger – who died only weeks ago – “what reconciles me to my own death more than anything else is the image of a place: a place where your bones and mine are buried, thrown, uncovered, together…” Another recurring refrain is, “I didn’t know” – this comes to represent the unknowns of both history and of medical science, particularly the long-term harmful effects of xrays, unknown to early practitioners. The collage of quotations in the text of the play is mirrored by a series of projected images on the back wall. Many of these are x-rays, others are old photographs which seem to come, like the diary entries forming the man narrative, from the archive of the grandfather’s life.
The play exists somewhere between performance and lecture – the text is thoughtfully put together, and the slides provide an evocative backdrop. The rest of the visual and aural texture works fine, but adds relatively little. Orley uses background noise to change the mood and reflect the different kinds of speech making up the play – white noise and the crackles of an empty record. She also uses her body to echo some of the images projected. At one point, an apparently abstract xray image is suddenly elucidated by Orley’s temporary contortion – it’s an image of the skull from underneath the jaw bone, looking up past the teeth into the cranium. She often imitates the posture of the figures in the images behind – sometimes xrays, sometimes photographs. This brings home the sense of sympathy that seems to inform the whole piece – between the speaker and those she talks about, and between them and the audience.
After the interval, the rest of the programme is devoted to three twenty-minute plays. The first of these is If the Shoe Fits, written and performed by Cheryl Walker. Like Searching Shadows it is a personal piece, reflecting on family, generations, personal history and identity. The tone is brighter and more conversational. Walker immediately addresses the audience and bonds with us as Londoners – by chatting about the intricacies of Tube etiquette. She’s immediately both charming and relatable – this becomes important in a play about belonging, because we have, from the outset, a sense of an identity that almost everyone in the room shares. Walker expands on this with a jumble of cultural references – fashion, music, pop culture, and again, London public transport – which have nostalgic appeal for anyone raised in the ‘90s.
The question ‘where are you from?’ prompts a turning point in the monologue, because ‘London’ turns out not to be a satisfactory answer, but the speaker feels insecure about her Jamaican heritage because she has never visited her grandparents’ homeland. Walker stages a conversation with her grandfather, scrambling from one position to another to play both roles, assuming his Caribbean accent. The second half of the play relates a trip back to Lincoln, Jamaica to celebrate a great-grandfather’s 100th birthday. It makes for a heart-warming story about identity – Jamaica is everything she’d hoped, she feels a vivid sense of belonging – which is gently parodied but not undermined by the revelation that this speech was written at age 15, for the audience at the 100th birthday festivities.
Next is Cornet Solo by Ben Francis – the confessions of a Welsh ice-cream-van man, telling the magical tale of a man rescued from suicide by a combination of ice cream and a bouncy castle. He’s a nicely drawn character, brought to life by Silas John Hawkins. He alternates between grumpiness and sentimentality – he digresses to tell us about his attitude to the police and relate a story about his van being stolen and crashed in a ditch; in the process he tells us that he respects police officers and that he has a pessimistic view of people in general. This echoes an earlier outburst about human nature – “animals!” – when he realises that people are hovering near his van to spectate on the suicidal man standing on a ledge above.
Overall, though, this is an optimistic piece –bouncing on a bouncy castle turns out to be such a reminder of life’s mitigating joys that it revives the suicidal man and provokes a similar revelation in the ice-cream vendor. Hawkins gives an engaging performance, taking the audience into his confidence and then stepping back to expertly conjure the scene. The overall tone plays an appealing note between the quotidian and a slightly magic, slightly loopy holiday mood. Appropriate for an ice-cream van – it combines the shabby and mundane with a kitschy sense of occasion.
The final – and most sombre – play is Niamh de Valera’s Among the Missing, performed by Jess Neale. The monologuer this time is a coffee shop manager who feels that she’s at a dead end in her career – she has a lot of anxieties familiar to many twentysomethings: that she isn’t living up to her potential, that despite her academic successes she doesn’t have the contacts or the experience to get a career she actually wants. The issues are relatable, and her sincere but slightly apologetic tone is realistic as well. For much of its length, the play seems to be telling an optimistic story. The barista tells us about a series of encounters with a well-dressed young woman, an art history student, who seems to have – or at least to be on track for – the kind of life that the protagonist wants. Though she is envious, her jealousy doesn’t become the focus of the piece – instead, her mostly-imagined vision of another woman’s life inspires her to return to an abandoned application for a course and to pursue her own dreams.
The last few minutes of the play introduce a startling new angle on this. Rather than a story about aspiration and inspiration, it becomes about isolation and struggle – a sensitive reminder that we often don’t know the difficulties and tragedies of other people’s lives. The ending doesn’t undermine the positivity of the first half of the play, but it demands a new perspective. The barista’s fixation on the other woman’s perfect life did no harm to either of them, and it led her to positive action rather than bitterness. But the later revelations turn the art history student from an avatar for an ideal life into a three-dimensional human, with a reminder that being human is not as easy as it might look from the outside.
These four plays combine acting with storytelling and lecturing, and locate human stories in lattes, shoes, ice cream and xrays. Each of them offers a different take on the rich possibilities of single-performer drama.