Plays in the Key of Life is an anthology of four short plays, presented by Writers Inc. Productions, a Liverpool based company founded by the four playwrights whose work is being presented. Each play has a different theme, but they are all united by explorations of loss, particularly loss caused by abandonment.
The first piece is The Tramp and The Lady, written by Bob Towers and directed by Brian McCann. The play is presented with a simple set of two fold up chairs, representing the outside of a train station, and Mike Sanders, playing a homeless man, does a good job of creating a sense of a cold wet day. The atmosphere becomes even more unpleasant with the entrance of Abi Tyrer, the ironically named “lady” of the title, who is judgmental, rude and very nasty to both her partner, whom she is talking on the phone to, and Sanders’ character. A suspicious hooded man, hanging around close to her, makes Sanders’ character however seems like a safer option, and so she sidles over to him and begins a conversation.
A few meetings between the two characters are then presented, showing highlights of a relationship which appears to develop over months. It becomes clear that Tyrer’s character’s demeanour comes from a place of trauma and consequent self-loathing, and a mutually therapeutic connection between the two changes both characters for the better. Towers refers to invisibility a lot in the dialogue to create a sense of the unfeeling selfishness of wider society and a combination of dark comedy and emotional poignancy build a good sense of story.
The Tramp and the Lady plays with and exposes the very worst of stereotyping in today’s world, uncovering the dark undertones of everyone being out for themselves even if someone is clearly much worse off than they are. McCann has cleverly utilised levels to explore the status and power of both characters and music, lighting, and costume changes (for Tyrer) are utilised to indicate the passage of time. The play is a nice story with simple characterisation and plot development which is perfect for the short play format.
The second play, Long Lost, written by Bernie Winston and directed by Ellie Thornhill, is the longest piece of the evening. It tells the story of Tim (Paul Taylor) who, having been adopted as a child, in looking for his birth mother and having exhausted all other options, has turned to the services of a reality TV show who reunite long separated families. He soon finds out however that his birth mother has passed away, but is reunited with her other son, his brother, Tom (Iain Barrie).
The set of this play features a simple living room, where Thornhill has cleverly included a cushion with a bee motif, a subtle nod towards Tim finding out he was actually born in Manchester. Despite appearances though, Tim does not have a happy home life, with his snobbish and aggressive wife, Amanda (Pam Ashton) being remarkably and inexplicably cold and unsupportive about his efforts to be reunited with his birth family. Tom’s selfish behaviour and shockingly outdated values add to the atmosphere of animosity in which Tim lives, and it is no wonder he feels that something is missing from his life and spends much of his time searching for something to fill the echo of loneliness.
Winston’s writing does bring forth the awkwardness of reality television attempting to create the “naturalness” of real life with repetitions of moments like the brothers’ first meetings, so that they look “better” for the cameras. There are areas of the dialogue which could be tightened up, with the story lacking pace in some areas, particularly the repetition of the negative aspects of Tim’s relationships with no real development or build up. It is an interesting story, with some nice contrasts between the two brothers and their upbringings creating mutual jealousy, which, with some editing could be a strong dramatic piece.
Following the interval, the third piece, Jilted Jenny, written by Steve Bird and directed by Elaine Louise Stewart, is a fun and creepy ghost story, perfect for the Halloween season. The play opens with a ghostly figure (Naomi Reddy) on the Hope Street Theatre’s balcony, before showing a once again strip backed set of fold up chairs representing the platform at James Street Station.
Here we meet two men who have been out drinking. Gaz (Ted Grant) is very drunk and still drinking, as he reminisces with old schoolfriend, Ron (Shaun O’Connor) whom he hasn’t seen for years. A lone woman (Gemma Knox) is also waiting for the train, and Gaz leers at her menacingly, despite his wife waiting at home for him. Recent, and sadly continuous, news of women being harassed and attacked late at night make this quite uncomfortable viewing, and Bird and Stewart are to be commended for capturing the feeling of being a lone woman waiting for public transport late at night in the presence of drunk and intimidating men.
As Knox’s character criticises Gaz’s loutish behaviour, Ron tells him the ghost story of Jilted Jenny, a bride who caught her fiancé with another woman at the train station and now takes her revenge on misogynistic men. Gaz laughs it off and continues to harass Knox, but when Reddy appears onstage, it quickly becomes clear that there may be more to the story than urban myth.
This play has some nice layers in the writing which do not overcomplicate the shortest play of the evening. Full of dark humour and with some very creepy moments, there are some intelligent twists and turns meaning that this story could be taken even further and really explore the Gothic feel of the underground platforms at James Street and the eeriness of ghost stories. All the actors are very good, and Reddy’s poker face in particular, is a high point which builds a good level of threat and tension.
The final play, Something to Remind Me, written and directed by Liz Redwood explores the heartbreaking effects of dementia and its impact on estranged families. It tells the story of Delores (Ashton) who left her husband and child to be in a relationship with another woman many years before, and now, living with dementia and alcoholism, spends much of her time in a heightened emotional state with episodes of violent depression and anger.
She is visited by Kenny (James Lawrence), a vacuum cleaner salesman, while her partner Chrissie (Kathryn Rigby) is out. Her trusting nature means he is quickly let into the house and when Chrissie returns and tries to get rid of him, witnesses Delores’ becoming very upset and actually takes her up to her room to rest. It feels slightly strange that a door-to-door salesman is allowed to become intimate with the couple so quickly, and it soon becomes apparent that Kenny has an ulterior motive for his overfriendliness.
The play appears to be set around the 1980s with references to the global epidemic of HIV/AIDS, and Delores and Chrissie not being able to get married. As with any period piece, it could have been interesting to reflect more on the changing world and how living in this time in particular affected the characters. The piece could also be expanded on with use of flashback which would reduce some of the storytelling aspects of characters describing past events in detail which can sap pace a little and would also allow further development of Delores’ character outside of her dementia diagnosis. This is a tragic story which ties up the theme of family estrangement touched on throughout the evening well and, while the ending has more than a tinge of sadness, does leave a core of positivity.
Plays in the Key of Life is an interesting showcase of new, local writing, which is suited to the autumnal season with its darker themes and explorations of family drama. It would have been interesting to see the plays in a different order, as if the longest piece, Long Lost was shown first and Jilted Jenny, the most suited to the Halloween season, was shown last, pace would have been kept more pace and the strongest link to Friday the 13th would have been what audiences had their last memory of. Simplifying the sets of the pieces or having more complex sets earlier on would also maintain pace as gaps between the plays outside of the interval could have been reduced significantly. Overall, the casts of all four plays were very good, though there were some projection issues in a couple of the pieces, and so maintaining a good level of volume throughout could be given some consideration. There is some strong writing here, with The Tramp and the Lady and Jilted Jenny in particular being highlights of the evening, and it is good to see local creatives coming together to show new work which will continue to improve as it is exposed to a variety of audiences.
Plays in the Key of Life is showing at the Hope Street Theatre until 14th October 2023. Tickets are available here: https://ticketquarter.co.uk/Online/default.asp?doWork::WScontent::loadArticle=Load&BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::article_id=600AA187-1B86-4C81-8CFC-CA9BE0119F52&BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::context_id=02FA54FA-5ACA-4C47-B229-BF185387C9AF
Reviewer: Donna M Day
Reviewed: 12th October 2023