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Review: Naughty Corner Productions – 3 plays in 5 days at Unity Theatre

by Nigel Smith

NAUGHTY Corner Productions returned to Unity this week with three plays. A revival of their much acclaimed Not The Horse, wearing laurels from its sellout repeat run at last summer’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, provides the main vehicle for the company, while on Friday and Saturday they presented two new works. Church Blitz is the latest offering from Writer, Director and company founder Mike Dickinson, while The British Idles is written and directed by fellow Edge Hill graduate and performer Callum Forbes, who also appears in all three works.

The British Idles has been marketed with tweets welcoming new university graduates to the dole queue. The play itself manages, in just under an hour, to explore a great many more angles to the experience. It’s easy to see how a high percentage of students, emerging as graduates from their studies, feel justifiably disenfranchised. Another marketing machine – that of the university system itself – sells a dream that frequently fails to coalesce into anything concrete in the real world. Three years hard work doesn’t guarantee a fulfilling career, it never did, but what it almost always guarantees for all but the privileged few is a monumental debt.

So it is that we meet a group of young people who find themselves with overdrafts that their degree won’t pay for, and they’re still flipping burgers or stacking supermarket shelves, living on a diet of Coke and cold pizza. Whilst Callum Forbes has written a piece that occupies Naughty Corner’s world of anarchic black comedy, with scenes of the surreal puntuating the narrative, he also succeeds in creating strong character development. It’s an interesting essay in different ways of coping, or not coping, with the hand life deals you.

Easy going David (Adam Nicholls) just takes it on the chin before finally reaching a decision about his future. Nick Sheedy has a great role in Andy, who struggles much harder, faced both with unemployment and a complicated love-live. Sheedy has a huge presence on the stage and the part gives him plenty of opportunity to show it. Forbes has given himself a more reflective part in Paul, whose final scene offers a glimmer of hope that not everything ends in despair. Samantha Walton and Faye Caddick complete the casting with two strong parts that hold the play together with their pragmatism.

Opening with a quote from The War of the Worlds, Church Blitz refuses to lie down quietly and be analysed. It hits the audience between the eyes with an opening scene in which a group of people are terrified by some outside force that is never identified. It turns out that they are strangers, holed up in a church which feels as though it should be out in the wilds of nowhere, barricaded in against the unnamed terror. Immediately we reflect on the Run, Hide, Tell guidance issued by Police in the face of repeated terror attacks. But what are we running from, where can we really hide and who is it safe to tell?

A comic scene in which the hapless bunch try to decide if a strange visitor is trustworthy by getting him to put his hand through the letterbox carries a serious message. Faced with such a situation, what does trustworthy look like? It also plays with our human instinct to trust some people for very illogical reasons. This is multi-layered writing that leaves us with plenty to search for in its folds. There is another strong part for Nick Sheedy as the mysterious Jude, while Warren Kettle’s beautifully balanced characterisation brings out some splendid humour in the sheepish Ray. But have a care – it’s the quiet ones you have to watch out for!

It’s easy to see how Not The Horse has come to enjoy full houses and repeated runs. Yes, it’s dark, crazy and complicated, but even racing along at breakneck speed it still manages to carry everyone with it and it never loses its way. It’s a classic case of some unsuspecting bumbling mates who get mixed up in something way too deep for them. A group of friends who’ve lost money on a bet find themselves embroiled in something far more sinister than they had in mind, as they attempt to raise the money to save their necks. Warren Kettle is hysterical as Stan, who manages to get himself on the receiving end of a horse tranquiliser. As in Church Blitz, Kettle has a way of underplaying his part to tremendous comic effect. Nick Sheedy again shows his enormous stage presence – he has worked his socks off this week, as have Callum Forbes, with his haunted stare and piercing eyes, and Adam Nichols, who can get an audience laughing with the merest twitch of his face. Nichols is that sort of actor who somehow pulls off both pathos and slapstick humour almost simultaneously, without us ever seeing him shift gear.

Kudos to Naughty Corner for successfully delivering this mini-residency and filling Unity with uncontrollable laughter for the week while giving their increasingly loyal audience food for thought.

Church Blitz and The British Idles will play at The Space on the Mile at Edinburgh Fringe throughout August, and Naughty Corner are also working on a feature film version of Not The Horse.

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