Review: Venus Rising, Hope Street Theatre

By Nigel Smith 

THIS week saw the first major production to appear at the recently created Hope Street Theatre – an intimate new performance space hidden away on the ground floor of the Masonic Hall. Venus Rising was written by Ian Salmon for the Page to Stage festival and presented at
Liverpool’s World Museum in 2014.

In this revival, the lead role of James is played by James Sutton, who is probably most familiar for his parts in Emmerdale and, more recently, Hollyoaks. Here he takes on a script that is very nearly a 75 minute monologue, and gives a flawless and compelling performance.

James is a writer. His books have earned him a fortune and the author is in demand all over the world for public appearances and book signings, but nobody would recognise him in the street and he’s never met a single one of his avid readers. Because James writes the sort of stuff that, in his words, your mother keeps on the top shelf.

It all began a few years ago, when he was living a hand-to-mouth existence trying to write serious literature. He wanted to write ‘The Great American Novel’ (despite not being American) but it was getting him nowhere except broke. That was until his mate Liam made him a bet over a pint, that he could earn more money writing lurid fiction of the Shades of Grey variety.

Four books down the line, with the publisher clamouring for him to produce the fifth, and James is a very wealthy man, drowning in lifestyle, so why isn’t he happy?

Truth is that he hates the stuff he’s peddling as art, and still longs to write something meaningful. His characters, with their increasingly lascivious lives, are eating him away from the inside. His wife has left him and every day’s first glass of wine gets closer and closer to breakfast time. The publisher insisted from the outset that his readership wouldn’t accept this kind of stuff if it were written by a man, so he writes under the name Terri. A former model presents his public persona, travelling the world and taking all the glory while James sits staring at the four walls and a computer screen.

In direct address to the audience, James unburdens himself over the unbroken hour and a quarter of the play. In a recent interview Sutton described it as being like having a nervous breakdown on stage, which is as good a description as any. Although the narrative is such that he spends the whole time alone in a room, while talking to us, he is actually supported onstage by three other actors, Laura Connolly, Thomas Galashan and Abigail McKenzie, who in turn represent his wife, his friend Liam and the woman hired as his female stand-in. They step in and out of his dialogue as he describes the events that have brought him to this point in his life. They also play out the scenes in his books as he sits at the keyboard writing. Under the direction of Julia Carstairs, they are acting their socks off throughout the piece (and numerous other items of clothing too) as they remain in view like spectres in James’s mind at all times. It is, however, Sutton who carries the heaviest burden of the piece with his almost unbroken text. It is a genuinely mesmerising performance, and it’s great to have the opportunity to see him demonstrate his skill in live theatre in such a concentrated piece of work.

Salmon says this is a play for anyone who’s ever spent time in their life doing a job that they hate, which should get it a pretty big audience in itself, but what should really attract the crowds to see his work is the extraordinary quality of his writing. I reviewed his most recent work ‘Those Two Weeks’ for Good News Liverpool a few months ago,  and remarked on the well-observed dialogue. Venus Rising is, if anything, an even more dialogue-driven piece, and there isn’t a word out of place. His work is imaginative and extremely detailed, and his voice deserves to be heard a great deal more.