Hen & Chickens Theatre, London – until 23 April 2022
I’m not sure whether I’ve actually been to Woking. It’s that sort of place – although how I’d know that if I’ve never actually been there, I really couldn’t say. I suppose it’s all because of its association with safe middle-class surburbia.
Not so safe in the late Victorian era, however. For this is the place where HG Wells wrote The War Of The Worlds and then promptly consigned the town to fictional ashes when he had the Martians invade it; perhaps he felt the same way about it as John Betjeman did about Slough. Some years ago a statue of a Martian tripod machine was unveiled in the town centre and this pops up in the opening filmed montage of Jo And Sam Find Themselves In Woking by James Woolf playing at the intimate Hen And Chickens pub theatre.
Jo and Sam meet up in Woking’s Art Gallery, the Lightbox, in front of an etching by visual artist Marigold Plunkett entitled The Light/The Dark. This is significant as we get glimpses of both shades throughout the next seventy minutes. The titular pair tentatively begin to share their opinions, find they have some common ground and a degree of mutual attraction.
Through a series of a dozen or so scenes we follow the ups and downs of their burgeoning relationship as they strive to make sense of their own feelings and this most millennial of worlds in which they live. They move in together, go jogging, visit the theatre, join a yoga class, look after a baby and a dog (both belonging to Sam’s brother), have the occasional spat but generally find fulfilment in each other’s company.
It even prompts Jo to ditch her unsatisfactory role in telesales and take up playwriting. When she chooses to base her first piece on their relationship, we find ourselves back where we started in the gallery in front of the same artwork giving the piece a pleasing narrative arc.
Other aspects of the structure, I found to be less engaging. At the start of many of the scenes, the performers break out of role to comment on the act of making the play with well-worn “actorly” grumbles about the process such as having to produce their own live sound effects and comments on the linking music. It’s all a bit Brechtian and self-aware and I’m really not sure why this was deemed necessary; although amusing, I felt it rather detracted from the main narrative thrust. The other obvious device employed throughout is that both Jo And Sam speak in rhyming couplets. Appropriate enough for a piece about a relationship, this was skilfully executed by the actors but in time became a little wearying on the ear. There were some ingenious and fun moments employed but, here and there, Woolf’s skill with words tipped over into becoming a trifle forced. It seemed as though the characters were saying what they were saying because of the rhyme rather than because it was what they would realistically say. This tended, therefore, to undermine the overall believability of the piece.
Phoebe Marshall and Kieran Dee are a classy double act who make reasonably convincing characters out of the pair and bounce off one another’s energy in a way that keeps the audience entertained. They handle the imposed regular rhythms of the dialogue with finesse and an eye to variation though I felt I could detect them longing to break free of the constraints which the format imposed. In one scene they were particularly adept at switching between dialogue and (shared) baby noises as they also tried to rid themselves of an unwanted visitor. That said the scene still came over as a triumphant technical exercise rather than an integral part of the overall plotting.
Perhaps the relationship trajectory of a pair of twentysomethings searching for their inner selves (yes, the title is deliberately ambiguous) is a bit too far outside my own current experience for this to be a piece with which I could fully engage. There’s absolutely nothing to dislike about the production which will, I am sure, go down well with many an audience member. For me it was a satisfactory enough experience without prompting any particularly strong reaction either way – much like Woking itself I would venture.