An anthology of female-led black comedy, Obscenities (which is written by Venetia Twigg and Will Nash) is evidence of theatre’s ability to adapt to our current Covid restrictions. Split into three short episodes, each segment is underpinned by characters who find themselves in uncomfortable situations. Through varying degrees of ‘success’, they try to express their intense feelings in ways that are ‘socially acceptable’.
Obscenities opens with Break Bitches, a frank exploration of how money can cause division between friends. Henrietta (Sheri Sadd), Cora (Melissa Saint) and Liz (Twigg) are in a lottery ‘syndicate’, where each of them takes it turns to buy the ticket for the week. On this particular occasion it’s Henrietta who’s purchased the ticket and when we first meet her, she is contacting the (UK) National Lottery via phone regarding a potential ‘win’.
There’s a verbal confirmation: a win of £72,000. Cora and Liz are ecstatic. That’s £24,000 for each of them. Except Harriet nips that notion in the bud. They ‘agreed’ in a long forgotten conversation that they would ‘only’ split winnings of £100k or more. Suffice to say, this adherence to a ‘caveat’ – when everyone is financially feeling the pinch during ‘lockdown’ – is not taken well, with some hiding their ‘disappointment’ better than others.
What next transpires is the ‘meat’ of the story, as Liz and Cora ‘negotiate’ this turn of events. While Break Bitches can be classed as comedic, the reactions of Cora and Liz are at one level very understandable, stemming from their unchecked ‘id’. Certainly Break Bitches adds credence to the saying ‘many a truth is said in jest’.
Dodo, the second segment, is (at least initially) a less ‘intense’ affair than Break Bitches, though its slightly surreal conclusion is allayed by its very grounded and contemporary set-up. Early one morning, John (Andrew Troy) is getting ready to go out, his first time travelling to work since lockdown began. Also awake is Kate (Olivia Bernstone), but she evidently isn’t going anywhere. Sitting in her rainbow-coloured unicorn onesie, she scouts the internet for Fortean-related phenomena – stories pertaining to the unexplained, the paranormal, as well as the stuff of fairytales.
Certainly within Dodo, aspects of everyday life niggle away at the characters. A phone call rant from Kate’s sister about nothing in particular baffles the couple and for Kate in particular, her sister’s assumptions about how easy it is to get work is irksome. And while John doesn’t begrudge Kate remaining at home, he’s less than impressed with her believing all the Fortean articles she reads. He would probably also have something to say about Kate squirting canned whipped cream into her mouth, but any criticism would fall on deaf ears as he’s eaten her biscuits.
But while there is a ‘Harvey’-esque quality to Kate’s story, it isn’t the prospect of something ‘make-believe’ being real that alarms her, but something more mundane…
Rounding off the triptych is ‘Symphony’, a fresh take on ‘playing the field’. Jan (Natalie Hones), Sable (Marianne Benedict) and Rosie (Raychel Addo) agree to meet up for a drink. However, the real purpose for this get-together is a woman they all know – Alexis. For Sable, Alexis is someone she once had a ‘tryst’ with, while for Rosie, she is Alexis’ ‘official’ lover. As for Jan, ‘the jury is out’…
Other important details come to the surface: i) Alexis has a wife and ii) she has promised the position of ‘lead violin’ in the orchestra to all of them. So who on this situation has the ‘right’ to expect this ‘promotion’ and can they reach an amicable agreement on this?
Raychel Addo as Rosie
While ‘Symphony’ addresses sexual politics in the workplace, it shows that the sex of the ‘player’ is immaterial – it’s who has leverage in a relationship. Such people have sway, because what they can potentially offer makes them ‘untouchable’. That said, the fact that Alexis’ lovers – past and present – are able to acknowledge this without all hell breaking loose is a marvel. But that doesn’t mean they’re telling the others ‘what cards they’re holding’…
Marianne Benedict as Sable
The banter between the characters is what makes their interaction work, as two are always in agreement while the other has to ponder on ‘the consensus’. Also the presence of British sarcasm (and whether it’s universally appreciated) are nice moments of observation.
Natalie Hones as Jan
As all the plays are meant to take place in the present, the actors/characters observe social distancing and the wearing of masks at certain junctures. While people don’t necessarily want to be reminded of Covid 24/7, the fact that these plays obliquely chronicle the here and now is a valid creative decision, rather than a negative storytelling selling point.
© Michael Davis 2021
Obscenities is Theatrical Niche’s first collaboration with filmaker and director Will Nash. This filmed work is creatd in lieu of live theatre and supported by Arts Council England. The hope is to continue with physical touring again from next year onwards.
The films are streaming this month via Theatrical Niche’s host theatres (along their usual touring route), and all ticket sales go directly to the host venues. Show dates are here: http://www.theatricalniche.co.uk/performances.php
Running time is approx 30 mins total, with an age guidance of 15+
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