It’s perhaps a bit on the early side to start reminiscing about positive aspects to the pandemic but to be fair it was this event that kick started my interest in and documenting of online theatre. Among the many diverse ways which were found to continue putting out dramatic product there were quite a few companies which turned to the medium of audio play making, such that there was a distinct revival of that particular art form.
One among these was Small Truth Theatre which commissioned a series of micro plays recorded as part of its Digital Caravan space (their original mini theatre on wheels being decommissioned because of the need for social distancing). About a month ago they put out a new set of material under the umbrella title of Our Voices consisting of four short pieces inspired by interacting with young people in and around the company’s north Kensington home. Indeed three of the four pieces are bookended by the sound of children’s voices as they discuss the themes which the pieces cover; love, friendship, food, family and identity.
First up is Chicken Shop Love by Tanya Loretta Dee, set as 2022 turns into 2023 and 15 year olds Tara and Simeon find themselves at the start of a relationship. They have actually known each other since primary school but both have held back from declaring their interest in the other. Now in the heady atmosphere which is Mick’s chicken shop and to the spectacle of a magical eclipse they finally find the words and bond over a half forgotten incident from years ago. Jade Anouka and Kwaku Mills excel as the young pair and if the teenage argot sounds a little forced in places it is carried through with conviction and an eye (ear?) for pacy delivery. A promising start.
Lilly Driscoll’s Pieces follows and again features a pair of actors (Barbara Smith and Alex Jarrett) taking on roles that are younger than their actual years. Ruby and Pearl are “besties” and as lustrous as their names suggest. They have discovered a somewhat outmoded means of communication by creating audio tapes telling each other about the things that matter to them in their daily lives; as they do so their deeper characters are revealed. The big question is, will their friendship survive the transition to secondary school? Though this had less to say to me directly it would be an ideal choice as a discussion starter for any teacher of a Year 6 class whose pupils are just about to make that significant change.
Home by Abi Zakarian uses a double narrative structure but has cooking at the heart of both. In one strand a refugee family, with the narrator as a young girl Najia (Jessie Bedrossian), pack food in order to prepare for the start of their exodus from their homeland. It is a tense moment but comfort is found in familiar rituals. These same rituals are reprised as an older version of Najia encourages young people at a bustling community centre to revisit their heritage and traditions through the medium of the same food. Strife and dispossession may be constants but so are peoples’ cultures and, in the end, it is this which wins through and commonality is found. This is a cleverly written piece which appeals to the stomach as well as the intellect.
Although the first three plays are all “user friendly” for primary aged children upwards, the last in the group, Finding Polly by Emma Dennis-Edwards, is evidently aimed at an older audience with the protagonist being in Year 11. Disaffected Polly (Luana Gomes) finds herself at odds with her peers, her teachers, her father (who, unfortunately for her is the school headteacher) but mostly with herself. She feels that the only way to get herself noticed is to disappear so one day….. Constructed as a patchwork of aural testimony about the central character, a picture emerges of a young woman with the onset of mental health problems – in that sense she stands as representative for a significant portion of her generation. The situation remains unclear and unresolved at the end which, while it may be true to life, leaves the listener wanting and needing more.
This is a mixed bag of short pieces though as a response to the concerns of young people it certainly hits its mark. An undoubted success, though, is the always creative sound design of Nicola Chang who often makes these pieces sing. It’s good to see that Small Truth are maintaining their digital output alongside their reinvigorated live programme and it will be interesting to see how this strand of their work develops.