Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
There is a timeliness and emotional truth to Shrapnel, Production Lines’online play by CMFWood, that is enhanced by being presented live.
Structured as a series of Zoom calls between overlapping characters, this is a touching and emotionally resonant exploration of how loneliness and lack of human contact have affected so many of all ages in these strangest of times. A variety of carefully drawn characters feature in Wood’s script, played with considerable subtlety.
Designed specifically to be presented online, it is notable for its lack of heavy-handedness, even when dealing with weighty themes. This does mean that it verges on the trite at times, and does feature some suspiciously easy solutions to problems, but is nevertheless a well written piece that provides considerable reassurance.
Alma Forsyth gives the voluntarily shielding Martha an easy realism which is matched by the excellent Richard Lydecker, as her panic-stricken neighbour Rick.
Wendy Brindle, as Martha’s daughter, overworked nurse Helen, gives a performance that is ideally suited to the medium. This is generally true of the cast, which is a great compliment to Wood and co-director Alan Patterson. In particular, the younger members of the ensemble – Rowan Fieldhouse, Heidi Fieldhouse and Ellie Tullis – are thoroughly natural and convincing.
Beverley Wright (Martha’s old friend Viv) does want to break out of the confines of the screen and give a more expansive, theatrical performance, but this is true to her character and provides some much-needed contrast.
Brian Neill, meanwhile, has a definite energy as Martha’s ex-husband, Australia-based Frank, although it is never entirely clear what the character adds in dramatic terms.
The occasional pauses, juddering visuals and imperfect synchronisation of sound do add realism (as well as testifying to the live nature of the performance) but do not always make for a compelling spectacle.
The length is another problem; 75 minutes in one go is a long time to spend on Zoom with our loved ones, let alone a bunch of strangers, and the lack of visual variety starts to become noticeable across a decidedly episodic structure. There are a couple of characters who are not strictly necessary to the plot and some information that is repeated unnecessarily.
Of course, everyone is learning how to present online theatre as they go along, and this works pretty well in its chosen format, with Bob Wood and Andy Ellis’s technical production being nothing short of miraculous under the circumstances.
Overall, however, this story might have worked better as a series of pre-recorded fifteen-minute episodes that could have been watched as and when the viewer desired. There is a televisual rather than theatrical feel to the enterprise, down to the rather soapy ‘family secret’ sub-plot, which is not in any sense meant as a criticism. Indeed, the intimate and realistic atmosphere is decidedly involving.
Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes
Online (details on booking)
Thurs 19 – Sun 22 November 2020.
Tickets and details: https://shrapnel.eventbrite.co.uk.
Tickets are free but must be pre-booked through Eventbrite.
Audience members are also encouraged to donate to Acting For Others (a charity that supports people who work in theatre), Age UK or Scottish charity Tiny Changes which supports young people experiencing mental ill-health.
Production Lines: Website