Written by John Godbear and Jane Thornton
Directed by Izzy Ponsford
It takes a lot to convince that frequenting a bar might somehow be better than a glass of red and a night of self-loathing over a book. But if there’s a group that can manage it, well, EUTC certainly can.
The intrinsic value and beauty in the Bedlam catalogue is their continual rummage in the pantheon of theatrical pieces, repeatedly showcasing forgotten texts or long-unrun shows. This time, director Izzy Ponsford forgoes the usual theatrical space in the Bedlam rear and instead opts for a charmingly conceived and fabulous idea to stage John Godber and Jane Thornton’s Shakers, a sister production to Bouncers, within the Bedlam Café, converted into a cocktail bar.
A cast of Hollie Avery, Izzy Pleasance, Lucy Melrose, and Abby Brooks not only each take a turn of character study and monologue and not only give life to a veritable turntable of bar hops and visitors but take the work-based show format to the extreme as the performers continue their working posts as they perform, delivering cocktails to tables and guests who plum for the pricey (still excessively reasonable) tickets.
Ponsford decides to retain the production’s setting within the grip of Thatcher’s Britain for the most part, or at least the cost of the drinks suggests this. But if anything should have pulled Shakers into a contemporary world since they’re already expanding the roster of bar visitors to a more familiar (and occasionally nauseating) host of bar visitors and including prop usage and phrases outwith the time period.
Though limited in space, it is used to the fullest by Ponsford’s direction. Lilli Steffen’s design ensures the cast maintains a sense of busy momentum whilst the immersive setting is pitched to completion with live music, courtesy of Zain Cruickshank’s bass and Theo Vicker’s time at the piano, a very welcome additional to add depth to it all. And though lighting is often inconspicuous, Freya Game’s shifts from stage floods to emotional crimson peaks have a nice touch.
Outside of their intense monologue, at no point does Izzy Pleasance take a breath or pause as Mel, who still finds a sense of excitement (they tell themselves) working at the Shakers bar. Bounding around the stage, their projection crystal clear even with outside interference, Pleasance imbues a genuine understanding in Mel a woman who is both content and aspirational, even if they refuse, or can’t, show it. Diving further into their character, Lucy Melrose’s Adele takes time to get to their ‘story’ or motivation – but it’s precisely the pacing needed for their revelations. Striking out with a host of dialects, physical performances and facial contortions, at this point, Melrose is just showing off with their expansive repertoire of character performances with EUTC.
Against the pinballing energy, Hollie Avery’s Carol is a touch more subdued and highly relatable: finding themselves with an education but no experience to enter into the employment she desires. That’s not to say Avery isn’t gunning for the comedic crown, donning both flat cap and puffa jacket to offer additional slices to the punters the bar staff must endure, and turning in a deliciously vicious half of a posh couple. And she pairs remarkably well with Abby Brooks playing a young Nicki, hopeful to a life outside of the bar, with an authentic nervous energy which is propped up by a youthful hope and determination.
What the cast excels at is their command of poignancy, each delivering magnificent monologues to round their characters, grasping these roles created decades ago and drawing them into the familiar world – demonstrating to the audience how little has advanced in areas, worsened in others. Comedically, Shakers run the risk of cocktail roulette. Sometimes you’ll strike a French Martini, like when the cast aims at the or the older gentleman arguing by the bar. Other times you’ll get a Boilermaker. And like a shot tossed into a pint, the comedy just isn’t necessary for these moments. And if anything, the comedy is perhaps a touch too run-of-the-mill for the cast who have previously demonstrated a tremendous capability which ranges from the comedically farcical to the subtle.
Often humourous, more often touchingly poignant and well-structured, Shakers is a firey success for the EUTC and Bedlam Theatre – one that, despite the drawbacks of the original script, Ponsford and crew can be happy with. There’s a mixed blessing in the audience tonight, sold-out, joyous, and communal. A warmth in the Bedlam Café with the surrounding EUTC members, friends, and past performers – what is noticeably lacking is the support of those outside the theatre’s pool. Some look to Bedlam productions with raised eyebrows: and they’re missing out. The quality, and diversity of productions crafted in Britain’s oldest student-run theatre are as meritorious to the city as any other new writing venue or established juggernaut.
Shakers runs at The Bedlam Theatre Cafe until March 25th. Wednesday and Saturday at 21.30pm.
Tickets begin from £4.00 without a cocktail, or £8.00 with (con. available) and may be obtained here.