Organised Chaos - 'A Lot Of It About' and 'Broken'
A mere six months ago, I did my first theatre assignment for The Yorkshire Times, reviewing Organised Chaos' 'After Words' and 'Bottled Wasps'
. The plays were eye-opening for me, reminding me that good stage drama is not that different from good film or television drama. For this reason, the company has a special place in my heart, so I jumped at the chance to see their latest double bill, 'A Lot of It About' and 'Broken'. With a solid reputation as the North's leading supporters of new talent, the Manchester based company are, in my opinion, sorely underrated. My latest experience has certainly confirmed this!
A Lot of It About
The first part of the double bill, a play bursting with hope and humour, was 'A Lot of It About'. Written by Ned Hopkins and directed by Alex Shepley, it is an affectionate look back on the life of a closeted gay man, taking us back to the 1960s, when homosexuality was still a criminal offence. At the start we meet Ben - an unhappy man sitting on a bench up a hill - and Ann, an unhappy woman on the phone to a radio show. Both of them are trying to make sense of the impact that Ben's sexuality has had on their marriage. The play flashes back to Ben's youth, taking us through the trials and tribulations that have left him a broken man.
A mild-mannered teacher, he falls hard for the confident and experienced Kev and, when Kev leaves him for the bright lights of London, gets himself into a serious motorcycle accident. Bitter, heartbroken and now walking with a cane, he signs himself up for Aversion Therapy - a "medical" procedure involving electric shocks that was popular at the time - and tries to become "normal", marrying the na´ve and tolerant Ann. Their life of secrets and lies, and the return of Kev, threaten to destroy the marriage, yet thirty years later, they have survived, Ben taking his long walks up the hill, where he "meets up with pals", as Ann puts it.
The highlights of this production were definitely the actors playing Young Ben and Young Ann. Michael Whittaker gave an honest, lovable performance and Kate Mitchell was perfectly pitched in her double roles as Ann and the Aversion Therapist. She showed real range, nimbly stepping between endearingly nervous wife and coldly composed doctor. The actor playing present-day Ben was an understudy, standing in for Brian Gorman due to illness. Having watched the trailer for the play, I can't imagine the imposing, intense Gorman in the role and felt Daniel Thackary had a striking resemblance to Whittaker. He was also able to show real vulnerability, as a character whose negativity makes him difficult to like at times. Supporting cast members John Dayton and Sanjay Sutar brought a much needed diversity to the other gay characters in the play, making sure that there was no stereotyping here.
The second piece of the night, a harrowing and mind-bending ride, was 'Broken'. Written by Ella Carmen Greenhill and directed by Paul Anderton, it is a thought-provoking examination of guilt, loss and abuse.
It centres on May, a seemingly care-free young woman, as she forges new friendships with a dreamy love interest and a quirky girl she meets on a freezing cold day in the park. While Carla is spontaneous and funny, Tom is protective and kind; he wants to shelter her from pain, while Carla wants to awaken her to the beauty of life. Pulled in two different directions, May's reality begins to fall apart.
The play's subplot revolves around Helen, a talented and caring psychiatrist, reeling from a recent miscarriage as she throws herself into work. She is assigned a new patient, a woman suffering from hallucinations and bouts of catatonic depression, following a tragic accident. Helen's attempts to help her patient with talk therapy are thwarted by inept hospital staff and an abusive doctor who keeps her heavily medicated. Accused of allowing her recent loss to cloud her judgement and becoming too emotionally involved, Helen tries one last time to get through to her patient.
I was blown away by the performance of Hannah Keeley as May. A recent graduate of Rose Bruford College of Theatre, this was Hannah's first serious role, having done mostly pantomimes and musicals previously. Her expressive face was alive with changing emotions, displaying a range that was impressive to see in such a young actress. Glittering in the most comedic and tragic moments of the piece, she was mesmerising to watch.
The other highlight of 'Broken' was Karl Greenwood, who had already impressed me as The Clerk in 'After Words'. Here he took on dual roles as May's boyfriend Tom and the sinister Doctor. They were both small roles, in terms of stage time, yet pivotal to the complex plot, and Karl was flawlessly powerful both as the smothering lover and the corrupt authority figure.
Supporting actresses Emma Cliff and Una Love really brought their characters to life - Emma infusing Carla with a silliness worthy of Miranda Hart, Una imbuing Helen with a sort of gallows humour that was very relatable.
'A Lot of It About' and 'Broken' are fine examples of the varied, moving, entertaining and challenging work we can expect from Organised Chaos. When one considers that all of this talent is sourced from open calls - for both the actors and writers - it becomes an even more exciting company. I, for one, cannot wait to see what they do next!