Harriet Leitch reviews Strangeways at The King’s Arms Theatre
As the audience hushed and the lights dimmed in the cosy theatre upstairs at the Kings Arms in Salford, there was a sense of excited anticipation in the audience for the start of a second run of STRANGEWAYS, which saw its debut, met with great success and rave reviews, at the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. As I sat in my seat, I eagerly awaited the performance to begin and, having seen its Edinburgh run in the summer, wondered whether it would be able to live up to the excellent performance I was fortunate enough to see. As Stella Grundy as ‘Dot’ shuffled onto the stage, capturing precisely the mannerisms and idioms the ‘dotty’ old woman she played, however, I felt as though this audience would be in for a very special performance. Indeed, this new production did not disappoint and, I may even be so bold to say, surpassed all expectations!
New staging of the performance placed the audience intimately in the round and in very close proximity to the action. Indeed, as I sat in the front row, I almost felt like an imposter in Dot’s home. However, this staging innovatively utilised the restricted space within the theatre to its best advantage and the minimal but thoughtful set; complete with china knickknacks and sentimental picture frames, were enough to set the scene and invite us to join Dot’s emotional journey, all in the comfort of her font room. Indeed, any feelings of intrusion almost instantly subsided and disappeared as this suburb piece of storytelling immediately draws you in – you feel as though you have been personally invited to witness a very intimate journey. Indeed, the closeness contributed to making the performance all the more personal and the rest of the show had me hook, line and sinker.
STRANGEWAYS is a surprisingly insightful piece of writing about a an old woman struggling with her haunting past and adjusting to her new present life in Manchester, despite the lead character Dot being at least five times the age of the male writer, Joshua Val Martin. This was barely discernable (bar a couple of moments), as his witty and poignant script maturely confronted themes of mental health, loneliness and the universal struggle with confronting the demons of our past. Despite Dot being an elderly character, it was testament to Val Martin’s writing and thoughtful direction that I felt I could not only identify with Dot, but I also wanted to be her friend, as her character is marked by an endearing and scathing sharp wit. It was also great to be sat in a Manchester theatre while watching a Mancunian’s story; the script was littered with Northern slang as well as the repeated references to the typical rainy Mancunion weather, anchoring the narrative in Manchester, the place the writer and director suggests he fell in love with after studying here.
Credit must also absolutely go to the three actors who took the audience on Dot’s journey with such ease and sensitivity, which made for a gripping performance. Grundy brilliantly inhabited the lead role of Dot, even down to capturing that laugh to herself which can so often be identifiable as a marker of someone’s loneliness. Despite being onstage throughout and with endless dialogue, she delivered a memorable and humorous performance which totally had the audience on her side. Additionally, the other two crucial supporting actors provided mature light and shade to the script and performance. The nasty Vinnie was excellently played by Oliver Hamilton, who discerningly inhabited and conveyed Vinnie’s’ complex chivalrous façade and foul and disturbing domestic side to his character. Roisin Brehony also gave a wonderfully endearing performance of the social worker, Sam, who tries her best to help Dot. She was absolutely recognisable if you have ever had to deal with someone in the last stages of an elderly relative’s life, while also multi-roled as characters from Dot’s past, oscillating between these with ease. Each of the actors negotiated the complex negation between humorous and moving episodes of the script, coupled with Val Martin’s thoughtful direction to make this performance stay will you even after you finish the rest of your drink downstairs in the bar and making your way home, in the characteristic Manchester drizzle.
Four out of five stars