Once a year, community theatre group Progress Theatre hosts Progress Premieres, a display of writing from local talent. This year’s production features two one-act plays which both touch on aspects of mental health, something which ties in nicely with Mental Health Awareness week, taking place at the same time.
This year’s plays are Recovery Position by Anthony Travis, previously a set designer for Progress and Sh!t, written by Liz Carroll and directed by Aidan Moran, both long-standing members of the theatre company.
Anthony Travis’ drama focuses on a man who relives a trauma from his past, and in doing so opens a door to struggles in his present, resulting in a complete breakdown.
After a phone call from his sister, Francis treks back up north to visit his dying father, who he hasn’t spoken to in years. The play flashes back and forward in time, ensuring the audience are kept on their toes throughout.
As the lead role of Francis, Anthony Travis, was fantastic. Sat still in a chair at centre stage for the entire performance, Francis shared his story through narrative directly to the audience, while some of the drama was acted out by the other members of the cast. It was an engaging performance.
We were also impressed by Recovery Position’s innovative use of sound design. Every single sound effect was created by the cast using the Foley method (often used in radio dramas), which makes the sound far more powerful and the performance unique. The effects had clearly been well considered by the actors who sat behind a desk stacked with water glasses, car horns and metal foil among other items. Although at times, your attention is drawn away from the action by the Foley artists (Sam Bessant, Peter Knightley, Elisabeth Konigshofer, Charlie West and Alice Youngs).
Those strong sound effects, combined with the power of Francis’ monologue and his breaking of the fourth wall, really made the audience empathise with Francis. His moments of overwhelming anxiety often felt like they were happening to us too.
The conclusion of the drama was heightened by the light and sound design, leaving the audience confused and unsettled. A mention must also go to the lighting – in both plays it was powerful and left such a huge effect.
Overall, Recovery Position was an incredibly strong and moving play which stayed with us and really allowed the cast to display a variety of skills.
I was not prepared for many laughs after reading the premise of SH!T. Edie (played by writer Liz Carroll) is a woman who cannot move, talk or walk. Her only power is her ability to shit, which she uses against her aggressive charge nurse (Christine Moran). However, Liz Carroll’s play ended up a very darkly funny, heartbreaking piece with a great balance of light and dark.
It became clear to the audience that Edie is an unreliable narrator, but, slowly, her life was unravelled to us: a mess of fantasy, fiction and reality, told through the role of Young Edie (Samantha Bessant).
The contrast between present day Edie in the wheelchair and the Edie who skipped around the stage directly addressing the audience instantly created humour and lifted the mood in what could have easily been a very dark play.
The cinematic moments that Edie imagined to be her past were funny and light, ensuring that the contrast to her difficult childhood was really felt. When Young Edie made her older self relive some incredibly difficult moments involving her father, it was uncomfortable because we became aware that this was the most accurate retelling of her life so far.
The connection between Edie and Tom (Bradley Hepburn), her young therapist, was also very sad. He desperately wants to improve her life but Edie just won’t let him. This is the same for everyone Edie interacts with. It hammers home how isolated her life is.
Again the cast was strong and the dynamic between older Edie and ‘the woman in the box’ (her younger self) was fantastic. Sh!T was an intense, dark play with touches of fun and hope.
Both plays are strong pieces of writing, featuring stellar performances from good local actors. Progress Premieres is an enjoyable night out and a great way to support our local theatres and our local writers. Make time to see these moving productions before it’s too late.
Progress Premieres is on Wednesday 16 – Saturday 19 May, Progress Theatre, £12, book online.
Hi, I’m Sophie, and I write for Explore Reading. I’ve lived in Reading for most of my life, and love seeing what’s new and fun to get up to in our town. I spend most of my time reading and drinking coffee.