Benchmark at West Walls Theatre Bar
A Bench Under the Eiffel Tower
Written by Molly Edgar
Directed by Jack Lester
Wigs and Knickers
Written and Directed by Nigel Banks
Carlisle Green Room Club's Theatre Downstairs programme continues with two new plays facing the unenviable task of following the roaring success of 'Unholy Congregation'. Either by design or coincidence both Benchmark plays share a commonality with the previous triumphant production; both examining an unlikely relationship spawned from a random encounter utilising only two actors, poignancy and great dollops of humour.
Wigs and Knickers written and directed by Nigel Banks survives the comparison very well indeed. Set in a Oncology waiting room, Wigs had the potential to be a very dark and miserable affair with its chosen subject matter, but Banks wisely instead makes the focus of the drama the differing attitudes and coping mechanisms of its characters - upbeat Melissa and ostrich Catherine. For all the dialogue occasionally slips into a wikipedia entry or NHS information leaflet, the characters never for a moment feel anything less than real. The humour shines through and offers a very touching insight into a 20 minute snapshot of two women struggling through a very difficult and raw part of their lives. It's impossible not to be moved by Catherine's 'ignorance is bliss' response to her first screening result, or roar with laughter at Melissa's carefree retelling of the hospital's 'BOGOFF' policy to a pre-emptive mastectomy. A random 'class warfare' moment in the middle diverts attention momentarily - there's an odd feeling that this particular posh vs poor development was a thread from an entirely different script as it felt strangely out of place here - but otherwise the focus remains strong and clear. The characters have depth, substance and a story to tell and it is a pleasure to spend time in their company.
Lisa Moffatt dominates with her performance as 'been there, done that, got the one-boob-bra' Melissa and embodies the character with every fibre of her being. Every line is pitched perfectly to either wring out every drop of humour from the material or to land a perfect gut punch with an emotionally charged but never overplayed moment of poignancy. Jo King also impresses with her perfectly understated Catherine. Alongside such a force of nature as Moffatt it would have been easy to deliver an ordinary 'straight [wo]man' performance and get away with it, but King paces the piece perfectly. Hopefully she'll make a move to the main West Walls stage sometime soon.
Funny, moving, original and with two great performances, Wigs and Knickers is very much a success, tackling a difficult subject with a wry and light touch.
A Bench Under the Eiffel Tower written by Molly Edgar and directed by Jack Lester is a different kettle of fish entirely. In almost every respect Wigs succeeds, Bench fails, principally due to a script written by someone who has seemingly never actually listened to two people having a conversation. Edgar's dialogue is nothing short of woeful. Characters speak only in stilted question and answers or strangely prosaic garbles of melodrama, impossible to make convincing. Characters Jennifer and Daniel manage to be both crudely drawn and one dimensional yet still strangely inconsistent, existing only to sulk about their own lives, emote angrily and eventually, without rhyme nor reason, apparently fall for each other despite neither of them being in any way likeable or endearing. Neither is remotely believable as a real person and the 'will they won't they' that should be driving the play is instead rendered at best inconsequential and at worst thoroughly tedious.
Given such vacuous roles there is little poor actors Matthew Wood and Lisa Dykes can do other than deliver the lines and hope the end arrives quickly. Dykes in particular was trying hard to wring something from the script, successfully portraying the bewildering array of emotions the text insisted upon and is clearly a talented performer when not hampered with a thankless part. Wood, despite his extensive CV listed in the programme struggles to rise above the material, delivering a pedestrian 'awkward young man' and little else.
As Jack Lester's first piece of direction outside of university, hopefully A Bench Under the Eiffel Tower will have illustrated some valuable lessons to take forward. Chiefly that play selection is everything and no matter how much sugar is added a rotten core will never be made to taste sweet. Also that, if a piece is entirely about tourists at the Eiffel Tower, surely they'd choose a bench where they could actually see the famous landmark and not sit facing away...