16 November 2013

Chalk Farm and Brown Bird at the Bush Theatre

This was my first visit to the Bush Theatre but it will probably not be my last, despite the horror journey there by bus on a Saturday evening. Why do so many people try to drive in London?

Next time I'll ignore the journey planner app and go by tube - Bush Theatre is right next to Shepherd's Bush Market station so that is the sensible option anyway.

Bush Theatre, like the Arcola, has a nice cafe/bar area to rest and recuperate before, during and after performances.The main seating area is enhanced by huge bookcases stuffed with scripts, most of which are for sale.

I went to see Chalk Farm because the company behind it, ThickSkin, were behind The Static, one of my highlights from last year.

That proved to be a mixed blessing as I was hoping for more of the same but while Chalk Farm was good it suffered in my mind in the comparison.

The other comparison that hurt Chalk Farm was with Mottled Lines (Orange Tree July 2012) which told the same story more imaginatively and more effectively.

Chalk Farm gave us an insight into the riots of 2011 from the perspectives of a young boy and his single mother who both got caught up in the riots in their own ways. The boy's story was much as expected but his mother's gave a very different perspective of the wider impacts of the riots and these involved her directly, i.e. they were not the result of being the boy's mother.

These two stories were told as narrative with the two actors talking directly to us most of the time and usually when alone on the stage. The stories intertwined with each actor saying their piece then making way for the the other to say theirs. Only a few times were the two actors on stage at the same time and talking to each other.

The acting was good and both characters were convincing. The only minor gripe that I had on this was that we learnt towards the end that the boy was 14 years old when the actor was clearly much older than that. I think that it would have been better if his age had been given as 16.

I was surprised, given the physical nature of The Static, of how little action there was on stage. Bush Theatre has a thrust stage with the audience on three sides but this open space was largely ignored with all the action taking place at the back. Chalk Farm may well have been developed for a normal (proscenium) stage but not using the open space at the front looked very odd, especially as I was sitting at the side, and it was almost as if the actors were afraid to venture out.

All that I have said so far may seem negative but that is only in comparison to my expectations. Chalk Farm was a warm and intelligent play and I liked it a lot.

I only saw Brown Bird because it was part of the double-bill and I had no idea what to expect.

Sadly many of the people there to see Chalk Farm left at the interval and did not have the courtesy to see the other play. That was their loss as Brown Bird was truly remarkable.

It was another narration, this time by an awkward and (sorry) not very attractive young woman who, we learn, is a leader for the Brownies, hence the Brown Bird. She is the only person that we met.

She tells us things about her life, the ungrateful auntie that she cares for, the woman she is in a relationship with, her dog, incidents from the past, what she does with the Brownies. It was all very warm and touching.

Then something happens and a nice story turned nasty. A lie became the truth and a secret that could have corrected it remained a secret. There are some (6!) lights in the darkness but it is a deep darkness and the life of a gentle, kind and selfless woman was torn apart.

The story was special and what made it even better was the way that it varied in pace and mood with, for example, one short sad memory being followed by a longer happy one.

The story needed a good storyteller and Paula Penman was superb.

Brown Bird had been totally involved and I was emotionally drained at the end. I would have hugged Paula for comfort had she not disappeared off stage.

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