‘Clouds puffed up like dirty bubblegum,’ – that’s the line which, for lack of better words, sticks with me, as I take in Jan’s latest play at Chester Little Theatre. More accurately it’s three, self-contained, intense glimpses of life, or as the title suggests, Small Tales. And it’s wonderful.
I feel cruel telling you this because the remaining three nights are sold out. But hopefully, I can still convince you to keep an ear to the ground for any future work from Jan, so that you can be one of those smug people, snapping up in-demand tickets.
So why is it wonderful? Numerous reasons. Let’s start with the venue itself. I’ve seen several plays at Chester Little Theatre, and each time I marvel at the quality of experience delivered by this intimate venue. Tickets are incredibly reasonable, Jan’s play, for example, was a steal at £7. Every seat is a great seat here. Last night, almost back row, I was still close enough to catch each subtle, fleeting expression, each uttered, crystal clear word.
Moving swiftly on to Jan herself. Though admittedly, I may be biased (Jan is my go-to theatre reviewer and her writing is prompt and faultless – an Editor’s dream), she’s one hell of a gifted playwright. And it was a delight to find that out. It’s always a bit nerve-wracking the first time you check out the work of someone you know, afraid you won’t like it and will have to conceal your honest reaction.
But as I settled into the first snapshot of life, a story about loss, nostalgia and mother-in-laws with high expectations, I relaxed, became quickly absorbed, fell in love with some truly beautiful lines, laughed out loud, and soon couldn’t wait to run over to Jan and tell her exactly what I thought of her opening night. She clearly has a real knack for creating absorbing, complex family dynamics for the stage, paired with a keen awareness of when a little comedic light is needed and makes sense.
The second tale – which called on the audience for a touch of their imagination (mine was certainly eagerly given) focused on a woman sitting on her balcony, telling amusing stories about her neighbour. We pictured the view as instructed: activities sweeping across The Square below, the neighbour singing and tending to her plants, the heat of the day. I’m always impressed when a lengthy monologue holds my attention – it was an intricately woven balance of idiosyncracies, entertaining observations and clever asides. The perfect middle course for the night.
Our final small tale was delivered after the intermission and the most intense; a young man returns home for the first time since fleeing on bad terms, for his Uncle’s funeral. Secrets spill out (we’re expertly drip-fed) and drama ensues. Jan encourages us to sit in the drama, it’s not overdone (an easy trap) or clumsily handled, but instead drawn out slowly, pauses used to great effect – the actors are given room to stretch out. I was hooked and moved. Don’t tell anyone by my eyes were watering (I shudder at the thought of public displays of emotion, but luckily the brief pitch black at the end allowed me time to pull myself together).
Stand out performances for me were Marian Newman who took the lead role in 2 of the 3 snippets (energetic and engaging), Jan’s husband, Ray Bengree (Jan wrote the part for him) who had the audience chuckling and delighted as an Irish pub landlord and Mark Newman who played the gentle, caring family friend so authentically in the final instalment, that I considered asking him if he fancied consoling me on my problems over a pint.
The cast amplified Jan’s talent, as did whoever was responsible for the stage direction (it’s performed and directed by Against the Grain) – proof that even with a small space and a few props to hand, good writing delivered well, crafts magic. Credit to all involved.
Of course, Jan is no beginner – she’s delivered several pieces of work, met with great acclaim. If the speedy ticket sales are anything to go by, she has quite the loyal, and deserved following in Chester. So you’ll have to be quick off the mark for future shows. I also hope the majority of them will take place in Chester Little Theatre – nothing against other capable venues, it’s just that this place is special (if a touch warm – layers advised). There’s a community here – laughter and good vibes as soon as you enter and the sense that many guests are die-hard regulars and chuffed about it.
So please, keep an eye on them both – this charming theatre and talented writer – gems that keep Chester interesting and cool.
Photos from rehearsals, courtesy of Stephen Cain.