The British Empire feels like an octopus, its tentacles stretching out across the globe and touching all continents, everything feeding back into the main body at the centre. Porcelain from China; tea from India; foodstuffs from the West Indies, all passing from Britain for the upper classes to cream the profits off the top. But when a World War hits, the tentacles require people, blood sacrifices to help support the war effort. Hundreds of thousands of deaths from across the empire, dozens of nationalities. Towards the end of Patricia Cumper’s powerfully evocative Chigger Foot Boys, Rhodes scholar and Oxford law graduate Norman Manley (Jonathan Chambers) reflects in his halls of residence on the pointlessness of it all, musing out loud to the memory of his dead brother Roy (John Leader) who perished in a trench as part of the war effort. Jump back to a night in a rum shack before it all began, a competitive game of dominoes between four men creates a nostalgia that the audience feel throughout Irina Brown’s production.
Alan Bennett is a scary motherfucker – he hijacks the sound system, the lights dim and his distinctive voice pervades the cavernous stage haunting the performers and filling them with dread. The Monks of Umami are brought together to pay tribute to a comedy show first heard in the 1950s basement of Radio Stoke. Alan Bennett is obviously not a fan of revisiting these memories. Radiodyssey is constantly plagued by the mention of the dreaded northern playwright. Comedy sketch artists Thom Jordan, Elliot Hall and Jordan Dunbar have no choice but to soldier on.
Miss Lizzie Borden (Bjørg Gamst) takes an axe, looks scared and alone, walks centre stage, and dramatically breaks open two watermelons, her father and stepmother. Somebody Will Do Something is the climactic end to Act 1 as guts and gore splatter across the front row. Lizzie wipes the gore on her white undergarments and the transformation into her psychotic alter ego is complete. It’s sudden, it’s instantaneous and when all four ladies return for Act 2, the period costumes and conservative hairstyles and replaced with burlesque, rock chick chic. Victoria Bussert’s production of Lizzie is too obvious, too black and white in its characterisation; ironic given the level of colour in Martin Jensens’s lighting design, Michael Nøhr’s costumes and Michael Skytte’s hair.
Emily (Makenna Guyler) ends up coated in blood, sick and who knows what other fluids, her hair dishevelled and her plucky energy at rock bottom. She’s a newly qualified nurse, working in ITU under exceptional pressure, in unacceptable conditions and with no-one to turn to for comfort, advice or to get things off her chest. Sally (Stephanie Silver) slowly squirts more and more blood onto her once perfect scrubs, pulls her hair out of the precisely formed bun. She is the ward sister, 8 years’ experience of the day in, day out stresses of the job. She doesn’t set out to make Emily’s life a misery, she’s there to be her mentor – emotional empathy not one of her strong suits it appears. Toughen up, that’s all that’s needed. Apparently not.