They say the best things come in small packages. And the inventive SKINT Theatre prove this to be true. Deep in the basement of Bristol’s ‘The Island’ over the bank holiday weekend, small gems emerge within the rough-and-ready surroundings as ten different artists present their “Stranger Tales” – mini fifteen-minute stories, sometimes blackly comic, often thrillingly alive, and always eccentric. Surely the first of its kind in the UK, this micro-theatre festival promises the most intimate of experiences and certainly delivers; all performances unfold within cramped prison cells and audience interaction is often a focus. A theatrical version of Quality Street, some offer up sweet treats and surprising centres while others leave a slightly bitter aftertaste that had this reviewer grasping for the cell door.
One such was Ben Crowden’s ‘THE SHADOW CHANCELLOR’ (**), in which a silhouetted figure – a haunted, doom-laden politician – unburdens himself in a twisted, poetic monologue that nods briefly to H.P. Lovecraft but without capturing his compelling surreality or genuine sense of horror. What seems a novel concept quickly descends into a faintly pretentious, opaque dirge that cannot be saved by the odd arresting image or zingy line.
No such problems with ‘THE DEATH (AND LIFE) OF MIKE MALLOY’ (***), with its glorious dark humour and sense of the ridiculous. Babble Theatre’s tale of a seemingly invincible Irish drunkard, as related by three gossipy prostitutes, is quite the whirl of energy, and with a meta-theatrical tinge places its tongue firmly in its cheek. It’s not subtle by any means and the story feels too squashed for the brief time slot but there are interesting staging choices and while the three spirited performers all register highly, the stand-out is Belinda Day Stella, whose sparky presence and comic timing significantly elevates proceedings.
Having never needed therapy before, the intriguing premise of ‘DR WEITZMAN WILL SEE YOU NOW’ (****) prompted me into a session with the imposing Swiss psychiatrist of the title (Peter Baker, with his wonderful mix of withering asides, hint of smugness, and glimpses of pure absurdity). As Weitzman gains insight into his audience, the laughter ramps up through our embarrassment at various attempts to understand us – the ink blot challenge, reversing words, non-verbal communication with our neighbour – and then is suddenly cut short by a simple but clever twist. Baker’s off-the-cuff attitude and easy interaction with his crowd only serves to increase the daft fun and the audience greedily laps it up. Whereas Baker slowly raises the stakes throughout, Unforced Errors’ ‘LOVE AND DEATH’ (*****) begins like a champion racehorse charging from the blocks and hardly ever lets up. Adam Elms’ sublime script about a poor soul’s last-ditch attempt to find love at speed-dating after a string of sudden deaths amongst his exes, is one of the wittiest, cleverest pieces of writing I’ve seen in years. With its lashings of black comedy, heartbreakingly tender moments, and beautifully fluid staging, the company packs more into fifteen minutes than some manage in a hour. And the final twist is ingenious. Elms and his co-star, Lindsey Huebner (who plays multiple roles with aplomb) give effortless, electric performances – hilariously funny and eminently watchable – and their chemistry is magnetic. I could have gone back again and again.
Another piece which deserves a repeat attendance (or several) is ‘SPOOKY GHOST STORIES’ (****). Greeted at the door and ushered in by Will Seaward – the love child of Brian Blessed and H.G. Wells – we are then treated to a magnificently silly slice of storytelling. Think Jackanory on magic mushrooms. Seaward’s bouncy enthusiasm and booming cackle are infectious and his tales (I heard one involving pirates spotting “LAMB AHOY!”) deviate wildly off-course into ridiculous scenarios and blissfully mad non-sequiturs. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea but if you give yourself over to Seaward’s endearing personality and fascinating command of language, you may find tears of joy streaking your cheeks. But whereas Seaward employs surreal situations for purely comic effect, I Am Nincompoop’s ‘WELCOME TO MY WORLD’ (***) manages to inject a healthy dose of pathos into their offering alongside some gentle wit and playful audience involvement. We are invited to a strange underground picnic – “I suppose you want to escape it all up there too” whispers our grime-infested oddball of a host (a masterclass in characterisation from Lucy Harrington) but it’s a pretty shambolic affair – we are coerced into sharing sins, caring for stuffed animals, and watch as ancient Bourbon biscuits are laid before us. And our host is twitchy. When jaunty piano music interrupts (and it does, often), her whole body goes rigid with fear and anger and we are admonished as being the culprits. There is a whiff of sadness threaded throughout and the sinister sting in the tail darkens the mood even further. Still, the piece feels a little thin and not always as sharp as it could be. As much of a strong presence as Harrington is, I left wanting more.
However mixed the artists, SKINT Theatre’s small microcosm of creativity is both exciting and original. We need more theatre like this – short, sharp, affordable, varied, and thought-provoking. Theatre that grasps the imagination, that has a direct connection between performer and spectator. It’ll grow, you mark my words. And so will SKINT. You heard it here first.
reviewed by Holly Georgeson