Thursday 11th July 2013
Work-in-progress performance as part of Live Theatre’s Live Lab programme
The first thing you need to know about Vera Shrimp is that she isn’t finished. It’s always difficult to review work-in-progress: it’s as if you’ve been allowed a brief glimpse into a secret production facility before the mysterious product has been fully revealed to the public. So, sorry to disappoint, but I want this to be read as a preview, not a review.
Running as a one-woman show, writer and actor Alison Carr plays fourteen year old Vera Shrimp, an enigmatic teenager whose coping mechanism for the recent death of her mother is anything but conventional. Like Oliver Tate in Joe Dunthorne’s Submarine, Vera Shrimp has the not-at-all-enviable task of trying to cope with high school alongside a family breakdown. When her apparent friends appear to find delight in mocking her, and her Dad falls into despair, the social workers come calling and Vera realises the only person truly willing to help is herself.
I’ve only seen one other one-person play – Captain Amazing – but I very much respect how challenging it is to play several roles. Carr’s flaw is not in choosing to act the whole play herself – quite the opposite, I saw all of the requisite emotions and idiosyncrasies displayed with flare – but in her narrative framing. Set in the third person, with Carr’s default role being that of omniscient narrator, there is a sense of detachment that I couldn’t quite shake off. I take the point that argues for this impersonal narrator; I could even make a case for loving it, but in this play the subject matter felt too raw to be handled quite so, well, coldly. ‘Coldly’ is an understandably repellent word, both for an artist receiving criticism and a reviewer who should be able to deploy a more significant synonym, but in this case it feels right—Vera Shrimp resists some of the heat and confusion that would have been worth exploring from its critical source: inside Vera Shrimp’s head.
The moments where we do get a glimpse of life from Vera’s eyes are the most memorable parts of the play. There are some wonderful descriptions and anecdotes – Carr showing a real zest for a pithy turn of phrase. My favourite is Vera’s memory of her Mam reaching behind the seat on long car journeys to remind her that she hadn’t been forgotten. Later, this echoes superbly when Vera holds the urn of her Mam’s ashes to tell her that she hasn’t been forgotten. There is beauty and tragedy in this, but I think the play’s focus is currently tending more towards the abstract, which I must confess left me feeling a little confused. The idea of trying to salvage memories from rain drops is an interesting one, but I thought the execution had mixed results. Theatrically, Carr the narrator pulling the post it notes off the walls and giving them to the audience was a nice touch, but Vera the character reaching for such abstract terms as ‘embarrassed’ and ‘missed’ felt to me not quite true.
Vera’s memories of her mother, or precise details of her character, would, I feel, have made for more illuminating post it note descriptions. I appreciate that as an exercise in trying to reconstruct the dead, it is a conceit that has mileage, but it’s currently functioning at half-steam. And that’s a shame, because I think that the backbone of this play is very strong: the plot is timeless yet timely (I can’t be the only one who was reminded of the Newcastle floods last summer?); there is a strong sense of a world that has been necessarily shook up; and Vera and her supporting cast all feel like three dimensional characters. What I really think would enhance all of these things is a variation in pace – instances where sentences can hang, where the audience can breathe. It all felt quite a headlong rush, but for a first public run through I am not surprised.
That said, like so much of the rest of the play, The Soaking of Vera Shrimp has a very big heart and solid foundations to build upon. Vera as a character is great: she’s quirky, loving, yet somehow unknown and mysterious. For her to develop, and for the fictional world around her to feel just a little less drenched, I think Carr and her director, Rosie Kellagher, need to nail that admittedly difficult-to-nail narrative style so that the default presence of Carr always carries weight, which at the moment it doesn’t.
On the whole, Alison Carr has produced a witty, humorous and at times moving piece of theatre. To me, it is an unfinished piece of theatre, and I hope that the writer, director and supporting organisations won’t take it to heart when I say that, because I genuinely wish Vera all the best and wait with interest to see how far this promising start could take her.
The Soaking of Vera Shrimp previews at the ARC in Stockton tonight, Wednesday 17 July at 7pm. Find out more and book tickets.
By Jake Campbell @jakecampbell88
July’s Guest Theatre Blogger