Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Review: Blue Lines (The Hive, GM Fringe)

Monday 15th July 2019
Theatre, King’s Arms, Salford

This year’s Greater Manchester Fringe is on throughout July, and I’m reviewing shows for this blog and for North Manchester FM. On Monday 15th July, I saw my next show from the festival programme – Blue Lines by Stefanie Moore. Blue Lines is one of three shows that have been produced for this year’s festival as part of the Arts Council-funded Hive project. Writer Stefanie Moore developed her debut play with mentoring by Tim Firth and Mike Heath, after winning her place on the scheme at the scratch night in January. You can hear my radio interview of the play on North Manchester FM on Tuesday, but here’s the blog version…

You may remember I interviewed Moore about the play for my Hannah’s Bookshelf Greater Manchester Fringe Special at the end of June. Having talked a little bit about what to expect from Blue Lines, I was very much looking forward to seeing the final product. And I’m pleased to say I wasn’t disappointed!

Blue Lines is a one-act play, a two-hander, which stars Nicole Evans and Jenna Sian O’Hara. Evans plays Sarah, a sex-ed teacher, tasked with both introducing her charges to the facts of life and answering any questions they throw at her. She is somewhat overwhelmed and under-enthused by the job, but an early example of the sort of questions she is faced with justifies this. (One question in particular, which Moore mentioned in our June interview is simultaneously hilarious and terrifying – especially with the knowledge that it is a genuine question drawn from Moore’s own teaching experience.)

O’Hara plays Abby, a 15-year-old student who is pregnant. Abby turns to Sarah for advice, not knowing that her teacher is struggling with her own issues around pregnancy and motherhood. Sarah is ‘trying for a baby’, but she’s struggling to conceive. Abby has accidentally fallen pregnant after her first (and only) sexual encounter.

The play takes place over the course of a couple of weeks. This is a difficult thing to handle in a short space of time, but wisely the production avoids multiple scene and costume changes. Almost all the scenes take place in Sarah’s classroom, which is transformed into a doctor’s surgery for one scene. The classroom setting allows for a neat little detail to show the passage of time – scenes often begin with ‘Miss’ writing the day’s date on the board – but otherwise there’s little alteration from one scene to the next. The effect of this is to concentrate the audience’s focus on the characters and their story, and allows for this to develop with a controlled pace.

Blue Lines is driven, not only by individual performances, but also by the strong and believable dynamic between the two. Evans is sympathetic and relatable as Sarah. Slightly highly strung, she switches between frosty, brittle and vulnerable as she initially attempts to keep Abby at arm’s length. However, as the audience comes to realize what Sarah is holding beneath the surface, Evans’s performance becomes even more nuanced – and really quite moving.

O’Hara is just excellent as schoolgirl Abby, convincingly evoking that precarious balance between childhood and adulthood in a believable and sympathetic way. Abby gets a lot of the funniest lines, but the audience is (almost always) laughing with, rather than at, her. Where we are encouraged to laugh at her naivety, there’s a gentleness and affection to this that steers away from outright mockery. Nevertheless, Abby also gets to deliver a lot of the ‘wisdom’ of the play, which is done with subtlety and a light touch.

What really impressed me was the relationship between the two. Evans and O’Hara have a great on-stage chemistry, and their interactions are infused with a warmth and humanity that leaves the audience really rooting for a good outcome for both. It would have been easy to play the relationship for laughs, or veer towards cliché, but Evans and O’Hara keep things down-to-earth and convincing throughout.

Again, there are some very funny lines in the play. Personally, some of my favourite moments came when the humour collided directly with the more serious and painful issues that underpin the story. A particular favourite was an exchange about a monkey sanctuary, which builds from an off-the-cuff (and slightly absurd) statement from Abby into a well-timed exchange that reveals a lot about both characters and captures something a bit more profound than just monkeys.

Evans and O’Hara’s performances are great, but credit must also be given to Moore’s script. The dialogue is really excellent, and the lines for both characters are written with sensitivity: laugh-out-loud humour at times, and pathos (even pain) at others. While I would happily have watched much longer performances from the two actors – and I found that, even after just an hour, I had become quite attached to their characters – Moore pitches the narrative arc just right. There is just enough story here, and the play ends where it needs to end.

While Blue Lines is a play that’s unashamedly about pregnancy, fertility and motherhood, it is also a study of two particular characters. I have no doubt that many audience members will find things to identify with at various moments, and some of the dialogue will have familiarity for some. However, the play wisely avoids gesturing at universality, and it has lots to recommend it to those of us who aren’t interested in having babies! Again, this is carried through a combination of sensitive characterization and strong performances. Blue Lines is the story of Sarah and Abby, and the way their individual problems intersect for a brief period of time.

Overall, Blue Lines is a well-written, funny and relatable piece, with excellent performances from its two actors. It’s a definite recommendation from me.

Blue Lines is on at the King’s Arms from 15th-17th July, the Way Theatre, Atherton on 19th and 20th July, and the Bury Met on 20th July, as part of this year’s Greater Manchester Fringe. To see the full programme for this year’s Fringe, visit the festival website.

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