Friday, 15 July 2022

Review: HYENAS! (Sugar Butties, GM Fringe)

Monday 11 July 2022
King’s Arms Theatre, Salford

The Greater Manchester Fringe is on throughout July at various venues around Greater Manchester. And, as usual, I’m going to be reviewing a selection of the productions on offer for this blog, and also for The Festival Show on North Manchester FM.

On Monday 11th July, I was at the King’s Arms Theatre to see a double bill from Sugar Butties. In my last review, I talked about The Olive Tree, the first half of that double bill, so now it’s time to turn to the second half, HYENAS! The radio version of this review will be going out on The Festival Show on Friday 15th July, but here’s the blog version…

Like the first half of this double bill, The Olive Tree, HYENAS! is a one-act, one-woman show. It’s written and performed by Olivia Nicholson, and it’s set on a hen weekend in Spain.

As the show opens, Nicholson walks into the room in a short, sequinned dress, face plastered in makeup, greeting the audience as though we were fellow guests at the party. I can’t remember exactly which song was playing as she entered, but I’m sure you can imagine the soundtrack that was used here. ‘Livin’ La Vida Loca’ was one of the very evocative numbers used, for instance.

Nicholson plays four characters in HYENAS!, transitioning seamlessly between them. She is Kirsty (the bride-to-be), Lauren (her friend from work), Sarah (a mousy schoolteacher who seems out of her depth with the other hens) and Tasha (who is a bit more cougar than hyena, truth be told). The first character we meet is Lauren, who walks around the room, asking us all how we know the bride-to-be and sharing some little stories of her own.

I’ll get this out of the way now – like The Olive Tree, HYENAS! involves audience participation, and not always of the gentler kind. Nicholson puts audience members on the spot, asking questions like ‘How do you know Kirsty?’ that requires them to improvise a response in front of everyone. At one point, Lauren greets Kirsty, and an audience member has to improvise as an actual character from the play. I have to say, I think this type of audience participation works better in HYENAS! than in The Olive Tree, but that’s because it has a more confrontational style from the off. Unlike the gentle intimacy of Forrest’s confessional storytelling, the hen night setting of HYENAS! immediately evokes the potential for discomfort and tension (playing with the stereotype of such an event).

Initially, Lauren also seems something of a stereotype. Her mode of speech and mannerisms (particularly the way Nicholson mimes her sucking on the straw of her cocktail, which is 100% played for laughs) are exaggerated and caricatured. And while you might be forgiven for thinking that you’ve seen this all before (at first anyway), there are three very good reasons for the exaggeration.

Firstly, and most straightforwardly, it allows Nicholson to show off her undoubted talents as a comic performer. While these characters are stereotypes, she captures them beautifully with pitch-perfect timing.

Secondly, the OTT construction of the characters allows the audience to clearly distinguish between the four of them. There are no costume or makeup changes as Nicholson transitions from one character to the next; they’re differentiated by her performance, not by physical appearance. This was done very well – there were no points where Nicholson slipped and, for example, accidentally said a Sarah line in a Lauren voice, or missed a character’s trademark mannerism.

But it’s the third reason that really appealed to me. Of course, none of the characters are, actually, the caricatures we believe them to be. In each case, the brash comedy character is concealing something darker and more painful. This isn’t necessarily unexpected – ‘tears of a clown’ is, after all, a staple of many darkly comedic performances – but it is done well here.

Lauren’s character is an in-your-face mixture of vapidity and rudeness. But another side emerges when she removes herself from the party and goes into the toilets. I won’t spoil anything here, but she has a phone conversation with her husband that goes to a very different place than I was expecting and was surprisingly moving.

Sarah and Tasha also have hidden depths, though Nicholson plays with different ways of revealing these. The character Sarah acts out her secret pain in a flashback that is laugh-out-loud funny – almost farcical – but framed by a hard edge of very real anguish and subtle detail that precedes the flashback, which conjures something really rather unpleasant. Nicholson performs this scene very quickly after Sarah’s first appearance, meaning that the audience’s reaction to her subsequent scenes is always informed by it.

Tasha is presented in a different way. Her backstory – the potential darkness that lies behind her sexually voracious and not particularly pleasant exterior – comes through a rather louche monologue (supposedly a dialogue, though the other participant doesn’t respond) in which she explains her past relationship history. This is very much a story told through implication and hint, and it ends with a somewhat unsettling punchline.

But, as one would expect on a hen weekend, it’s the bride who gets the most attention. Kirsty is even more of a caricature than Lauren at first glance. Her pout, her girly intonation, her repeated refrain of ‘jokes’, her bridezilla demand that everyone wear the same little red dress on a night out all work to convey a character we think we already know.

However, it is probably Kirsty who has the most depth here. Nicholson reveals Kirsty’s backstory in a fragmented, distorted way. We learn early on that her mother has passed away, but later in the play are hints that there is something else, something even darker, to the story. A light-hearted Mr and Mrs quiz, in which the questions (written, fortunately, not improvised) are read out by members of the audience, gives an indication that the groom-to-be might not be the catch Kirsty has been making out. We see more of this later in the play, as Kirsty’s story culminates in a monologue delivered over the top of the karaoke song she’s supposed to be singing. For a play that’s so loud and in-your-face, the amount that’s left unsaid is impressive.

Overall, I really enjoyed HYENAS! And it is a great companion piece to The Olive Tree. The two shows complement each other beautifully. Both use comedy – often physical, parodic or caricatured comedy – to good effect, but the comedy is deceptive. There is real pain behind the laughs in both plays, though The Olive Tree uses its bittersweet narrative style to present pain as a life experience from which one can learn and change, and HYENAS! has a more raw, unhealed pain that screams, rather than cries, behind the laughter.

Like Forrest in The Olive Tree, Nicholson is an assured performer. And while I may not have been entirely comfortable with all the elements of audience participation in the two shows, it should be acknowledged that it’s a mark of two confident and prepared performers that they would risk it!

Ultimately, The Olive Tree and HYENAS! are both plays that get to grips with something about the human condition, though with different styles and tones. I really enjoyed this double bill and I’m looking forward to seeing what Sugar Butties do next. I enjoyed seeing Forrest and Nicholson’s solo pieces, but I think I’d also enjoy seeing them perform together in the future.

HYENAS! was on at the King’s Arms Theatre on 11th and 12th July, as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe. For the full programme of Greater Manchester Fringe shows on this year, please visit the festival website.

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