Having seen Castle Theatre Company’s previous verbatim theatre offering Motherland last year, I was excited to say the least when I entered the woefully empty Assembly Rooms Theatre auditorium last night to watch their latest show, Nadia Fall’s Home. Durham’s theatrical scene is often lambasted for failing to stage contemporary theatre, so CTC’s decision to present Home was a bold and refreshing step into the 21st century. Home celebrates diversity in its various forms, and director Leying Lee should be commended for managing to create a realistic, frank, and engaging insight into the lives of the residents of Target East, an inner-city high rise hostel.
Lee’s director’s note claims that the testimonies of Target East’s residents are presented “without pretence or agenda” and this is mostly true; whilst some speeches are clearly designed to elicit an emotional response from the audience, we are never invited to treat the residents as villains, meaning that even when characters espouse racist or problematic views, we see them more as products of their situation rather than intrinsically flawed in an irreparable way. With verbatim theatre, it is important that the audience feel that a real person is speaking, as opposed to an actor acting to them, and the cast for the most part, did this well, constantly addressing one area that was clearly meant to be the interviewer questioning them.
It is difficult to praise individuals in such a strong ensemble, but some cast members gave particularly nuanced performances that must be individually commended. Erin Welch, as Sharon, had the impressive ability to not appear as a university student on stage, but as a woman tasked with having to act as the figure that holds the citizens of Target East together. Her interactions with other characters felt intensely real. Owen Sparkes, as Singing Boy, was given the difficult task of opening the show but kept pace throughout his initial monologue with a childlike energy and nervousness that reflected the uncertainty of his, and many of the other characters’ situations at Target East. Particular praise must be given to Rachelle Ojomo as Jade, who spent the majority of her time on stage beatboxing. Given that Ojomo only learned to beatbox for this production, her ability to convey a wide range of emotions, and her character’s story arcs, through perfectly timed sounds and facial expressions, was extraordinary.
Louisa Mathieu’s Garden Girl was an excellent and fully realised portrayal of someone for whom Target East is not a safe haven, in contrast to many other characters, who had positive experiences in the hostel. Her ability to stay in character whilst singing was wonderful, and her monologues, for me, were some of the most emotionally resonant of the production. Hannah Azuonye’s performance as Eritrean Girl, who was smuggled into the country in a lorry, helped Home feel especially relevant and contemporary. Azuonye’s depiction was nothing less than fantastic, for me the standout performance of the night. Her accent was impeccable throughout and her speech was one of the few times that I had my attention held by an actor on the stage for the full length of their monologue.
Despite many wonderful individual performances, some characters seemed awkward in group scenes. A notable exception was Clarissa Lonsdale, who should be commended for her unfailing ability to stay in character; her desire to look after the other characters was heart-warming and sweet. Some monologues occasionally did feel removed from the hostel setting the production was trying to create. That being said, it was the duologue scenes where the production really felt grounded in its East London setting. This was particularly true of an exchange between Sarah Slimani’s Bullet and Fewa Olu-Martins’ Ex-Resident. Slimani, in particular, was excellent at grasping the emotional resonance of her monologue, as well as the comedic elements of the play, something I felt could have been accessed better by other cast members, and her nuanced performance brought a much-needed energy to a first half that had begun to lack in pace. Another duologue that reinforced the message of the play was that between Eritrean Girl and Thomas Roberts’ Key Worker. Azuonye’s panicked utterance of “I don’t know this life” was reflective of the uncertainty and desperate existence of many of East London’s homeless, and Roberts’ lack of concern really brought to life the fact that for some people, the system doesn’t always work.
Music was used throughout the production to varying degrees of success. The use of current chart hits made the play feel relevant, but some characters bursting into song sometimes felt awkward and stunted, and detracted from the dramatic potential that their monologues had. An exception to this was Plan B’s “Playing With Fire”, which brought the play to a successful climax. The play itself was interestingly staged; producers Tom Mack and Charlotte Thomas should be commended for their attention to detail with props in the breakfast club scenes. The choice to have each scene change designated by a new chalk drawing on the stage was simple and effective, really giving each individual scene and character a sense of identity. The scene changes themselves however, were often unnecessarily long and meant that the energy dropped between scenes. The cast shouldn’t be afraid to talk whilst something is being drawn behind them, because for many of them, their individual characterisation was strong enough to not have any background action be distracting.
Overall, despite some clear pacing issues, missed cues, and questionable miming, the cast and crew have managed to create a realistic and frank depiction of a world that we in the Durham bubble may often ignore. Lee’s production is one that knows its strengths and plays to them, and will only grow over its next two performances.