Theatre Review: The Envelope Project

The Envelope Project

Friday 18 – Saturday 19 July 2014, Friargate Theatre, York

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“THE ENVELOPE PROJECT is a writing project run by Script Yorkshire (York Branch) in which five writers were encouraged to take a step away from their own imagination by developing new one-act plays from anonymous stimulus material contained within an envelope. A picture, a place, a line of dialogue, a piece of music, a random object – these were the items that each writer found in the envelope they took away from that first meeting, and would provide the starting point for the script they would write and develop over the coming months.”

GOOD GRIEF – written by Richard Kay, directed by Ruby Clarke, starring Claire Morley and James Martin

Ruby Clarke’s short play had a tough role to fulfill in being first on stage – the crowd-warmer. Obviously, event organiser and writer Rebecca Thomson knew what she was doing, in starting and ending the evening with very strong pieces. Clarke’s voice is a thoughtful, compassionate one. Good Grief gave us an insightful glimpse into a relationship in different periods of its evolution, imposing on a pair of young lovers a weight that many carry and many succumb to – cancer. The short piece takes an inspired turn in the way the characters choose to deal with the illness. It’s a messy situation involving family, genetics, loyalty, perception, acceptance and the burden of taking responsibility for your choices without knowing if they will turn out to be the right ones. Perhaps the pair will never know if they were meant to be together, or whether cancer would have taken definitive hold of one or both of them. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. The story explored a situation I haven’t seen before, which is quite something to be said of new writing from our generation. It was considered, touching and empowered, and had an inspiring female voice at its helm. Points of contention for me were the difficulty in performing such a naturalistic script; it is never easy to fake laughter or physical intimacy, and I felt that it should have been the director’s decision to adapt these moments slightly to steer the play away from those inevitably awkward moments. These and the moment when the boyfriend’s mother started to sing felt rather ungreased and jarring, though with some work, I’m sure would enhance the story in the way Clarke hoped. The actors were all very likeable, though seemed much younger than their sentiments and language suggested. However, this did not detract from the emotional impact of the piece.

A SPORTING AFFAIR   – written by Alice Mapplebeck, directed by Rochelle Reynolds, starring Elizabeth Cooke and Thomas Cocker

Another incredibly likeable trio of actors, this time with a slightly more fractured script – I believe this was an early work for Alice Mapplebeck as a stage writer being performed in York, and the piece shows traits that a lot of emerging writers display. For example, there is quite a bit of to-ing and fro-ing that doesn’t seem to advance the story; characters keep disappearing into different rooms on various unelaborated errands, though it did add to the harmless charm of the characters that carried the piece. There was an odd sense of repetition of themes despite the very secular nature of the writing project behind the evening: a young pair of lovers going on holiday to the Lake District to save their relationship. No harm in this, of course – a York audience could easily relate. The relationship between the lovers here is somewhat inexplicable, given the disparity between their fundamental emotional needs. You find yourself half rooting for them though, if not as a pair then at least as individuals, and the brief touch of unflinching friendship between the sisters is really lovely. This was another piece that entertained me while setting off my imagination at the same time.

STONE – written by Helen Shay, directed by Marian Mantovani, starring Angie Shaw and Matt Simpson

I found this piece the black sheep of the bunch. Oddly endearing while being so alien to my own experience and encounters, this play had a sort of Jean Genet feel about it: in the hesitant, lilting relationship between the lovers, in the image of them dancing together in a tacky nightclub, in their shoulder-shrugging acceptance of life being something that just kind of happens to you. The writing was tough to work with; there were moments when characters ‘walked off’, staying just on the edge of the stage simply because they needed to hang about for the next bit of dialogue, and there were extended, meandering monologues. There was enough real stuff there, though. I still wanted to get close to these people, and to watch more of their elastic tie to each other. I can imagine a similar pair of characters making slightly less effort to be liked by the audience in a film by Mike Leigh.

NEVER HAVE I EVER– written by Rebecca Thomson, directed by Jan Kirk, starring Lucy Simpson and Alex Schofield & featuring Beryl Nairn

We’ve all played it. (Well, a lot of us have, especially those who have graduated from university or other periods of life in which drinking and parties are the unquestioned way of life.) The trap of our duo in Never Have I Ever in becoming something profoundly less in their adult life together than their adolescent souls promised before they came together is heartbreaking. Here, more convincingly than in Good Grief, the young actors conveyed a depth of character far beyond what one might expect from performers their age. The pair were captivating; Schofield chilling and Simpson so winningly vulnerable and honest that she invited protective instincts despite her clear wisdom. A bitterly sharp use of repetition of certain lines adds a poignancy to the dialogue, which earlier dances tentatively like the lovers. I saw in Becky Thomson’s touching and sadly relatable short play a snapshot of the naivety and disillusionment of intellectuals of our generation who are brought up to question and to hope, and later learn to live with the disappointment of the traditional kitchen sink drama that they have heard a hundred times and assumed they would avoid. A timeless story worth retelling in Thomson’s unique voice. I look forward to her next piece, as her writing is always thoughtful, structured and interesting, and tends to involve some clever and pleasing use of language.

S.O.S – written by Tom Straszewski, directed by Joe Steele, starring Ian Giles and Richard Easterbrook

The final piece of the evening was outstanding. By far the most accomplished of the evening, Straszewski and Steele pulled off a short play that superceded the accepted production values of community theatre. It should be said that they were onto a winner with their leading man. Ian Giles is a professional-standard actor who had the audience in the palm of his hand from the word ‘go’. His storytelling manner was simply superb, and he carried a thrilling, chilling story with nothing but a few wooden crates behind him. Refreshingly this story does not revolve around a couple, but it does evolve from the protagonist’s opening monologue to introduce Richard Easterbrook in the role of a retired seafarer, who claims the wonderful climax of the play. The sound design was clever, though perhaps under-used; it was a slight distraction to have the musicians sitting on stage, poised, so that we were always awaiting their next mischievous move. S.O.S. was exciting and inspiring, theatre at its best, and I couldn’t help but think just how lucky everyone was to be involved in it. Straszewski is a writer I would love to work with, and, failing that, I will be keeping a keen eye on his future works.

Overall, The Envelope Project was a fantastic showcase opportunity for all the artists involved, and a fantastic night’s entertainment and brain-and-soul-fodder. Here’s hoping for a 2015 revival.

Watch the trailer for The Envelope Project here

Read the blog here – hopefully we’ll see more appearing there one day.

Check out a gallery of production shots here on their Facebook page