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Cocktail Hour and Smokers at the Scene of a Crime
The Hen and Chickens
29th January 2015


I've recently been watching some West Wing. A bit late to the party, admittedly, but it's a very good series. Even if all of the characters are impossibly armed with a decade's worth of Government spending on quips. Seriously, all of the characters are walking one-liners. It's endearing yet exhausting as no one on earth is actually quick-witted as Josh Lyman et al, except possibly Stephen Fry. Or Joe Pasquale. No, definitely just Stephen Fry. Which brings us to the nub of double bill Cocktail Hour and Smokers at the Scene of a Crime - if writer Julia Armfield has no knowledge of the West Wing or creator Aaron Sorkin, I'll eat my hat.

The first two-hander sees brother and sister Miles (Nicholas Armfield) and Aggie (Sofia Stuart) hide upstairs at a family bash. As is inevitable in such stage scenarios, we're left to witness the emotional fallout as the real reason for them escaping their family is revealed. I mentioned the West Wing above (I'll be bleating on a lot about that throughout, believe me) but this also seems akin to Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton's TV series Inside No 9, and more specifically, the first episode titled Sardines. Praise indeed, yet while Laurence Cook's direction was assured, it was also distinctly less claustrophobic than it needed to be to have any of that Tales of the Unexpected chill.

Not to do down our two leads. The male Armfield was a sort of suaver Miles Jupp, whose regurgitating of some truly awful jokes still managed to raise a smile. Stuart showed real flashes of vulnerability that contributed to the truth of the piece, yet for both of their efforts, I can't help but think that through their reminisences, I knew their absent father best of all - showing both the strength and weakness in Julia Armfield's writing.

Photography provided by Micklegate Theatre Company

The second piece, Smokers at the Scene of a Crime, concerned the acerbic Martha (Eleanor Hafner) and Jack Whitehall-turned-businessman Ben (Alexander Wilson) booted out of a hotel following a fire alarm. The two talk and again, as is the general rule, secrets are revealed as the pair grow closer. It's certainly the more banter-heavy of the two, with Rosa crompton ensured each line's played for laughs, which it garnered from both the audience and, I'm happy to say, me. Even if one of those jokes, about sniffing glue, would be oddly familiar to Adrian Mole readers. Again, it's hard to fault either Wilson or Hafner - the latter in particular is a force to be reckoned with.

The real beef I have with the Sorkin element to these plays is that forcing a snappy back-and-forth banter often comes at the cost of real character building or development. If everyone's super-snarky with an answer at all times, they become distinctly homogenous. This is evidenced by the female characters in both plays repeating the phrase "bad juju", something that wouldn't come up twice if you constantly filmed two different women for three months... I... umm... imagine. Unlike The West Wing, there's not 100-plus hours to flesh these guys out into real people. Don't get me wrong, what Armfield does, she does bloomin' well, but the jokes can detract from the creation of something more substantial and emotionally rewarding.

Still, this is the first stage writing from Armfield in an inaugural show from Micklegate Theatre and, fingers crossed, these problems can be ironed out through experience. I don't think the smokers will set the world alight just yet, but you certainly won't need to have come straight from a cocktail hour to enjoy these one-acts.

Cocktail Hour and Smokers opened on 27th January and run until 31st January 2015 at the Hen and Chickens.

Nearest tube station: Highbury & Islington (Overground, Victoria)

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