Performing Solo

A play format for our times? Solo shows are on the increase in theatre calendars. And a lottery has just awarded me a chance to perform a solo show in the 2011 Chicago Fringe, so I’m now taking any chance I can get to see solo shows.

If you haven’t seen one, perhaps you think a show in which one actor plays all the parts might be difficult to watch. But if the show is well written and the actor is good, you are in for a top-quality theatrical experience. You can certainly expect that from a Hunt and Laurence production like the two I saw recently. On top of the raw emotion and intimacy which live theatre brings, a one-person show is uniquely personal. Solo acting thrives on eye-contact and directly addressing the audience. You can feel like a solo observer.

I enjoyed two Hunt and Laurence productions at the Cheltenham Everyman Theatre on January 14 and 15. Each was about a dynamic, powerful woman, who significantly pushed the envelope restricting women’s potential. The first was Fast Woman¸ the story of Helle Nice, a leading French racing driver in the 1930’s. The playwright, Stewart Howson, says “Helle had style, she had class, she had guts”. He shows that well in his script. Its only oily patch is where it departs from Nice’s own story, when she mentions musical comedies other than the one she is in. It took me a while to stop skidding, and refocus on Helle Nice.

Directed by Fine Time Fontayne, Sandra Hunt played Nice superbly with all the energy and verve you would expect from a sexy French woman who started life as a dancer and skier and graduated to motor racer. A dancer herself, Hunt showed that side of Helle Nice convincingly, then had her audience living through a skiing accident; the excitement of motor racing success with Bugatti and Alfa Romeo, competing against the best men drivers; and surviving a horrific crash when spectators invaded a race. Nice’s life veers wildly from success to failure in sport and in her romances, but she remains perky and positive – even after being left in penury by her last big romance. By turns it’s funny, breath-taking, impressive, moving, glamorous, and devastating.

The second Hunt and Laurence show I saw was The Key to the Garden, the story of Frances Hodgson Burnett, author of The Secret Garden and Little Lord Fauntleroy. A real tour de force, the play is written and performed by Rachel Laurence, and directed by Sandra Hunt. Laurence’s immense empathy with her subject stems from a sense of identity that starts with the fact that both are Lancashire lasses, born in Manchester. By contrast with Helle Nice, Frances Hodgson Burnett led a much calmer life, but one that has more lasting vibes in modern culture through her creativity. Prodigiously successful, she was the J K Rowling of her era. Her story of financial and family pressures forcing her productivity is one that the less adventurous of us will identify with readily. And many women will enjoy how she persevered with, then escaped, the misery of a domineering, grasping husband and found happiness in a second marriage and wonderful garden. The highest praise I can give to Laurence’s first-class writing and acting is that I genuinely forgot for much of the evening that I was not actually listening to Frances Hodgson Burnett herself. (February, 2011)

More information about Hunt and Laurence and their upcoming performances.

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