Theatre Company: Teignmouth Players
Cast: Jemma Carlin-Wells, Kevin Booker, Maura O’Donoghue
Plot: A grieving father (Booker) in a sterile marriage visits a prostitute (Carlin-Wells) on a whim to try and change her ways.
Austin Hawkins is a name to be on the lookout for in Devon. He is a local playwright responsible for several one act plays around the United Kingdom. One of his one-act plays, a short piece about a man who eyes a prostitute on the street who reminds him of his daughter, was so successful that it grew into a trilogy of short plays. These three short one-act plays have all been award-winning productions within the National One-Act Play Festival here in the UK. With Friday’s Child, premiering with the Teignmouth Players production company, we see, for the first time, these three short plays stitched together into one full-length production.
Needless to say, it’s main stumbling block is that three plays scrunched into one big one becomes weighty viewing. Each of these acts is able to function by itself, with a clear beginning, middle and end, and character arcs being forced through the wringer. Most opening acts of plays see the writer take it easy on the audience; you won’t get that here. If you don’t feel sorry for the audience, constantly being swept away by tearful, soul-destroying revelations, spare a thought for the poor actors, who are repeatedly having their hearts pulled from their chest and exposed. Each act is designed as a duologue, so there aren’t even any fancy theatre tricks to shield the actors from revealing these exposed nerves. However, if you are comfortable with diving into hefty material, then you will be well rewarded with Hawkin’s combined masterpiece. There is a comfortable rhythm to the plays, so while the content can be disturbing at times, the structure of the play keeps events ticking over at an even pace. The first act sees Kevin Booker’s married man visit Jemma Carlin-Wells’ street-walker, on a whim, to try and convince her to change her ways. Act Two sees the married man return home to his wife (Maura O’Donoghue) and get confronted by his actions. The final act brings everything full circle and puts the wife and a prostitute in a room together. It means that Friday’s Child, while occasionally being guilty of re-hashing arguments brought up a few acts previous (one of the small niggles of gluing three separate plays together), puts a fresh spin on every side of the argument. There is also never a clear winner. Booker finds Jemma Carlin-Wells’ feisty, yet street-smart Sharon, more enlightened on life than perhaps he is. In Act Two, it is Kevin Booker’s Alan Hurst who teaches the self-assured Mary Hurst a thing or two about how the world works, when her back is turned. Yet it is Mary who is able to help Sharon in the final act, pointing out solutions to problems she could never think of from her position in society. There is a pleasant symmetry to Austin’s work, every character, every line, every movement a careful tool in creating a well-rounded, emotional piece. When the cast, as well as experienced director, John Miles, are on a roll, there is no stopping Friday’s Child.
Again, this is a play belonging to the actors. The modest set and a script that prides itself on dialogue requires all three of the actors to grab their roles with both hands. Jemma Carlin-Wells probably has the most likeable character, and, therefore, arguably, the easiest job. While Booker and Donohue are playing the straight-faced, suburban family, Carlin-Wells has the most interesting role on paper. A street-smart and ‘take-no-prisoners’ working girl, Sharon’s dialogue consists of putting the other characters in their place and being amusingly sarcastic while doing so. Yet, saying that Carlin-Wells had the easiest job is not giving the actress justice. This is her 47th theatre production, at the astonishingly young age of 22, and perhaps Sharon gives her more to do than she has ever done before. The role of sexually-confident woman is nothing new to Carlin-Wells, but Austin Hawkins gives her depth that her other roles of a similar nature lacked. Act 3, obviously for a play of this nature, sees Carlin-Wells explore dark and meaty subjects, but, truthfully, every line before that is bleeding with delightful substance. However, there is also joy to be had in watching Booker and O’Donoghue’s typical family image get ripped apart by the playwright. Booker is clearly playing a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders, yet trying to keep a stiff upper lip. His smart clothes hide the shaking hand of a man wrought with nerves and the dying light in his eyes, telling the story of a husband who is having life crush the kindness out of him without leaving any clue as to why. He is the example you point to when you say how cruel the world can be. Yet, there is strength to the character and, while Booker does reference how naïve the character can be, his heart is always in the right place. Perhaps more-so than Sharon’s and Mary’s. Act Two sees Booker get to tear into some great lines, the stage alight with the energy of a man tired of taking torment lying down. O’Donoghue plays the other half of the Hurst household more conservatively. Her steely composure rarely breaks, and when it does, it often builds itself back into another impenetrable wall a few beats later. She is often found answering, or even dismissing, argument with a witty retort. Depending on where we are in Hawkins’ script, this can either be an amusing characteristic or a frustrating symptom of her stubborn nature. O’Donoghue is also allowed the honour of dropping the biggest twist, which gives the actress the chance to steal the most heart-breaking moment of the play. This moment also allows you to reflect back on her collected performance that came before and view it in a new, positive light. There is a line in Friday’s Child that proves that not everyone breaks in the same way: Mary Hurst is a living embodiment of that.
It is up to John Miles to capture these energetic and profound performances and staple them together in a coherent and, probably the harder job, enjoyable experience. Some of this is performance direction: for example, keeping the emotional breakdowns restrained enough that the characters are never seen as weak people, but intense enough that the drama bites. Other bits see him add a sprinkle of levity to the piece like relieving the audience’s tough journey through the density of the text, with 80s songs dominating the intervals. It is an important job and the kind of task that usually go unnoticed. Perhaps in not noticing them you are offering the director the bigger compliment (so for that, John, I apologise). But gratitude must be shared with not just the superb writer or the hard-working cast, but also the director. This is a tough piece to manage, relentless in its poignant shocks and narrative beats. It is a credit to the director, and entire production company, that Friday’s Child is receiving overwhelmingly encouraging reviews.
Final Verdict: Unrelenting, emotional and memorable, Friday’s Child is tough to stomach, but a rewarding experience for those willing to step into the well-orchestrated production.