Review: New theatre company Off the Block in styleBy Caroline Cook
April 27, 2012
The curtain up on a new theatre company is always going to be a tense moment.
Will they succeed with their intentions? Will they live up to our expectations? Will they pull it off?
The answer to all three in relation to Reading Between the Lines is a resounding yes.
Rather than opt for a full-scale production for their first offering Reading's new professional theatre company decided to put on a writer's relay, Off the Block.
The concept is a unique one for Reading and sees four writers each pen a play in 24 hours which starts with the finishing tableau of the play before.
The actors are then given their scripts on the day of the show with just a few hours to polish the productions.
Sitting in the audience at Off the Block it was almost impossible to believe the 16 actors - four for each play - had only seen their scripts that morning.
Admittedly they are all professionals, so they should be used to learning lines, but barely a single word was dropped, and if you were not aware of the concept you'd think they had been rehearsing for weeks.Each play was slick and entertaining and wildly different from the next.
Before getting underway the audience were shown a mash-up video of clips from each of the actors - a clever way to break the ice of a new company.
Before the main relay the audience were also given a short play from Chris Lambert, which was the piece written for RBL's Find a Reading Writer competition.
The funny little skit, based around a complaints office, was performed by assistant stage managers from four local drama schools, showcasing Reading's promising young talent which RBL hope to champion in the future.
The first relay play, written by Bea Roberts and directed by Sonia Fraser, saw a group of vigilante style neighbours recruiting the latest member for their neighbourhood watch team.
The three 'super hero' style characters were hilarious, particularly Mark Middleton who stood out as a comedy bulldog character, and balanced well by the nervous new recruit Tim (Ben Ashton).
Walking a tightrope between hilarious comedy provided by completely fallible characters, and a darkly political message, the play was a great starting point.
Next up was a family-based play from Bristol Old Vic trained writer Jim Rastall and director Louise Hill. Although it's hard to pick a favourite, because the plays offered such different styles, if I had to this was probably it.
The play revolved around a family meeting, and parents trying to work out which of the sisters is responsible for an incident with a toffee apple.
Anne-Marie Piazza, who was an actor with Progress Theatre before training at the Old Vic, and Roslind Steele, sparkled as the warring sisters who are set to be punished by their parents, played by Richard Warrick and Jane Scott.
Again something dark lingered under the humour and when Dad says flippantly that the only thing left to do is to kill the girls so 'they will learn for the future' everyone laughs, because he cannot be serious, right?
The third play, written by Angus Barr and directed by Deirdre Mullins, was a not-so-star-crossed lovers comedy with a couple who stop off at a house after a night out, to be greeted by the owners who are, at first, less than impressed.
Sprinkled with wit and made funnier by a rather posh, rather drunk wife (Phillipa Howard) the play was a nice little interlude before the hard-hitting drama of play four.
Chris Lambert's play was undoubtedly the darkest of the lot, involving three friends who meet a strange man in a bar and are promised their deepest desires - money, fame and friendship.
Exploring the ideas that we don't know what we really want, and most of our deepest desires remain buried for a reason, the play left audiences with plenty to think about.
With each of the plays offering something different Off the Block was a feast of brilliant acting, superb writing and theatrical entertainment of the highest quality.
RBL creators Toby and Dani Davies say they are trying to put Reading on the theatrical map with the town's newest professional theatre company.
And if Off the Block is a sign of things to come from RBL then theatre in Reading is about to get very exciting indeed.