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Nel – Exeter Phoenix, Exeter

Written and directed by Scratchworks Theatre Company

Music: Hanora Kamen

Reviewer: Lucy Corley

For someone who makes a noise for a living, Nel has a lot of trouble getting anyone to listen to her.

Nel (Sian Keen) is a foley artist: she creates and records the sound effects for films using a microphone and everyday objects. A hot water bottle dragged across a table becomes the noise of squealing car brakes; a door handle is flicked to form the beat of a ticking clock; dry pasta crunched in the mouth is the (delightfully and gruesomely real) sound of breaking bones. Though Nel sees the potential for sound effects in things “not looked at twice” by most people, her socialite boss Verity (Alice Higginson) can barely remember who she is, and outside of work she prefers the company of her pet fish and cat.

“Everyone has a story to tell,” say Scratchworks Theatre, and the company of four tell Nel’s with wit, ingenuity and an absolutely first-class use of props. The production is alive with sound, from the opening fanfare (filched from 20th Century Fox and brilliantly sung in harmony by the cast) to the purrs of Nel’s cat (only Scratchworks’ zest and imagination could give this much charisma to a cat made from a tea towel and a ball of wool). Physical theatre, dance and song also combine in the play’s blend of storytelling. The cast lurch forward and back in perfect sync with the wave sounds Nel makes (a scrubbing brush on a cereal carton) to calm herself, and her bicycle rides are too well done to be described here – they need to be witnessed first-hand.

Socially awkward, terrified of upsetting anyone, and smothered by her ever-present Aunt Flora (the hilarious Hanora Kamen), Nel attempts to conquer her fear and find a friend at the Friday Film Club. The cast power energetically through portrayals of all the people she meets there, each funnier than the last and only slightly caricatured, and none of them able to make Nel feel at ease. By the time she meets eccentric “method writer” Bea (Laura Doble), she has almost forgotten what it feels like to be herself…

When they’re not narrating or playing their named characters, Higginson, Kamen and Doble act as a kind of invisible chorus of mime artists that might have been based on Dr Seuss’s Thing One and Thing Two. Squabbling among themselves in high-pitched, squeaky voices, they watch Nel’s progress and try enthusiastically to push experiences into her path through radio broadcasts, flyers dropped at her feet, or an anorak leaping from its coat stand in eagerness to escort her out into the world. Their indignation at being ignored underlines the play’s theme of what listening really means, and is just one of the exquisite details that characterise Scratchworks’ thoughtful approach to theatre.

The one real flaw with this production is a tendency to leave the house lights up for much of the performance. The lights on the audience are so bright as to be uncomfortable at times, making us self-conscious with the sensation of being watched by the performers, or distracted by the movement of other audience members. This is a shame, as a production this good deserves its audience’s full attention.

A couple of minor technical imperfections aside, the production flows with an ease that belies its complex use of stagecraft. Its brilliantly chirpy Hollywood finale stays true to the story’s enduringly human quality and avoids tying up all the loose ends. By turns self-conscious, joyous, sad and surreal, Nel is for anyone who has ever found it hard to make a friend.

Runs until 3September 2015 at Exeter Phoenix, then from 10 -12September 2015 at The Alma Tavern, Bristol.

Written and directed by Scratchworks Theatre Company Music: Hanora Kamen Reviewer: Lucy Corley For someone who makes a noise for a living, Nel has a lot of trouble getting anyone to listen to her. Nel (Sian Keen) is a foley artist: she creates and records the sound effects for films using a microphone and everyday objects. A hot water bottle dragged across a table becomes the noise of squealing car brakes; a door handle is flicked to form the beat of a ticking clock; dry pasta crunched in the mouth is the (delightfully and gruesomely real) sound of breaking bones.…

Review Overview

The Public Reviews Score

Enduringly human

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The Reviews Hub - South West
The Southwest team is under the editorship of Holly Spanner. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.