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‘The real deal’: For Quality Purposes / The Ockenden Witch (Online review)

Two one act plays which were specifically designed to be played out online formed the focus of my latest double bill. That and their comparative briefness are about all they have in common, other than that they were both on my “to see” list. It turned out they were both good choices too, so that was a bonus. And actually, it transpired they did have something in common – they are both plays which deal with the notion of demons. Okay I’m stretching things a bit – as you’ll see – but I just felt I needed to try and keep things tidy. Anyway, here we go…

For Quality Purposes is a phrase with which we are all familiar nowadays, whenever we phone a company which is monitoring its staff for training purposes… i.e. seemingly pretty much all of them. In fact, it’s one of those statements that seems to have lost any meaning it might have had through its constant repetition but at least in this instance there is something worthwhile to say.

The play starts off innocuously enough with some disembodied heads which turn out to belong to call centre workers cheerfully helping callers through everyday problems such as dodgy internet connections and going overdrawn at the bank. Crossfading is used to highlight certain phrases and repetitions and although we only hear one side of the conversation it is enough to allow us to focus on the various customer’s “issues”. It is strangely both calming and compelling, hearing the rhythms and intonations that are used and as the play progresses backed by a trippy soundtrack it almost becomes hypnotic or like a relaxation tape used to combat stress and anxiety (which, thinking about it, is partly the call handler’s function, I suppose).

There are moments of comedy too as operators run callers through security questions which become increasingly ludicrous: “What is the 37th letter of your password?” and “What is your favourite cheese?” are phrased in the same sort of way as those we more genuinely use, suggesting that the whole scenario anyway has a whiff of the bizarre.

However, gradually the problems morph into those of a more serious nature as abuse victims, those that are lonely and even suicidal join the list of callers. At one point, and without any obvious transition, the handlers’ voices morph into those of the callers and back again – disorientating but so cleverly done. For all the apparent disconnection we are all speaking with the one voice of humanity. The cast of five (Amy Ann Haigh, Carys Jones, Bernadette Russell, Lexia Tomlinson and Luanda Yasmin) is excellent and would be highly credible as the real deal; they also created the script in collaboration with Craig Stephens and James Yarker. The latter is artistic director of the highly original Stan’s Café (pronounced “caff”) company based in Birmingham – currently renamed Stan’s Internet Café (still pronounced “caff”). If this is the quality of the work, I’ll be reordering very soon.

For the second play, The Ockendon Witch, we become observers at a 16th century trial for witchcraft/incest during a lockdown after a plague outbreak – so far so topical. We are “asked to imagine how things might have unfolded if by some witchcraft it was conducted virtually”. While this is a rather contrived premise the strength of the piece relegates this anomaly to the back of the mind as we become intrigued by the proceedings. I found this to be doubly so, the piece being set in Ockendon – not far away from here – and being based on actual trial records of Agnes Byllinge, a local resident. The piece strongly suggests that it was all a fit up by disgruntled neighbours particularly incensed by her outsider status – Agnes is originally from the north, so her face doesn’t fit. Leading the charge (and indeed the charges) against her are Humphrey Frith and Judith Foster who do all they can to blacken her name when she is brought before Roger Nowell JP.

A quartet of strong actors has been assembled to fill these roles with Jennifer Aries bringing particular depth to Agnes when she gives passionate testimony decrying her accusers. Dickon Farmar is “gammon” personified and makes a wonderfully hissable and slippery villain out of Frith; we can see in his eyes that he is clearly floundering in keeping his story straight. Libby Rodliffe ensures we understand that Foster’s motives are borne out of jealousy and Christopher Sherwood makes the dour but canny magistrate a strong central figure. The latter also directs and does so with panache. I particularly enjoyed the little directorial asides which helped to bring the piece to life. Thus, Zoom becomes its 16th century equivalent Gloom but I think a trick was missed with the signing in code – surely it should have been 666! It was also fun to see the supposed trial viewing numbers at the bottom of the screen steadily rising until the point when the verdict is given and then they suddenly plummet. I’ve seen that happen in some current online plays as people decide they are bored.

I won’t spoil things by revealing the verdict here. In any case I think the real interest of the piece is in the modern day parallels that Richard Margrave’s play picks up on. It is hard to not recognise the ongoing contention about asylum seekers and indeed the whole business of Brexit as reflected in this piece and the recent scapegoating of various government officials (rather than the politicians) gives the play extra resonance. It might be set in 1584 but the play couldn’t actually be more timely.

from News, Reviews and Features – My Theatre Mates

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