Coventry is already reaping a dividend from its forthcoming City of Culture status: it’s become a Stan’s Cafe theatrical destination of choice. Last week we were there to see Graeme surfing Chris O’Connell’s script in the Theatre Absolute production Choke and the week before two trips went to the Belgrade Studio to see Tyrone Huggins in Black Men Walking presented by Eclipse Theatre. Both trips reminded me how much I like going to the theatre.
Black Men Walking took us up into the Yorkshire Dales with three seniors from a walking club. Their characters and back-stories unfold amiably through the show until they meet a young woman at the walk’s summit. Inevitably the weather closes in injecting some peril into proceedings, but the show’s main agenda is exploring the relationship between these black men and the land they walk on. The young woman, full of dynamic energy, questions what she perceives as the men’s passive approach to staking their claim in contemporary British society.
The text by Testament weaves lovely poetic passages into the show’s easy dialogue. Sometimes the poetry slips into song and dance lurks on the fringes of the show. Obviously when staging a show set on a walk the big challenge is to stop the characters striding off the stage whilst keeping a sense of them being in motion, this felt like the most awkward element of an otherwise accomplished show through which we are drawn by four engaging performances.
Choke is set further out, on the east coast of Scotland, in the luxurious mansion of a Big Pharma millionaire. Stu has been doorstepped by Rob, an old university buddy crazed and desperate to be cut open by his old pal to alleviate some mysterious inner agony. From this launch pad the characters’ backstories spool out rapidly to include literary stardom, medical trials death, divorce, near death by pretzel and a potential cure for AIDS. Explained in chronological detail the show sounds absurd but in action with O’Connell’s lean dialogue batted back and forth between Graeme Rose’s frenzied Rob and Matthew Wait’s smooth but often exasperated Stu it works really well. The show’s energy and bravura panache keep you hooked. Pause too long and I suspect it would all collapse but it doesn’t pause and it’s played with total conviction and it is a highly enjoyable blast.
Part of the joy of Choke was being in Theatre Absolute’s Shop Front theatre, it’s a kind of warmer retail version of our venue. You buy your ticket, there’s no fuss, you walk in, watch a show close up, buy some reasonably priced drinks, have a nice chat, go home – lovely. Let’s get back there in March for the Shop Front Festival.