The first night audience may have been uncertain what to expect when the curtain opened on Little Gem: an all-white, abstract set with six chairs and three table-like structures, painted in pastel shades of pink, blue and green.
When the first character entered, strode straight to the front of the stage and addressed the audience directly, we realised that this play breaks many of the traditional theatre conventions: there is no ‘fourth wall’ and the three main characters speak entirely in monologues: the only ‘conversations’ are those reported by the character who is speaking.
The stage furniture is conceptual and used variously to represent a nightclub bar, doctor’s and counsellor’s surgery, kitchen table, hospital waiting room and so on. There are also two non-speaking characters dressed in traditional mime outfits who represent different people in the characters’ lives as they are talking about them.
Once you have attuned yourself to this new way of staging, the narrative of the play shines through clearly, with moments of great humour and sadness.
Set in London, Little Gem centres round the lives of three generations of women in one family, and follows them through several months of ups and downs.
We initially see Amber as the archetypal wayward teenager as she prepares for her prom night, worries about the state of her on-off relationship with her boyfriend, and faces the consequences of her actions. Britney Kent, a newcomer to the Apollo stage, plays her with intense realism and draws our sympathy, if not her mum’s, in her efforts to come to terms with what life has thrown at her.
Amber’s mother Lorraine has her own struggles: her ex-husband has left her nervous, obsessive and suffering from low self-esteem. Amy Burns adroitly brings out Lorraine’s personality from the beginning of the play with understated body language and expression, and her performance engages us as we see her gradually respond to new opportunities and blossom. The scene in which she goes home with a new boyfriend, only to feel compelled to reject his advances in favour of tidying his son’s bedroom is hilarious, with an undercurrent of pathos.
Completing the trio is Kay, Lorraine’s mother, who is slowly coming to terms with the fact that a stroke has left her beloved husband Gem in need of her care, while she is left mourning the man he was – and bereft of sex! Another very funny scene sees Kay visiting an Ann Summers shop – and later attempting to use the device she has rashly purchased. Her comment at the end of this scene: ‘I can’t cheat on him – not even with a piece of luminous green plastic’ marks the transition from comedy to tragedy, and Helen Clinton-Pacey, one of the Apollo’s most experienced actresses, deftly brings the audience from hoots of laughter to tears in the closing scenes of the play.
Special mention must be made of Carole Crow and Eve Fradgley whose anonymous appearance belies the skill with which they silently portray a multitude of characters ranging from a nightclub bully to old Gem, bringing the monologues adeptly to life and giving the speaking characters responses to play off. The introduction of these characters was the inspiration of the director, Maggie Cardew, and it works brilliantly against the set designed by Louis Lawrence.
The final scene brings all three women together in an uplifting finale which shows us that this little family will weather their trials and tribulations and always come up smiling – for they have each other. And that’s what families are about!
A delightfully different offering from an experienced and very popular Island theatre group, Little Gem runs next week from Tuesday 23 to Saturday 28 May. Shows begin at 7.30 pm and tickets are available here: http://www.apollo-theatre.org.uk/little-gem/ or on the door.