"Gripping, funny, truly brilliant drama."
by Arthur Duncan for remotegoat on 11/11/10

Many who rarely see live theatre think they're living the real Life but enrichment of the soul only occurs when encountering those triumphs & disasters that awake our humanity to compassion or rejoicing - even if only by proxy in a dramatic creation.

Sam Randall has literally blossomed this past year and Serendip, her first full-length play - at The Bike Shed Theatre in Exeter until 27 November - is a magnificent riot of poetic dialogue, bursting with honest vitality, much of it recovered from verbatim histories of ordinary women surviving the war-torn 20th century, coupled with episodes of teenagers today, facing anew, the old challenges to optimism and spirit: Cultural isolation & penniless, aimless, low self-esteem.

But this is no girlie-girlie piece: Serendip is compelling drama, gutsy and sincere in its celebration of life - with all its heartaches and happinesses. Women and girls are all portrayed with passion and stunning stage-craft by four fine actors, switching moods, characters and personalities, 'tho' never shedding a jot of sincerity.

Katie Tranter in her first live-theatre role (having appeared only on television, in BBC 2's The Edwardian Farm) sustains astounding focus, both as simple Dora and as street wise Cassie. This actor reeks of professional attitude and draws audience sympathy as magnets draw iron, whether playing vulnerable or feisty. An exciting start to what ought to be a glittering career – if cut-backs do not forbid.

Annette Chown, in reality is a serene antithesis of today's angst-ridden teen, but in Serendip, she is first, an energetic child, then, a poverty-stricken 1920's adult, heavily pregnant. Every weary sigh, each palm pressing lower back, counterfeits to the life, women's pre-natal pain. And in 1940's, still childless, Chown portrays a thin woman, care-worn, irascible, snapping commands to her simpleton sister; no time for niceties in the days when a woman's work is never done. But acting in the here and now, she's a teenager, disturbed by emotional burdens, surly & taciturn, aggressively anti-social: Pure, acting genius.

Tanya Winsor skips and dances superbly, defying the Depression, as an apprentice milliner to wealthy ladies, thereby arousing envy and disdain in her sister & friends. In this part, Winsor perfectly conveys both conceit and vulnerability that can characterise those who aspire to outshine their social origins. From youthful hope, Winsor makes a short hop & a hobble to become dear old forgetful Nan, limping on an arthritic foot, but otherwise still remarkably glamorous as the old-girl.

Winsor shares rather protracted scenes with The Stranger, a quiet woman who behaves oddly, and thereby perturbs and fascinates each character she meets, and also, the audience.

Robyn Steyn, recently so imperious as Hippolyta and Titania in Bike Shed Theatre's September production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, creeps curiously about peeking into things that perhaps should not concern her. Her unexplained appearances are at first disturbing but soon engage sympathy from audience & the other characters. This Stranger merely nods to questions, or sometimes, gives a tiny smile, maintaining concentration despite having so little interaction with other actors. But Steyn, always watchable, carries her mysterious role with poise, delicacy and grace, so that her purpose in the drama, provokes speculation.

Of equal importance with actors, are the designers, Thomasin Marshall created a period kitchen on the traverse set and a child's swing centre-stage. She also designed and sourced the costumes. Ben Wills has lit the tricky stage format, & used his musical experience to create a soundscape, plus he copes alone with stage-management. Choreographing the show's delightful, dynamic movement is a crucial contribution from Vida Harrison who also did likewise for the aforementioned, Dream.

By inspired casting and thoroughly exploring the script and its local resonances, director, Nick Stimson has made Randall's poetic, Exeter language, universally accessible. Through his dramatic vision and sensitivity to the ghosts of the real people who inspired the author, Stimson has created a play, greater than the sum of its parts. Those long ago, everyday battles with commonplace difficulties and the simple pleasures - when such could be found - have value to gift to us and our young generation, today and into the future, if only we attend.

The quality of entertainment put on in The Bike Shed Theatre is sometimes rough but never shoddy. Where under-funding has crippled bigger theatres, this & other notable small-scale venues around Exeter City Centre, keep pumping the life-blood of artistic talent that'll entertain us in future and help Britain's economic recovery.

People in South West England really need to support this gem, The Bike Shed Theatre in the heart of Devon's Cathedral city. On a shoestring budget, - and often only by generosity of producers, actors & stage-crews willing to work, more out of love than in hope of much money - this cosy little venue shines, beneath the pavement but above the raucous music & shrill voices from Exeter's glitzy night-clubs. Be sure to catch Serendip, asap. Yes, I am biassed, but with good reason.

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