Entertainment, Manchester, Review

Ballot Box at Greater Manchester Fringe

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By Emily Oldfield
Images courtesy of Shay Rowan


A sign of quality theatre is that it makes you think. Entertainment is one aspect, but engaging your thought process is another – and it is powerful.  That was the experience of ‘Ballot Box’, an hour-long satirical comedy focusing on the final stages of the 2016 EU referendum, staged at the Kings Arms in Salford 7th and 8th July as part of Greater Manchester Fringe Festival.

The play struck the balance of thoughtful reflection on former events, without being regressive. Assembled by new theatre company, Tea & Tonic Productions, this was a well-thought out piece of theatre inviting the audience to consider their position in the mood of confusion which surrounded the Brexit debate.

The characters are excellent, empathetic catalysts for a political exploration which is also personal – performed by the founders of Tea & Tonic themselves – Emily Parker-Barratt who plays Lydia and Keri Bastiman who plays Molly. The storyline follows the pair – unemployed actresses in a studio flat – as they watch the EU referendum unfold on the television.

With the first scene featuring the duo belting out the EastEnders theme tune, this had the audience chuckling and served in the strength of the production – as laughter is a response which lets down defences and opens potential for empathy.

This was a production beginning with warmth and was well-sustained throughout despite the heavy subject matter, affirming to all involved that it is okay to question, it is okay to be unsure – what ultimately matters is being engaged.

And engagement was an obvious theme, especially in terms of staging and set design – as the audience made up the space where the ‘television’ the characters were looking into should be. This meant the actors appeared to be looking out in the crowd, but actually were not fully perceiving them. This could be seen as an uneasy analogy of what the EU referendum experience was like to many people – looking out across an array of options but not truly connecting.

Both make exclamations which are inaccurate, both – crucially – have some opinions of their own, some which have been put upon them. It was when I overheard a member of the audience whisper ‘I’m a Holly’, that the power of this play was really proved. It allows for empathy and a reflection of identity upon an area which has been demonised and debated for so long – people’s Brexit stance. Instead ‘Ballot Box’ approaches it in an engaging and active way.

Perhaps a little more depth to characterisation, in terms of what had contributed to the characters formulating their positions – with reference to other figures involved in the political context – may have added further realism, but due to the nature of the satire, the level of character already present conveyed the mood well.

A stand-out point throughout was the sustained energy of the actresses and their ability to convey meaningful character conversation, with dialogue a specific strength, over a full sixty minutes and for it to be part of a productive plotline. What unfolded was a clear turbulence and test of the girls’ friendship, a clever parallelism with a split nation facing change and upset.

Underlying it all however, was the sustained affection evident between the characters, acted with great animation, clever use of props and simple yet effective transition between scenes, which crucially kept the audience interested in the ongoing relationship between the women. It left the overarching message that it is continued interest and engagement which is needed for political progress in the future.

A political exploration which is refreshingly engaging rather than enraging. A treat we need more of.

 

 

 

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Emily Oldfield

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