Autumn, Winter, Spring, Summer – White Cobra

Written by Peter Drake

Directed by Fraser Haines

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Bookclubs sound rather fun, don’t they? Or at least, the idea of them does. Gathering with a bunch of friends, acquaintances and potential strangers, to chat about something for a few hours and lock away the pangs of regular life (and we hear wine is often served at these events too). Bliss.

For Bev, Helen, Louise and Rachel these semi-regular meetings seem daunting as first as they get to grips with one another’s lifestyles and quirks, but gradually tethers form and relationships emerge as the women share experiences, stories and life’s scars. Oh, and sometimes they can be bothered to read the damn book.

A damp day, there’s a canny sense of relatability from the offset to draw in listeners. Fitting for Autumn, here are the only real wet days in Peter Drake’s writing where introducing the cast feels quite stilted and uniform, from hereafter though, there’s a far more natural rhythm as the performers chat, but for now these early days are no representation of the eloquent, touching nature which will emerge.

Gradually, the four leads increase in a natural back and forth which staves off the initial worries of chemistry. By the conclusion of Summer, they play into their own hands after forming a tight network of support and care. As one of the four grows ill, the impacts and trials women of the 21st-century face become evident, as they rally around and realise that, despite their initial complaints, sisterhood is real and potentially life-altering.

Individually, the key characters are separate enough to bounce between (and choose sneaky favourites), but three of the four receive a clearer arc than the last. Nothing down to performance, it just seems that in the drive to discuss online dating, ageing and children, Drake’s writing neglects small areas in favour of tying together threads – a reasonable choice.

Brimming with vim & vigour, Vicky Kelly’s Helen is an immediate presence and balances well against Jude Wilton’s more down-to-earth pessimism. Kelly’s suffering at the constant lampooning at her career in the arts makes for a welcome break (if on the nose) through humour. The pair dip in and out of the narrative, usually lamenting online dating and follies of men, but Louise Drage and Bernadette Wood as Bev and Louise have a prominent role throughout, the pair providing steadfast reliability across the production.

In closing, Summer has the echoes of what could be a potential stage adaptation, to stellar praise. The dynamic shift from every day to lyrical language in discussion with dementia, vision loss and reflective nature is a touching ending which, while sounding a tad less cheerful, maintains a respectful and familial nature. It is here where Drake’s writing accelerates in quality and demonstrates their talent with pathos.

Based in Northampton, White Cobra may claim to be a semi-professional theatre company, but following their initial venture into the audio play genre – it’s safe to say their future stands firmly with experienced production companies.

As with the seasons themselves, Drake’s Autumn, Winter, Spring, Summer ebbs and flows with good days and bad, but as a collective piece maintains steady growth, increasing in engagement as the narrative moves through the year. Lacing a pleasant easy listening with nuggets of life’s difficulties and annoyances makes Autumn, Winter, Spring, Summer a genuinely human portrayal of ageing and friendship, peppered with a few frostbitten story threads which emerge into Spring as poetic blossoms, performed with exceptional care and dedication from Wood, Kelly, Drage & Wilton

Autumn, Winter, Spring, Summer is available to listen here

The Season – The Royal & Derngate

Direction by Tim Jackson

Book & Music and Lyrics by Kit Buchan and Jim Barne

Ah, to be in New York for Christmas. To see the lights, soak in the smells of the chestnuts and hot-dog vendors as the flutters of snowfall scatter the heads and coats of the wealthy. Ice-skating in central park, dinner at the Ritz and horse-drawn rides across the cold cobbles, basking in the orange glow of streetlamps. What an utter crock. Kit Buchan’s new musical The Season takes our fetishism of the holiday season, not so far as satirising the genre, but inventively tying a classical Christmas narrative with sarcastic silver tongues, modern themes and honest, blunt views on the obsessive nature we have with the ‘perfect’ Chrsitmas image. 

Travelling over four-thousand miles to finally meet his father, Dougal is a young, naïve man whose thirst for life equals his sense of adventure for those classic movie’s set in the snowscapes of a New York Christmas. He’s adorable, but you may still feel the need to choke him out. Alex Cardall captures the innocence of a man whose need for validation, his delivery thrives with energy, leaping as though his feet strike fire with each landing. He’s the perfect counter-balance of traditional cheer against coffee server Robin’s grim, sarcastic bleakness.

Tis the season of sass for Robin, though this seems to be a year-round trend for her. By and large, Tori Allen-Martin goes beyond the cold stereotypes of a festive Scrooge, into a disenchanted woman whose rejection of the holiday stems from more than simple irritation at the cheer which surrounds it. What is so utterly superb about Allen-Martin, and Buchan’s writing is that Robin is a woman, living a woman’s life. This isn’t a perfectly envisioned stereotype, with brimming white smiles, slathered across the posters for ‘kooky’ Christmas productions. Instead, openly stating that Robin’s career as a waitress isn’t concealing a midnight romance of acting or writing, Robin is a woman who is surviving.

This is The Season’s resolute stance on the genre, where happy endings are an option, but not the fairytale of New York styles of Hallmark T.V. Families aren’t always necessarily where we end-up for the holidays, and the balance of our two leads keeps the other from delving too deep into extremes. Robin’s misery is relatable, bouncing off of Dougal’s optimism, dragging him into tolerance, as the role could easily slip into irritatingly chipper. Their growing connection is genuine, as we keep romance at bay, for the most part, learning from one another and furthering their development. With surprising growth from both leads, in no doubt largely down to talented performers and Tim Jackson’s direction.

And while guilty of exposition, Kit Buchan’s script rarely dips once we move beyond the 15-minute mark. Indeed, the second act is a superior piece in timing, particularly for its comedy, to the extent the production may benefit from trimming to an extended single act production. Allen-Martin and Cardall are fully capable of carrying the production for the two-act structure, but this isn’t to say the audience can maintain the same pacing. There’s little which couldn’t be trimmed from the production’s opening. Trimming this exposition would further enhance the refusal the production has to conform with tropes, obvious cliche’s and bolster an ending which refuses to end in the way one may expect.

Sometimes the greatest love stories don’t last forever, but only a single day. The Season has a modernist narrative, which still captures the characteristics of British romantic comedies, with just enough New York sensationalism of those 80s’ Meg Ryan classics. It’s as much a piece for theatre goers as it is cinephiles, echoing an obsessive adoration for American visuals. The Season flares the embers of an emotional production, without resorting to cheap tactics, it’s an interestingly written musical, with numbers which may not live forever in our minds, but there has been an impact with solo pieces, courtesy of Cardall’s humour and Allen-Martin’s commanding, emotive vocals. 

Right now, Last Christmas is a herald of current, modern Christmas media, but to find genuine innovation, turn to the theatre for The Season’s tribute’s to festive classics, while generating it’s own path with a fresher palette of relatable, human characters rather than the standard representations musical theatre is guilty of. It might be November, but sod-it, shove some vodka in the thermos, shake those snow globes and jingle them bells, The Season takes a dash of pessimism and fuels a show with fresh, snide joy which is infectiously warm, humourous and heartfelt. 

The Season runs at Royal & Derngate Theatre until November 30th. Tickets are available from: https://www.royalandderngate.co.uk/whats-on/the-season/

Photo Credit – Pamela Raith