Tuesday, 30 July 2013

No Soft Option @ 3MT, 25.07.13

Crime doesn’t pay, but does it play? The evidence, your honour, suggests that it does – the justice system is a repeat offender as a setting for drama. Whether this is catching the criminals in Lewis, sentencing them with Judge Judy or watching them behind bars in Bad Girls, we’re used to seeing the law laid down for our amusement. But one facet that doesn’t get covered is community service. The words ‘community’ and ‘service’ don’t exactly set the pulse racing, but actually it’s a great setup: it throws together people with different personalities from all sides of the social spectrum, united in a common task that they don’t want to do. It is this maelstrom into which No Soft Option takes us, written by Brian Marchbank and showing at 3MT as part of the 24:7 theatre festival.

Under the supervision of newbie social worker Emma (played by Katie McArdle), a ragtag bunch assemble to carry out a seemingly simple task: painting a room in a community centre. How hard could that be? As the story unfolds, with personalities clashing, managers ranting and tools being downed, it seems the answer is: very hard indeed. There are some strong characters on display, particularly the neurotic Karen (Jane Allighan), who reveals her man isn’t actually her man but just a neighbour she is secretly filming, and Abby (Kimberly Hart-Simpson) who has recently had some not-so-successful anger management training. The relationship between Emma and her manager Viv (Penny McDonald) is also good value, with Viv providing an outward pressure on the whole group.

However, a problem for No Soft Option is believability – it is hard to imagine it all really happening, even in exaggerated form. Some of the writing comes across as slightly too stereotyped, especially for the two younger protagonists and the oldest member of the group, Malcolm (Leo Atkin). The evolving of the various relationships comes across as a touch forced, with unexpected reconciliations undermining what had gone before. Laughs come at regular intervals, with lots of good one-liners, but perhaps fewer jokes would have meant bigger laughs, and also given more space for the emotional side of the story to develop.

The above does not detract from the performances of the actors, who worked well together and added some nice touches, such as Abby’s dead-eyed stare and Karen’s ‘talk to the hand’ blocking of anything she didn’t want to hear. Jeff Butler’s directing was clear and uncomplicated, which suited the production, and keeping manager Viv as a constant menacing presence at the front of the stage added tension. The verdict? While not perfect, No Soft Option was entertaining, with lots of good jokes, and by the end I had definitely been won over. Watching paint dry might be considered boring, but seeing it not painted at all is actually quite fun.

Words: Andrew Anderson.
Images: courtesy of 24:7.

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