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East of England
posted/updated: 20 May 2016 -
3 One-Act Plays: 'Driving Mr Diddy', 'Silent Night', 'The Chip Van Plays Dixie'
Mary Branno, Colin and Mary Crowther, Robert Iles
society/company: Henlow Amateur Theatrical Society (HATS) (directory)
performance date: 19 May 2016
venue: Henlow Theatre, Hitchin Road, Henlow Camp, Hertfordshire, SG16 6DN
reviewer/s: Alex Wood (Independent review)

It is to their great credit that HATS present an annual show featuring one-act plays, which it is always a pleasure to attend. And this year was no exception.

That said I have to admit that I have my reservations about Silent Night, by Colin and Mary Crowther. I tend to have a prejudice against anything 'otherwordly' in drama and though this play had echoes of JB Priestley (An Inspector Calls, Dangerous Corner) for me it fell rather short of the mark.

Mum, dad, their teenage children and a tortoise sit in an Anderson shelter on a Christmas Eve during World War II. There is the sort of banter that goes on in families, speculation about what 20-year-old Lily has been up to to cause her late arrival and a few moans and groans about their home for the night. Suddenly there is a huge bang - so huge in fact that the family believe they have been killed.

Suddenly the tone becomes serious, with talk of eternal salvation (what will heaven be like and will we all be going?), and revelations about what members of the family really think about each other, their neighbours and other members of the family. All leavened with the occasional dash of humour.

The end may or may not come as a surprise.

I think the idea behind the play - apparently based on a true story - is a workable one but for me the whole thing lacked tension. Even Rose - the mother's - shocking revelation somehow did not come as much of a shock and the thought that Dad (Wilfred) had been meditating in the hills about the meaning of life rather than going to the football...well, OK. At times the play becomes a slow trip down memory lane - I was desperate for it to 'move on'.

At the end of the day I am not a playwright and maybe because of that I can only say that 'something' was missing. My own thought is that it is a bit too long and could do with some editing to make it sharper.

The cast and director Chris Proctor did a good job in bringing this play to life. Keith Lander, as father Wilfred was totally convincing as the rock of his family, a man with doubts about the meaning of life but utterly dependable in this 'crisis' his family is facing. Shayn Dickens, as son Jack was the embodiment of what I imagine a wartime schoolboy to be - as cheeky as he dared, especially with his sister, but ultimately respectful,decent and on the verge of finding out what 'real life' is about. I thought Carly Fielding was excellent as Lily - a girl who likes fun but is realistic about boys, a revelation which comes as a great relief to her mother. Rose was played by Sue Kennedy - in a rather restrained performance I thought. Douglas Harding as Peter, the next door neighbour and ARP warden  was just right as the voice of kindly (spiritual or temporal?) authority.

Generally, more pace was needed - again I think the lack of this may be partly due to the script - but no doubt this will pick up as the cast relax and gain confidence after this first night showing.

The play is almost entirely performed within the bounds of the air raid shelter and the 'family' have to be commended for the way they met this very difficult challenge. Period costume and the set were very good.  

The Chip Van Plays Dixie was very, very different. The writing was sharp, tight and clever with nothing 'spare'.

In this two-hander Douglas Harding plays a widower, Gary, who makes weekly visits to tend his wife's grave. After one visit he is sitting at the cemetery gates, enjoying the view of the town he loves and waiting for the aforementioned chip van to arrive with his Friday supper when Babs (Hazel Stride) arrives with a bunch of flowers to put on her husband's grave, which she is visiting for the first - and last - time since he was buried.

This play had me enthralled from start to finish. About life and death but never sinking into sentimentality, every sentence counted as we found more and more out about each character. There was some clever humour along the way. Lots of it was wordplay; this can become tedious if it is overused but writer Robert Isles had a very good appreciation of the balance that needs to be struck. Most important Babs and Gary were very much 3-dimensional characters - so much so that I wanted to join them on stage!

And the ending, with their impromptu table set for dinner on the cemetery bench and the suggestion that they might, just might, keep in touch when Babs is settled in Australia was just right.

One or two fluffed lines but I thought that Douglas Harding and Hazel Stride were excellent as the two (not quite) strangers having a chance meeting. Beautifully acted.

This is such a good one-act play I would unreservedly recommend it to any group.

Driving Mr Diddy was a lovely bit of fun to complete the evening. (I thought HATS' programming was very clever presenting a longer, serious piece before the interval, then two shorter, more lighthearted pieces to conclude.)

Probably no longer than 15 minutes long, written by Mary Bannon and published by Pint-Sized Plays, the play begins with an archetypical suburban couple, Brian and Margaret driving to their Line Dancing group. Their car is hijacked by Darren, who decides he would prefer to be called P Diddy, who has a gun and a large bag of money. He is on the way to his rendevous with the rest of his gang and orders Brian to drive to the motorway. He appears to be a less-than-competent hard man. The joke'of course, is that, although worried by their unwelcome passenger the couple - especially Brian, who gives very precise indications of the route he is going to take, expressing his concern about fuel consumption - carry on 'as normal', waving cheerily at the golf club greenkeeper as they pass with their desperado cargo in the back.

And as Mr Diddy takes off in the 'Beamer' with the rest of the gang and police sirens in the distance there is a nice twist in the tail....

The show can be done with three chairs but I liked the little car that the cast squeezed into.

Geoff Fagg and Linda Winfield were the couple and Lee Masters played Darren, aka Mr Diddy. Very good comic acting from all - well done.

Altogether, and despite any reservations your reviewer might have, HATS' One Act Plays are well worth a look.

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