Review: Thunder Road @ Exeter Phoenix

Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

Two Friends. Voluntary First Aid service. A desire to be of use which has come about from a dissatisfaction with the real world. Stand-up comedy, narrative storytelling, influence from both real life and a road trip tragic comedy. This show has all of these elements, often joining together ideas which would initially seem difficult to connect. It is a testament to the skills and experience of its creative team.

As the audience enters, the actress Cassie Friend is already in character as Maureen, a powerful and self-assertive woman who knows what she wants. She recruits Sylvie, a woman with a difficult family life who needs a change, a challenge, and a purpose. There is some use of audience participation, light improv and loose stand-up style dialogue. The beauty of the production is its relatable elements which help the audience to grip onto the story while imaginative transformations push the narrative into meta theatricality.

Catherine Dyson, who wrote the piece and stars as Sylvie, explains that in the last year she joined her local St John’s ambulance and has genuinely considered requalifying as a paramedic. Obviously, this is a rich starting point for a funny and poignant piece of theatre, exploring this theme in collaboration with the company’s artistic co-director Rebecca Loukes. However, one weakness was the sometimes forced relationship with the film Thelma and Louise. This is especially evident when the characters, for an unexplained reason, jump into cowboy boots and hats and southern accents. This short interlude near the end of the play would have made more sense as a film, as it was originally intended, but funding limitations meant sticking to live theatrical presentation. This did, however, bring about some fun, with use of skilful shadow puppetry, which the actresses said were made using their children’s toys.

Sylvie’s fascination with television and, arguably archaic notions of a patriarchal home, can sometimes be fairly one-dimensional and difficult to engage with. However, one scene I found really well executed and touching involved a constant interchange between a demonstration on how to deal with broken fingers and bleeding from the nose, and a presentation of how these wounds were caused. There is a warning from Sylvie that her relationship with her husband has been, for the training purposes, somewhat flattened. This reads as almost a plea to not look too deeply into her tragic personal life. But the narrative pushes in this direction, and as her friendship with Maureen tapers, our understanding of the challenges these women face becomes deeper.

I did enjoy the work with props, especially the modesty screen. I applaud the work of the lighting design, which navigated from stand up relating, to backlit shadow work. Perhaps to engage fully with these notions of participatory theatre, there could be more use of it at the beginning or throughout. The creators did comment in the Q&A session after the show that the idea was to bring the centre of attention from the whole space of the theatre, including the audience, into a singular point of a film, which turned out, as mentioned above, to be the shadow puppetry.

I really enjoyed that RedCape Theatre Company allowed themselves to play with genre and staging. This felt like a successful Fringe show and I am always pleased to see Exeter Phoenix bringing these kinds of shows, which are much needed, to the wider Exeter audience. With a 75-minute running time, and a pace which doesn’t seem to drop, the show flows smoothly, for the most part, making it enjoyable and easy for the audience to follow.

Josip Martinčić

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