Meet Jan Black

April 3, 2021 | By | Reply More

★★★☆☆   multi-layered

Online: Thurs 1 – Sat 3 April 2020
Review by Thom Dibdin

The end of Lockdown is in sight and Jan Black is back on stage – it is where she is most at home, even if tonight is only for the local amateur drama club’s first meeting for a year.

She’s chosen to lead their Zoom call from the stage because she not only has a big announcement to make – that they can stage an Autumn show! – but as she needs to finesse her choice of a suitable script to the company.

Maureen Beattie as Jan Black. Screen grab by Thom Dibdin

Maureen Beattie holds centre stage throughout Johnny McKnight’s multi-layered new play for Wonder Fools, live-streamed from Ayr Gaiety, with an offstage cast of nine members of Ayrshire’s amateur companies providing the on-Zoom performances from their own front rooms.

Beattie’s Jan Black is quite the fearless self-promoter. She’s the kind of person who insinuates their way on to the chair of local societies where ever several people gather together for a shared interest.

She might be the cement which holds them together in times of crisis, but her abrasive self promotion and determination to bend them to her ideas is what can drive them apart. If they were to stop to think about it.

performative side

This being a local amateur dramatic society, there’s even more of the performative side to Jan. But in Beattie’s playing of her, and signalled pretty clearly by McKnight, there is a lot more going on underneath, on a more personal level.

It’s brought out through Jan’s interactions with the rest of the group – Tricia Reynolds as Trudy her trusted side-kick, Helen Halpin as the turncoat Wendy who has spent a season with the local mime group and young Dawn, whose protestations about dead, white writers Ciara Brady makes spot on.

Ciara Brady (main screen) with Maureen Beattie. Screengrab: Thom Dibdin

Beattie’s occasional glance direct into camera allows her to speak her internal monologue – which becomes all the more caustic with the appearance of John, with whom she has obviously had an emotional entanglement, but who Nick Wakeham imbues with enough humanity to ensure he rises above Jan’s disdain.

There’s no such internalising her thoughts when it comes to the techie, Jimmy, who Ron Swanson plays with that affable sense of nerdiness that is impermeable to any criticism, but who clearly holds her in great regard.

Director Jack Nurse and video designer Ellie Thompson ensure that the rhythm of the interaction between Beattie on stage and the other cast members on screen is never lost. And there is plenty of scope for comedy and playing up to the less obvious am-dram stereotypes from Anne Harcourt’s larger than life Sian, Marie McWilliams’ Moira and Maureen McGuire’s not-on-the-ball Sadie.

personal fears

The meat of McKnight’s script is an exploration of Jan’s personal fears, which stretch out – somewhat thinly and with an unlovely shrillness at one point – into a metaphor for the whole of lockdown and the perception of being alone when the reality is that we are far from being so.

But above that, this is something of a love song to theatre and performance. Beyond the laughs at Jan’s lack of self-awareness from an early age, there is a real love of theatre and the need to both be entertained and to entertain which that entails.

It might be Maureen Beattie who is on stage performing live, but the Ayrshire amateurs are representative of many casts, of thousands of actors, who can’t wait to get back on a real stage.

Just as there is no substitute for human support through hard times, no matter how slick those recordings of Zoom productions might be, they are no substitute for live theatre, performed in a big dark room with an audience present.

Running time: One hour
Online, live from Ayr Gaiety Theatre.
Thurs 1 – Sat 3 April 2021.
Evenings: 7.30pm, Sat mat: 2.30pm.
Tickets and details: Book here.

Ayr Gaiety website: https://thegaiety.co.uk

ENDS

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