Written by J J Fletcher Directed by Amanda Davies
Paupers Pit, Underground Venues @ The Buxton Fringe Festival
Until 14th July
In the tiny, claustrophobic space of The Paupers Pit on a sweltering July evening, Sheepish Productions' ‘The Last Motel’ is a perfect piece of theatre. A two-hander set in a specific location (a motel room), chronicling the events of a single, tense, dramatic evening. A surreal opening has a very agitated man, wearing a rubber chicken mask and brandishing a gun, enter a rather sleazy motel room. For a surprising amount of stage time he paces back and forth, wheezing, groaning, and muttering to himself. This is a disturbing yet acutely amusing opening with more than a hint of Tarantino and David Lynch. When this unsettling character then carries an unconscious and bound young woman into the room, we realise we are in the middle of a botched robbery and an accidental kidnap. The sheer bulk and presence of the man in the chicken mask, contained in such a small stage space, conjure up a nightmare world, and his callous treatment of his helpless captive creates a genuine atmosphere of menace and dread. Eventually pulling off the mask, we are introduced to Abalone (Gareth Watkins), a somewhat cack-handed petty criminal who has taken a day’s holiday from his job in a slaughterhouse to commit armed robbery. Here is a man clearly out of his depth, and Watkins is a quivering mass of nervous energy and sweating desperation as he stumbles about the stage in a state of abject helplessness.
Eve (Leni Murphy) awakens in some discomfort, and we are informed that Abalone has accidentally knocked her over in the street with his getaway car. He has little sympathy for her, and things look very bleak indeed until he takes her jacket off to reveal a black shirt and dog collar. Eve is a vicar, and immediately this changes everything for Abalone as he evolves gradually from a seemingly cruel and selfish individual into a child-like mess. The stage is set for a battle of wills, and there is much deliberation about life, choices, destiny, and fate. But is everything as it seems? Leni Murphy has a super cool stage presence and commands the space superbly. She has the measure of Abalone in no time, and it’s great fun to watch the actor’s face minutely displaying the tickings of her brain as Eve calculates just how to deal with the pathetic wretch holding a gun on her. Watkins is a perfect foil, as he towers over his victim yet is no match for her pragmatic intellect and verbal dexterity. The Last Motel is a curious mix of surreal humour, unsettling atmosphere, and sweaty tension. Writer J J Fletcher has created a perfect cauldron for his characters to do mental battle in, and it’s a superb platform for two very capable actors to flex their thespian muscle. This kind of material is notoriously difficult to get right, with its delicately balanced mix of light and shade. As a piece of work in progress I feel it has a great deal of potential, and with a tighter production can improve enormously. Director Amanda Davies has managed to orchestrate proceedings effectively in a confined space (set and venue wise), but the production is really at the mercy of the two actors involved. It is their relationship and close proximity to each other that the production relies heavily upon. I would have liked more face-to-face confrontation, and a more intimate relationship as Abalone is gradually dissected and skinned (metaphorically) by Eve. A few more performances always ensure a tighter production, and I’d be fascinated to see ‘The Last Motel’ again in the not too distant future.