I went to the Edinburgh Fringe last summer for the first time, and while I was there, I wrote a lot of reviews. Because of that, I saw what most would consider an ungodly amount of theatre, most of which wasn’t very good. But when you roll the dice that many times, eventually you’ll end up with double sixes. Box Clever, by Monsay Whitney, is a play that sticks in the back of your throat like a word that you don’t want to say but feel like you have to. It’s rarer still to get to see a play you’ve seen at the fringe you actually liked soon after the fringe ends. But sometimes, you get lucky, and someone who you saw that play with thought so well of it that they wanted to do it themselves. Enter Hannah Ritchie, for whom Box Clever will be her swansong production in St Andrews, the last hurrah for someone whose career has been full of firsts and last hurrahs.
Box Clever is a story about a woman on the margins. Marnie, played by Georgia Luckhurst, is a single mother living in a women’s refuge, attempting to get by with her daughter. “The play features a whole host of weird, wonderful, and sometimes just plain awful characters whose almost harsh honesty draws you in and doesn’t let go until the very last moments of the play,” Ritchie says of the work. “There’s a vitality to Box Clever which you can’t look away from.” The way Ritchie and her team speak about the play shows a real grasp of the complex themes that this play deals with. Because while St Andrews theatre enjoys a turn to the maudlin occasionally, rarely do productions here deal with issues that feel as tangible as those of Box Clever.
This play is being done on a tight time budget, which means that by the time I was able to actually sit in and watch what was going on, the play was already moving onto full runs. Rather than building up the fundamentals, this was about fine-tuning, about making small details feel better, and feel more real. The stated goal is to get through a run and to pull the movement in a more abstract, less natural direction. The rehearsal opened with a dance sequence, a staple of Ritchie’s style, which focused on putting Marnie directly into the center of things. As is often the case with performances in the round, the focus is on making use of a large and often times intimidating space – getting to sit and watch as Georgia Luckhurst, playing Marnie, has the world rotate around her, people passing her left and right, all while she stands in the center, somewhat defiant against a world that clearly couldn’t be bothered to care whether she lives or dies. Each actor plays a wide variety of characters, save a few who play just the one, and that variation in acting and physicality all shines through in some fantastic moments. Specifically a fight between Marnie and another resident of the Shelter that has all the melodrama of a Telenovela with the comedy of a Three Stooges routine. I don’t like to laugh during rehearsals, but I couldn’t help myself here.
As I’ve said before, this play is by no means a comedy. “Marnie’s struggle is,” according to Georgia, “I think, about the lack of empathy in a failing social security net. It’s about a woman who is up against uncaring bureaucracy, and miles of red-tape.” And while this play isn’t mired in darkness, it certainly isn’t a happy-go-lucky walk in the park. Because of that, the team and the actors have focused a lot on making sure that it handles its complexity with grace and with understanding. “I have to say that I’m grateful for how comfortable an environment she has created when working on material that is pretty emotionally draining a lot of the time,” says Luckhurst when asked about how Ritchie runs her rehearsals. There is a sense of delicacy and care that the team seems to have with the rehearsal, and more important than anything else a sense of openness. Unlike when most directors give notes, Ritchie’s process is reflexive with actors commenting on the notes as they go. Communication is essential for making a show run cleanly, and Ms. Ritchie is not without it.
This play is also following in the fledgling tradition of Independent theatre within St Andrews, being funded by the Feminist society rather than through Mermaids. For this to be the first play in recent memory put on by them, outside of their renditions of the Vagina Monologues, is fitting, both with the play and with its team. Hannah directed a fully gender-bent production of King Lear during On The Rocks last year, citing the ability to create more female opportunities as one of the main regions for putting it on. “It just sucks when you have more competition amongst your gender for fewer roles as an actor, and/or when you don’t see people like you in the stories you go to see as an audience member. So I figured, why not fill what I see as a gap in the market. If you see a problem and you’re able to fix it, do that.” That persists into Box Clever, a show that is full of strong female characters. Marnie, her daughter Autumn, Fifi the Social worker, even Marnie’s incredibly nasty mum, all give the actors playing them the opportunity to experiment and play around with a wide variety of styles.
All of these different factors come together to create a production that should be, by all means, something exceptional. A powerful, relevant story, put on by a team of dedicated performers, led by an experienced director working for her last piece within St Andrews. And I can say, from experience, that while this production may be different from the one I saw at the Fringe, it’s going to be no less exceptional.
See it the 7th and 8th of May. You can reserve tickets at firstname.lastname@example.org.