In Haunt

Telling hidden stories of human connections within hardship was a key aspect of ‘Frozen Peas In An Old Tin Can’, a play written and directed by Joe Walsh and presented 27-28 July 2019 at The Kings Arms in Salford, part of The Greater Manchester Fringe. It was one of 'HAUNT’s pick of shows to see at The Greater Manchester Fringe 2019'.

By Shay Rowan

The 50-minute one-act play plunged viewers into an intense consideration of the characters’ situation: that of homelessness. It was performed outdoors in the beer garden of the pub – during one of the wettest days of the entire month - bringing the audience into closer consideration of the daily discomfort endured by the hundreds of people who live on the city’s streets. Whilst the audience was largely sheltered, the cast admirably went ahead, performing in direct rainfall - demonstrating skill and endurance in doing so. The team behind the play were also taking donations for Shelter and period poverty charity Every Month in the process – and on entering the performance space, audience members were each given a coin to contribute during the production. Emphasising that each of us has active agency to make a difference, I found this particularly touching. I also was given a closed shoebox to look after by the central female character – ‘here, look after this will you?’ – in an early, gutsy piece of well-directed audience interaction I didn’t see coming. I certainly kept more alert, on my toes after that (though foolishly failed to look after the box!). Picture above - left to right: characters Sarah (Leah Gray), Barney (Paul Tomblin) and Derek (Craig Hodgkinson) by Shay Rowan

Frozen Peas In An Old Tin Can focuses on the characters of three homeless people in Manchester –  and rather than the usual dramatic dwelling on their past lives, it considers their aspirations for the future. This forward-thinking is key to the approach of the production; as rather than an examination of the causes of and solutions to homelessness – which no one play could ever address (and would be foolish to attempt) – it instead considers the lives behind the statistics, and the very human aspects of hope and action in togetherness.

 Sarah, a tough, no-nonsense young woman is performed with great pathos by Leah Gray – an actor I have seen previously in New Dawn Fades: A Play About Manchester and Joy Division (read our article on the play here) and admire her well-measured emotiveness interspersed with timely flashes of intensity. She was joined by a rather childish yet likeable young man called Barney, a character played engagingly by an energetic Paul Tomblin – whilst the older, more brooding character of Derek was played by Craig Hodgkinson. Powerful eye contact and thoughtful silences underlined Hodgkinson’s ability to bring to life a character accustomed to being careful, measured, in what he says – hinting at earlier hardship . These very distinct characters are brought together through shared circumstances – the three central actors dynamically working to display both the flying tensions as well as deep camaraderie that can exist amongst people sharing some of the most difficult circumstances. Written and directed with human insight and personal perceptivity, the characterisation and writing craft in this area really stood out to me.

The play follows the fairly simple story arc of the three friends’ attempt to form a band and raise enough money to travel to the coast at Southport – perhaps a slightly romanticised aim given their apparent circumstances.  The Frozen Peas In An Old Tin Can of the title are actually dug out of a bin at this point and used as a makeshift instrument; a rather surreal image. How did frozen peas get inside a tin can in the first place? And stay frozen?

By Shay Rowan

Yet this is a play that is not necessarily grounded in complete realism, the title itself perhaps a nod to its edge into magical realism, even elements of fantasy. It is instead primarily character-focused and significantly has its strengths in the humanisation and opportunity for empathy around key themes. To me, the objective of the characters’ holiday was less interesting than the ideas and insight they shared. Reflections such as: if you could have any job, what would it be? What do you miss the most? And even the little, intimate gestures such as  saying ‘night’ before going to sleep, emphasised that homelessness people have loves, hopes and emotional needs just as everyone else. In the statistics and news bulletins that surround homelessness as an issue, these personal pieces of information are often evaded.

In turn, Frozen Peas In An Old Tin Can has its power in empathy – and surely would make a viewer look again at their relationship to and treatment of homeless people in the city. In turn, the elements of the play’s story that are slightly hyperbolic, such as the band’s rather rapid success and internet fandom, appear an intended edge into magical realism to move the story along. Perhaps this in itself sends the message that more people need to contribute, to offer funding and support, if the narratives of homeless people are to change in actual reality, and the ongoing development of the play could potentially build on this a little (accepting donations on the way out additionally emphasised this).

  The story was also given additional shape through an interaction with a character played by Ella Fraser, presenting a young woman with rather prejudiced views of homelessness – highlighting attitudes still exist that need to change. An important Cast Photo by Shay Rowanaddition, I felt.  Actor Owen Murphy also played the role of an over-excited fan keen to tell the ‘band’ of their sudden fame, and played additional guitar, which was enjoyable and interactive.

I also think the elements of magical realism and hyperbole in the story allow it to work more readily as a comedy; the humour derived from the relationships and interaction between the characters, rather than their circumstances. Balancing this with considering the reality of homelessness is perhaps an ongoing aspect for development – and the play did indeed have its poignant moments worth building on; with a particularly profound reflection on the notion of ‘embarrassment’ from the character of Derek. Photo: cast with Writer and Director Joe Walsh, stood in centre - by Shay Rowan

 Interspersed with reference points to Mancunian idioms and popular culture, this allowed a welcome light-hearted quality which increased the opportunity for empathy as the play went on– the eye of the young generation particularly expressed through references to The Rugrats, Barry Chuckle and Blue Peter.  The comic, dizzy qualities of Barney as a character bristled well against the more defensive and direct Sarah.

The chemistry in performance was indeed excellent; and the affectionate yet at times explosive connection between Sarah and Barney was brilliantly balanced with Derek’s slightly less direct, but deeply-caring demeanour. It was after all a revealing, yet tender surprise from Derek which allowed the story to move towards its seaside-bound end. Yet the audience never see the end scenario, we are conscious only of its possibility. Indeed, Frozen Peas In An Old Tin Can is a play concerned with possibilities and potentials, raising the point that people’s prospects can be made massively different – but we too need to act.

An awareness-raising, emotionally-engaging piece of theatre with plenty of energy and prospect. What the Greater Manchester Fringe is all about and a credit to all involved.

By Emily Oldfield

Photography: with thanks to Shay Rowan, who is featured in 'A selection of photographers celebrating Manchester's underground culture' here

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