NEL at the Wardrobe Theatre, Bristol

Nel slider

It’s not easy to keep a room of people thoroughly entertained for a full hour and a half, but this small company of four young women from Exeter managed it with panache. They are a talented and disciplined group moving seamlessly from music to acting to mime, but what the show demonstrates above all is their fantastic imagination.

Nel is billed as a touching story about identity, friendship and what it means to be an introvert. It sounds rather pious and boring, but it is the opposite. The plot about a Foley artist – someone who makes sound effects for theatre and film – allows enormous theatricality. This show is almost a demonstration of what live theatre can be and how it differs from other art forms. In no other form could you show and make amusing that the sound of a tyre screech is made by rubbing a full hot water bottle along a table.

The show starts with the cast wandering around a semi-lit stage as though testing out the sound props, but within one minute of the lights coming up you know that you are in safe hands. The four women engage with the audience with an easy professionalism and humour that puts everyone at their ease. It looks simple but requires excellent direction and much hard work. Every few minutes there is a new imaginative and amusing theatrical trick and the quick fire togetherness is always immaculate.

With the use of simple props and minimal costume changes the psychological world of Nel is created, one that we can all relate to. Socialising is often difficult, full of compromises, white lies and faux pas. Sian Keen is excellent as Nel, the introverted Foley artist, demonstrating a touching vulnerability that because of the humour, is never mawkish. But it is a group piece with all the actors showing great versatile skills. The whole performance is tight, with perfect timing and clever juxtapositions. Hanova Karmen provides backing on guitar and mandolin to some close harmony singing as well giving a splendid performance as the aunt by donning a cardigan and an easy northern accent. Alex Higginson is excellent as the self-obsessed boss and Laura Doble perfect as the weird friend.

It was an ideal piece for this lovely little theatre and I hope Scratchworks continue to get good audiences for the rest of their tour. Try to get to see it!   ★★★★★    Keith Erskine      19th February 2016