Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

A quality double from Stage 2

Arsehammers & The Year of the Monkey

Stage 2

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham


Now, there's a first! The first half of this Claire Dowie double bill is Arsehammers. That's what a young boy, having overheard his parents discussing Alzheimer's, thinks his grandfather has got. 

And who's playing the young boy? Everybody – all 16 members of the very young cast, with the story played out on a floor consisting of a board of 16 coloured and numbered squares. And the way we find out who's who is by remembering which square they start and finish on and then check with the numbers on the programme. 

It's different – but by the time I had read my instructions in the studio's Stygian gloom I had no idea where they all started. And I became so wrapped up in director Liz Light's clever adaptation of the original Dowie monologue that I never even noticed which squares they ended up on, either. 

Fortunately, a  swift check with the director assured me that the tiny waif who sang We'll Meet Again almost at the end was little Laura Dowsett. She gave it all she'd got. I never realised there were so many verses. A precocious little heroine! 

It fell to another little lass to utter the most memorable line – “I know Grandpa is doomed” – in a production which, as the programme puts it, blows the original monologue wide open. This is a typical Stage 2 effort – now fizzing with effortless noise and energy, now a study in concentrated quiet. 


The monologue's sentences have been chopped into three, four, five, maybe more pieces, and these youngsters know exactly how their own utterances fit into the grand scheme of things. Each sentence may indeed have been cut up and generously redistributed, but on the first night I was not aware of a single pause or hesitation. Every one of them flowed. 

Full marks, incidentally, to the girl who, realising that a red piece of costume decoration had fallen onto the floor, picked it up unostentatiously a little while later and carried on with the action. Not for Stage 2 any silly notion of pretending that there was nothing there while carefully walking round it. 

The second half of the production, The Year of the Monkey, is an adroit adaptation which tells us what is going on in the minds of the people involved in a wedding while the bride's mother has worked herself into a state of wondering whether she is actually part of the party. 

This is one for the older Stage 2 members. It's often raucous, at one point giving itself over to a collection of characters who become caricatures in a mockery of life's falsities – but it also takes us to a funeral at which the shouting has given way to an intensity of whispers.


There's an exchange between the two waitresses – Sophie Bowser and Ella Otomewo – involving an alarm clock. There's a hectic interlude involving much rushing from one side of the studio to the other in a continuous exchange of seats. We learn of “collective loneliness concentrating our minds in on ourselves” and we're sure this has significance – but I am distracted by the realisation that it is not the kind of philosophy I customarily associate with youthful thespians. It's the sort of thing that Stage 2 is ever likely to bounce at you. 

Throughout, the bride's mother (Charlie Reilly) is either onstage or about to be there – and when she is there, she commands it in an admirable performance. 

It is an exciting double bill, about which I have one reservation. The audience sits on three sides of the action, but there is a point at which the only two people involved sit and face upstage, where there is no one to see their faces, while behind them is more than a third of their audience, listening hard but looking at their backs. 

Nevertheless, it's another success for the Stage 2 scrapbook – and both plays will be featured at the BFAME Festival. Arsehammers will have a rerun on Monday, February 21, and The Year of the Monkey on Friday, February 25. Then, with just a slight change of mood, comes Romeo and Juliet in the Crescent Theatre's main house from April 20-23. 

The current excitement runs to 15.1.

John Slim 

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