A Cut in the Rates by Alan Ayckbourn and Gray Matter by JD Farr

HomewoodRose Theatre produce two short plays, both of which challenge our preconceptions but which approach the issue from starkly different directions. Appearing as part of Laughing Horse Free Festival, this young theatre company produce an enjoyable hour of theatre, which does however verge on amateur dramatics at some points.

Ayckbourn's one-act play A Cut in the Rates centres on a visit which a tax inspector, Mrs Pickhart, makes to the home of Mr Rachet, an illusionist. Mrs Pickhart is deeply shaken by her encounter with Mrs Rachet and his assistant, which ends with a bizarre twist. In contrast to this intriguing tale, JD Farr's play, Gray Matter (second in the bill) features a perfectly ordinary encounter between an elderly lady and a young man in a police station and seeks to examine the snap judgements which they make about each other. While the brilliantly-written first play is tarnished a little by slightly halting performances and shaky production decisions, the actors more than rise to the occasion in the second piece.

Mother-and-son duo Maureen Rose and Sebastian Rose portray the central characters in both plays, however they have much stronger chemistry in Gray Matter. The manner in which the pair fire lines back and forth at one another is both amusing and charming. However, it's clear that Maureen's acting style changes very little between the two roles that she portrays. She is perpetually a wispy, irritable little old lady, albeit a good one. Sebastian Rose has strong stage presence and his nods to the audience, especially in Gray Matter, are obviously appreciated. Ann Homewood, who plays smaller parts - the illusionist's assistant, a neighbour, and a policewoman - projects her voice much better than either of the central actors, despite having considerably smaller roles in both plays. Ayckbourn's play suffers a little as some of the amusing moments are lost because, while the acting is pretty exaggerated, the actors could all do with speaking more from the diaphragm.

HomewoodRose could work better with the space. The company are clearly aware that, because of a number of pillars and a slight shortage of seating, members of the audience seated further back will have trouble seeing clearly. This of course cannot be helped, however there is a considerable period in A Cut in the Rates in which both characters onstage are seated. A little alteration to the original stage directions would solve the problem of half the audience having to crane their necks for a significant portion of the performance. HomewoodRose could also have done better by eliminating pretty much all of their rather primitive set, which is clearly homemade and is unnecessary. A cardboard door is not vital in theatre for it to be obvious that a character is knocking on a door.

Despite a few teething problems, HomewoodRose produce a show which is fun and, at times, compelling, and the pairing of these two plays is very clever.

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The Blurb

Alan Ayckbourn play: Town Hall official visits property that has fallen behind in the rates – roller coaster of intrigue with a wicked twist. Plus Gray Matter.

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