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Nel's Place - Norwich Theatre Stage Two (22.03.2024)

Guest review by April Nash

Nels' Place is a new musical by theatre company Sheep Soup which has been aided in development by The Lowry Theatre’s Rewrites project. As Norwich Theatre is a partner theatre of The Lowry, the show recently had a try-out at Stage Two.

Nel’s Place reminded me of a British kitchen sink drama but with a soulful toe-tapping score of blues, jazz, rock, soul, and rap. Add in incredible actor-muso talent playing the anthropomorphic appliances - ‘Edge’, the kettle (Ben Welch), ‘Boxhead’, the chair (Keaton Guimarães-Tolley), ‘Switch’, the light (Lawrence ‘Trev’ Cole), ‘Blue’, the vase (Aminita Francis), and ‘Spadge’, the mirror (Zoe West) and you’ve just begun to scratch the surface of the creativity and originality of the piece.

The story kicks off with the endearing Hoarder Nel (Esther Coles) eagerly preparing a ‘toilet roll cafe’ for her granddaughter Molly's 16th birthday. She’s excited about the occasion and we are introduced to her quirky band of appliances. However, a mishap occurs, leading Nel to cancel the visit.

Molly (Molly Vivian), after having a fight with their mum, comes round and breaks through Nel’s clutter into their grandfather's bedroom. Softening Nel’s resolve, Molly tries to bond with her over music and the past, but accidentally breaks an important vase. This causes Nel to have a severe panic attack, but with the help of her friend Sheila she starts to navigate her overwhelming emotions.

Molly’s exasperated mum, Anna (Emma Bispham), arrives and we see the familial conflicts and generational differences, each of the three characters grappling with their frustrations and unresolved issues in regards to each other.

To try and help, Molly suggests they try ‘Chuck, Charity of Cherish’ - an exercise designed to help Nel process and organise her possessions. This was a stand out number in the production - it was catchy, moving and gave powerful insight into Nel’s increasing discomfort.

Anna discovers her (now very dead) cat, Merlin who had been crushed by a stack of vintage magazines. A series of events intensify Nel's anxiety, ultimately leading to Anna storming out with Molly and leaving Nel alone with her fears, guilt and rising panic.

Things take a bizarre turn in Act Two as we open on an abstract hoard which Nel is scaling into the ‘Rock bottom club’. We get an almost theatrical purgatory where the (still) dead Merlin becomes our host, bringing up all of Nel’s past traumas for everyone to publicly delve into.

The family finally listen to each other, reconcile and leave the hoard together. The show finishes with Nel’s support group and family coming round to help her clear up a section of her home.

Firstly, I must absolutely congratulate the company on this creation. The talent on the stage was immense and when I say that Nel’s place is a very cool show for a sympathetic (and pretty mundane) character, it should not be taken as a criticism. I didn’t know what to expect from the concept, but I was delighted by ‘the Crongoes’ - something in lesser hands could have been extremely corny, but was delivered with style and edgy charm.

The music and lyrics of Rob Green and Nic Harvey were outstanding and the sound design was exceptional. This production understood how to get the audience to feel the sensation of the chaotic nature of thoughts when struggling with mental illness and the creation of the rising panic and thumping heart rate was so cleverly executed - it was honestly one of the best and most powerful depictions I’ve seen of this experience.

As you can probably tell I don’t mind an abstract concept in a musical, but I liked the idea of the ‘Rock Bottom Club’ more than the execution. Sadly, the second half felt narratively weaker and extremely heavy-handed, especially with Anna and Molly just appearing out of nowhere and the chaotic speed in which everything was brought up and resolved.

As much I love the character of Merlin as the driving force for uncovering the truth of Nel, I also feel that using Molly, or even Anna, to ask questions here would have been more impactful. Act One established really well that Molly just wants to help and in the second half, I missed the character and the optimism as they took more of a backseat.

Despite my criticisms of the second half - I loved the gentle end to the show. Not only the solving of Nel’s plumbing issue, but in the replacing of her ‘things’ for real people in her support group which felt extremely genuine, sympathetic and well-earned.

Overall, it was a very, (very) cool, weird and earnest outing of an in-development show. A show, that I might add, I would very much like to buy the album of and play on repeat.

You can find out more about the development of the production here:


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