Soapbox Racer, an appreciation – Alphabetti Theatre 26th April 2023

Alphabetti Theatre, 26th April 2023

This is a wonderful, warm, humorous whilst also satisfyingly serious piece of theatre in every way. In how it has been written by Ben Schwarz, realised (directed by Rosie Bowden, produced by Gina Ruffin) and performed by Harrison Rowley-Lynn. It honours a person we might see as everyday, who under challenge is trying to be true to her heart and learning in the process. As the strap line says it is a “play about love, loss and hoying yourself downhill on a matchbox with wheels”. I felt it was also about moving from childhood into a more adult world that may judge harshly, in superficial ways, often for social gain. A small and intimate performance that becomes epic. It’s the story of a heroine defending her heart against an onslaught by the world.

Kay (aka Kay-T) Kennedy is a teenager, around seventeen. She’s been chucked by her boyfriend, Rory, in favour of her former best (and only) friend Vicky (aka Vicky Nits, due to a childhood story – one we see reenacted and one in which Kay was more understanding of the Nit factor). The story is told as Kay plans a ‘grand gesture’ to win Rory back by taking part in a local Soapbox race – to do so, as an under eighteen, she has to trick her dad into signing a permission slip (which he thinks is for a school trip) and then construct her Soapbox racer in the garage in secret.

The performance plays out this story with flashbacks of her relationship with these three people (Rory, Vicky and Dad) and we learn the scale of Kay’s challenge. We become immersed in her world. This is where writing, production and performance seem so true and to have lived and breathed this story and Kay’s world. I say that feeling serious and square, but the creators of this piece get beyond all that to bring it to life, gritty, funny, real. It doesn’t take itself too seriously at all, it’s by people for people.

We learn of how Kay sees Rory and feels he is the only person in the world who sees her for who she is rather than how society might see her. All her strengths in being different and original may in fact seem hindrances in a superficial social world. We learn of her childhood friendship with Vicky who seems to be turning to the dark side of social realities and does of course also seem to have stolen Rory. And we learn about her Dad, basking daily in front of the telly with Pointless, beached since her mum left three or four years ago (or is that part of why she left?). And we learn of Kay in all this, trying to keep on keeping on as she moves through school towards adult life and dealing with all this loss – Mum, Dad, boyfriend, friend. No wonder she reaches a point she has to act.

So, she comes to her grand gesture of ‘hoying herself downhill in a matchbox’ – perhaps it could seem sad as a premise, small and parochial. Kay herself comments as an outsider on a sort of sadness when Alan Titchmarsh is applauded on arrival at her town’s bookshop for a signing. A story that seems so very British, including the feelings of a teenager viewing this. Her gesture is sad in some ways (and when viewed from the outside perhaps), but it is grand and far more than just a gesture. By embracing her own sadness, acting in response, she and it become something else.

She names her soapbox racer ‘Doodlebug’, it’s decorated with Rory’s ‘love’ doodles, against the advice of someone that may see Rory through less rose tinted spectacles. The day comes for her first trial run. Kay faces fear – fear of hurtling down a hill in her Doodlebug, and fear of being watched and judged, of more social death, as well as the physical peril.

Facing fear is a grand thing. My ‘epic’ comment made me think of the Greeks and Marathon or Salamis. In a way it struck me Kay is defending her city and her gods even as they are burning in the face of the apparent power of the world. And this contemporary very recognisably British drama, of a very different situation, suddenly had strong ties to the earliest drama we have.

But it is modern. The world that threatens her world is her very own society, including those closest to her. It may also be gender related – the men in this piece may both enforce and be especially vulnerable to, a lack of expressed feeling. But by honouring her own feelings, that seem so idiosyncratic even silly on some scale and irrelevant to or even maybe wrong to express in the wider discourse, that something real happens and there is movement, some of it unexpected. It’s beautiful and hopeful.

In watching Kay-T and sharing her journey I feel refreshed. It feels good to have seen someone grapple to find a way to honour their heart. Along the way we’ve enjoyed a slice of her view of her world and our own. Hugely positive. I recommend this to anyone and everyone, and especially if you’ve ever felt this world makes little sense to you.

As I have suggested the whole production was excellent. The set and props whilst simple were wholly redolent of the piece. I enjoyed the music that introduced it and that was used during the play. Harrison Rowley-Lynn playing Kay-T  (and Kay-T playing everyone else) was superb, sincere but fun as she moved through the play and Kay-T’s feelings, taking us with her. I’d love to see how Kay-T’s goes on from here.

Playing at Alphabetti Theatre, Newcastle upon Tyne April 25th – May 13th

You can view a trailer for the play here –

Creative Team

Writer: Ben Schwarz
Director: Rosie Bowden
Performer: Harrison Rowley-Lynn
Producer: Gina Ruffin
Stage Manager: Wilf Stone
Sound Design: Matt Jamie
LX Design: John Rainsforth
Set Design: Ali Pritchard
Costume Trash Nerd: @trashnerdclothing
Set Assistance: Dan Brown & Matt Jamie
Set Consultancy: Molly Barrett
Illustration: Gina Ruffin
Trailer: Benjamin M. Smith
Press Photography: Von Fox
Captain Script: Sunny Howlader
Audio Description Script: Matt Jamie
Access Coordination: David Oliver

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