Arts Editor Lorne Jackson discovers a real kitchen sink drama in Birmingham where the audience are at the centre of the action.
Go on, admit it, we all like a good snoop. Even those ethical titans amongst us who peruse the Birmingham Post every week.
That whiskey glass you keep in the drinks cabinet, for instance. I bet it isn’t there for the sole purpose of swigging a few inches of 12-year-old Glenfiddich.
It also comes in handy when the next door neighbours start to bicker and bark at each other of an evening.
That’s the time to firmly press the whisky tumbler against the wallpaper, and rest your ear on the base of the glass.
Suddenly you have a listening device worthy of MI5, allowing you to discover how many affairs that slatternly Mrs Smith from next door enjoyed while Mr Smith was at the golf club.
And – tut-tut! – does Mr Smith really have a gambling problem?
The shame of it!
When you grow weary of the smutty Smiths, you can always dump the whisky glass and pick up that handy pair of opera glasses, instead.
The ones that have never been used to focus on a chubby singer on a faraway stage. Though they are very handy when it comes to peeping through the net curtains at busy Ms Brown across the way.
Is that really the fifth car in her driveway in five days? My, my – she’s a sociable sort. And so democratic with her attentions!
Yup, the human race. We’re a nosey bunch, alright.
But even the most prying of nose-pokers wouldn’t dream of banging on a stranger’s door, swaggering into their house, then settling into a comfy chair to luxuriate in all the gossip from the kitchen.
Yet that’s exactly what theatre fans are being encouraged to do at one of the most unusual events in Birmingham for many years.
Behna (Sisters) is presented by the Birmingham Rep. But audiences don’t head to the theatre’s Centenary Square base to enjoy a performance.
Instead, they are directed to a house in Weoley Park Road, just off the Bristol Road.
Once there, they are welcomed into the house by the actors, who are already in character. The audience are offered pakoras and sweets, as if arriving at a family party, then asked to sit down in the dining room.
The actors then perform the play in the kitchen, with the small audience – roughly 20 people – looking on.
Because of the setting, it isn’t like a play at all. Instead, it is a great, big, succulent snoop.
And best of all?
You don’t even have to bring your whiskey tumbler or opera glasses.
Hema Mangoo, a Birmingham-based actress performing in Behna (Sisters), says it’s one of the most exciting productions she’s been involved with.
“I’ve worked in TV, radio and theatre,” she says.
“But this is completely different from anything else. The audience play their part in the performance. Because they’re so close to the actors, there’s a real feeling of intimacy.
“Also, there is no theatrical lighting. We just use the lights that are in the house. That means that we can see the audience.
“That’s not usually the case in the theatre, where the actors are looking out into darkness.
“What we are doing can feel very voyeuristic, like the people in the audience are getting a peek at something they really shouldn’t be able to see.
“I think that adds to the tension and drama. The audiences we have had in so far are certainly enjoying the experience. And so am I.”
In the play, Hema plays Simi Cheema, one of a group of siblings in a boisterous family (the play’s title translates as ‘sisters’).
It’s the run up to a wedding, and the girls, plus mum, are cooking and fussing over the bride to be.
But it’s not just the cooking pots that are simmering. Secrets and lies are aired, and there is barely repressed jealousy, too, meaning the dialogue is about to get as hot and spicy as the food.
But did the show have to be performed in a real house? Does the location add to the drama, or is it just a clever gimmick?
“I certainly think it adds to the authenticity of the evening,” says Hema, who has also appeared in Hollyoaks.
“The reason I got into acting was because I loved storytelling. And the sort of story telling I enjoy is the stuff that is very close to real family life.
“I’m not a fan of sci-fi escapism, or any of that sort of thing.
“This play gives the audience a slice of life, and I think the whole experience is enhanced by that fact that it takes place in a genuine Birmingham house.”
She adds: “I also think the setting is attracting a different audience from the one that usually visits the Rep, or other local theatres.
“We do get the usual theatre goers, but we also get the sort of people who haven’t set foot in a theatre in their lives.
“It’s a real mix.
“Our audiences are also reacting in very different ways to what happens in the kitchen.
“One night they will be incredibly vocal and laugh at the comic moments. But on another night the audience will be deathly silent.
“You can’t even hear them breath. That’s not because they aren’t enjoying what is happening. I’ve asked them afterwards.
“They’ve explained that it’s because they are so close to the action, they feel it would be intrusive to react!
“Setting a play in a real house breaks the traditional rules. That means both the actors and audience never quite know what to expect.
“Which keeps everything fresh and exciting – which is exactly what theatre should be.”
* Behna is being performed in Weoley Park Road until Saturday. For more information, go to www.birmingham-rep.co.uk/event/behna