The brand new Hope Street Theatre, in Liverpool, provides a cosy and intimate backdrop for Venus Rising, a claustrophobic play about a man’s dreams turning into a living nightmare. Writer, Ian Salmon, brings to life the author James Wilkinson played skilfully by James Sutton.
Wilkinson dreams of writing the next classic American novel and surrounds himself with books by his favourite authors from Shakespeare to Larkin, but his career has taken him down a blind alley. Greed for fame and money has led him to follow the advice of his drinking chum, played by Thomas Galashan, to write ‘mummy porn’. Wilkinson is successful in this venture and enjoys the cash it is bringing in but without a deadline for his classic novel he is constantly procrastinating and when he does try to write it, he doubts himself.
The problem comes when his publishers won’t allow him to put his own name on the cover of his soft porn novels. They feel a female writer is more appropriate to sell this type of books so Stephanie played by Abigail McKenzie, is hired to be the face of pen name Terri Larkin. She is the one that does the book signing tours and TV appearances whereas he is not allowed to take any credit. Although he is worth £4 million his lack of identity starts to bring him to his knees, not helped by him stalking Stephanie.
As he approaches his fifth novel in the Venus series the characters on the page come to life and contort along with the writer’s mental state. Turning to drink, his books are becoming violent and this dramatically spills out into real life. The turning point in the story comes when he reveals that he put off having a baby with his wife Sarah, played by Laura Connolly, due to his self-loathing. The marriage fails, plunging him into a chaotic lifestyle.
James Sutton deftly deals with an almost hour-long monologue switching from humour to anxiety and finally anger with ease. Director Julia Carstairs keeps the pace of the play beat-perfect, allowing ex Hollyoaks and Emmerdale actor Sutton to show us what he is made of. He engages the audience from beginning to end, occasionally breaking the fourth wall but in a non-intrusive way.
His supporting actors contribute greatly to this tight performance. Galashan providing the drunken banter, Mckenzie drips with falsely gained glamour and Connolly gives us that rare vulnerability of a woman let down by someone she loves. The scenes between James and Sarah really stand out and the pain between them is palpable.
Writer Ian Salmon’s star is most definitely rising in Liverpool, with his excellently characterised and monologue driven plays; the sell-out Those Two Weeks gaining plenty of critical praise. Salmon seems to be constantly polishing and reinventing his plays and there is rumour that Venus Rising may be back in a different form. I feel there is much to explore here and perhaps Salmon needs to trust his dialogue between characters more rather than sticking to monologue. I would certainly watch a play about the relationship between Wilkinson and his wife.
Audience opinion seemed to lie in two camps; most thinking the play was good in both its writing and production, and some wondering if the parallels of sex selling were a part of making sure this play was noticed. Having an unlikeable protagonist was seen as brave but some found his dilemmas hard to identify with. However, with male suicides in the news the topic of male mental health is timely and I await the next version of Venus Rising with anticipation.
Sharon has worked in education for most of her life. In 2001 she helped launch a theatre group in Hampshire focusing on the local community. Upon moving back to the North West, Sharon launched Make it Write, an organization dedicated to help new writers particularly writing for performance.