City Stories is certainly an atmospheric mix. Three female-led monologues breathlessly name check a Starbucks at Centre Point, a secret gallery at the Angel and a graveyard in Stoke Newington. Music weaves together these personal stories, set amid the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Rosabella Gregory's melancholy melody underpins the strong scripts which, under writer James Phillips' direction, pack a lot of action and a whirlwind of activity into a small space.
The intimate St James Theatre Studio certainly has class, and as the cast of five actors move in between the tables, standing on the balconies and stepping easily from the stage to a seat, they seamlessly become part of the audience, settling in to watch the show, and then stepping back into the action. The slick action and fast pace adds to the slightly mad, vertiginous feeling generated by James Phillips' script and direction.
The first monologue, Narcissi, throws us in without warning and introduces the idea of the women in these three seemingly unconnected stories seeking to find fulfilment in their lives, and in a big city. Sarah Quintrell reels off her monologue as if she has been doing it for years. The timing is impeccable and, through force of will, she makes us forget about the traditional appendages of props, set and costume. Indeed, there is nothing traditional about this evening. Her story, like the others', is aided by Tom Gordon Gill, playing the universal male talked about in each story, in roles changing from expectant father to the distant and passionate artist. He discreetly changes the colour of his hoodie, to signal each new part. His lines throughout the three monologues amount to nearly half a page in total, but he manages to add something fascinating to these intricate, small and yet profound stories. This first monologue is about finding love, losing it, and being reuniting with it. Its subject is an odd, decade-defying relationship that lives on in the next instalment.
All three monologues do a good job of picking out actual places – street names, coffee houses and bookshops – to create a sense of shared experience. In the next piece, The Great Secret, Louisa Clein (witty and personable) carries on where the previous story left off, supported by Yolanda Vazquez who, it transpires, is playing Quintrell's character as an older woman, ravaged by memories of her past. The company thrives, making the most of the intimacy of the space by forcing emotional encounters with their audience.
Meanwhile, Gregory adds a phrasing of her own to the drama and romance of the tales, punctuating them with music and opening and closing the piece, acting as narrator without speaking a single word. Instead, she sings. Her lyrics, revolving on the recurring theme of the city, seem almost to give the city itself a voice – it's as though she is speaking as London, as the common thread running through the evening.
In the last monologue, Lullaby, another refreshingly bold, clever and bright woman (played with care, passion and brilliant timing by Daphne Alexander) documents what it would be like to wake up to a world where everyone is comatose, slumped over steering wheels or dressed up to the nines at the Ritz. This last piece turns the lens on our world, viewing it as it would be seen by a complete outsider, and in this sense deviates from the realism of the other two pieces.
A strong cast, a powerful musical accompaniment and excellent use of a small space, make this piece, together with its author, James Phillips, worth keeping an eye out for.