Theatre Review: Omnibus, Unity Theatre, Liverpool

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Image Source: Unity Theatre

Written By: Mark Armstrong

Format: Play
Genre: Comedy Drama
Date: June 8 2017
Location: Unity Theatre, Liverpool, England

Omnibus, the show which scooped the inaugural Liverpool Hope Playwriting Prize, has just begun its ten-day run in Unity Theatre, and it is also the first show to be playing Unity since its re-opening following extensive redevelopment.

Written by the very talented Katie Mulgrew and directed by Bob Farquhar, Omnibus tells the story of three housemates and their landlord, who are all at home ready for a Sunday dinner (or tea, as the characters remind us). Mark (Joel Parry) and Jess (Eva McKenna) are an item, with Mark supposedly planning to have Jess move in, much to the chagrin of Nell (Gemma Banks), who is the smarter, more logical-thinking housemate, and she particularly dislikes the “sexily-stupid” Jess for playing on her apparent confusion and cuteness to appease Mark and gain sympathy. As for Lauren (Alice Bunker-Whitney): the landlord is clearly a bit drunk, to say the very least, but she is also trying her best to hide the obvious pain suffered from being dumped at the altar, exactly one year prior.

Jess is attempting to cook the meal but failing miserably, and she and Mark eventually go to the shops to buy further items and quell the storm being brewed by her accident-prone nature within the house. As Nell and Lauren flick the television on and off to catch particular moments of Eastenders, things change when a sudden visit by the unknown Leslie (Danny Burns) leads to panic and fear when he produces a gun, as he is on the run from police for an as-yet unknown crime. Soon, Mark and Jess are drawn into the saga, and the story then becomes about whether Leslie will be caught and, if so, whether the four housemates will be taken down with him. But by this point, Lauren has fallen for him, and it’s clear that the relationship between Mark and Jess isn’t all that it seemed, especially when Nell enters the romantic picture in a roundabout way.

It’s a comedy show, so all of this is told in a light-hearted manner with plenty of jokes, one-liners and moments of physical humour. The exceptions are the occasionally serious scenes whereby the cast tug at the emotional heartstrings, especially when Lauren suddenly tells her fellow housemates and Leslie about how she truly feels in the wake of being ditched on her wedding day, a feeling which many can relate to regardless of their personal circumstances. But comedy remains the predominant tone, especially when Jan (Eithne Browne), Nell’s mum, turns up out of the blue towards the end, which leads to the show’s funniest lines.

Although she’s in the show for a fairly short amount of time, Eithne Browne is superb in her role, perfectly playing the friendly-yet-gabby mother who drops by at the most unexpected and most awkward times and adding her own personal touch to her well-written one-liners. From a performance standpoint, everybody is commendable, but I felt that Alice Bunker-Whitney stole the show as Lauren, demonstrating a range of emotions from the lovably-lazy landlord to the gobby and arguing drunk to the sympathetic and relatable victim. Though it isn’t obvious upon first glance, Danny Burns quickly changes audience perceptions of his character by toggling between various accents and personality traits, which work both because they are entertaining and because they are so unexpected, given how he enters the story initially.

Unpredictability is at the centre of the plot for the most part, though some surprise elements didn’t really make sense and felt like an attempt to break the fourth wall (with the repeated use of “That was unexpected”) rather than tying in with the story. I also felt that while the main strands of the story are nicely linked together, one particular arc wasn’t really concluded (I won’t spoil it here), but it felt like there was a missing scene as opposed to this device leaving the story open for the audience to think about. There were other minor issues, but ultimately the show still had a lot more to like than to dislike, such as the simple yet effective home setting, the clever use of props which would be referenced later in the story, and the effortless way in which the main plot ties in with the episode of Eastenders that the foursome were originally watching.

Overall, Omnibus marks a strong start to the new era for Unity Theatre, and it is an entertaining story which is both relatable and over-the-top in a charming way, whilst raising some thought-provoking points on occasion and delivering a generous helping of laughs. Omnibus runs until June 17, and I would suggest that anybody interested in local theatre (especially those aged 18-30) should go and see it.

Overall Rating: 8/10 – Very Good