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Ten Things to Do in a Small Cumbrian Town review – delightfully deadpan coming-of-age tale

The Guardian logo The Guardian 3 days ago Mark Fisher

We talk of Damon Runyon’s New York, James Joyce’s Dublin and Irvine Welsh’s Edinburgh. To that list, perhaps we should add Hannah Sowerby’s Penrith – although not until the end of this delightful one-woman show does the writer-performer admit to the romantic tug of the Cumbrian market town.

As Sowerby presents it, Penrith is less the beauty spot of Lake District myth than the soul-destroying meeting place of boorish farmers, deluded shelf-stackers and patronising new mothers. Glamorous it is not. Worse: for a girl growing up “10% gay”, there seem only to be two lesbians in the whole place.

That is the lot of Sowerby’s Jodie Bell, a 19-year-old in urgent need of direction in this coming-of-age tale. Lucky to get so much as a glimpse of Ullswater, Jodie lives with her gran above a kebab shop. The one friend she had has left for university. Dreaming of a literary life – and only dreaming – she lands a job in Sainsbury’s and tries to develop an interest in the crisp aisle.

It sounds bleak, especially given the apparent connection between the town’s dullness and Jodie’s poor mental health. But in Sowerby’s hands, it is anything but. She has something of the deadpan irony of a young Victoria Wood, getting laughs from matter-of-fact minutiae, whether it be pork scratchings or thrush. Her work as a standup has clearly honed her gift for rhythm.

She remains likable and funny even as she draws us into Jodie’s depressive inertia and suicidal thoughts. For much of the play, the young woman is defeated by the challenge to come up with “10 things to do in a small Cumbrian town,” but some life force propels her on. In the most touching moment, she accepts there are many more than 10.

Directed by Jonluke McKie, Sowerby performs on Anna Robinson’s set of cardboard boxes which cleverly morph from bedroom table to small-town landscape, beauty emerging from the mundane. If it could do with a second actor to mop up the supporting characters who are relegated to voiceovers and filmed segments, it is no less tender a reflection on the love-hate relationship between personality and place.

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