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summer with monika, by roger mcgough, directed by daisy shaw

Review: Summer with Monika

‘But Monika, they don’t make summers like they used to.’


Based on Roger McGough’s piece from 1967, which in turn took its name from Ingmar Bergman’s 1953 film, director Daisy Shaw’s interpretation of these raw and intimate musings is unlike anything I have ever seen before. Summer with Monika is a collection of poems exploring the overlap of love and loss, which has finally been brought to the stage for Cambridge audiences. Produced by Ella Ducker, with Jules Coyle and Aaron Gillett also in directing roles, this one-man show certainly has the mark of a dedicated and nurturing production team.

The play’s protagonist, Roger, holding his face in his hands

Image credits: Joshua Shortman

As soon as you step into the Pembroke New Cellars, audiences are plunged into the story, with the room being transformed into Roger’s (played by Jay Palombella) own living quarters. Audiences are seated around the set up of a bed, lounge chair and table, with us being introduced to his character by him weaving through viewers carrying a cardboard box. The bedclothes, furniture and crockery are all tastefully vintage, further immersing audiences into this 1960s universe that set designers Sarah Cunningham and Maddy Guha have so successfully recreated.

The warm, low intensity lighting designed by Stan Hunt contributes significantly to the domestic, lived in feel of the room. Roger’s clothes are strewn across the set, but the period-accurate costumes designed by Martha Gazzard are an intelligent touch; Roger’s smart shirt and vest immediately give away his tenseness, while most of the band are in flowing casual wear.

Our sole cast member, Palombella, is naturally the beating heart of the show, with our insight into this love story solely coming from his fragmented recollections of this now lost lover – at times frenzied, at times tearful, at times joyous. It is impossible to take your eyes away from such a powerful exploration of such an intimate venue; he paces around, he lies in bed, he even breaks the fourth wall between himself and the band. As the story continues, it is clear that neither him nor his love are perfect, but his interpretation of McGough’s words will leave you more emotionally invested than you could have ever thought. Monika is not seen, of course, but she is certainly felt – we can feel her in his wistful memories, which sometimes turn regretful and even resentful, and Palombella’s sophisticated take on the script emphasises the complex nature of this entanglement.

Another observation is the constantly suave and composed presence of the band. Musical Director Max Pullinger is seated at the piano, with Charlotte Lampe at the drums, and both Chloe Fisher and Robert Allen wielding guitars. Remarkably, the ensemble never manage to pull away attention from the protagonist, coming to life only to punctuate the thoughts of our protagonist, or serving as a transitional device between monologue. The 60s inspired music itself is flawless, initially leaving me in awe upon realising it was entirely live and not accompanying a backing track. From adapting to the story’s mood, to being able to change it completely, the band serve as a perfect companion to Roger’s musings.

The play is a short one, lasting only around 30 minutes, but I must commend such an impressive ability to command a stage solo for so long, with my less-than-stellar attention span not failing me once. I happily would have watched another half an hour.

4.5/5

Summer with Monika is showing from the 26th – 28th of October in the Pembroke New Cellars at 9:30. Book your tickets here.