Pickle Jar at the Soho Theatre: ‘a timely, tragi-comic gem’

Sarah Gibbs review Pickle, a new one-woman show from Maddie Rice now playing at the Soho Theatre.

Maddie Rice’s silences are golden. In her one-woman show, Pickle Jar, Rice’s school teacher, Miss, watches her students’ response to an assignment to prepare a fun, feminist dance routine. The transformation in her eager educator’s face as she views the ever more salacious movements reminded me of the opening scene of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws; sometimes witnessing the effect—a woman wrenched off a tidal buoy, a teacher’s progression from enthusiasm to wordless horror—is more persuasive than seeing the shark. In Katie Pesskin’s production for Soho Theatre, however, Rice suggests that silence can also be fatal. The play is a timely, tragi-comic gem.

When Pickle Jar opens, Miss is engaged in a dramatic re-enactment in service of the week’s Heath & Safety theme: stranger danger. When she solicits feedback about her skit, which concludes with an assault victim’s dramatic faint, she’s met with sarcasm. For Miss possesses a combination of qualities with which those of us in graduate studies are intimately familiar: she is earnest, enthusiastic, and fundamentally uncool. She is also unlucky in love. The action follows her attempts, encouraged by her free-wheeling flatmate, Mairead, to navigate contemporary dating, and to communicate with a promising, but troubled, student.

Maddie Rice in Pickle Jar. Photograph: Ali Wright

One-person shows often degenerate into spectacle. Not the “Phantom-rows-through-an-onstage-lake-then-the-chandelier-plummets” variety, but rather a hyperbole of actorly technique as the performer endeavours to inhabit the maximum number of characters possible. It’s a testament to Rice’s skill that she creates realistic, differentiated personalities—including students, counsellors, love interests, and tube passengers—without tipping into burlesque. Her wide-eyed, clumsy Miss is painfully sincere, while Mairead provides the household’s necessary street smarts. Rice shifts easily between male and female characters, teenagers and the middle-aged.

The script is first-rate. Into only seventy minutes of stage time, Rice fits a fully developed narrative, and any number of dynamite lines. Miss agrees with a boyfriend who has just called about a positive STI test that they’ve always been “casual”: “Casual in that he was casual and I…wanted to marry him.” Mairead ditches the staff yoga class by declaring, “It’s time for this bitch to go teach some Old Testament.” A patronizing school psychologist advises Miss to channel her sadness by “mindfully eating a raisin.” Amidst the moments of hilarity, however, something sinister begins to emerge. Miss is desperately attempting to purchase a memorial tree, and returns repeatedly to a night at a club she can’t quite remember. Rice expertly builds the tension, and demonstrates that trauma frequently undergirds her characters’ laughter.

The production’s only off-note is Alice Halifax’s set design. The grassy knolls in the park adjacent to the school are inexplicably shiny, and the space resembles an alien landscape. Nonetheless, Rice is to be commended for producing a work that is both uproariously funny, and heartbreakingly topical. She is compelling in her implication that it is too often the things unspoken that become the real narratives of our lives.

4.5/5

Pickle Jar is at the Soho Theatre until the 10th November, 2018.

Feature photograph: Ali Wright


Sarah Gibbs is a graduate student pursuing a PhD in English Literature at University College London (UCL). Her writing has appeared in Descant, Filling Station, and Novelty magazines.

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