St Peter’s Arts Centre, matinee Thursday 8th February 2018
Any naturalistic theatre play that would prove equally effective on the screen need not be on the stage. This is such a play. In fact, it would require almost no adjustment to hit home with identical impact on the radio. That synergy sirens theatrical boredom, so it is to the credit of the company that it sustained the audience interest throughout this laudable production. The final year acting students created credible characters and supplied slick and engaging performances.
The playwright claims his work is predominantly not about race, but rather about territory. True enough, but race relations have always pivoted on territorial tensions, and this play exposes that arc painfully, not least because half of it is set in the USA of 1959. The company, correctly, did not baulk at adopting attitudes and language that modern mores rightly assign as taboo. The cast were highly adept at squeezing their characters through uncomfortable conversations comprising violating vocabulary. This play says it as it was, which makes the saying all the more unacceptable. Bravo.
The narrative is set in a house in the eponymous locale and depicts two periods during which different groups of people meet and collide over matters concerning residency in the property and the locality. The problems are mainly founded on who can be comfortable living in close proximity to those of a different heritage, but the themes also broaden out to not unrelated issues of esteem, tainting by association, shame, and the guilt than can derive from the perils of pernicious patriotism. The latter rings especially true eight years on from the play’s first performance.
This production was proclaimed as the first in the north west of the UK, and it made a praiseworthy premiere. The script is eloquent and witty and the cast had skilfully honed their application of nuance, subtlety and layered interaction. Their timing was excellent and their implementation of overlapped and tightly interwoven dialogue, interjection, vocal stalling, and sub textual rebuffing, was especially entertaining.
The director selected an attractive tempo, and fended off the monotony that threatens all text-heavy plays with meaningful movement, though this was more effective in the first act than the second. He oversaw an impressive realisation of the evolving mise-en-scène.
The scenic design and execution was very strong, as was the costume provision, especially in recreating what is now a distant decade. The set dressing and technical design matched the admirable authenticity of the acting. The problem with chasing verisimilitude, however, is that the blatant artificiality of the theatre means it is ultimately doomed to be flawed. This once again begs the question of should this kind of realism be demanded of the stage when other genre of modern media can fool so much more convincingly?
On the basis of this version, the play has only a limited cache to offer that is new. Its thematic scope is well-trodden territory and while it presents convincing characters, the issues are not illuminated with any especially valuable insight. There are some jarring features to the second act that nudge a contemporary nerve. To be fair, the original staging applied one blatant aspect of theatricality which may heighten some insights, by requiring the same cast to portray characters from each period, and thus allowing the audience to read resonances into that arrangement. This trick is not new either; Caryl Churchill used it in the 1980s while touching on very similar themes. This production – with two exceptions – avoided that device, presumably to service a larger cast.
What the play does provide, is a reasonably balanced a platform for a dozen players and for that purpose it was well-chosen. Hats off to those with lesser prominence who still put in powerful portrayals without stealing the show. Notable in that regard was Jacob Lester as Dan the pragmatic man. Accolades also, to Channique Stirling-Brown and Gary Tatham for capturing so credibly the enforced deference demanded of their twentieth century roles.
The whole cast exhibited commendable technique, though this semi-senile spectator would have liked a tad more vocal projection at times. Characterisation was universally superb, and it seems ironically discriminatory to isolate individuals, but Luke Hutchinson, Alexander Dunn and Alix Johnstone topped a lofty pile by presenting every syllable, gesture and facial semaphore via supreme semiotic signalling.
The major objective of this production was to challenge and showcase the training of actors and it that respect it certainly succeeded. It is far more likely that those actors will find employment on the screen than on the stage, and on the evidence of this production, some of them surely should.
(In the unlikely event that such a lushly designed show might turn a profit, perhaps a little could be invested in improved signage away from the obvious contemporary foyer to the hidden Hogwartesque way in. It would have been nice to have seen the start of the show.)