The Amber Trap, Theatre503

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By Christina Bulford

Under the fluorescent lighting stacking tins of soup, early 20-something Katie feels at home. The songs on the radio change but the customers don’t, and Hope is there to tease her, juggle fruit and kiss her on the countertop – when Jo the slightly frazzled shopkeeper isn’t there to tell her to get down.

But then new employee Michael arrives, and with him, the safety of their quiet shop routine is shaken. He asks so many questions, has unusual interests and seems to play by different social rules. Is he sweet but socially awkward, or sinister? Where is the line between over-familiarity, and threat?

What follows is an uneasy power struggle in the claustrophobia of a corner shop, and an unwelcome lesson in letting your instincts go unchecked.

Writer Tabitha Mortiboy has succeeded in creating a succinct little world that feels very cut off from the town that must (presumably) surround it. No customer mentioned is ever seen, serving to make their world feel smaller still – an island of pre-packaged sandwiches and chocolate biscuits. Director Hannah Hauer-King has succeeded in populating this place not only with characters and action as you might expect, but with long silences and private, seemingly mundane actions. Stock must be taken, Kate ties and reties her hair or Jo cashes up. Consequently, a flicker of tension and anxiety arises from such small actions as the sound of a car pulling up, a light clicking on or the flutter of the ‘Staff Only’ curtain. Hauer-King has an expert handle on tension, and when and where to crank it up.

Misha Butler is startling as disrupter of the peace, Michael. His oddness is all the more stark against Fanta Barrie’s feisty, youthful energy as Hope. Olivia Rose Smith sits uneasily between the two as Kate. Kate as a character is less self-assured, and perhaps this is what made her the least compelling of the four; a little too quick to switch from smiling to stony faced. Jenny Bolt is charm with a backbone of steel as shopkeeper Jo, holding it all together.

An uneasy but compelling tale of what can on unchecked, behind a quiet counter.

The Amber Trap runs through 18 May.

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