Clap Hands, Hackney Showroom

CLAP HANDS - Promo Image colourThere are always multiple perspectives on an individual’s actions within an event. At Hackney Showroom, one of the newest London fringe venues that oozes industrial hipster chic, Pluck. Productions drives this home with a dense, character-driven one act. In a tiny studio space that only seats 20 people, Clap Hands by Aaron Hubbard poses questions about human behaviour and cause and effect. Can children be inherently disturbed? Should they be locked away for endangering others? Does over-reactionary imprisonment for childish behaviour cause derangement? Or, are we all just pure evil?

Ana (EJ Martin) and Gogol (Philip Honeywell) are brother and sister, kept in a basement bedroom by their mother. Martin convincingly plays young Ana without generalising or playing at being a child. She imbeds the innocence, spontaneity and obsessions in her characterisation, which is an excellent contrast to Honeywell’s creepy, calculating teenaged Gogol. Gogol has an obvious agenda that Ana doesn’t see, so she is easily manipulated into carrying out his insidious plans for freedom. The adult Detective Olyphant (Jeremy Drakes) is the sole representative of the wider community who hints at past offenses that led to Ana and Gogol’s confinement for the last 15 years. As he slowly questions the children, the audience begins to wonder what is real and what is the product of manipulation. Are the adults tyrannical, or are the children? The length of imprisonment also brings Ana’s age into question. Was she born into it recently, or has isolation from a young age kept her in a childish state? A horrifying ending effectively places blame with all parties, showing that juvenile crime, justice and society’s treatment of “The Other” are all complex issues with many sides to each individual case.

Even though the play only runs at an hour and a quarter, it packs numerous interrelated themes. Despite this, it isn’t over-saturated. The excellent performances and energy keep the first half of the play building nicely until the climactic middle when Ana carries out a crime Gogol planned without understanding what she’s doing or the consequences. From this point, the second half is slower. Olyphant’s investigations gradually reveal more of the characters’ history, but the slowing pace causes attention to waver, determining the first half as the stronger. A couple of Neil LaBute-style shocks enhance the thread of human depravity that runs through the piece, but the ending removes it from any contemporary British reality. It feels firmly 1970’s – 1980’s until the final scene, then becomes something not quite dystopian. The disorientation it causes could be a deliberate choice by the writer, but it does eliminate cultural context. The shock is effective, but removing the specific setting weakens the message about societal decay.

Despite the additional questions the play raises at the end, it is otherwise an excellent piece of writing with a stellar cast. Pluck. Productions are a prime example of the just how good theatre can be when experienced practitioners decide to make the work they want to do rather than relying on others to create work for them.

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Bash, Etcetera Theatre

BashPoster_DetailsNeil Labute’s Bash is a distinctively 1990’s play containing three unrelated parts that are one-act plays in themselves. The component pieces have enough detail to stand alone and have unrelated characters, but a common theme: all of the characters are Mormon and commit horrific acts of violence. True to LaBute’s style, Bash exhibits the depravity that people sink to, despite these characters living on the supposed religious, moral high ground. This two-hander is the debut of Roonagh Productions, founded by Irish actors Stephen Gibbons And Sarah Purcell who perform all roles.

Act one. An unnamed man sits in his hotel room, sipping a glass of water. He has somehow convinced another guest to join him because he needs someone to talk to. What unfolds is the lengthy filicidal monologue from this fellow who seems to have it all: God, a wife, children, a good job. Gibbons initially plays the part nervously, not fully connecting with his character’s guilt. He finally relaxes when he moves onto talking about work and the fear of losing his job, but the first third of the scene had a constant, restrained delivery. When Gibbons connects his family to this prospect, all the pieces fall into place along with his performance. Though he could have more urgency and energy in the beginning of his speech, he eventually captures this calculatingly despicable man and unapologetically lays him at the audience’s feet for their self-righteous consumption.

Act two. A couple from Boston reminisces about a party in New York City they attended when they were students. Sue is sweet and wholesome; John is an all-American frat boy jock. Both characters are stereotypical and two-dimensional. Though there are two characters together on stage, they never talk to each other. Instead, they relay alternating lines to the audience in past tense, which has potential for tedium but Gibbons’ and Purcell’s work is dynamic and keeps the audience interested. John has a murderous, deliberate story similar to the man in first act, but Sue was asleep in the hotel room after the party and only has fond memories of the evening. The religion is more blatant in this story and a driving factor for John and his friend’s actions in a Central Park toilet at an early hour of the morning. The only particular issue in this part of the play is the choice of costume for Sue. If she’s a practicing Mormon, she certainly would not have worn a strapless dress.

Act three. Called “Medea Redux”, this is another monologue featuring Purcell in a police interview. Her story is by far the most complicated and sympathy-inducing but her crime is just as heinous as the previous two. When the woman was thirteen, she and one of her teachers had an ongoing affair; he then abandoned her when she fell pregnant with his child. She was fourteen. Driven to desperation by her lover’s abandonment of her, she repeats Medea’s final act of vengeance. Yes, her crimes are shocking but what is most frustrating is that she was the only character of the three criminals we’ve met who were caught. This is a much meatier role for Purcell, and she performs it with more nuance than she did Sue. This is the most interesting of the three stories, so fitting LaBute saves it for last.

The performances from the two actors are mostly good. There are a few accent slips and Irish intonations here and there, but perhaps not noticeable to British ears. Bash does feel rather dated now, but the writing and the characters are great. It’s an easy production to mount with little set needed, so a wise choice for a debut production. Purcell and Gibbons are older than your average early twenty-somethings thinking it’s cool to start a theatre company so even though there was nothing risky or inventive in this production, it was well done and chosen to suit their types and strengths. Besides, not all theatre has to be revolutionary. As long as its good theatre performed well, it is still to be commended.

The Play’s The Thing UK is an independent theatre criticism website maintained voluntarily. Whilst donations are never expected, they are hugely appreciated and will enable more time to be spent reviewing theatre productions of all sizes. Click here to make a donation with PalPal.