Torn Apart (Dissolution), Theatre N16


Love is one of the best things in the world, or the worst. It feels like floating, butterflies, warmth and fuzziness, or being trapped in a cage with no way out. Everyone wants to love and be loved, but when it backfires, the effects are devastating. For life, sometimes. Torn Apart (Dissolution) presents three interconnected relationships across generations and international borders. These people are broken at worst or dysfunctional at best, which makes for some good dramatic tension but the playwright BJ McNeill’s structure, style and storyline deteriorates towards the end. Some lovely set-piece scenes, a few good performances and a powerful set design help offset these issues, but new company No Offence Theatre need to continue developing their ideas in order to better showcase them.

The international company founded by two actors, Australian Hannah Kerin and Polish Natazja Somers is admirably diverse, and the play suits their strengths well. Complimented by Simon Donohue and Elliott Rogers, they form two couples that are related but never met. Rogers, at only twenty years old, possesses a presence and rich emotional range rare in a performer so young. He is excellent contrast to his carefree girlfriend Casey (Kerin) and the two fill the intimate Theatre N16 wonderfully. Somers and Donohue as Alina and an unnamed soldier have a more mature, world-weary energy that add another layer of contrast. Less developed are scenes with lesbian couple Holly (Katherine Eskenazi) and Erica (Monty Leigh), but they create a rare and commendable female-strong cast. The action flips between these three couples’ stories, revealing their connection at a good pace.

Szymon Ruszczewski’s set is simple but evocative. A bed with white linens sits in the middle of the stage, inside a white cube with threads creating walls the audience can see through – or thin bars, trapping the unhappy couples inside a generic, characterless bedroom. Ruszczewski has also designed the lighting, which is the most successful plot I’ve seen in this low-ceilinged theatre with several nooks and crannies that tend to cast stark shadows.

McNeill also directs. There’s a good use of diagonal lines so all sides can see, but some odd choices as well. Gratuitous female toplessness doesn’t add anything to the story. If the point is that the audience is witnessing private, intimate moments, why isn’t everyone naked when they’re having sex? He also doesn’t include a curtain call; this is incongruent with the naturalistic style of the piece that has a literal fourth wall. Several of the characters toy with the strings that make up the set walls, which makes their meaning jarringly ambiguous – are they walls, or are they bars, or are they just strings? Structurally, the last couple of scenes change style, and neither develops the plot. Ending with the last soldier/Alina scene would be abrupt, but a reinforcement of the horror that lurks in some relationships.

There is definite potential in this new company and their creatives, as well as scope to continue developing and refining their work. Their goal to create truly international work not limited by where their artists are from is a wonderful one that will garner them more attention with the overall increase in quality of their work.

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Spin Cycle, Theatre N16’ve seen “Mad Men,” or at least heard the clichés about cutthroat ad agency types. Competition for clients, drug and drink fueled late nights, ruthless bidding for commissions regardless of morals. Steve Thompson’s Spin Cycle uses all these ingredients, but the writing style doesn’t match director Stephen Oswald’s delivery. It’s either a farce that was delivered as naturalism, or a naturalistic piece (albeit with a liberal use of humour) that attempts a farcical production. All of the characters are pretty stereotypical with at least some degree of reinforcement from the script, causing the two hours of day-to-day office life to feel repetitive and lacking in depth. There are clear individual storylines, but everything that goes wrong is treated as a crisis that’s conveniently and speedily resolved. The performances are generally quite good in this strong ensemble, but the actors are unable to show much range or development due to a lack of character journey.

Jane (Anneli Page) is the boss, with a good balance of motivation and friendliness. Page easily adopts Jane’s quick wit but also shows some warmth and vulnerability; it’s a shame she is prevented from more than a bit of this. The character has an underlying humanity that is neglected in favour of style, but I chalk this up to a directorial choice. Ash Merat as Piers is the prodigal son with a dangerous edge, also well played. Both Mary Looby and Dan Shelton play three roles each and show excellent contrast between them. They are clearly skilled performers who deserve a shot at a meaty lead, but are excellent character actors as well.

My inkling is that the script is the issue here. It tends towards a circular structure with slow development and a few random sections of rhyming verse that don’t contribute anything other than questions about the reason for their existence. The storyline doesn’t follow a standard dramatic arc, which isn’t necessarily a problem, but the repetition employed quickly becomes tedious. The script could easily be halved and still make its point about the awfulness of the advertising industry, but at least the performances were good enough to get us through two hours of corporate rhetoric and pandering to the Tory party to make a buck.

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 PayPal.

Boat, Theatre N16

BOAT, Theatre N16 (c) Shawn Soh (1)A lot of firsts are happening in Balham theatre at the moment. Theatre N16 has moved from N16 to a new home in SW12, The Bedford Pub. There is little theatre in the immediate area – Tooting Arts Club is further down the Northern line, Clapham and Stockwell both have venues closer to town, BAC is a bit of a trek and there’s a new theatre tentatively in the works in Streatham, but that’s it. Their inaugural production in their new home is first play Boat by poet Kiran Millwood Hargrave; it’s also producer PIGDOG’s debut production. Hargrave’s text uses thickly layered metaphor to tell 14-year-old Girl’s experience of human trafficking. What starts off as an interactive, childlike show soon reveals the sickening underbelly of cities and towns around the world.

“Jellyfish of Sound” Jethro Cooke opens by asking the audience to create some effects that he proceeds to use with others through live mixing. This beginning should indicate that sound is a dominant feature throughout, but it only appears sporadically, and quietly, for the rest of the performance. Instead, the focus is on the story of Girl (Pia Laborde Noguez), on a Beckettian journey with no apparent beginning or end. She is 14, on a small drifting boat. Her Twin (Cristina Catalina) is with her and she keeps herself entertained with visits from the increasingly possessive Turtle (Matthew Coulton) and challenging Gull (Grabriele Lombardo). As Twin’s appearances become more rare, and Girl measures times in the phases of the moon and plans adventures with Gull to find the moon on the seabed, her boat of white pallets and surrounding sea of plastic sheeting abruptly collapses, transforming into a bedroom. Twin, unspeaking and inert, lays draped across the headboard with clay covering her face. Only the clay represents something else, as do Turtle and Gull, and oh god, the realization of her actual reality is horrifying. Girl reminds us that we can pretend none of this happens in the world, as “you believe what you want to believe” and traumatized people will construct an alternative reality in their heads as an escape, but that doesn’t make sex trafficking, child prostitution and refugees cease to exist.

Hargrave’s language is naturally that of a poet’s, but the transitions are abrupt and obvious, announced by the Jellyfish of Sound. The upstairs space in the Bedford is versatile and a good size, but the low ceilings challenge conventional lighting. As potent as the play’s message is, the script imbeds the real story so deeply that it’s easy to take it at face value, or transpose it onto the refugee boats that fill our oceans and our news. But to do so leaves large, logical holes in their world and dilutes its potency. Though a worthy first production, it feels a bit rough around the edges with some moments of vague writing despite good performances. PIGDOG and N16 clearly have great ideas, and this is a wonderful space to explore and develop them in.

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 PayPal.