Friday, October 24, 2008

Faces in the Crowd at the Royal Court

Good lord, this was intense...

I pretty much agree with Lyn Gardner on this one. The Royal Court’s upstairs theatre has been totally transformed for this production by designers Rae Smith and William Fricker with an entire one-bed flat set in a kind of pit around which the audience sit, watching from above. This makes the characters feel like animals in an enclosure. The staging though certainly memorable also had its problems in turns of sight-lines. I was sitting right above the 'bedroom' so struggled to see a lot of what went on there, despite the positioning of a large mirror on the opposite wall. On the other hand I got a, perhaps clearer than desirable, view of Con O'Neill's jiggling naked behind.

Leo Butler's play concerns Dave and Joanne. They were married – are still married – but he skipped town years ago, leaving both her and large pile of debt behind him. and headed to London. Now he lives in tiny but fashionably decked-out flat in Shoreditch. It’s little more than a shoebox but you can see the Gherkin from the window. Now she's journeyed down to see him, keen to take what she feels is owed to her - a baby, or at least the means to make one.

The play demands a lot from its performers, depicting both Dave and Joanne’s sexual fumbling and the violent fallout of their reunion. It’s draining to watch and is blessed with two utterly compelling and open performances from Con O’Neill, as Dave, and Amanda Drew, as Joanne. O’Neill superbly conveys Dave’s barely contained fury, his ability to flip, his volatility, and the way his Sheffield accent intensifies when he loses his cool. Drew is also startlingly good: her anger is better contained but she has the capacity to wound when necessary. But, good as they are there was something false and hollow about the whole set up. The big speeches about debt culture and social mobility felt a bit forced, striving too hard to be topical.

It was gripping though and in the seconds of darkness and quiet that followed the end of the play you could hear an audible collective release of tension. Butler also understands the importance of silence, the things that people do when they aren't talking (or insulting each other's gentalia).

This is a raw, powerful piece of theatre but the couple’s background, their journey to the place where we see them, doesn’t always ring true. But the sheer strength of the performances, the utter exposure required of them, is something not easily forgotten.

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