About 500/A Separate Peace (Online reviews)

About 500/A Separate Peace (Online reviews)

New performances are possible in this “brave new world”; all you need is an internet connection. Recently I’ve watched two plays that made use of everyone’s new favourite app – Zoom. Here’s the reviews

500

As with so much else currently, About 500 was due to be premiered at this year’s Vaults Festival but was cut short in its prime. Nothing daunted, Simona Hughes and her team have committed a semi-staged performance to video using Zoom as a recording tool. Though there are limitations, the piece holds the attention throughout and presents us with an examination of an important topic. That it does so with some spot-on characterisation and dialogue which stays in the memory is a real bonus.

Central figure Clem is a young woman going places career wise but going nowhere when it comes to parenthood. At first this is a deliberate choice on her part but her relationship with teacher Luke gives her pause for thought. That and knowing that her biological clock is ticking away faster than ever means that she longs to conceive – ironically though this isn’t happening although her best friend Ruth seems to have no such difficulties. Clem’s dilemma eventually tells on her mental health and undermines her relationship with Luke. The choices she is presented with are invidious – something which the piece forcibly drives home to us.

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There is a very clever introductory sequence in which Clem’s liberal production of eggs is made manifest by them being scattered all over the stage. Actually meringues, these are systematically crushed underfoot by the natural movement of the actors – a powerful visual metaphor for what happens to a woman’s choices. The depletion of fertilizable eggs is also recorded systematically through a projected countdown clock which gets progressively faster. At first Clem seems unaware of its existence, then begins to acknowledge its presence with an increasing sense of concern. Finally, she is actively wrestling with it to try and slow its inevitable progress. These interludes are made all the more poignant by voiceovers of real-life interviewees who have found themselves in Clem’s position.

The main bulk of the play, however, consists of a series of chronological duologues between Clem, Luke and Ruth which chart the course of the central figure’s gradual descent into hopelessness. In one particularly telling sequence a discussion between Clem and Luke is presented with skewed timing showing just how out of synch the characters have become and that Clem is fast leaving reality behind her. The play ends with another clever device rapidly switching track several times to show alternate endings which might happen.

The three actors are well cast and appear very comfortable in their roles. I’m sure it must have been frustrating not being able to get up and move about as planned but the “enhanced” reading mode adopted allows for greater scope than simply ploughing through the script. The piece firmly rests on the shoulders of Stephanie Fuller who through voice and facial expressions alone is able to convey Clem’s increasing sense of frustration and bewilderment. The piece has her periodically retreat into a state designated as “egg time” and here Fuller conveys an almost dreamlike aura of instability which I should like to see fully replicated on stage.

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Dickon Farmar as Luke and Joanna Nevin as Ruth also both go on their own emotional journeys and give well balanced and assured performances which complement Fuller’s. The last duologue between Clem and Luke is particularly memorable and is suffused by a sense of raw emotion which even came over via the screen; I’m sure it will be only the more powerful in a live situation.

Writer/director Simona Hughes can be proud of this piece which hopefully will go on to play to more substantial audiences than just me sitting at my desk. It is a timely piece of writing which doesn’t shy away from a difficult subject and one that may be even now much more on people’s minds because of the current scarcity of other distractions. In the meantime, congratulations to all involved and I look forward to seeing what others make of it whether live or on screen.

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A Separate Peace was performed for the one and only time last night via a project called The Remote Read from production company Curtain Call; it was put on to raise money for theatre creatives and technicians forced out of work and for The Felix Project who provide “good food for good causes”. Unlike other performances committed to video, this more nearly replicated the theatre experience of having to be there or miss out with curtain up at a stated time and the whole thing being streamed live as it happened. Apart from the occasional minor glitch the technology held firm and provided a fascinating glimpse into the new way of doing things and utilising a major playwright’s work to do so.

The play is an early work from the pen of Tom Stoppard and written for television, so it’s entirely appropriate that it should now be seen on a screen in the living room. In truth it is a fairly slight piece with none of the deep complexity of Stoppard’s more famous later work but, because it is a rarity, of interest to the student of modern drama. The quaintly named John Brown turns up at a nursing home with a bagful of money and, without being ill in any way, takes over a room simply to escape the pressures of the outside world. The nursing staff find it difficult to process this and set about trying to crack the enigma.

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In some respects it is a parable. The matron and the doctor represent the establishment and raise questions about why time and energy should be expended on an individual who does not pull his weight. They fear that the very institutionalised regime that Brown desires will become disrupted and therefore expend their energies on trying to get him to conform. But Brown is actually that stock 60s icon the rebel without a cause. He simply wants to be left alone to do his own thing but have his needs catered for and so battle lines are drawn.

As a production it is, wisely, directed (Sam Yates) and played simply. Everyone wears black and works against a plain white background – although the appearance of the artwork which Brown is painting on the wall of his room was a mini coup de théâtre. Characters were able to enter and exit or be revealed though, sometimes empty Zoom boxes could have done with being tidied away. Basic props are used to illustrate scenes but ultimately it is all about the actors and their voices. I did find it a little distracting that the performers kept looking down to check scripts and, of course, they were unable to face each other or directly engage which lent a rather detached air to the acting. In essence it was like experiencing an enhanced radio play and the gentle pace at which the narrative unfolded suited the medium. I’m not so sure that the whip smart dialogue of, say, David Mamet, would fare as well.

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The cast were to die for. David Morrissey plays Brown with directness and disarming honesty using charm and a degree of wit to win his case. As, what would now be known as his key worker, nurse Maggie, Jenna Coleman is radiant and spars verbally with her (non) patient to extract information from him which is fed back to the doctor (Denise Gough) and matron (Ed Stoppard, pleasingly playing in his father’s work). Maggie Service completes the ensemble as a rather more forthright staff member. Let’s face it, if that team were playing in a theatre, they could expect to command more than respectable ticket sales.

That raises an interesting point in that I have absolutely no notion of how many other people were in the audience for this show. In one sense it doesn’t matter but in another it is absolutely fundamental. Theatre is a shared communal experience and that is one element that a Zoom performance simply cannot provide. That said it was a thoroughly entertaining half hour and demonstrated an interesting way to use modern technology to bolster an ancient art form. A Separate Peace was the first in a planned series of Remote Reads and I look forward to seeing what they will offer next.

To watch About 500 please click here

A Separate Peace was only available as a live performance

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