Over the last 17 months I think I’ve caught up with at least one online show from most of the significant UK companies which enjoy a very individual ethos. From the bastions of British theatre like the RSC to relative fledglings e.g. the Northern Comedy Theatre, I’ve seen a very wide range of styles and approaches such as that developed by Complicité, Cheek By Jowl, Told By An Idiot, Paines Plough, Wise Children, Chickenshed, Headlong, Gecko and Spymonkey. However, one that had eluded me up until now was Frantic Assembly but I’m happy to say I’ve now remedied that. They are best known as a company whose work is rooted in physical theatre and for developing the role of the movement director in contemporary approaches. Most widely recognised for their work on the stage version of The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time, an earlier production of theirs, Lovesong is available via the Digital Theatre platform.
Two couples play out the scenario except it soon becomes apparent that they are actually one couple at two different stages of their life. Billy and Maggie have been together for a number of decades living in the same house and rarely being apart; however, they are soon to be separated by death itelf . An illness has struck Maggie and as they make preparations for her to complete her life, memories crowd in on them of their time together. Cue William and Margaret the younger couple who show us the pair at the beginning of their relationship; from here we move through scenes showing the progress in life and towards death of both couples with some moments of crossover; older Maggie steps into a wardrobe and the younger version swiftly steps out. As the play progresses each individual has contact with the other pair either as half remembered moments in time or as forebodings of things still to come. It’s a clever device which Frantic Assembly play to the hilt and these cross generational interactions often take the form of stylised movement edging into full on dance where emotions become more important than actual words – it’s a trademark of the company style as directed by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett, two of the three founders.
That’s not to say that the writing is not important, though. Abi Morgan’s intelligent text is elegiac and often wistful in tone although sometimes there were moments when I could have done with a bit more information. Just why did the couple decide to pursue their future in America and what was the illness which precipitated events towards the end? Perhaps that doesn’t really matter and anyway it’s the sort of play where subtext speaks volumes about what is really going on. One largely unspoken element is the couple’s inability to have children, the source of a great deal of angst for the younger pairing and of regret for the elder; however, it is all implied rather than stated. Similarly, the fear of the couple being parted is clearly a scary prospect. There’s a wonderful diatribe from Billy about everything he’s going to do once he is on his own (not get his hair cut, wear dirty socks, eat unhealthily) but underneath we detect that he would really prefer it if Maggie was still around to put him straight. The one thing he is going to do religiously is look after his teeth – well, he is/was a dentist.
The quartet of actors are exceptionally good both in their respective pairings and crosswise with a particularly strong interpretation of Maggie coming from Sian Phillips, an actor who has seemed on top of her game for longer than I care to remember. Remarkably she was nudging 80 when this recording was made so it is with a sense of wonderment that I report her fluid movements are quite as fluid as they are – remarkable. Partnering her is Sam Cox whose outlook seems stoical even if internally he’s far from calm. The younger couple are Edward Bennett and Leanne Rowe who complement each other very well and are easily believable as the younger incarnations of Phillips and Cox with he showing hints of the still fledgling irascibility and she demonstrating how right from the get-go she has had to make things happen. It’s an intriguing trajectory to portray and shows just how much collaboration there must have been between the foursome.
I can’t truly say I loved the piece but did admire its style – capturing the signature flowing movement on camera cannot have been an easy task and it is this which stood out. I would imagine that the live experience was far more compelling and emotional as I know from seeing Curious Incident… but until companies like this can get fully back on track that may still be some while away. I noticed when I was hunting down this production that Frantic Assembly have a second show on Digital Theatre Things I Know To Be True so will certainly be checking that out soon – thank goodness someone saw the sense in filming these things for posterity.
Production photos by Johan Persson
Lovesong is available on Digital Theatre – click here
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