It is the evening of Tuesday, March 6th, 2012. The time is 2100 hours. I have just returned home from Winchester’s Theatre Royal, where I have spent one and a half hours witnessing the dynamic spectacle that was Cutting Edge Theatre, put on by the great theatre company ‘Depthcharge.’ As a great lover of the theatre, I was not sure if I was the best choice to review such a performance: my reviews are generally non-serious reviews of things one wouldn’t normally review, like a riot or a year. However, I do have very varying tastes in most things – the last two plays I saw were Spamalot at the Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham and King Lear at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon. I was slightly apprehensive about accepting the offer to review Depthcharge for Splendid Fred when it was first suggested to me but, never wishing to pass up an opportunity to hone my skills as a writer, I accepted.
Reviewer plus one had an interesting journey. Intending to leave at quarter to five for a play beginning at five o’clock was probably not the smartest of moves, but with my relaxed air I was not too concerned (despite the fact that said companion failed to arrive until five minutes before the start of the first performance. Surprisingly, despite the clear stress of the driver (whom, it should be noted, was very concerned that we would be late), we managed to weave our way around a particularly unlucky example of the Great British traffic, dodging young men stopping in the middle of the road to unload more friends than the dynamics of said car would have deemed possible, crazy speeding truck drivers who seem unable to tell the difference between oncoming traffic and an ‘open highway’ and an incident almost involving us driving the wrong way up a one way street, and we parked with time to spare.
To the first of the five short plays, then. The set up: a waiting room of some sort; two chairs centre stage, one male actor seated, checking his watch. After a few seconds, a second male actor bursts on stage, apologetic at being late for his friend’s appointment. The skill of the performers – and, of course, the writers – was evident through the discourse between the two primary characters, with the discussions taking place between the two characters onstage completely relatable, and sometimes downright hilarious. The seriousness and realism of the situation was in no way diminished by the humorous banter written into the scene – the way the actors interacted with one another was key to the delivery. One friend struggling emotionally, and one friend who attempts to make the situation better with comments and puns that it should be clear would work in no situation: we all know people like it, and it is this kind of social commentary that I love so much. It’s present in my own writing, its present in the work of every writer I admire, and this, my first experience with Depthcharge, shows how the writers therein are just as skilled at what I may take the liberty of calling ‘mirror humour’ – creating a fictionalised reflection of reality – as I would have expected from professional comedians. But what hit me most about the entire performance was the way in which we were kept on the edge of our seats, always wanting more, by the unresolved nature of the scene at the point at which those dreaded lights finally dimmed and darkness descended over the theatre – yes, it is a tried and tested method of ‘forcing’ the audience to want more which I would normally have detested, but the sense around the situation was not one of forced suspense or a suggestion that the writers simply didn’t know how to end it – the writers and actors still felt very much in control, and this already made me excited for the rest of the show. I knew I had let myself in for something good.
The second performance started very interestingly: a sparse set with only three characters placed across the length of the stage, with a waitress walking between tables. I found it amazing how such a simplistic set was so obviously a café from the start, but what was most incredible of all about this story was how much the final result differed from what we were led to believe from the start. Cue woman on left, smiling man on right, shier looking man in the middle. Where could the play possibly go from here? A story of lovelorn longing, of course. But if we were all expecting this to be the be all and end all of the plot, we were certainly underestimating this young team: the other actors both begin to talk to the boy, and it is only later that it turns out they are actually humanoid manifestations of hope and doubt. The interplay between these two characters was the defining point of the performance, with the angel-and-devil-sitting-on-your-shoulder motif being uniquely utilised to bring about an entirely new storyline utterly unlike anything we all probably ostensibly expected there to be. The situation became one which was incredibly relatable – the world-and-time-famous situation where boy meets girl and is constantly hounded by the emotional turmoil of playing over and over again within the mind the ‘that suggests she likes me, but that suggests she doesn’t’ game, letting ‘I dare not’ wait upon ‘I would’ like a poor cat i’th’adage. The hope character in the battle was fabulously realised and brilliantly portrayed, but for me the real stand-out performance of the play – perhaps indeed of the entire evening – came from the young actor portraying Doubt: the way in which he served as domineering presence throughout was closer to reality than anyone could have expected of such an abstract concept. What surprised me most was the grace with which he moved – not wishing to evoke some strange imagery related to ballet, imagine my surprise when I suddenly noticed, during the turning point of the battle, that Doubt had completely disappeared from the scene, as if he had simply melted away. Only the abilities of a highly skilful group of actors could have taken the limelight away from one character sufficiently as though to make us entirely ignore him for a time, and of course an actor with such demanding presence must too be incredibly talented so as to disappear so suddenly and surreptitiously. This, combined with a dark, highly emotional and deep storyline and oddly-successful dark humour sealed the deal to make this in particular one of the night’s highlights: over the course of the evening, this had to be my favourite performance for all these masterly reasons and more (how long have you got?), and I am desperate not to waffle on and to get onto reviewing the other three performances, but I do not feel I can break off without at least mentioning somebody who was perhaps an unexpected star of the act – an ‘unsung hero’, if you will: I am of course referring to the young man, sat alone in the centre of the stage; he says very little throughout, and in the face of such great actors surrounding him, it really takes a lot of skill to deliver such a vibrant and engaging performance through little more than half uttered attempts at conversation with the object of desire and uncomfortable groans and shuffles; a brilliant actor who certainly did not go unnoticed.
To move on to performance number three, I have to say that the set-up surprised me somewhat – I was definitely dubious about setting a restaurant-based production immediately after a café-based one. Wouldn’t the two be a little too similar for this arrangement to work? The answer, of course, is ‘no, William, and you should have had more faith!’ The fact is that, here, the purpose of the meal was clear from the start, and was the first thing that cropped up in my mind as soon as the female lead arrived, and the way this character was played supported this idea – the loud, outspoken female and the timid, hen-pecked male was a recipe for success from the start, containing laughs galore for everyone in the audience: we’ve all met this couple in reality. ‘Question-time’ with the spouse, furthermore, can never go well. We all know the awkward ‘do you like my family?’ question: if you don’t, do you lie? And, of course, if you lie and it still turns out your partner doesn’t like her own family herself, do you join in? So many questions were raised and deconstructed by the performance, it almost seemed like a prospective future situation many of the audience members may end up experiencing or the older theatregoers may already have encountered, despite the heightened comedic absurdity of the ‘unreality’ on display to us. It was also incredible how the awkwardness of the scene was not displaced onto the audience – too many times are we forced to watch awkward situations and end up feeling awkward ourselves as the scene plays out; however Depthcharge managed to prevent the scene feeling noticeably cringeworthy, they certainly managed it – I can only attribute it to masterful writing and brilliant acting. I must sadly confess that this was unfortunately my least favourite performance of the evening, but this was certainly through no fault of the writers and actors: while not to my personal tastes, I can see how entertaining this would be to so many people, and the reaction of the audience was resoundingly positive: I can only judge by what those around me feel – reviews of this nature should not be dictated by my own preferences – and what I saw in the behaviour of those around me spoke approval. The actors should give themselves a large pat on the back for taking such a familiar setting and transforming it into a true performance (I hope to God that doesn’t sound unintentionally patronising).
Loving a bit of surrealism, and being myself highly interested by stories of personified animals (Animal Farm is a God among literature), play number four was an absolute delight. Surreal, hilarious, dark and heart-wrenching, this was one of the greatest things I had seen on stage for a very long time. The concept of using actors wandering around on all-fours to portray dogs was a fantastic concept, and I can only express a huge amount of respect for whoever’s brain came up with such an idea – so simple, and yet pure genius! One of the best things about it was the political undertone of the representation of English/Scottish stereotypes, with the rough, Scottish accent belonging to the original stray and the comedic, upper-class, foppish, suited-and-bowler-hatted Englishman as the city-bred family pet. The rapid development of the characters which ran alongside the comedy from enemies to friends also made for a very remarkably successful performance, and I found it particularly endearing that one of the dogs in question had a particular fondness for stealing his one-time owners’ underwear – so my dog isn’t the only one who does such things! But behind the comedy, the darker themes were very apparent and the jokes certainly did not detract from the subtext, and the heartbreaking ending, acted beautifully by the pair of actors onstage, displayed some of the best acting I had ever seen from amateurs: the resounding sound of the audience’s sighs, gasps and utterances of grievance should have spoken worlds to the actors and writers of the piece, and should have done nothing but fill them with confidence in their skill at their art.
Sadly, we then came to the end. I say ‘sadly’, not because I disliked this final performance, but because it was that exactly – the final performance. The night was drawing to a close, but there were still delights in store. The best thing about this was, at the beginning, none of us knew what to expect. The setting: a shared flat or house, with two young’uns who had blown their entire rent. What was the natural thing to do? Kidnap a rich girl, of course. Again: relatable, rip-roaringly funny, and brilliantly written. We all have a weird friend to whom we could attribute the dirty underwear fetish (if you’re reading this, you know who you are. If you’re not reading this, then you’re simply not my friend anymore). The portrayal of the police officers, furthermore, was beautifully handled – if nothing else, the characters being so true to life of the bureaucratic, narrow-minded attitude of a justice system that prosecuted people for feeding ducks in the park that it couldn’t have failed to raise the roof with comedic approval. I will confess to feeling a bit uncertain when the audience gave a most-unexpected reaction to the assault of the lead female character… when the audience laughed. I wasn’t sure if this was what was intended, but the entire play was of such a farcical nature that I genuinely hope that this did not concern the actors – as someone who saw people laugh as the Duke of Gloucester had his eyes ripped out on stage at the RSC, I’m sure a bit of laughter in a dire situation is a healthy thing. All-in-all, this scene put the strangest thought I have ever had in my head:
‘If only all break-ins were like this.’
With that brilliant swansong, the lights came back on. I wished it was only an interval but, alas, it was not to be (or, if it was, I’m so sorry – we all left. How awkward).
Of course, I had a couple grievances of the evening – firstly, that the show, which lasted an hour and twenty minutes, had not incorporated an extra scene into the line-up, so as for us, as an audience, to have got a nice round ninety minutes from our oh-so expensive free tickets. Secondly, I would like to make a request to all future theatre goers: PLEASE SWITCH OFF YOUR PHONES! I’m sorry, but a gentleman or lady nearby received at least three phone calls, all of which she cancelled – exactly: you won’t be answering your phone, so you might as well turn it off. My biggest concern – it must have been incredibly annoying and incredibly distracting to an incredibly talented group of young actors, and was also very disrespectful for your fellow audience members. Come on, people: use your noggins.
Apart from that, there is nothing more to tell – we got lost on the way home because we were engrossed in a discussion about what we had just seen. The moral: never go to the Theatre Royal without a map of Winchester.
Overall verdict: 8/10.