Friday, 28 November 2014

Unscorched : Sewell Barn, Norwich

I've expressed the view before that my favorite theatrical experiences are often the most surprising. They are the shows that are new, or at least new to me; themed on subject matter that may sound unpromising, or scary, or challenging; evenings that don't necessarily promise a cosy, feelgood, warm-and-fluffy legacy, but what they deliver is of far more value than that. If I want warm-and-fluffy, I'll get a Richard Curtis movie off the DVD shelf, thanks.

Unscorched doesn't sound like a jolly evening out. Written by local Norwich playwright Luke Owen, it takes us on a journey into the world of 'digital analysis': the characters are involved in investigating websites, photographs and videos, relating to child abuse. It brings home forcefully the strain of such work on the private lives of those whose job it is to investigate such matters, and how it affects their own ability to live, love and continue.

It's not devoid of humour - far from it. Just as paramedics and other emergency services develop a 'black humour' to keep their sanity when faced with ghastly situations, Owen's writing keeps us facepalming with embarrassed recognition at dating awkwardness, laughing aloud at the diversionary tactics used by the investigators (Buckaroo, anybody?), or smiling with pleasure at successfully tender moments. It makes the effect all the harsher when we are faced with the very real pain and trauma encountered by his characters.

Not only is this a superb piece of writing (Owen captures a completely natural reality in all his dialogue; he maintains a gripping narrative thread, and he treats an unbearably difficult subject with great sensitivity) but it is performed, set and directed with a precision and skill that took my breath away. Jonathan Adkins' set is a triumph, enabling the shifting focus between scenes to work beautifully - and I shall never look at a post-it note in the same way again. Michelle Montague's direction is unobtrusive, thorough, elegant and focused. Her magnificent cast, without exception, present performances of the greatest integrity. Every one of them turned in a performance that was professional, absorbing and completely convincing. All five actors were magnificent, but I especially want to commend the actor in the 'smallest' role - appearing only in the first scene: Myles Crowder's completely convincing work in that very short time was a masterpiece, and bears out the old saying about small parts and small actors - in no small measure.

And I'll tell you something else: it was enormously enjoyable. Of course it was dark, shocking, upsetting; with that subject matter, it could barely be anything else. But it was also full of opportunity, skill, hope and tenderness - and, yes, laughter. The show left me feeling as I do when I read a particularly good novel that I (a) am totally absorbed in, to the exclusion of the rest of the world, and (b) absolutely do not want to end.

If you wish to be intrigued, captivated, moved, convinced and provoked to thought, I would strongly recommend that you do not miss this play. Theatre of this calibre is a gift. Take it.

Unscorched runs from 27-29 Nov and 3-6 Dec at 7.30pm with a matinĂ©e on 6 Dec at 2.30pm. Tickets available online, in person or by phone; click here for details.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

The wrath of the Almighty

Bible-bashing is not one of my favourite occupations. In fact, I avoid it at all costs as a rule. However...

This cartoon appeared on Facebook a couple of weeks ago. In the light of the utterly ridiculous, bigoted, unloving and un-Christian proclamation made by the Bishops of the Church of England today, I made some efforts to find it again as it resonated so much.

The rain and wind are howling outside as I type this. Ghastly UK winter weather? Yes. Global warming? Quite likely. God's punishment? I don't think so. If there is any direct divine reason for the present appalling conditions, I don't believe it to be God's punishment, it's God's tears for those who ignore the greatest commandments of all:

"'And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.' This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these." Mark 12:30–31

Do you see anything in there about "except if your neighbour happens to love his own sex"? No, neither do I.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Local theatre... in great shape

Photograph: Michael Stanislaw

The third show in the Sewell Barn's 2013-14 season was directed by Luke Owen, a regular performer with the group, and more recently a published and performed playwright. (I know he gets uncomfortable with his friends and colleagues banging on proudly about his achievements, but given the undoubted success of Unscorched, it looks as though he's going to have to get used to it.)

Having shared a stage with Luke, I knew that whatever his production delivered, it would most likely be intentional: precise, professional and focused. My hope was that his choice of play and performers would permit such an aim to be realised; to my delight, it was.

The Shape of Things, by Neil LaBute, is a contemporary play, dealing with very twenty-first century attitudes.

"When Adam meets a young art student named Evelyn, his world begins to change. The two fall in love, and keen to impress his new girlfriend Adam begins to alter everything about himself for the better – he works out, he buys new clothes, he stops biting his nails... 

But why is Evelyn so eager for him to change? And what is he becoming?"

Having said that: there are shades of Pygmalion here, so perhaps the subject matter resonates far further back than the era of Starbucks, mobile phones and the gym. Maybe that's one of the reasons I liked it so much: real-time relevance rooted in enduring observations of human nature. And it is an excellent script: thought-provoking, funny, sinister, sharply-observed and intelligent.

The four young actors were perfectly chosen. Any small-cast show has the opportunity for exciting chemistry (or not) to ignite the theatrical experience (or not); in this case, the tuning between performers was perfect. Each displaying far more artistic integrity and professional composure than is entirely fair in those so young, the four wove their characters together, bouncing and merging, arguing and sparking, each confrontation entirely believable. It's actually not possible to comment on individual scenes or characters without giving away key plotlines - which I won't, because I want you to go and see for yourselves - but rest assured that all four performers inhabit their characters with total conviction, interact with love and fear and uncertainty and excitement and despair, and truly live. David Green, Hazel Wilson, Louise Waller and Jack Churchill are all to be very highly commended for such devoted and professional work, both as a team and individually.

And as for Mr Owen: this was a fine, fine example of a vision created and realised. With Gemma Goodwin's clean and ingenious set, simple movements of blocks to create various environments, swift transformation of light and stage, and careful use of appropriate incidental music, the world of LaBute's 'Midwestern American university' was firmly established on the Barn's versatile stage. With performers who are mature enough to exhibit skillful stagecraft but youthful enough to be entirely flexible about the characters they create, we were not watching David, Hazel, Louise and Jack, but Adam, Evelyn, Jenny and Philip, and we believed it. And with that precise, professional and focused direction I mentioned earlier, the whole creation was brought together as an exceptional work of art: yet another production of which the Sewell Barn Theatre can be very proud.

As I write this, you have four more chances to witness the creation for yourself. I strongly suggest that you do. Box Office: 01603 697248.