Thursday, 4 July 2013

Everything review June 30th 2013

In an age where the world is literally at our fingertips in the form of computers and mobile phones, it’s difficult to find solitude. Strangely however, it can be equally as challenging to feel one has a full, engaged, and connected life despite the endless information and communication constantly available to us. In a recent production at the Camden People’s Theatre, from the Uncovered Theatre Company, Sophia Kingshill’s script examines this paradox in an interesting and surprisingly funny manner. The one-act show features Maggie Gordon-Walker as Jean, an office manager for a real-estate firm, as she sets her affairs in order before she commits suicide

We are never told why Jean wants to end her life – in fact, the nature of her personal life is left much to mystery. All the information we receive comes from one-sided telephone calls and her dictation of her various short, detached, suicide memos to family, friends, and colleagues. It’s a creative approach by Kingshill, and offers the production distinction from many other solo performances which by nature require a lot of monologue and exposition. The refreshing slice-of-life nature in which the story is told allows us to observe Jean and understand her situation without really understanding how she feels or why.

This structure also allowed Gordon-Walker to give an excellent and realistic performance – her finest moments were often reactions to statements from the other side of the telephone, which of course the audience couldn’t hear so could only imagine. Her comedic timing was excellent, and it was a delight to have her guiding us through the laughs despite the awkwardly dark scenario. Gordon-Walker also deserves praise for her well-balanced portrayal of Jean’s natural self-consciousness and apparent eagerness to please others coupled with her newly-formed unquestionable resolve to kill herself.

There are no major theatrics and Jean is very down to business, making the whole scene quite private and interesting to watch. The set was well-dressed as Jean’s office and allowed plenty of insight into Jean’s life simply by its organization and design. The many things placed within also allowed for a lot of dynamic movement and blocking to keep the stage picture versatile despite the inherently static nature of one-person shows.

While in many ways the intimate and muted tone of the show worked to its advantage, it was difficult to foster a genuine empathy for Jean, because it was primarily like watching her at a day at the office. Thematically and theoretically, this is a great statement to make about our nature and the way dealing with telephone calls and email messages and business can tramp down even the most emotionally distressing of circumstances, but it also makes it difficult for an audience to stay fully involved.

Thankfully Kingshill’s wit kept the tempo of the show up even though the action was stuck, and Gordon-Walker kept us watching with her performance. If nothing else, it really did move me to ponder how technological interruptions and desk-work structured lives can harm and help us all.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Views From The Gods review 28 June 2013

Death may be the last great adventure, but suicide still isn't something we tend to talk about. When people make that leap, it feels like society has let them down, making the topic an uncomfortable one for the living. But there is no such thing as a taboo subject when it comes to comedy, and black humour is inherently British. It's how we keep the stiff upper lip, we laugh at our own misfortunes and apologise non-stop. And it's certainly in evidence in Sophia Kingshill's bleak but enjoyable piece.
Having decided to kill herself, middle-aged office manager Jean Taylor (Maggie Gordon-Walker) is determined to go out with a bang, not a whimper, minimising any inconvenience caused to friends, family and passing acquaintances. It's both deeply amusing and deeply grim that over the course of a full hour, Jean struggles to find the time to kill herself. In a damning indictment of today's modern, busy world, life keeps getting in the way of death. Unwanted cold calls, a clingy ex, a rambling neighbour, a disgruntled customer - rarely do we relate to a character so much and yet find ourselves rooting for that person to snuff it.
Jean's constantly calm demeanour is what makes the play so funny, but it is also what gives rise to so many questions. At the end, when that mask briefly slips, we catch a glimpse of her true emotional state. But there's very little else to explain what has pushed her to take such dramatic action, we're left to work it out for ourselves.
The norm of one-person shows is for the actor to address or acknowledge the audience, but that wasn't the case here. The narrative is largely Jean's half of a telephone conversation, sometimes just her reading out-loud. At one point, we even observe her typing silently - very little happens. But this reinforces the banality and solitude of Jean's life.
Throughout the piece, Gordon-Walker's performance is excellent. Her character may be incredibly ordinary, but this makes for some unexpectedly funny - and truthful - one-liners.
Director Pradeep Jey succeeds in turning the stage into a believable home for Jean, as opposed to just a black box. The devil is in the detail - the highly organised desk drawers, the extension cables which may be necessary for the laptop and printer to work, nice touches, but which also hint at trying to pack too much in. This sense of place is emphasised by the choice of venue at the Camden People's Theatre. Stuck next to a main road, the ambient noise of passing traffic actually helps. His choice of music from The Monkees is also an apt - if literal - way to see the show both in and out.
Kingshill's writing could go further to touch upon the reasons as to why Jean has ended up in this predicament. But that may also be trying to make this into something it's not. Thankfully, for audiences, it is still a clever, witty piece with lots to love.