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[Review:] 4 STAGES, Bread and Roses Theatre, London.

I shall start by saying that this is not the strongest performance, but it certainly has budding potential. There is a lot to be reworked, rethought and refined, and there is a huge issue with naturalism and focus, yet, once pace has picked up and style has improved, the denouement is, indeed, rather robust and sorrowful.

A problem not unique to this performance and one which my reviews have dealt with quite a lot recently is that there is a sheer lack of naturalism. This lack of naturalism is presented not only through the writing of the dramatic text itself but through the actors’ rather unpolished characterisations as well. I will start first with the writing (play written by B C Allen).

This play persistently gives too much airtime to trivial and insignificant items, mostly in an attempt to demonstrate shared histories amongst the characters. Some good examples of this are the manner in which the characters detail Ben’s (Brett Allen) failure to pay the bill at The Ivy, which coincides along with the equally unnecessary and flavourless recount of the washing machine story, or Alex’s (Andre Skeete) ex’s pregnancy. This text aims to give much too much detail about past events to make the characters’ lives seem fuller, more intricate and more interconnected. This is both unnecessary, given that friends and couples already denote intimacy and shared history, but also too emphatic and hence unnaturalistic.

But it is not just the fact that these events are over-elaborated upon but the way in which they are so sedulously prised out of the characters, unearthing a plethora of bland and flitting emotions: the constant repetition of interrogative phrases, “How so?”, “Like?” and “Well?”; Cat’s (Natasha Redhead) bashfulness and embarrassment whenever the slightest memory is brought up; and, most of all, Alex’s failure to remember or understand any of the memories discussed. For a text which aims to demonstrate a past and togetherness amongst these friends, it seems bizarre that it should present Alex as knowing or remembering so little. Clearly, they are not as close as the text aims for us to believe.

Then, there is the problem with registers. These do not tend to take into consideration the character profiles. One very pronounced example of this is when Ben, a cockney geezer of sorts, recalls a location he often frequented as a child and refers to it rather nonchalantly as “an incredible place for adventure”. This register of language is undeniably higher than the [broken] register he uses throughout the rest of the text, making for a certain friction in his character. This is not, it would seem, something Ben would say. Perhaps “an incredible place to run around and explore” or, even more simply, “a great place to have fun / muck about”. The words ‘adventure’ and ‘incredible’ participate in a deliberately bombastic and emphatic locution, as opposed to ‘look around’ and ‘good’, for example; perhaps the use of just one would be ignorable, but two makes for a deliberate effect — an effect which is not wanted here.

These three characteristics make for the writing’s entirety, up until the very latter of the performance. Here, things start to look up. The language becomes much snappier, making little room for laborious reflections and focusing on events in the present moment, mainly Ben’s deterioration. This is something I must stress for this performance: the past stands with such priority in this performance that the present suffers greatly. Only small events, such as the crying baby, developments in the board games, or the fetching of alcohol, are allowed to contextualise the play in the present, and these items begin to seem as though mere distractions from bland and short-lived storytellings lacking pith and purpose. We hear so much about the past selves of the characters that we learn very little about who they are now.

I understand that this focus on the past is due to Ben creating a sense of his image and personality for his baby daughter so that she may feel as though she knew him whilst growing up without him after his death in her infancy. However, especially being that this is a secret until very late in the play, this would not incite the other characters to be so lodged in the past as well. It is confusing, then, why all characters are so prepared to divulge histories in this strenuous way and are so accepting of the interview. The writing fails to recognise the subjectivities of the characters, that each character will have something different they wish to discuss or elaborate upon, that not all would want to reflect on histories but deliberate other things, instead, e.g. work, neighbours, friends, celebrities, diets, plans, etc.

To reveal that Ben is suffering from lung cancer is a most dissatisfying decision, for me. Not only does this revelation serve as a hugely over-milked and disempowering cliche in modern theatre but it is also very structurally and stylistically out of place. I understand that the interview questions serve as a subliminal preparation for Ben’s daughter’s fatherless future, a secret which Ben reveals himself in the latter part of the play, yet it feels as though such a hard-hitting and profound turn of events is not deserved in this play. This is not because of the light-heartedness that attempts to characterise the dramatic text but because of its lack of momentum. The action we are presented with is mundane; we learn little of the characters from the present moment and only receive biographies; in all, very little really happens. To then not only kill a character off but to bring in the motif of cancer is a most unseemly and disjointed decision.

Back to the issue with naturalism. Writing aside, I move on to characterisation. Actors seemed to storm through the text, leaving very little room for impact, for their lines to settle in the space, for the audience to breathe. This affects naturalism in many ways but primarily through our recognition of time. To elucidate this, I will use a simple example: when Allen’s character hands Skeete’s the piece of paper with the interview questions on it, Skeete has barely taken it in his grasp before stating that he would not know how to tackle it because “these questions are different to the ones I had”. How would he know that the questions are different before even studying them properly? More generally speaking, all actors followed on from other actors’ lines much too quickly and utterly sped through their own. There was an utter lack of rhythm, which inevitably affects mood. In fact, it felt as though the performance had an allotted time to be complete in and the actors felt as though they were not going to make it.

As with the writing, things tended to pick up quite significantly after Ben revealed his lung cancer. It felt to me as though the actors understood their roles more in this latter part. I believe this because of its fast pace and its focus on present events, permitting actors to have a constant and knowing series of actions and reactions; before this, actors were just listening to what one other had to say and smiling, laughing, gasping, etc. There was very little room for actors to develop their characters beyond the biographies. There was a vast lack of emotion in the former part of this performance — again, this is why the shock of lung cancer felt so disproportionate — until Cat becomes outraged by Alex’s overview on dating women. A mixture of writing issues and fallible characterisation, this shift felt much too sudden and extreme — and not in a realistic, cogent manner. It was not given enough time to grow, for tensions to slowly build. It was an instantaneous conflict, from jovial to hostile within seconds.

Dramatics aside, I will focus on the technicalities of this performance. Set (designed by Gareth Johnson) is very simple, consisting of a high table and chairs and a sofa. The space is certainly very tight, which does add to a sense of intimacy between the characters but also a certain claustrophobia. This is a good decision. I would just be careful of the [again, somewhat unnatural] use of this space, notably when Alex shows Ben something on a phone, he will only go to one side, despite being closer to the other, making not only for a bizarre visual but for an imbalance as to which side of the audience the action is presented to, given the traverse staging. In terms of props, I have little to say, for they were sufficiently communicative and utilitarian, other than the fact the scrabble tiles appeared, to me, to have no writing on them. Again, realism is key.

Lighting (designed by Glenford Barnes) receives mixed thoughts from me but positive ones, overall. I enjoy that the natural lighting dims and is replaced by a deep blue; this gives us a clear understanding of time and its passing. I should note here that costume, which is successfully contemporary, is equally as successful in demonstrating this, adding to that much-needed realism. However, the first time we see this change of lighting state, it seems wildly inconsistent. I would have had the deep blue whilst the audience were coming in and, once they were settled and the actors were ready to enter, then I would have changed to natural lighting, to animate or naturalise the space, as it were. Whilst its repetition gave coherent style, this first use is just much too startling and different to the natural lighting we are used to and makes for the sense of a stylistic disconnect.

Sound is used rather minimally in this performance. When it is used, however, it is effectively synchronous with the action on stage. However, it slows the momentum of the performance considerably — a primary example of this being when Ben shows Alex some music, dancing to him. The performance gives a successful amount of attention to moments like these, engaging us with Ben’s character, which is, obviously, most important, yet because it is so slow compared to the preceding action, it feels longwinded, as though a strange thing to give so much focus to.

Overall, there are a lot of things in this play that could do with some editing. There are potent issues with pace, rhythm and, of course, naturalism, and the play could benefit from demonstrating the intimacy shared between the friends in the present moment far more, beyond its relying wholly on the topography of the space or, more specifically, the theme of games night, or on Ben’s use of flirtation and flattery on Cat. Despite the stereotypical postmodern approach to a tragic ending, I feel that this play does have a strong concept behind it. It is simply in its presentation, in script and on stage, that it is somewhat lacking. Nearly everything is there; it all just needs to be better unearthed and articulated.

“A play with a good direction and good potential but crude in its materials and execution.”

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