[Review:] AN AUDIENCE WITH STUART BAGCLIFFE, Etcetera Theatre, London.
This is a bold and poignant performance, written by Benny Ainsworth and directed by Sally Paffett, whose dark material is organised, in theory, very well. However, there is significant work to be done with performance style and, to some degree, with the writing as well, so that themes be conveyed better beyond the mere written word.
Michael Parker’s performance style as Stuart is markedly caricatural. He is over-expressive and over-energised, and his style is rather overtly comedic, overall. Initially, this is a wonderful way to enable the audience to bond with his character. That everything is going wrong for him, from technical omissions to extreme nervousness, and that he is clearly being subjected to this performance by his mother are wonderful means of allowing for a sense of victimisation from the outset. We pity this character who brings us joy and laughter, and this is an excellent ground for invoking our extreme empathy later on when material gets darker — in theory. However, because of how extreme Parker’s caricatural acting style is, because of how artificially and theatrically his character is portrayed, it becomes incredibly difficult to empathise with this somewhat inhuman character, to gauge the level of realism in the text, and, ultimately, to digest this dark material. We go from one extreme, caricatural comedy, to the other, dark realism, and a lack of naturalism, of credibility, builds an extreme and thick barrier against our ability to see the human, the real, the raw and, most importantly, the possible, the enactable, the dangers that exist in the real world.
Furthermore, this nervousness, characterised by incessant shaking, fluctuating voice, unsteady eye contact and overall ‘jitteriness’, is too severely overplayed at the beginning, given how conscientiously and accurately Parker portrays Stuart enacting the rest of his performance.
Stuart’s final breakdown, which, I must say, would be significantly more effective if eye contact was directed not merely to the vague centre of the audience but to each and every audience member specifically as he addresses us, is incredibly intense and rather expertly achieved. The design of sound and tech — again, noting Stuart’s further victimisation in the lack of diligence of “Simon”, the [fictional] tech operator who receives his mother’s relentless support — is immaculate here, accentuating an extreme discomfort. However, the real tech operator, Ben Sorab (also the designer for all technical constituents), rather restricts its effect in allowing for a sense of predictability, audibly rustling in physical preparation in the tech booth and overtly preempting the lighting change by slightly altering the current state with a minor fade before the actual transition. This state must remain completely untouched until the time comes for it to drastically transform. This drastic sense was not achieved where it otherwise could have been because of these facts. On the topic of tech, I will quickly note that the principal lighting state maintained throughout the majority of this performance ought to be a full wash rather than an unfocused spot. Wearing white, Parker’s costume is garishly illuminated on one side of the stage and poorly lit along with Parker himself on the other. This is visually rather jarring — and the idea that this is down to Simon’s lack of skill is not enough to justify what is our entire visual in reality.
I mentioned that Stuart’s character was also comedic, and exactly how this comedy is delivered also needs to be addressed. It is performed too deliberately by Parker, and this is further exacerbated by the character of Stuart’s own tendency towards comical lines — for example, his tango/line-dancing joke or the failing Brigitte Jones joke he delivers on behalf of this mother. These are acceptable alone, but not with further conspicuous stress on comedic idiosyncrasies and text. For maximum effect, comedy should not be delivered with the overt desire to make the audience laugh; this is counter-productive and, frankly, embarrassing. Simon should perform the comedic material not with the desire to extract the ‘funny’ out of the text and perform it but simply to stay true to his character’s intentions and circumstances. This sense of true conviction and seriousness will be the credible driving force for comedy, as opposed to the overreliance upon the punchlines he delivers themselves.
One good example of this is at the beginning of the performance when Stuart spills his glass of water over his front. This action is far too preempted, and instead of ‘missing his mouth’, Parker simply breaks from the action of drinking and throws it over himself. This is too deliberate, artificial and not at all credible; hence, the comedy is weakened here. I should also mention here that white, under the harsh stage lights, is certainly not desirable for any costume that will at some point be made wet. This is not a matter of whether the performer is confident enough with exhibiting himself but, rather, about the undesired and distracting aspect and visual connotations this needlessly brings to the performance. I would recommend a different colour.
Comedy is also slightly weakened by the repetition of certain elements, namely: Stuart leaving the stage to ‘talk to his mother’, his calling out to signal tech cues and freeze-framing whilst he awaits them, his interjections to provide us with superfluous details on characters and his circumstances, etc. On their own, these are managed and delivered excellently but together make for a sense of monotony and unimaginativeness. I would recommend more variety here.
Otherwise, this is a good performance from Parker who remains vitalised and invigorated throughout. He successfully differentiates his various characters, demonstrating his great capacity as a transformative actor. He has wonderful corporeal and vocal expressivity and has a confident and bold stage presence. A good performer, and this is intensified by the recognition that he is alone on a bare stage, aided only by one lighting state throughout and yet manages to capture his character and his various contexts well, remaining engaging and absorbing throughout.
This engaging quality is also, of course, down to the writing, which is structured superbly. Characterisation and character development are immaculate, and plot is both structured and conceived excellently. This is a most careful and rich text, rather unpredictable where it ought to be so and teeming with challenges and emotional pitfalls for its main character. A gripping text. Metatheatricality is also maintained throughout, which is most impressive and desirable, not only allowing for a greater emotional/psychological impact at the end of the performance and for a removed, more critical observation of Stuart’s victimisation/abuse but also for stylistic continuity and continuous relevance for the comedic elements listed above and others.
Finally, still in regard to the text, the idea that Stuart’s mother has written this performance for him, somehow benefitting from this and notably reinventing her own image, and that she is forcing Stuart to perform her script is a subplot that is left to remain rather strange and enigmatic. Why Stuart’s mother, who, despite her abusive tendencies towards gaslighting and condescension, seems to be rather affected by what happens to Stuart and his childhood sweetheart, would have something to gain from this production is not sufficiently detailed or, most importantly, made clear to us. A few asides that he no longer wants to perform for her is not enough, I am afraid, to ground her in the overall narrative. In short, the mother we are presented in the play ‘she has written’ does not reflect the ‘true’ mother of which we are constantly made aware. And this needs to be addressed. The character of the mother, her intentions, and items that expose her will for fame and renown off of Stuart’s labour [which are currently nonexistent] need to be evident so that the entire concept retains a degree of logic and sense. A needy, entitled, manipulative and controlling mother does not equate a mother who will instrumentalise her son for her own success. This is a character discontinuity.
Overall, this is a challenging and thought-provoking performance that confronts both the audience's morality and their hedonistic pursuits. Ainsworth proves himself here as a versatile and intelligent writer with a skill for exploiting and deconstructing the dark and the harrowing.