[Review:] BEDLAM, The CLF Art Cafe, London.
This review will consider Bedlam, a play written and directed by Tom Hodson and staged at the CLF Art Cafe.
This is a very good performance, from its thorough and impressive aesthetic to its engaging concept, writing and execution. As the audience come in, they are greeted by complete silence and dim lighting. There is a slight mist in the air. Upstage, to the left and to the right, two square playing areas, each formed of a sofa and a chair (overall design by Ed Saunders). Far Stage Left, two chairs. Barring this, the stage is completely empty, and the audience must bear its heaviness. This is a most chilling and ominous beginning, one which instals a sense of trouble and disconcertion. It is also very brave.
Two actors enter, Christopher Roscoe Brown and Peter Stone, playing what I shall call Therapists 1 & 2, and the play begins. I cannot say that I was particularly overwhelmed by the initial acting, starting with the awkward-looking and rather needless mime between the two as they walk into the space, grab a drink and briefly pretend to talk. When Matt Forey (playing George) enters, he and Brown seem rather wooden, and not just because their characters are awkward or cold towards one another. A combination of the writing and acting, this first scene seems to lack fluidity and naturalism. It is rather repetitive and artificial. Its rhythm and tone also grate against the second scene in which Lucy Hilton-Jones (playing Ellie) enters the second playing area where Stone is awaiting her. There is too huge a contrast in energy and character type but also in momentum, and this makes the beginning of the play difficult to digest.
Whilst the beginning is rather stodgy, what ensues is utterly engaging. Forey and Hilton-Jones step away from the playing areas and come downstage, right in front of the audience. It is here, Downstage, that their relationship starts to play out, that the story begins to deepen and to unfurl. Slowly littering the Downstage area with props, scattering vignettes of their life together before our eyes, this relationship becomes more and more complex and unique. It was effective to have this so close to us, not only demonstrating an intimacy between the characters in a literal close-up on their lives away from the therapy rooms but also creating an intimacy between the characters and us. I should note here, however, that smoking with such proximity to audience members could be very dangerous should but one spectator suffer from any lung problems; I would recommend a pre-warning for this.
The writing makes for a unique relationship between the two, one which demonstrates particularities and patterns of behaviour existing beyond the action we are presented –– an example of this, of course, being Ellie’s mood swing when George reveals he has broken her mug, or the two’s shared interest in music and alcohol. Forey and Hilton-Jones are excellent actors, convincing and articulate. They also demonstrate a successful chemistry and confidence on stage.
In terms of Stone and Brown’s acting, I would have liked more. I found Stone to be slightly over-the-top, more energised than the text really allows him to be. I found his lines to be rather short and staccato, and this meant that his high energy was regularly cut short. I feel he could have benefitted from a more natural approach, which would have made his character seem more insidious, overall. This was also an editorial problem, however, as I feel the text was far too blatant in his character’s siding with Ellie, in his egging her on, so to speak.
As for Brown, I found the opposite. I feel that he could have been more articulate in his physicality. His demeanour was far too cool and hence rather nonchalant and inert. I would have liked to see him play into his lines more, particularly those that deliberately draw focus to masculinity –– football, drinking, etc. I feel that his character is, though rather poorly, psychoanalysing the basics of George’s personality/pscyhe, and masculinity seems to be a way into this in this text. I would have liked to see slightly more of a caricaturisation in related moments of coercion.
As a final note on all actors, I would like to see more during transitional scenes, or during scenes where our focus is on one therapy room, leaving the other dimly lit and silent. These moments start to lack variation in terms of what actors do when they are not in the limelight, and this is particularly the case for the Therapists, being that they sit out of the main action so often. There is only a certain amount of note-taking that is 1) feasible and 2) intriguing to watch. It seems as though the actors are not even acting at points, particularly Brown who often seems to gaze off into space whilst sat to the side of the stage. Whilst I would urge these movements to be minimal, so as to not distract from the main action, if actors are deliberately lit, it needs to be with purpose and significance. Even a slight tapping of the foot, or restlessness from Hiltone-Jones and Forey whilst they are sitting silently in the therapy room would make an image more engaging. Again, movements were still made during all of these moments but not sufficiently.
On to the writing itself. One particularly jarring thing about the Therapists, rooted in the structure of the writing, is their need to leave to “confer with their colleagues” at the end of every scene. This becomes way too overused, and scenes seem to end far too prematurely. It feels as though nothing has really happened in some scenes, that they could actually be cut altogether for their brevity and lack of plot progression. Again, I feel that the text could benefit from some more realism and fluidity here. Would the Therapists really need to disappear so often? Surely they do this all the time and so would be prepared for the events that will happen? It also does not feel as though most of the things George says are particularly game-changing for the Therapists.
There are also some irregularities in the text. One major irregularity is that it is not made clear as to why Ellie became so fearful of George having cheated on her in the first place. Whilst I understand that his reaction is not particularly reassuring when Ellie finds a group photo of him and the potential other woman in question, this is not enough to clarify how this situation blew out of proportion for the two of them in such an extreme way.
The revelation that Ellie and George are, in fact, participants in a TV talk show is very well conceived and, for the most part, is successfully woven into the narrative. Again, whilst I think that Therapist 2’s [Stone] doings are far too blatant, I really enjoy the subtle and surreptitious elements that, only in retrospect, are the fruits of the ‘Therapist’’s clever rigging –– Therapist 1’s getting George drunk for the show being a very good example of this. However, I feel that this reality does not possess our focus in the way it intends to. It is most certainly a shocking plot twist but it does not make for a particularly impactful ending.
With the text giving so much focus to the couple’s relationship, accentuated by the lengthy scenes they share beyond the therapy rooms, and with therapy scenes being so succinct and brief, the talk show becomes of secondary importance. Our interests remain heavily in Ellie and George’s relationship; we want to know what happens to them next and, initially, if they ever benefit from whatever “therapy” it is that they are receiving. Our interest in their physical location is not so great. Furthermore, the ending transpires so hurriedly, and it feels as though the reveal is skimmed over.
All of this is accentuated by the fact that the couple’s situation remains cryptic until further on in the performance; we do not find out that George potentially cheated on Ellie until the middle/end of the performance. There is not really very much to ground our attention in the context of a therapist’s office, let alone that of a TV show. More time should be spent on concretising, perfecting and deepening these therapy scenes and the roles and functions of the Therapists themselves if it is desired that the spectators concentrate on the context of the TV show above the characters, that they see the characters as secondary, as pawns in a game.
It was made clear that this was felt by many other, if not all, audience members at the end of the performance, being that many were quite vocally unsure whether or not to leave the house, asking around if there was an interval or if the play had, indeed, ended. The story definitely seemed unfinalised, yet I would also say that this is to do with the same silent, dimly lit setting, that which I commended very early in this review, being repeated again. A complete blackout on the stage and house lights up, a very basic and well-known cue for an audience to leave, would have been preferable, perhaps along with the sound of the TV audience or theme tune for the show to leave the impact of the plot twist to settle amongst the audience.
I mentioned earlier that I would like to see more variety from the Therapists when they are sitting out of the main action. If our concentration should remain on the context of the story and not so much on its plot, I would recommend, instead of becoming insignificant add-ons, tucked away in the corner, miming, that the Therapists take on a more active role. They should be watching the action, maybe even taking notes of what the characters are doing in realtime vs making other, virtually unrelated notes. They should be ominous figures, constantly in the background, supervising the memories of the characters, worming their way into their story. This, I feel, would have slightly bettered our reading of the play’s location, but I think meticulous editing is required to make this whole, underlying narrative more articulate, readable and hence effective.