[Review:] BEIGE WALLS AND NAVY SOFAS, Camden People’s Theatre, London.
Before starting this review, I shall note that this performance is a work in progress and is hence subject to change.
In this zany and kooky play, Courtney McMahon uses beige walls and navy sofas as a synecdoche for her childhood memories as the daughter of a foster carer. She relates a bitter nostalgia where sweet reminiscence becomes tinged by the negative or by the confused and limited understanding of a child. Prepping her audience with memories of her childhood dog and its sudden passing, McMahon recounts the incomplete relationships she had formed with her foster siblings.
The set design (by Niamh Parker-Whitehead) for this performance is particularly playful. With its secret hatches and ability to rotate, the set's dynamism and (positive) low-quality/arts-and-crafts feel really is evocative of a child's imagination at home, especially with the main centrepiece being a stack of those all-too-familiar cardboard boxes. There is a sense of playfulness and discovery, as we learn that there is yet another piece on the other side of the cardboard tower or another item to be found in the navy boxes.
However, this endless supply of props becomes rather subtractive after a while. Every single story seems to superfluously coincide with an item of some sort. This disallows the stories to breathe in the spectators’ imagination by limiting them to yet another synecdoche. Not only were some stories stifled in this way but also by the stories which preceded or succeeded them. The performance's structure became somewhat bipartite: happy memory turns to sad memory turns to happy memory, etc. This became predictable but also led to some unoriginal stylistic choices, primarily with tech.
The sound of white noise, another popular and hence overused motif, featured quite heavily in this performance, and practically all gleeful songs and moments would take a turn for the worst and become muffled and consumed by it. Tech also coincided with the problem of pacing which I shall elaborate on later. Moments like the ‘You’ve Been Framed’ theme tune and a recording of Ant and Dec were tautological when sided with McMahon’s description of watching the two shows. Other songs were cut much too prematurely and others lasted too long. The best use of tech for pacing but also for that happy-to-sad breakdown was the end of the ‘Last Christmas’ sequence. This is exemplary of a dramatic transformation from one emotional mode to another. Its drawn-out nature made for an unignorable change in atmosphere, aided by the change in lighting state, as opposed to the other mood changes which were far too quick and unimpactful.
The words ‘overuse’ and synecdoche' do become characteristics of this, but that is not to say that the performance is predictable. The stories are interesting and engaging, but I am not too sure if they are informative enough. There is a propensity in this performance to tend towards over-informing the audience on the more insignificant things and under-informing on the more important. For example, a good portion of the performance is dedicated to the dog and to karaoke, but their bearing on the rest of the content is not so immediate.
Karaoke scenes were particularly impertinent and omittable for me. This is mainly due to the performance's tendency towards audience interaction. If it is not utterly indispensable to the performance, or if the performance can survive without it, audience interaction should not be a feature and is a surefire and needless way to make for a stylistic disconnect. For instance, McMahon's whispering to an audience member in the front row, asking her to look after a box for her: who is this benefitting? The back row cannot hear it, it is not carrying the performance forward nor establishing a mode of audience address. As for the karaoke scenes, McMahon’s coercing the audience to join in with her so as to not, embarrassedly, sing alone felt less like a warranted and progressive interaction but a moment of unwanted fragility and tension, however successful her coercions were. Certain images, such as her riding a child-sized bike, much too small for her, which was a playful and disjointed visualisation of her childhood, were squandered by random outbursts, like attempting to shock, yet again, a front-row audience member by riding the child’s bike in front of her and barking abruptly in her face. These are all unnecessary moments that simply dampen the efficacy of an otherwise quite fruitful script.
This brings me on to characterisation. McMahon provides her audience with a very lovable persona. She is witty, energised and pensive. However, there lacks a sense of fixedness. With the memories being so fragmented and achronological, it is crucial to have a persona whose personality, character, traits and motives are immediately, directly and quickly comprehensible. Only presenting perceptions and experiences of the external world means that there is little personality to go off of for their narrator. This causes a problem for feeling emotion for other characters as well as for Courtney, which I will also elaborate on in a while, but it also means that our guide through the stories is opaque and so it is difficult to see how these things are affecting her and hence how we should be feeling as an audience.
This lack of fixedness is also present in both McMahon’s speech types and physicality. Her speech type meanders through vernacular and colloquial to poetic to standardised, and this makes for an unstable reading of her. Her physicalIty is just as vulnerable in this way: McMahon is quite stiff and motionless through most of the performance, letting the objects and narrative do the descriptions for her. This is then met with a certain volatility where she is suddenly dancing all over the place or randomly turning away from the audience and screaming. She becomes erratic in these moments. This volatility is hard to digest.
As for the writing, this text has some very successful and funny elements, but these were not allowed to be fully digested in places. This was due mostly to pacing but also because of the rapid and haphazard succession of scenes and scene types. I would recommend noting what certain areas and features are trying to accomplish. If it is lightheartedness or comedy, allow for time for this to be digested as such before shooting off to the next feature.
Ironically, for a performance supposedly about McMahon’s experiences with being the daughter of a foster carer, this was only one, supplementary theme scattered through the performance. It seemed as though this narrative was lost to an abundance of other types of loss, settings, childhood memories and those unyielding karaoke scenes. The lack of clear-cut focus meant that one particularly political passage was not so hard-hitting or convincing, but this is a combination of the content and the writing itself. Not much was being said, and the way it was being said was not particularly moving, either. Similarly, the audience were not given enough information about Jess, which is important as McMahon decides to end her performance with an ominous supposition about her. This suspense, mystery and strong empathy are not earned, as Jess has not been significant enough in the narrative, and so the ending’s impact is extremely slight and dissatisfying. It would be more fitting, as the performance stands, to have a conclusion of McMahon’s memories, to see how these affect her presently or how she has grown or regressed because of them. That is the correct ending this performance leans towards, which I am quite sure is not the desired.