[Review:] EASY, Blue Elephant Theatre, London.
This is a truly splendid play, not only an entertaining and highly engaging performance but compelling and powerful in its themes and the discourse that it evokes. Its articulation of sexual abuse amongst teenagers and of the dangers of technology in their social spheres is not only astute but definitely eye-opening.
I will start this review by considering the set (designed by Verity Johnson). Both beautiful in its design and efficient in its usability, this set is slick, dynamic and very creative. The inclusion of artificial grass is a quirky yet effective feature; it not only aids our imagination to leave the stage and be transported to The Pond, a principal location in the story, but it also maintains the theme of millennial disconnection, by which I mean the propensity to see the world indirectly through technology, to have very little kinetic interaction with the physical world. Likewise, props are cleverly scattered around this set to evoke a sense of location — towels and toiletries, blankets and pillows, rucksacks and notebooks — and seem to work themselves in seamlessly to the narrative, each in a designated area of the set left untouched until revealed as the bathroom, a bed, a school desk or the ground in a park. But these props also serve as endearing souvenirs of Alice’s (Robyn Wilson) narrative, features of her story which are then locked away, evoking that sense of shame, of moving forward from the past but through suppression rather than closure. I should note here, however, that having Wilson open these lockers, symbolic of Alice’s opening up about all of her ‘shameful’ secrets, is good in theory but is far too robotic in practice. It becomes rather corny as Wilson opens one locker per line, gazing out to the audience. It is perfectly acceptable to have her back turned to us as she opens these and would look much better if these were opened either more fluidly –– or perhaps frantically, if she stood staring at the now open lockers, her back to us, detailing all the things she told her university flatmate. I still appreciate the symbolism of this act, however.
It is impossible to critique this set without also considering its interrelationship with tech. Whilst the chosen lighting (designed by Dan Saggars) does not necessarily correspond with traditional emotion-colour associations, this does not take away from the efficacy of the square panels which share the back wall with the locker spaces. Lighting states change alongside event and mood and, in their multiplicity, generate a sense of movement, development and transformation. Most impressive is the raised lit box representative of the leaked video and the phones it was either taken on or spread through themselves. This is a most dramatic and harrowing use of tech, the rest of the stage darkening as the box becomes a large and consumptive presence Centerstage.
Whilst synchronicity with the action on stage could be improved in places, though only in a few, sound (designed by Anna Clock) also adds a wonderful texture to this performance, complementing the action well. The sounds of notifications, received and sent messages, etc. not only generate a technical language for the performance, amplified by Wilson’s simple yet effective accompanying gestures, but they also make for an easier comprehension of the material on our part. I would also like to point out the effective use of a high frequency, something often rather overused in theatre dealing with trauma, pain or [primarily mental] struggles, becoming cliché and dilute. The singular use of this in this performance was timely, effective and striking. Overall, sound was very well designed and congruous with the material of the play.
On to the writing by Amy Blakelock. The dramatic text captures Alice’s experience with a certain heaviness. It is a very clear and readable text. Its representation is most precise, accurate and appropriate, and its material is visceral, potent and memorable, making use of sensory as well as descriptive elements, i.e. the smells, sights, tastes and sounds that Alice associates with her memories. The way in which it deals with this type of trauma, affecting a shockingly large (and increasing) number of youths today, demonstrates a clear understanding of the complexity of situations of common sexual abuse amongst teenagers. It cleverly details the effects of toxic masculinity on young girls, the common desire to be loved by the uncaring, and the common seduction by what now even has its own term, a ‘fuck boy’. The text also makes a conscious effort to stay away from a monotonous demonisation of the modern male, both referencing her abusers’ traumas and emotions but also coming to terms with the fact that just hating men in general, as sometimes forced upon women by other women, does not do anything productive for the victim her-/himself. It is clear that a lot of reading has gone into this performance to make for a both convincing and clearcut representation.
The text also manages to detail in a most legible and real way the raw anxieties of young teenage girls who are constantly bombarded with oppressive and patriarchal ideals of feminine beauty. We are taken through stages of common thought, most specifically when Alice is preparing for her seeming date the following day, as she turns her attention to her own body in relation to fellow young girls or grown female celebrities, as well as how it will be received not only by others but primarily male others. Nothing is held back, from the often spoken to the unspoken, from cellulite to vaginal tightness and orgasming. These are taboo topics regularly suppressed in our society, especially amongst females and our youth, and the unforgiving naturalisation of these themes and issues is a wonderful, important and impactful element of this performance.
On to characterisation. Wilson is a very gripping solo performer who is believable and confident in her characterisation. With her maintaining such a high and unfaltering energy throughout, it is an utter delight to watch her perform. There is, however, a shift in her acting style towards the middle of the performance in her portrayal of secondary characters. Throughout the performance, Wilson uses different, specific gestures to indicate these — a hair flick, a hand on chest or an overly suggestive smoulder — and this is more than enough for us to identify a character change. However, from the moment Wilson portrays the policewoman that questions her on what happened by The Pond, portrayals become very caricaturistic. It is no longer a simple gesture and a change in language use or slight shift in voice but an entirely different accent and a full bodily characterisation. This is much too abrupt and drastic a change and makes for a disjointed characterisation style. It would be better to stick with one, keeping in mind that both are equally effective but different in the effects they produce. I would like to note, however, that this first, subtler characterisation type is in danger of becoming rather repetitive. The quirkiness of the gesture-led multi-roling becomes somewhat predictable in its pattern and hence slowly loses its initial effect.
I cannot brush over this scene involving the policewoman. In this scene, there is a huge shift in the performance. As she delivers the policewoman’s lines, Wilson’s movements become robotic, fragmented and suggestive, rather than fluid and realistic, projecting from a contemporary strand of dance. Such use of movement is not repeated anywhere else in this performance, making this singular use completely incongruous stylistically. It feels as if this movement was a rash decision, that the effect it would have or the emotion it was expressing was considered as impactful and necessary but that how this style of movement coincides with the rest of the performance was not so carefully considered.
Despite these very few notes, there are very few negatives to take from this performance. It is so articulate, reasoned and intellectual that any further remarks I do have remain simply pedantic, such as keep the action to the parameters of the stage (when a stage is so clearly outlined, it is bizarre to have the body exit it at any point like Wilson’s legs often did when she was sat far downstage). Honestly, a very thought-provoking and intelligent piece of theatre.