[Review:] HOW TO SAVE A LIFE, The Cat’s Back, London.
Produced by Glass Half Full Theatre and written and directed by Stephanie Silver, How to Save a Life is a delightful and evocative play.
I will start with the text itself. Though on the edge of unoriginality, this play-text poignantly offers the perspective of a young female cervical cancer sufferer. Its stark turn from comedy to tragedy, and its regular failed attempts to revert back to this former style, echo poignantly the morbid reality of such a devastating illness. The main character of this play texturises the dramatic text in such a way that the content feels fresh, contemporary and rewarding. The deliberate feminist, youthful, hopeful and liberating features of this performance recontextualise an otherwise overplayed macabre motif into a modern sociopolitical sphere. I would note, however, that for this particular play, this feminist narrative was most successful when normalised within the text and not when directly [and loudly] communicated and self-referential. The cyclicality of this plot was also endearing.
The only tedious aspect of this text, really, was its mechanical returns to a declining joy. There were too many instances where a happy dance, a romantic moment, or a joyful dialogue became the site of collapse and failure. This reduced the impact of the final, physical collapse where we see Melissa (Heather Wilkins) drop to the floor in exhaustion. In fact, I did find the ending of this play a little lacklustre, not only for the lack of finalisation – did Melissa die or not? Although, this information is not so essential to know, and its absence could actually generate greater intrigue — but for Wilkins's line, "They're going to miss me." I found this to be a very strange and punchless way to end the performance, flipping the otherwise consistent first-person perspective at the very last minute. This statement actually came across as rather conceited, which was not, I imagine, the desired effect… It is worth noting here Toby's (Colin Hubbard) reactions to Melissa's "smelly vagina" and cancer reveal. These moments are in need of reworking, I feel, as they present him as aggressive and uncaring, which ultimately inhibits any empathy or admiration of him — moments like these are why this ending statement felt so punchless for me.
As for characterisation, Wilkins's portrayal of Melissa was stunning. Her energy and physicality were superb. Every line and every movement was convincing, powerful and cogent. Definitely a formidable actress. My only criticism is that she perhaps appeared rather uncomfortable in the last of the embraces with Hubbard, leaning backwards, away from him. This is perhaps something slight to take note of, but faults were very few in this actress's performance. Both Hubbard and Katerina Robinson (playing Maria) were very comical and transformative, though Hubbard is perhaps in danger of becoming too farcical in his multiple characterisations; his energy is perhaps too protrusive in moments where props or costume signify a role change alone. Nonetheless, a coherent and endearing performance from the both of them.
I should mention here that freeze-frames and tableaux vivants are often quite primitive in their execution; however, I must say, in this performance, these were quite complementary, organising the space well and successfully and rapidly drawing focus to the actors. I would be careful as to how much character is visible in these freeze frames, however; for example, when Hubbard serves as a plug socket, it seems strange for him to have a masculine, cocky pose as opposed to taking a neutral position, though interactions/reactions (confusion as he takes the plug, for example) would be comical here.
As for tech, I have mixed feelings. Overall, including the rocky beginning, where music stammered quite harshly, I feel that the tech really let this performance down, taking away from its vigour and fluidity. I was aware that this performance was attempting to make a leitmotif with the chosen song, but this was not communicated too effectively. The reason for this was that music was used in-between scenes where transitions were far too short and quick. This meant that by the time the music had settled into the performance, it was time to turn it off again. Music is only essential for long transitions, set changes and sequences of physical movement.
A similar effect occurred with the lighting which often found itself bouncing between two simple yet boldly contrasting states: a wash would be abruptly replaced by a more intense one, whilst the image on stage had not yet changed. This change was unwarranted and visually dissatisfying. A sudden lighting change like this should be accompanied by a rapid and conspicuous change in action. Instead, I would recommend a wash from two angles and a simple and timely fade to move between these, which would have made transitions smoother. Fading would have signified a smoother passing of time or transition and would have allowed the audience a moment to breathe. I am sure that the music also intended to serve as a moment of reflection and recreation, which was well deserved given the text-heaviness of this play, but it was simply much too short a transition for this. Instead, it was simply yet another thing for the audience to tune into. The tech, in conclusion, could do with drastic editing. There are far too many cues, both for sound and lighting, and this severely distracts from, nay extinguishes, the vitality of the performance.
As with tech, props approached superfluity, each only being used once or twice at maximum. However, the comedy surrounding these made this abundance excusable, if not enjoyable, adding yet another texture to this performance. Costume was well-chosen for party-animal Maria but seemed only slightly indicative of character for the other two. I am aware that Hubbard's costume was probably neutral for multi-roling purposes, but the lab coat and glasses would have made this sufficiently readable. Though a bittersweet signifier of Melissa's joy, visuals like 'Doctor' written upon Hubbard's lab coat in glitter seemed excessive, especially when visible from the beginning, hanging over the back of the chair, centerstage, as this hinders any comedic value in its 'reveal'.
With such little performance space, performances like these can often become rather static, but this was not the case for this play. Actor presence and the strength of the writing filled the space with sufficient imaginative capacity. It is clear as to why this play, a true sweet treat, has been selected to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe.