Readers should note that the solo performer of this play shares his name with the main character. Therefore, to distinguish the two, mentions of ‘Alex’ will refer to the character, whereas ‘Alexander Millington’ or ‘Millington’ will refer to the actor himself.
This review will consider I Heart Michael Ball, a play written and performed by Alexander Millington and directed by Helen Millington.
One notably successful element of this performance is the manner in which it includes and relates to its audience. Prompting them to respond to specific questions and addressing them almost throughout, Millington allows the audience to feel engaged within the performance yet in such a way that their agency is limited and focused. This sets the audience up to feel connected to the material in some way and, more importantly, like active listeners, and, later, witnesses. This prompts a profounder visceral response to the harrowing aspects of the material; we feel somewhat responsible in allowing the torture to take place within an environment in which we have somewhat become active. However, I would recommend removing the section wherein an audience member is asked to read from the ‘minutes from the previous meeting’. This section is not only weak in its comedic material but also demands a different, intenser relationship between the audience and the work, an active participation which is not henceforth repeated. This leads to semiotic confusion and causes the audience to be unsure of their role, function and purpose within the performance. Alex asking an audience member to hold his mobile phone borders on having this same effect but is slightly more excusable in its lesser intensity. I would just recommend ensuring that the fake blood does not come into contact with the audience member’s hand upon retrieving it.
Admittedly, this was an audience of four people, and I myself can be a rather obstinate or difficult audience member, especially when it comes to audience interaction. Yet, despite these challenges, Millington maintained excellent vitality and confidence, approaching his role with exemplary conviction. Millington is a transformative and driven actor, certainly talented.
In his characterisation of Alex, Millington remains consistent, infusing his profile with a good number of idiosyncrasies. He demonstrates good vocal and corporeal expressivity and has formed an immediately comprehensible and accessible character, endearing and sweet. This is an excellent pretext for the plot’s harrowing developments, and I shall elaborate upon this below. However, Millington’s characterisation is slightly too caricatural. It is well-established yet univocal, repetitive: the soft-spokenness, the shyness. This is particularly true of the very beginning of the performance, which is, I must admit, incredibly poorly executed in its artificiality and clichéd representations. I would urge the actor to consider how he might develop more nuanced and varied traits, particularly when the material concentrates on the appreciation society, as opposed to on the telling of past traumas and memories. These sections are most notably slow and untextured.
With the audience having potentially no interest in Michael Ball, having so much time dedicated to talking about him during these appreciation society scenes is questionable. In fact, with no personal extensive knowledge of Michael Ball beyond some songs and musical theatre roles, and with no significant appreciation of his work, I personally found myself somewhat exasperated quite soon into the performance. I would recommend interweaving some personal element of the character into the vast majority of Michael Ball references, just as Alex does when talking about specific cassettes he possesses or memories he associates with particular songs, etc. This would force us to remember why we should have any interest in listening to Alex speak incessantly about his favourite celebrity: because we want to learn about the character and his story, why it’s important to him [as opposed to hearing a mere list of Michael Ball facts].
However, there is certainly a benefit to this long-windedness, and that is that we are forced to acknowledge and settle into the relatively calm and innocent environment, allowing later revelations to be intenser and more uncomfortable. Admittedly, I had imagined that some sort of murder or mutilation would be taking place, given the plastic sheets, the washing-up bowl full of water and the tea towel with which to dry the hands — the two latter of which not readily belonging in the setting we are offered, furthermore. However, I actually managed to forget their presence through Alex’s ramblings and overall sweet, innocent and vulnerable demeanour, and this is down to the efficacy of the text and Millington’s characterisation.
As for set design, a lot of effort has gone into filling the space, making it feel all the more authentic and natural, which both benefits this aforementioned calmness as well as the general illusion of the play. I would recommend keeping this bowl and towel out of sight and, actually, having Alex acknowledge the discomfort caused by and stickiness of the blood and leaving to retrieve them to clean his hands. This would make their presence far more natural and the reality of the play less conspicuous, if all we see upon entering the house is the plastic sheet. However, I would also recommend here investing in some kind of roll-up linoleum, which would tear less easily, thus protecting the stage more and feeling less cheap and amateurish in its visual appeal. It would, of course, be just as portable and would better blend in with the set design. The plastic sheet, as it stands, feels excessive, especially given that no blood should actually be directly shed onto it, emphasising that this is mostly to protect the stage floor and taking us out of the illusion of the play.
As for the first groans we hear from Alfie, these come in too early and are also poorly worked into the narrative. It feels too deliberate, with Millington’s lengthy pause and artificial acknowledgement of the sound. In fact, that all of the groans we hear should be played via overhead speakers is most destructive of illusion. The sound design is far too clean; the cries need to sound further muffled and distant. I would recommend placing the speaker backstage, so that the sound may come from the very room to which Alex flees to sort him out, as opposed to coming obnoxiously from the heavens and via surround sound.
Politically, I am unconvinced of the propriety of this performance, with Alfie Boe, a living person and public figure, being the victim of the crime we see in this play. This is particularly noteworthy, given that our main character shares the name with the writer and actor: Alex/-ander. It feels rather like a concealed death threat, as though because he is a celebrity he is exempt from the effects of an off-West End performance and thus untouchable. In this way, the material is rather inappropriate and too direct. I would recommend editing the text so that a friend or family member close to Alex wins a ticket, or is pulled up on stage or something of this nature, and sings with Michael Ball or has a unique VIP meet-and-greet experience, and that this torture be enacted upon this individual, instead, out of sheer jealousy and feelings of betrayal.