[Review:] OUR LAST FIRST, The Union Theatre, London.
This review will consider Our Last First, written by Lucinda Coyle, directed by Stanley Walton and staged at The Union Theatre.
I should note before I start that this review cannot speak conclusively of this performance and its potential, given that it makes use of a rotating cast, each actor playing a different character each night. On the night I saw this performance, Aitch Wylie played “A”, Louis Raghunathan played “B”, Jonathan Case played “Sibling”, Tazmyn-May Gebbett played “Friend”.
I shall first start by commending Coyle for managing to produce a text that is purely gender-neutral, allowing the performers to rotate in this manner with no effect on our reading of the core text whatsoever. With the only nuance being a reference by A that B’s parents may not accept them because “You know…”, followed by a marking gesture, this text permits a reading that focuses solely on the spiritual identities of and shared love between the characters. The reason this text is so successful in itself is that it allows for an emphasis on character emotion and feeling over physical characteristics, subscription to social codes or, of course, gender and sexuality, thus enabling a more sentimental audience engagement and a sharper emotional response. Rotations of this kind also inherently cause the ensemble to focus on the characters’ independent identities and how they might convey these appropriately and ‘authentically’, and not on how they can make the characters ‘their own’. Conceptually, then, a very clever text, and direction does this justice, for the most part.
However, this is not to say that this is a perfect text. Momentum is certainly an issue, most notably from the middle of the play onwards. The worst scene for unwanted slowed momentum is the scene wherein Sibling first comes to visit. We do not gain anything from this scene at all; it is completely negligible. Sibling interacts almost exclusively with A, with their introduction to us through an exchange with B and the few subsequent exchanges these two do have not being sufficient to make this scene worthwhile. The two principal reasons for this scene are 1) to demonstrate not only Sibling and B’s newfound bond but how immediately B is welcomed into A’s family and how an outsider can also confirm B’s pleasantness and amicability, to further our respect of them, and 2) to allow for a stark contrast when B’s closest friend is the complete opposite, unwelcoming and revelatory of B’s negative side. Only the latter aim is met, and even this is weak. I do think this scene could have a significant function, but, as it currently stands, I would either completely rework this scene or remove it altogether.
Overall, speech as written in this dramatic text does not reflect natural patterns. The language A and B use is somewhat monotonal, with bantering exchanges, jokes and allusions constituting nearly the entirety of their interactions, and registers remain slightly formalised until very late in the play. With these items persisting almost throughout, it is easy to read these characters as merely superficial representations, emphatic and artificial in their delivery for mere comedic effect. Despite the content of their speech, its rather overt and somewhat poetic [i.e. repetitive, rhythmic] structure and style allow for a reading that these characters are not as entirely connected and close as we would imagine, still on the cusp between friends and new lovers. However, because this is consistent, and because of the credibility of the actors, any negative effect of this is diminished –– still palpable, but diminished. What is more, this “banter” that Coyle has constructed is certainly endearing and comedic and hence worthwhile.
Another item that diminishes any negative effect of this style of speech is the veritable chemistry between Wylie and Raghunathan, from minute details to lingering touch as the actors part to overt expressions such as hugging and the entwining of the legs when sitting down beside one another. Intimacy coordinator Katharine Hardman has done a wonderful job here.
As for portrayal, noting again that I can only comment on the specific cast arrangement I saw, I remain particularly impressed by Wylie’s characterisation. Wylie demonstrates great emotional range, particularly insofar as rage and distress, as perceptible in later scenes. They also demonstrate great expressivity and vitality. Credibility could certainly be improved, but I must put this down to the unnaturalism within the dramatic text itself. Wylie remains distinctly clear on their character intent and feeling and portrays A beautifully, overall. I do, however, remain irked by their lack of extremity in physicality when they portray what I can only strain to infer to be a drunk A. I want to see a lot more expression, general weakness and fluidity in the body, slurring when speaking, etc. I could only tell that A was drunk from the content of the dramatic text itself.
Raghunathan is an adequate performer and portrays his role well, but his expressivity somehow decreases as the performance goes on, exposing a minimal emotional range. We are supposed to be feeling an increase in drama, emotion and tension as the play goes on, and this is simply not reflected in Raghunathan’s portrayal of B. I must say, however, that sorrow and vulnerability are expressed rather well. Overall physicality and delivery are good but need to be fine-tuned in order to produce more coherency across character developments and a better sense of climax, especially given that the events of the play will have such an extreme toll on his character.
Gebbett is a good performer insofar as expressivity, diction and vitality, but her portrayal of Friend rather approximates a caricature, as opposed to a character, making her profile feel intensely disjointed from the others. This transformativity, whilst the mark of a dynamic performer, must be better refined so that her character feels more natural and cohesive with the more understated characters offered by the other performers.
Case is certainly very convincing in his role. He demonstrates great expressivity, timing, emotionality and energy. He does, however, struggle with giving the other performers eye contact, it seems, when he is delivering his lines directly to them, most notably in his first scene. Perhaps this is deliberate, in an attempt to convey his character’s awkwardness around A’s new partner, but this should be accentuated and feel more voluntary if this is, indeed, the case. Again, naturalism is a significant issue, but I must put this down to the text.
I noted above that this first scene with Case lacked momentum due to editorial issues, and Gebbett’s first scene with A and B is equally, nay more, underwhelming but for a very different reason: music choice (sound design by Lily Blundell). Music is too loud in this scene, nearly drowning the performers out [and I was in the front row so had sufficient proximity to hear them well], and it is also completely incongruous stylistically with the material presented. Relaxing piano music, rather equating to the music of a deep relaxation CD or an aquarium fails to sets the tone for what should be a fast-paced and tense scene, completely at odds with Gebbett’s rapid and uninterrupted delivery.
I should also note that writing is far from perfect in this scene, too. Introductions of developments in B’s character, their loyalty and transparency, are far too deliberate, overt and overstated. Coyle must rework this scene so as to reveal these facts delicately, insidiously and not so hastily. Personally, I would either remove the detail about B’s favourite drink being a banana milkshake or make it an earlier revelation, as this feels much less intense than precedent revelations. By this mention, the sheer number of details we have received rather start to feel like overkill.
On to aesthetics, with set design by Beth Colley, assisted by Ana Webb-Sanchez. Unfortunately, I must say that this is a somewhat unattractive performance, with set pieces feeling disparate and eclectic. The LED-lit kallax unit, the diffferent-coloured chairs, the red and brown blocks, the large-wheeled chest…it is simply suffocative and feels random, mismatched. Simplicity is key, and I see no reason as to why the creatives could not have settled for a more simplistic set design. Admittedly, the design is rather minimalist, but the pieces and props that are used are overly abundant. This hoarder’s collection, as best I can describe it, also makes for incredibly clunky set changes in transitions, with an almost total rearrangement of the set with every scene. This is unappealing and slows momentum considerably. I should also mention the needless spikes upon the stage floor that are completely neglected as actors loosely reposition the set pieces that ought to be in their place. The set is not complex enough to warrant these, and their disuse makes their unseemly presence all the more unnecessary. These should be removed.
On the topic of transitions, lighting states (designed by Daniel Maxted) during these should be far dimmer, and only performers who are in the following or preceding scene should deal with changes of the set. To consistently have Gebbett and Case rushing onto the stage to completely transform the set before we have even been introduced to their characters, only to leave through the audience, is most distracting, messy and confused. And this is without mentioning Case’s distractive, energised and dancerly movements as he briskly enters the stage, or Wylie and Raghunathan needlessly re-entering the stage immediately after leaving to feebly retouch the other’s work, often bumping into one another or exchanging a quick glance or touch. No. Movements during transitions in performances like this should be neutral, sterile and absolutely necessary. Needles actions like this latter consume stage time and are visually unappealing.
I mentioned the issue of Gebbett and Case being on stage when their presence is unnecessary, and this is true of the overture and outro as well, as the actors, all scattered across the stage, sit amongst each other, interacting happily, relaxed, convivial. This is strange, considering the dissonance between the characters we will see and have seen throughout. I do understand that these are supposed to be the re-imagined characters in B’s head, but such a reading comes at a push. In fact, I do rather disfavour the manner in which these scenes reveal B as a writer of and reflector on this story; they are not only corny but also inconsistent with the performance style offered elsewhere throughout. The unnaturalistic speech of the characters, not an overly irksome element elsewhere, is intensified in these scenes, such that these scenes feel overly stylised and completely unrealistic. This remaining a chiefly self-contained performance, making no effort to “break the fourth wall” and acknowledge the audience, B should pay better attention to the ambit of his gaze; too regularly does he look directly into the audience, his attention grabbed by occurrences within the house. This needs to be addressed. The audience do not exist; do not behold them.
Negatives out of the way, this remains a wonderfully conceived and, for the most part, well-exeucted performance. Performers are thoroughly engaging; the dramatic text is coherent, well-structured and well-developed; and Coyle and Walton’s creative methodology helps these items to shine through. A very enjoyable performance.