[Review:] RED PITCH, Bush Theatre, London.
This is a wonderful and endearing play performed by talented budding actors. A definite treat.
All three actors have a great command over their roles, aware of their characters’ intentions, feelings and objectives, and supplementing each with wonderful idiosyncrasies, peculiarities and traits. There is, however, quite a significant lack of naturalism in their performances, which is a skill that will doubtlessly come with time, but this does see a great deal of inappropriate delivery. I shall not provide an exhaustive list of examples but just one: after an argument between Omz (Francis Lovehall) and Bilal (Kedar Williams-Stirling) about how Bilal is “always cappin’”, Bilal replies with, “Now you’re cappin’!” This should be delivered with the emphasis on you’re, as this refers to this recent argument; Williams-Stirling, however, places his emphasis on the word ‘cappin’’. Moments like this are constant throughout and need to be addressed. Externally, these performers have solidified their roles well, but further attention must be given to intent during delivery. Comedic moments, however, are handled expertly and with great precision — I think to Emeka Sesay’s (playing Joey) quick cheeky protrusion of the tongue when Joey is commended by Omz for his ‘standing up against Bilal’, or to the portrayal of Joey and Omz’s explosive derision of Bilal, mocking him as he denies his love interest in a girl. The performers’ excellent expressivity and vigour are most useful in moments like these.
As for the dramatic text itself, this is a very poignant and resonant text, dealing with gentrification, systemic change and the upheaval of homes and symbolic and physical territories. To present this through the eyes of a trio of teenage boys trying to navigate their perspectives and those of their friends whilst also trying to establish and settle into their oncoming futures is a most refreshing and fruitful context to offer us. Characters are wonderfully developed, and each has a clear psychology, traits and particularised desires. Tensions between the characters, particularly towards the end of the play, are also structured and built wonderfully. I would just pay attention to excessive attempts at communicating culture and dialect: having ‘bro’ at the end of every sentence is one example of such superfluity and of a stark and undesirable deviation from natural everyday speech patterns.
Stylistically, this is an unsteady performance, seeing a clunky mixture of enclosed action, direct audience address and stylised movement. I shall start with this latter, seen only in transitions. These transitions are completely different stylistically to the rest of the performance, not only in consideration of this movement type but also of the harsh blue/white washes that flood the stage (lighting design by Ali Hunter) and the R&B songs that are played overhead (sound design by Khalil Madovi). The contrast is stark, and we need time as an audience to settle into this new context, but sufficient time is simply not permitted. Sound is cut prematurely, lighting snaps back to its original state, and the actors continue as though nothing has happened. This is an example of a frustrating theatrical convention where creatives intend to invoke a sense of climax, with these tense and dramatic sequences sandwiching each and every scene. These transitions should be re-examined, and timing should be reconsidered. Sound should fade appropriately and not finish suddenly mid-lyric.
There is only one effective transition in this performance, as regards stylistic fluidity, and this is after we are presented with a sequence wherein Omz imagines himself as a successful football player. Standing Centerstage, lit by a fading spotlight, Lovehall is still as the music fades, and Sesay slowly approaches, easing him out of his fantasy. This is most successful. An exemplary movement from stylised transition to naturalistic performance.
I should note: this is not to say that the material with which we are presented in these transitions is not successful in itself; it certainly is and reveals those inner, personal objectives and desires of our much-beloved characters. I have an issue solely with style and presentation. In fact, these stylised movements, for the most part, are wonderfully executed by each of the performers, each having a great corporeal awareness and excellent expressivity. Their abundant energy and vitality make the busier transitions — seeing Lovehall and Williams-Stirling, in particular, running across the stage or enacting their training — all the more appealing. Lighting and sound designs are also faultless here; it is merely how we move from one state to another that is fallible and unrefined.
As I have written countless times, metatheatre does not engage the audience in the world of the play; instead, it forces them to consider the artificiality of the performance space and their relationship to it and to other audience members. As soon as the performance is “opened up” to the audience, they become intensely self-aware and detached from the material. Any audience member during this party scene, which sees the trio interact excessively with the audience, would have certainly felt connected with the performers, but not their characters. Such a disruption of an otherwise completely enclosed narrative leads to a semiotic and stylistic disconnect. This is not warranted or useful in this performance, nor is an apologetic gesture to an audience member who has just been lightly nudged with the football — however, extra measures should be taken to make sure that this does not happen again, for this breaches the separating border between the performance space and the audience’s territory, to no end but severe distraction. With such effort having gone into pretending to be unaware of the audience as they enter during the overture, these scarce but severe moments of direct address are all the more questionable.
I should mention here also that the performers handle this overture incredibly well. For well over fifteen minutes, these performers remain engaged in their respective activities, busy and preoccupied. This is most commendable.
In terms of the set (designed by Amelia Jane Hankin), its simplicity is most facilitative and effective, communicating not only the concrete brutality of the characters’ hometown but its pre-development ‘stagnancy’ or stasis as well. To have the entire performance set on the pitch is most symbolic and evocative of our characters’ fixations, and this is intensified by the final symbol of the worn-down, half-deflated football that sits Centerstage in a shrinking spotlight at the end of the performance — a beautiful image. Other minimal props and elements are just enough to allude to the world beyond the pitch, such as the graffiti around the low walls of the stage, or the Morley’s takeaway bag. However, I would just recommend further detailing: a light touching of oil to add realism to this bag, for example, or carvings into the bricks and further weathering to add texture, age and even more history. A final note: this flat and vacant stage allows for a great facilitation of physical activity and for a heightened focus on the characters swamped by their hometown’s imagined expanse. Overall, very successful visuals here.