[Review:] SCAB, White Bear Theatre, London.
NB: The character played by Conor Lowson is never named in this text and so shall be referred to simply as 'Lowson's/his character' in this review.
Overall, this is a very impressive one-man performance written by Luke Stapleton and directed by Jamie Biddle. With a well-defined and coherent plot and characters, this play is wonderfully brought to life by performer Conor Lowson and his powerful, gripping and somewhat unique portrayal of our principal character.
Starting with the text itself. This play has a dark premise, yet, overall, the gorier, more graphic and more violent material is not merely sensationalist but complements the telling of this vivid and mysterious story. In this way, it has a distinct and intelligent voice. Admittedly, there is not a great number of events and developments in this performance, but the events we are presented are certainly sufficiently fleshed out to remain both substantial and intriguing. Stapleton has also developed a logical and coherent main character, and it is his emotional response to stimuli and his secondhanded experience of and almost flâneur-like interest in others and their circumstances that make this performance so engaging; we observe the dark and the enigmantic through his eyes. Stapleton also paces this performance very well, allowing for intrigue and a rise in suspense and tension, but there are still certain aspects of his text that signal discontinuity or unnaturalism — one example being that Lowson's character spends a good amount of time studying Omar's dog tag, holding it in his hands, and yet it is only towards the very end of the performance that he realises that Omar's name is engraved into it. Nevertheless, this remains a strong and logical story. Particularly strong in this text is the slow and careful manner in which information is revealed, with Stapleton providing his audience with allusions and fragments of information throughout, like playing catch ‘with his head’ or the ‘pineapples’. This former piece of information is particularly intriguing in its extremity, also consolidating theme and the text’s nature early on.
The audience's function within this performance, outlined by Lowson directly interacting and conversing with the audience, is facilitated excellently until the latter half of the text when they are slowly forgotten. This must be urgently readdressed. I imagine that these interactions are not written in the text, given their somewhat extemporaneous nature, but such ad libs, as successful as these initial ones are here, must consider how they combine with the rest of the material’s entirety. Interactions are first explicit and unnegotiable but soon turn nonexistent, and how we are addressed and what role we play —participants, witnesses, interlocutors, active listeners, etc. — must be consistent. With Lowson's character's speech becoming more and more enclosed and indirect, his relationship to us and our role as listeners becomes completely questionable, and it is easy to feel in this performance that the audience's presence is more and more neglected the deeper into this performance we get. We can observe a disjointedness of this nature when we consider Lowson's casual and natural entrance against the very stylised blackout ending. The character offered by the text and the one offered by Lowson are in direct conflict in this way [and in this way alone].
This brings me on to acting. Lowson is certainly a talented actor. He has a distinct ability to command the space, is confident, has excellent stage presence, and is energised and invigorated throughout his performance. His transformativity when portraying the various other characters that his encounters does, indeed, range from adequate to excellent, depending on the specific character represented, but representations are sufficiently distinguished such that this is not too severe an issue. Lowson has a good emotional range and corporeal expressivity, but whilst his diction is superb, I would just pay greater attention to volume. Without an abundance of theatrical properties and set pieces, the White Bear Theatre is quite an anechoic space, and this compromises somewhat Lowson's audibility, particularly when his delivery is directed to the opposite audience section. Lowson should work on slight adjustments to his vocal delivery in this way, increasing the volume of his voice accordingly, noting, of course, the difference between shouting and projecting.
Lowson demonstrates an excellent — actually, exemplary — awareness of his audience, overall, responding well to their movements and reactions as well as to the general atmospheres that consume the space itself. However, as the performance progresses, there surface undeniable moments wherein Lowson is focusing too much upon the audience’s potential response, as opposed to upon the life and psychology of the character and, where this is necessary in direct address, the audience’s actual response. It is clear that he increases his volume at times and performs swifter movements, becoming more erratic and even lunging towards audience members for the extra shot at a jump scare, all in an attempt to invoke emotion or shock within or to directly target audience members such that they remain invested and excited by the material. This sensationalist decision, most likely a directorial issue, quickly becomes rather cheap and ineffective and compromises to some noticeable degree the credibility and integrity of the performance. This is without mentioning that the actuality of the audience response is rather opposite to the intended one: it completely removes them from the material of the text, merely awakening self-preservative instincts and temporospatial awareness, both of which are needless in and subtractive from this performance.
A greater, less negligible problem is the excessive structuring of both the text and of Lowson's portrayal, the latter of which is concretised by the second half of the play. From halfway in, with every single clause and phrase, Lowson's intonation changes and he addresses the audience sections alternatingly, presenting a different emotion or tone with every turn of the body or lift and fall of the head. This becomes so structured, in fact, that it becomes entirely predictable and hence robotic, unnatural and overly rehearsed. It becomes clear in this way that Lowson is hyperfocusing on his delivery and his external representations as opposed to on the psychology of his character and his experiences.
As for the text itself, Stapleton relies far too heavily upon simlies in his writing, which are most effective at times, such as with the graphic descriptions of Keith's infected head wound [which does, unfortunately, reveal another discontinuity, given that nothing becomes of his head infection] or with the rather romantic and literary descriptions of his handcrafted wooden boat, but when these similes are used alongside every other description, especially when these descriptions are of fleeting moments and objects, their effect wears off, and the text feels monotonous, univocal and unimaginative stylistically. There are other aspects that are far too often repeated, too, and one worth mentioning is the use of the phrase 'with that': "With that, she disappeared", "With that, he was gone". Unless specific phrases like this are left peculiar or unique, illuminating the character's individualised idiolect, their constant repetition ought to be avoided.
On to staging and design. Biddle and Lowson have decided to keep Lowson's character sat down in one spot for the vast majority of the performance, and I believe this is an efficacious decision, drawing our attention away from needless spectacularities and towards this character and the material and specificities of the text alone. However, this intense focus type is another reason as to why the text itself must be sleek and refined in its communications, profound and entirely interesting. Whilst story and plot developments certainly are varied and engaging, Lowson’s lines become far too repetitive in the manner listed above, and repetition does not equate to profundity.
Whilst I find the alcohol in the back a good symbol and foreshadowing for the revelatory conversation to come with Keith about Omar's fate, the manner in which it is implemented into the performance is subtractive and underwhelming. It is clear that the creatives wished to break up the soliloquy, to give the audience a breather, but this respite should either be present in the written text itself or should feel relevant and necessary, not just for us but for Lowson’s character itself. Breaks should not feel deliberate but organic, not coming about because the character has finished this segment of the story but because he has become sensitive to an aspect of the story he is telling, for example, uncomfortable or confused, or perhaps he is excited about his story and wants to celebrate in some way, such that the drink is necessary to calm or free him. Including in these scene breaks, there are multiple instances throughout this performance where Lowson stands up, rather unnaturally, once even atop his chair, only to sit back down again almost immediately after, once the following line has been delivered in the aforementioned erratic manner. There is no clear and natural motivation behind these excessive movements, and I would recommend limiting his movements to the chair entirely. The creatives should not fear boring the audience with a sense of stasis or inertion. The alcohol itself could, and perhaps should, just be placed beside him, on the floor by the chair. His drinking it will still enable for the lengthy pause that getting up and walking over to the table at the back of the stage would permit. This is all without mentioning that the particular table upon which the bottle sits is also aesthetically jarring against the otherwise barren stage.
On to lighting (designed by Can Bitirim). Given its naturalistic style and the relaxed environment that this performance provides, the individual colours used in this design, beyond red, have little symbolic or logical relevance to the text. However, the manner in which lighting is combined cued and operated for this performance is otherwise clever and well-executed. States change gradually and almost unnoticeably throughout, and this complements the natural flow, momentum and themes of the text. I would just reconsider the fading of the blue and the green overhead lights Upstage Center towards the very end of the performance. These only seem to be able to fade in distinct and blatant phases and, in doing so, draw far too much attention to themselves. I would recommend their fade start much earlier, so that this staggered effect may be less noticeable, or that the lantern itself be replaced by something more suitable and discreet. Nevertheless, seamless operation by Bitirim.