[Review:] SKIN IN THE GAME, Studio at New Wimbledon Theatre, London.
This review will consider Skin in the Game, a new play by Gill Kirk, directed by Sarah Gain and currently being staged at the New Wimbledon Studio.
This is a very confused performance, completely unsure of its style, voice, performer-audience relationship and aims. Whilst I cannot say that I was confounded by the overall plot, as five separate audience members said they were, I do remain perplexed as to why such disparate theatrical techniques are placed together in this performance in the manner that they are and by certain discontinuities in the plot.
I shall start with acting. Whilst expressivity is certainly commendable in this performance, for all but Kristin Duffy (playing Elizabeth) until the second act [I shall elaborate below], transformativity and conviction are simply nonexistent. Each of the actors has an opportunity to demonstrate their transformative talents in portraying multiple characters, and none but Eden Avital Alexander (playing Tyny and Troll) deliver. With more conviction certainly still possible, Alexander’s transformativity is most favourable, as she distinguishes her characters well, each having their own distinct profiles. I would just recommend that she work on ensuring more variation in voice. Ed Theakston (playing Mike and the Bumblebee) is the next most transformative, but only for his portrayal of the Bumblebee versus his principal character; all of his other characters, he distinguishes extremely poorly.
Diction is notably an issue for Alexander and Duffy, and this should certainly be addressed. Lines are delivered too early far too often by quite a few performers, and almost all performers slip up on them regularly throughout. Delivery styles hover unstably between realistic and exaggerative, allowing for a stylistic inconsistency. Partially a technical issue at first, with music being too loud and in competition with the voices of the performers, these performers each struggle to understand the difference between projection and shouting. It is simply uncomfortable to listen to their straining voices. All of these items must be urgently addressed.
All performers demonstrate great vitality and energy throughout; however, there is a notable increase in these as the performance progresses, and not in a naturally climactic and progressive manner as one would expect. Their caricatures becoming more and more invigorated and overdramatic, culminating in the completely otherworldly and fictive creatures of the Troll, the human-sized Bumblebee and the Big Beast (Craig Talbot), performers' delivery and performance styles become completely unrecognisable by the end, allowing for extreme discontinuity. It is impossible to marry the first and second acts, not only for style but also for content.
On the topic of the Big Beast, I must note Talbot’s character changes between this and the character of Danny, as seen in the second act. These are terribly sloppy, with Talbot rushing back and forth across the stage, struggling to take off and put back on his jacket and his mask, and attempting [most fallibly] to hide behind Duffy as he is [failing at] changing his costume. Worth noting as well is the unnecessary and rather counterproductive help that Talbot receives from Nick Biadon (playing Bob) who randomly comes on stage merely to present and hold his jacket for him, an actor who should not be present in these scenes. Finicky and unrefined details like these make this performance seem all the more disordered and ill-communicative, and with the poor attempts to conceal this failing display, the action we see does not feel deliberate but simply unskilled and unprofessional. If these moments have to be included – and I emphasise that they do not – and there is already a caricatural/comedic and metatheatrical tone to the performance, why attempt to hide these costume changes? Why not show us Talbot struggling to get into his next costume, awkwardly calling upon Biadon’s help, rushing, out of breath, to deliver his next line? Again, I would not include this at all, personally, but this would be an effective, more visually pleasing and, above all, more stylistically coherent manner of presenting this action.
This performance struggles to decide whether or not to take itself seriously in this manner, and the main contributor to this is the attempt at naturalism offered by Elizabeth’s character and her interactions with the others. Except for during her dream sequence, Elizabeth is serious, chastising; her spiels about Danny and his complots are long-winded, and she expresses herself exhaustively and overly articulately. This opposes the absolutely unserious and comedic portrayals from Theakston and Alexander, for example, or the exaggerative physical movement sequences that constitute the introduction to Danny’s game show. And then, suddenly, Elizabeth is living her sexual bestial fantasy, suspended from the ceiling of a cave, markedly performative and expressive. Even within this singular portrayal, then, we find a duality of disparate performance styles. Is she to be taken seriously by the audience or not? Is this a mere comedy, or are we meant to earnestly appreciate tension, conflict and suspense? Our reading is most confused by these elements. What is more, after being so heavily caricaturised in this dream sequence, half-woman, half-plant, Elizabeth then returns to her former, serious self, and we are merely to forget the Troll, the Big Beast and the Bumblebee and to ponder about their very significance in this performance. In this way, character profiles are completely confused and underdeveloped.
Including such absurd and exaggerative elements like this is not inherently ineffective and fallible, but the material offered in this performance, despite the fact that its story is set in a fictional dystopian and post-apocalyptic future version of Earth, remains rational until what I shall refer to as ‘Elizabeth's dream sequence'. Material from this point onward seems to exist independently to that which we have been presented thus far and to which we will later nonchalantly return. Whilst Alexander's portrayal of the Troll is notably comedic and effective, it is extreme in its dramatic style and zoomorphic physicality. It is completely incongruous with what we have seen thus far, with the most outlandish feature relative to it since the very beginning of the performance being the so-called "Mud Babies" – and these were notably portrayed by non-performing inanimate objects. Either the first act should be drastically transformed in order to equate the style of the second, or vice versa. Personally, I would have rather watched a performance consisting of these second characters alone, but alas…
The idea of a game show host running the world as we now know it is an engaging and promising premise, if slightly unoriginal, but the battle between Elizabeth and Danny is completely lacklustre. Again, dialogues surrounding Danny's complot is written very poorly, overly serious and long-winded. With the ending being so sudden, it is easy to feel cheated of one’s time when nothing amounts from the chaotic material we have been presented. The death of these two characters – one of which (Elizabeth) we are not forced at all to care about – felt like a cheap way out for writer Gill Kirk who evidently had no idea how to end this performance impactfully.
As alluded to above, this performance employs metatheatricality quite regularly but fails to do so appropriately. The creatives are clearly unaware of its effect and fail to communicate its significance within their work. At the very beginning of the performance, performers sit amongst us as Talbot enters the stage, and we are encouraged to cheer and participate in Danny's game show, notably with direct address from the ensemble and with the instructions we receive via Biadon's placard prompts. This prepares us to be part of the action when, in reality, we will be immediately re-distanced as the fourth wall is rebuilt and the performance becomes self-contained. But even though we are encouraged like so to participate, the actors amongst us actually do our job for us, and when audience interaction is overly anticipated, Talbot does not look to us but to the performers. The effect of this is that we remain unsure as to whether or not we should be actively engaged, aware of the clamant performers amongst us. With Alexander then commending us for our good work, even singling one audience member out with an "Especially you! You were amazing!", our function, position and role within this performance as audience members are incredibly confused and ill-communicated. Are we merely spectators or participants?
Metatheatricality is then communicated through self-referential comedic movements, such as the self-mocking rowing sequence, wherein actors overtly pretend that they are rowing boats across the waters whilst scooting along on wheeled set pieces, and Biadon's subsequent miming that he is to swimming, a mime he performs lying down upon the floor. With ludicrous and overdramatic sequences, such as the group exercise that Danny leads early on in the performance, this play laughs at itself and invites us to do the same. It does not want to be taken seriously [so then, again, why the serious and sterile tone offered by Elizabeth?] and wants to remind us of the absurdity of performance itself with this self-mocking nature, but to what effect? We are needlessly distanced and to no avail, only to be later forced to consider this as a self-contained and serious play. In this way, this performance fails to communicate its aims and its relationship with its audience, and we are not informed at all throughout of what to take away from it.
What is more, these movements (movement direction by Jennifer Kay) are most unpolished, unfinalised, uncompleted. For example, in this aforementioned rowing sequence, performers do not convey the physical reality of being on a boat beyond merely a rowing motion and their rotation about the stage, and Talbot's drifting away is completely underplayed. Additionally, Biadon swims to Talbot's side and just stands up with no struggle of getting out of the water, finding his footing ‘on the ground’ exactly where he has just been swimming. Further exaggeration and clarity in these movements is needed. Then, we have the chaotic and ill-constructed sequence involving a cycle of images projected onto the screen above as characters encircle the stage, each supposedly in a different location. This is handled incredibly poorly, with images failing to match up with the characters and with the overall visual being far too disordered and clunky. It is simply too eclectic and, what is more, communicates that all characters are on some sort of journey when Elizabeth is, in fact, the only character on the move. A cheap montage.
This brings me on to aesthetics. The more elaborate digital collages (graphic animations by Mat Davies) projected onto the screen above, such as the depictions of the Big Beast’s Cave or the flooded city of London and its flood barriers, are well designed, if [deliberately, I hope] unrefined and distinctly photoshopped – this lack of hyperrealism is comical, though. However, these are in stark contrast with the minimalist animations such as the overhanging LED bar light, making for an inconsistent visual: the intricate and detailed vs the plain and simple. Animations like this latter also feel unnecessary and distracting, not adding to our reading or imagination whatsoever.
Set designed by Duffy and Theakston, the black bin bags Upstage and the rags hanging from the line Centerstage Left constitute a far better design in their simplicity, effectively evocative of the dingy, dirty post-apocalyptic city, but, together with the animations, make for an inarticulate and inconsistent aesthetic. Costume (also designed by Duffy) is equally incongruous with the performance’s themes and content. The characters are far too well put-together, their appearances retaining a sense of cleanness, elaborateness and decorativeness, regardless of their status in their society, as with Talbot’s costume and Theakston’s makeup, for example. Altogether, a highly confused visual.
A few minor criticisms to end with. There is no reason for technical stage manager Rori Endersby to be constantly entering and exiting the performance space; this performance is too simplistic to warrant such persistent attention. Each time I observed this individual, I noted that he was changing or adding absolutely nothing, aimlessly walking to the back of the stage, moving a theatrical property ever so slightly and then exiting again. This disillusions the space, reclaiming it as ‘real’, as the space of a functioning theatre and not the location of the world of the play, and this should be avoided. Finally, I must emphasise that if I had have paid for this performance, I would have been extremely dissatisfied. With tickets standing at £17.60, this is extremely overpriced for the technical simplicity and unspecialised talent offered here, and for this play's duration. Pricing must be urgently readdressed.
Overall, whilst individual aspects of this performance are comedic and endearing, they amount to very little all together, irrelevant to one another and confused. This performance fails to find its footing and to express its content and plot developments coherently. Creative as elements may be, their effects are not considered carefully enough. Drastic editing is needed.