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[Performance Analysis:] STILL LIFE WITH ONIONS, Barons Court Theatre, London.

Rob Burbidge's text has a certain lyricism and fluidity, demonstrating well the writer's ability to generate flowing dialogue. I would first recommend greater differentiation in the style of speech of each individual character. The most notable trait in this regard is Susan's (Naomi Bowman) loquaciousness, her character surely possessing the vast majority of the lines. Burbidge has captured well Susan's ability to ramble confidently and incessantly, without the subject matter she presents becoming esoteric or too irrelevant, and to domineer conversations with a playful and feeling but self-assured attitude. The other characters, however, remain markedly indistinct. Beyond second-party references to Joanna's (Olivia Steele) "Hampshire poshness" and Behrman's (Christopher Kouros) nationality, there are no idiolectal peculiarities to the characters, and this would be most fruitful to explore.

As the text progresses, however, it is most notably character development and plot that need refining. Despite this lingering on Susan's rambling, or on the atmospherics of the characters' context, the overall plot is incredibly rushed — to such a degree that the text quickly becomes rather shallow, hyperfixated upon symbolic references and specific allusions to moments or persons in the character's memories and anecdotes of their past [Tommy for Susan, a childhood paint set for Joanna, etc.]... Whilst these minor features become the text's primary focus, major developments, however, remain always left to our imagination. This culminates in the extremely sudden [and thus not too credible] development of Joanna's pneumonia — and her just-as-sudden, miraculous overnight recovery — and, immediately afterwards, Behrman's death. 

I use the word ‘plot’ in this analysis lightly, as I do not mean to imply that in order for a play to be successful, it must have an intricate, captivating and powerful plot…I simply mean that the plot content should feel deliberate, articulate and precise. I enjoy the stasis, or rather stagnancy, that we find the characters in, and should the plot pivot solely upon its characters' unchanging context and the near-death of its main character, there is no reason why this should not be enjoyable, coherent and efficacious. But this lack of pacing and, most importantly, of focus destroys any strong emotional connection with the characters for us. The symbolism of the wilting creeper and Behrman's masterpiece, Susan's shoes, etc., are all very strong symbolic references in themselves and have great intrinsic significance and value, but how this marries the content is just as important, and there certainly is a disconnect there.

One disconnect is in the incredible fact that all three characters are somehow artists. Whilst pre- and post-war times were certainly marked with rapid and widespread artistic movements, making this situation not too difficult to conceive, the apathy that this is presented with allows for a certain bluntness and clumsiness — Joanna and Behrman, both so fond of art, just accepting that they live beside one another, and Susan abruptly revealing that she has, somehow thanks to Joanna, taken up drawing ‘again’ to such a degree that she is now the breadwinner for the roost. We start with a tension between Joanna and Behrman, and suddenly it is revealed that she has been modelling for him for days now; after only their very first meeting, we see Susan kissing Joanna affectionately on the cheek [perhaps a directorial issue, though]; we have only just heard of the man that saved Joanna from the river, and David (Kieran Dobson) appears; David's somehow overlooked misogynist remarks, leaving Joanna to want to marry him after only three, quite unspecial, encounters… These elements, of which there are many more, all compromise the integrity and credibility of the text. 

Without this pacing and precision in character/plot development, I am sad to report that the play felt rather skeletal, leaning more into atmosphere, symbolism and context than into character depth and relatability. This feeling was especially strong once Joanna was on her deathbed and Susan and Behrman were arguing incessantly, the very language of the play being reduced to slurs and angsts that felt in their lack of idiosyncrasy that they could have been uttered by anyone and not uniquely by our particular characters here.

Characterisation is quite good from each of the actors, though I would similarly suggest better pacing for Bowman, who loses melody in delivery, which is most important for her babbling character, and who stumbles over and misdelivers lines frequently. Intensity behind argumentation is severely lacking across all of the relevant cast members. I commend Steele for the characterisation of Joanna's illness, forcing deep and chesty coughs and continuing to present her character’s mental distress even in her sleep, so that we were presented a fever dream of sorts and not just a still, resting body that could have easily faded into the background. Deliveries of epistolary sequences are in desperate need of refinement, however, both where acting and performance style are concerned.

“An atmospheric play rife with symbolism but needing better focus, pacing and depth.”


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