[Review:] THE REFUGE, Barons Court Theatre, London.
The Refuge provides its audience with an intriguing gothic tale of mystery, love, betrayal and murder. Its potential certainly remains very promising, but there are many refinements that need to be made in order to make this performance richer and more compelling.
I shall start with plot. There is a huge inconsistency in the focus of this text. Clare’s (Sheena May) relationship with Paul (Jason Denyer) and Paul’s affair with Emma (Catherine Allison) remain the focal points of the plot throughout, yet this is complicated by the over-inclusion of other content. There is simply too much material aiming to be crammed into a single one-hour performance, and this means that material remains rushed, impetuous, unfinalised and open-ended, overall, and that these original focal points lose their credibility and significance. Both story and narrative become convoluted and unfocused in this way.
One predominant reason for this confusion of content is the inclusion of gothic material. At first, gothic elements are simply stylistic, contextualising and informing both the material and our readings of it: bad weather conditions; eerie, secluded and treacherous geographies; etc. However, once Clare sets foot in the hotel, these elements become less evocative and stylistic, and more integral to the story. We find that the hotel is haunted, and Clare is repeatedly teased by the presence of spirits, the sound of their scratchings and the tellings of their hauntings. I imagine that this theme of haunting is to demonstrate that Clare is still haunted by her reckless, murderous actions of the past, but, if this is, indeed, the case, this is most inarticulate, as it is not Clare that is haunted, per se, but, rather, the hotel itself.
The fact that the hotel is haunted is something oft-repeated amongst the characters and implied most notably by Emma who remembers ghost-hunting guests who once came to stay, readily equipped to set up cameras around the building. In this way, the haunting remains unparticularised, generic, unspecific to Clare and her situation or past. In other words, the haunted hotel is simply another [irrelevant] feature of the text, a simple eerie location to house the more important action. Yet, this is complicated when the scratching that Clare has been hearing [for an unreasonable and unrealistic period of time for such a short message] is revealed upon a slate in the corner of a room to be the sound of a message being written, supposedly by the haunting spirit: ‘GET OUT’.
This theme of haunting loses its title as a mere ‘theme’, and haunting becomes a concrete and unignorable event in the story. Then, a real ghost, an apparition of Tom’s brother (Peter Jeffries), is revealed — another event, only, this time, one which brings us to the end of the narrative, one which has a palpable impact on the story, jerking Clare’s memory of her reckless driving, and closing the play. Yet, what relationship does Tom’s brother’s ghost have to the spirit which haunts the hotel? To our knowledge: none. It is a mistake to think that the trivial and negligible theme of ghost hauntings specific to the setting of the hotel contextualises this final apparition which will have such a decisive role in the story; the two are completely unrelated beyond mere motif. And this is without mentioning how awkward and unimpressive this apparition scene is, with Jeffries simply standing still in Tom’s brother’s red shirt, his hair across his face. More imagination is necessary here.
Beyond the doubtful inclusion of ghosts, we are left with an array of unclosed material, of questions that are not born out of intrigue and suspense but out of incompletion or inconsistency of plot: Why did Emma switch to helping Clare after agreeing to murder her? Her reasoning, that she did not know what Paul was capable of, seems unrealistic considering that she knew Paul had murdered Emma’s father. And why did he kill her father in the first place? Why is the hotel haunted and by whom? This, one would imagine, would be of particular importance to divulge. What is the significance of the photo album that Molly shows Clare, and of the people in these photographs? This seems completely unnecessary, a most unprogressive, needless and, frankly, boring scene. Had Clare passed the café before or not? It remains both ill-communicated and unlikely that Clare would have been to the town before, given that there is nothing there for her. What is the money that Paul has been swindling Clare even for? Perhaps these all have profound and detailed answers in the creators’ minds, but to an audience, these items together simply seem highly convoluted and far-fetched, unsubstantiated and rash.
The question remains: is this a ghost story or a story about heartbreak, deception and murder? Again, the focal points throughout this play remain the relationship and the affair, meaning that the ending leaves us with a great sense of dissatisfaction. These focal points are simply discarded for the solving of a murder in which we have rather little interest. Emma is just left behind at the hotel; Paul is dead; and Emma is a murderer… It seems as though this longevitous buildup of deceit, betrayal, lust and love is compromised by these hasty events, as though a certain shock factor was wrongly favoured in lieu of coherency and continuity. To end with exposing Clare as Tom’s brother’s murderer signifies that we are desired to think of this murder as the crux of the story. Then, why does this feature so little in the plot?
The various, disparate materials which constitute this text make for a very confused reading, but that is not to say that they are all terrible in themselves. The ideas are there, however unpolished they are, and definitely have the potential to combine well. For this reason, I would urge a complete reworking and fine-tuning of the text, making sure that all of the elements presented function alongside one another, that all scenes and characters have relevance and significance, that nothing is discardable or negligible. I would also recommend extending this play so as to allow the various materials to breathe and mature, to give them enough time to take their full effect; or, I would recommend deleting features completely, acknowledging that these will not work in tandem with one another without clever and in-depth revision.
The acting in this performance, I am afraid, ranges from mediocre to good, with Jeffries and Eliza McClelland remaining the most convincing and invigorated performers. I must say that I was particularly disappointed with Denyer who remains utterly unconvincing and unenergised. Once he is exposed as a cheat, Paul’s insincerity should be stressed not only through our understanding of events but through Denyer’s portrayal of him. We should be able to read deceit and manipulativeness in Denyer’s speech and gestures; instead, he remains just as wooden and ungiving as before. This problem is shared with Allison when her character, Emma, suddenly and unpersuasively changes sides to help Clare escape. The lack of energy, of desperation, makes the sudden switch seem unconvincing; in fact, it makes it seem as though part of a plan, a trap, and when this proves not to be the case, the effect is most underwhelming.
There is a certain stasis in performativity amongst the majority of the cast, a lack of vigour, zest and passion. It is the text that does most of the work for these, dare I say, rather lifeless actors. Beyond physicality, there is the lack of naturalism in the delivery of lines as well as the stumbling over lines which occurs just enough times to be noticeable and irksome. Notably, all of this is not just a histrionic issue but one editorial (writing by Lynne O'Sullivan) and directorial (Gigi Robarts as director) as well. There should never, unless deliberate, be an extensive amount of stillness or calmness in a play, and this text and its direction make for a particularly fixed and unvarying setup.
As for technical components, I must note that sound is particularly awful. It remains far too synthesised and loud, not to mention limited to only one side of the stage, and this is most subtractive. I mentioned earlier that the time given to the sound of the spirit’s scratching is unreasonable considering the short message produced, and sound plays a huge role in this, with the scratching being noticeably fast. Surely, the message, completed with such speedy ease, would be finished in no time. This is a good representation for the lack of realism in sound. Music, however, complemented transitions and faded appropriately. I would have liked the lighting to have gone easier on the blackouts, but I note that this is somewhat due to the lack of imagination in the writing, with power cuts being an overused item.