In this review:
I have said before that compound theatre, performances composed of several playlets, seems to be one poignant way forward for the dramatic arts. Not only is the audience's attention span increased but an ability to present a wide range of performance styles and stories under one strong theme is engendered as well.
Before I begin this review, I must commend theatre production company Second Self's work in making this performance a reality. It is never easy to stage multiple plays, no matter how short each of them may be, and this should be recognised.
This particular production, The Twilight Hour, comprised six playlets. These include: 'Misfortune', 'Take the Wheel', 'Smart Home', 'The Human Touch', 'Pie in the Sky', and 'Can I Change My Mind?'. I shall start by reviewing the overall night and then each individual playlet one by one.
The Twilight Hour
I do not usually mention audience layout, but I feel that for this performance, this is necessary. For this performance, each audience member is given a laminated piece of paper with a number printed on it corresponding to a preassigned table in the auditorium. These tables are reminiscent of dining theatre. I am mentioning this because I felt that this not only created an unnecessary spatial narrative but also cluttered the auditorium, which was particularly problematic in moments where actors walked through the audience. Seat allocation, when done in this manner, is more suitable for didactic theatre or game theatre wherein audience layout plays a very particular role. The tables, whilst a nice idea, caused the house to seem hemmed-in. This was the same, or more so, for those sat on the raised platform at the back of the auditorium. Unwanted pressures could have been caused within the audience in this layout, where a simple end-on would have sufficed.
Audience layout aside, this performance definitely had some very likeable qualities…but also some avoidable issues. Despite a very minimal set, reused from play to play, each short play managed to convey its world through its own definitive, and hence effective, aesthetic. This was enhanced by a somewhat efficacious lighting design and with various props - although, these regularly felt overused.
As for performance style, there tended to be a lot of needless mime and direct audience address. If one wishes to address the audience, this must be for a very, very precise reason. For example, one might, in the case of didactic theatre again, address spectators to evoke their opinions or judgements which would help the progression of the performance in terms of its focus and direction. To address the audience without clear significance and reason, however, should always be avoided, as this takes away from the self-contained and inherent world of the play whilst also creating a sense of tension amongst a now-unsettled audience. Additionally, certain actors' energies juxtaposed too harshly with those of others. This led to a confused performance style that teetered between mime, melodrama, naturalism and simply wooden acting.
In considering this performance's style, one inevitably lands at the character of the Host, played by Matthew MacLachlan, the lines for whom were written by Andrew Crook. MacLachlan, whose chosen voice was reminiscent of a sort of American vampire, took on this role rather well, consistent and energetic throughout. I will say, however, that I found it too difficult to differentiate MacLachlan's Host from his initial character, Barry. I felt that he should have either continued as Barry throughout the performance or have taken on a completely different persona. The Host's occasional talk of Barry in the third person simply drew more attention to the lack of movement from one character to another. Also worth noting about the Host is his regular mini magic tricks. Whilst these were, as magic is, endearing, I could not help but feel that they were rather out of place in this performance, employed simply for easy mystery and shock factor, having no real significance or relevance in the play.
“A good night, if lacking some topographical and performative refinement.”
Written by Mark Harvey Levine.
Directed by William Ribo.
As alluded to in my summary of the night itself, Matthew MacLachlan's characterisation of Barry was extremely peculiar, in quite a positive way. I think an issue arises, however, in the range of acting styles of all three onstage performers. Whilst MacLachlan went for a more caricaturistic approach, I could not help but feel that Ruchi Ranjan's characterisation of Stephanie was rather lacklustre. There was a definite problem with intonation, motivation and change of mood. For example, there is a moment towards the end of this short play where Stephanie picks up a knife from her table and accuses Barry of cheating. Whilst this could have been comical, Ranjan's 'dramatic' and somewhat random change of attitude seemed very incongruous with the plot's natural flow. Then, we have Rachel Fenwick (playing the waitress, Cindy) who performed much more naturalistically. Whilst I felt that Fenwick's expressions of exasperation or frustration were rather wooden, the rest of her performance was realistic. This interplay of extreme, naturalistic and underdone made the overall performance very mismatched and inarticulate.
There were also moments in this short play that I found rather clumsy. For example, Fenwick's miming of serving other customers seemed as though a lazy ode to the setting of a restaurant. If a character has no need to be on stage, they should not be at all. The dialogue between a customer and a waitress is enough to produce the audience's imagination of a restaurant setting. Having limited her character's movements to simply entering and exiting the stage would have better accentuated the sense of her frustration. Another awkward moment arose in the opening of the cardboard box. To avoid the lid swinging open when it was supposed to be taped shut, as it did, why not actually tape it shut? Opening this with the knife would have been a matter of a mere few seconds added on and would have, again, added to her frustration as well as to the comedic tension of the scene. Little features such as these, as well as empty drinking glasses, take away from the credibility of a performance.
The plot of this performance was quite predictable, but this fed into its comedic quality. The end, however, I felt was rather poorly executed and teetered towards dramatic where, in my view, it would have been better as an exaggerated comedy. The minute gunshots and the quiet screams should have been an overdramatic wail and gunfire. The waitress admitting she may have swapped the bill was unneeded, as this was clear anyway. A simple and crude "Oh, sh*t!", blackout, would have done the trick nicely. I would recommend staying far away from literalisation and approaching the work, in this case, more exaggeratedly, permitting the writing to laugh at itself, as it were. This is a style into which the abundance of fortune cookies and MacLachlan's characterisation of Barry - even if this bled into that of the Host - flooded nicely.
“A comical premise but needing fastidious work on style and comedic exaggeration.”
'Take the Wheel'
Written by Will Cooper.
Directed by Rebecca Tenor.
I have to say that this play, unfortunately, was my least favourite, placing nothing on stage but the utter basics of a utilitarian dilemma. Beginning with the sound of rain and Mr Business (Kelvin Giles) miming entering a taxi, of which Frank (Hugo Trebels) was the driver, and closing an umbrella, this short play had already made errors for me. The sound (operated by Stu Glover, along with lighting) was poorly controlled at this moment, not muffling at the moment when the 'door' was 'closed' by Giles but a few seconds after, and mime was simply overused in Mr Business entering the taxi and Frank 'driving' it. Mime has a very particular effect and produces a sort of abstraction, drawing upon the audience's imagination but also telling a story in a physical way. When mime precedes a more realistic performance style, it seems wildly out of place. Done in a quick, nonchalant and natural way, mime can perhaps serve a better function alongside naturalistic acting, but, as in this opening, drawn-out and performed mime simply tarnishes the credibility of a performance.
I would have suggested other ways for this opening to have been done, but I am afraid I have to say that it would have been better to simply cut it altogether. With the off-putting mime and the constricted and repetitive dialogue due to Mr Business ignoring Frank, this scene just felt unnecessary and bland. It would have been, for me, far more interesting to start with Frank already on stage with Mr Business and Miss TV (Payal Muquesh), being interrogated by them, confused. This would have created more suspense and tension. Where is he? Why is he there? Who are these people? The taxi about to crash would have been implicit and understood through dialogue. As it was, the taxi scene was just rather boring, both technically and rhythmically.
As for characterisation, I felt that Giles's performance of Mr Business in the mind of Frank was far too wild, and the same goes for Muquesh's Miss TV. Whilst I understand that this scene is meant to be tense, dramatic and mad, I felt this was a literal interpretation of those adjectives. These contrasted too greatly as well with Trebels's almost nonchalant underperformance. Dialogue was repeated far too often, things like: "He looks confused", and "He doesn't know why he's here", and "Come on, Frank, choose one of us to kill." It seemed to lack depth, and when depth did finally surface, it was in allusions to racism and fatherly love, the latter of which felt an easy and obvious route to go down for Frank's character.
The end, with the Copper (Stuart Walker) and the Paramedic (Amina Khan), seemed more tense and dramatic than the main body of this short play. I do not know if the director, Rebecca Tenor, wanted to use two very different performance styles to represent two different worlds, inside and outside Frank's head, but the two did not seem to work, either way. Also, in terms of costume, I could not understand why the Copper was in complete police attire whilst the Paramedic was in average clothes and a hi-vis jacket. The attention to detail of one and not the other seemed very off-putting. Furthermore, whilst the dialogue in this scene was alright, the revelation that Miss TV was, in fact, Frank's daughter just seemed as though the writing was trying to be too dramatic. It had little to no effect.
“A rushed piece of theatre with little creativity.”
Written by Jake Guastella.
Directed by Olivia Stone.
In this performance, Nicole Grace's characterisation of Nina was endearing but quite corny. If her monologue denoted sadness, she was sad; frustrated, she was frustrated. There was nothing implied or passive. Everything was very direct. This was perhaps due to the writing, but I believe it still could have been interpreted more fluidly. Ryan O'Grady's characterisation of Graham was OK but also lacked realism in places.
Whilst minimal, the set, comprising blankets on the floor and a bag and CDs Stage Right, alluded simply and effectively to an untidy, lived-in house. There were two props, however, I thought took away from the performance's realism. The bag on the floor was taken by Graham who comes for his CDs; however, it would have made more sense and have been more realistic for him to enter with a bag rather than to take the pre-allocated one on the floor. Next, Alexi, a cylinder covered in aluminium foil representative of a smart-machine. Whilst looking nothing like a smart-machine, I felt that it was needless to have a physical representation of Alexi (Tori Perriss). An ominous voice over, looming over the stage and in the audience's minds, would have been far more effective.
The concept of this short play was very endearing and likeable. Perhaps the writing and its realisation were a little direct, though. For example, I felt it would have been more effective to hear, as Nina leaves her room to take a bath, a voice message from Graham play aloud, followed by a simple "Message deleted." This would have shifted the focus onto Alexi, better enhancing her treachery. As it stood - with Nina exiting the stage, Graham entering to leave his message and exit again, Nina re-entering - these scene changes served as quick and clumsy transitions, taking away from dramatic flow.
“An endearing concept but in need of a more insidious undertone.”
'The Human Touch'
Written by David Vazdauskas.
Directed by Elif Knight.
The most notable thing about this performance was definitely its fiery aesthetic. The red wash provided a rather psychedelic visual to this play, reflecting off of the drinking glasses on the table and reinforced by features such as Lexi's (Elif Knight) LED glasses and bleached-blond wig. This definitely gave the piece an otherworldly feel. As for costume, I felt that there was a nice contrast between the tightness of Lexi's leather outfit and Sam's (Mark Parsons) rather downbeat, childish shorts and T-shirt. Whilst I felt that this captured - what I could grasp of - the characters, I cannot say the same for the dialogue.
The writing of this play was very samey throughout. The same premises were touched over and over by the two characters: Lexi's repetitive questions and Sam's reiteration of robots/computers and lack of human interaction. These ideas seemed to swamp the dialogue singlehandedly. Towards the end, however, this univocal dialogue became much more enriched, especially with Lexi's slip-ups in cursing Siri.
Both Parson's and Knight's characterisations were quite good, especially with tiny quirks such as Sam's stress ball and Lexi's computer-operating, but this was with the exception of Knight's stiffness towards the end. It seemed as though the closer the revelation of Lexi being a computer came, the stiffer and less naturalistic she became — but not in an effective, computerised way. After having being outed as a computer, Knight also started to speak in a staggered, robotic voice. I felt this was extremely unnecessary. It would have been much more chilling to know that she is a computer yet have her speaking like and seeming as though a human. The physical interaction between the two characters was effective but perhaps lasted too long. Furthermore, Parsons's walking through the audience was incredibly messy, having no effect other than causing audience members to shuffle their chairs fallibly out of the way amongst the other narrow tables and chairs.
“Visually powerful and conceptually good but lacking refinement in execution.”
'Pie in the Sky'
Written by Susan Goodell.
Directed by Layla Se-Eun Kim.
This was a very good piece. Though I felt that William's (Ryan Ferrarin) jokes about Flossie quickly lost their comedy in their repetition, all characters had a very clear personality, and the desires of William and Kimberly (Nyiri Karakas) were very distinct and amusing. This is one of two short plays in this collection that really nailed energy. The deadpan personality of Flossie (Kate Havord) and the excitability of William and Kimberly worked well together in concept as in practice. However, that is not to say that there were not certain moments where realism could have been better achieved.
The plot was very interesting, if a little unidirectional, and the subliminal significance of the second pie eaten by Kimberly added a nice texture to the ending. Props were used well and when needed - Cindy's notepad, William's phone, the pies, etc. - avoiding that awkward mime or prop-overuse found in the other plays and adding a sense of naturalism to the performance.
Dialogue did, however, let this performance down slightly. It was very samey. Furthermore, there was a moment towards the end of this short play where Flossie referenced a doctor who was dining at the restaurant. In reality, this was the Host stood in the audience eating a piece of pie. This physical representation was unnecessary and also added a slight confusion to the Host's character...why is he a doctor? It just seemed that one had noticed a referenced character in the writing and thought that it would be a good idea to use the Host to represent this; yet, a simple gesture to an imaginary doctor elsewhere on the stage, or off, would have sufficed. Other than that, a good performance.
“A treat to watch.”
'Can I Change My Mind?'
Written by Jon Platt.
Directed by Glenn Gaunt.
This was by far the most polished and refined playlet of the night. Characterisation was down to a tee: the flippant professionalism of Dr Alison Cline (Carol Ellis), the cantankerousness and intelligence of Nigel Newton (Chris Coxon), and the cocky idiocy of Jack Sweeney (Barney White). The clear concept of these characters created a depth and variety that was very intriguing and efficacious. Each performer performed with an impressive energy and clear understanding of their character, especially White who performed with high physicality and transformativity. With the exception of Ellis's cheap mime of looking out of the window at the press outside - which could have been replaced with a simple brushing herself down, straightening her clothes, etc. to hint at her reception outside - the performance held a certain naturalism that was captivating and real.
Costume fed into character well, a tweed suit for Nigel, a white uniform for Dr Cline and a laid-back tracksuit for Jack. Simplicity for efficacy was definitely inherent in this play, also true of the white aesthetic handed over from Dr Cline's costume, the MacBook and the sheet draped over the chair, which put us simply and effectively in a clinical setting.
The writing for this short play was astounding. No dialogue was superfluous and everything seemed to be done for a specific reason. The plot twist of Nigel's mind being copied as opposed to transferred and the idiocy of Jack in failing to understand the surgical procedure and its implications were very clever directions for this story. The writing also gave the impression that there was more to this world than what was realised in play, serving as powerful storytelling.