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[Performance Analysis:] UNDER INFLUENCE, CryerArts Centre, London.

This performance is most impressive and effective in its narrative, focus and objectives. It is teeming with impressive talent from its young performers and is most thought-provoking. What is particularly impressive about this performance is that it blurs the lines between an individual's personal and social realities, exploring how trial by media, rumour and community can devastate the lives of the young, to whom identity and ego are still only fledgling concepts. Collective gaslighting, planted memories, soft evidence and widespread derision all play a role in devastating the reputations of the two characters and causing great divides amongst close friends — and perhaps also amongst an audience who, having no concrete evidence either way and perhaps emphasising the age of the characters, can easily be forced into vacillation over Aaron's (Harry Still) culpability in particular, given his extreme expressions of guilt and distress.

One element that is most effective is that we as the audience are also encouraged to make assumptions based upon the limited evidence of video footage and spoken rumours. Whilst Lola (Mia Townsend) herself hardly remembers anything of the situation and whilst Aaron remains mostly silent throughout [which I am not sure is entirely efficacious here], it is easy as an audience to be mobilised by the hearsay and opinions expressed by surrounding characters. We see no concrete evidence to suggest anything incriminating, and even the outcome of the court hearing is left unexpressed. What is presented, however, is the blowup of news material and across social media. Throughout, what remains the prime focus of this performance is not the incident itself or the outcome of the resulting hearing, but the deteriorating self-esteems and social statuses and, ultimately, the lives of these two individuals. We are constantly reminded of their pain, trauma, distress and hopelessness as friends betray them and downplay their experiences and as trust is blurred.

There is a particular sequence worth noting that is, in a good way, awkward and uncomfortable, really driving home the sentiment that the incident is being exaggerated: we are forced into an act of voyeurism, observing Aaron and Lola as they undress before us down to their underwear, one on each side of the stage. There is a strong and effective connotation here. As voyeurs, we observe their partially clad bodies sharing a space during a completely innocent activity but understand that this also could perhaps be initially misconstrued as a strange, uncomfortable or inexplicable provocative display. We also are forced, in this way, to sexualise and to potentially prejudge and damn the two for this innocent activity, as the community may have done. I should note, though, that Lola keeping her jogging bottoms on for a court hearing, paired with a frilly blouse, does compromise authenticity and realism here. The resulting visual is most bizarre.

However, there is a slight imbalance in the focus given to the two characters. We see how Lola is affected a lot more than we do Aaron. Only this aforementioned scene wherein we see his breakdown and, somewhat, the lateral movement sequence involving him really present his involvement in his own story. Conversely, in every scene in which Lola is present, she demonstrates explicitly her opinions, feelings and responses, either of her own accord or in response to the snide or comforting remarks of her friends.

Perhaps if this imbalance is desired, for some reason, this could make way for another exploration for this text: how young boys do not express such extreme negative emotions and experiences of trauma so freely in comparison to young girls, that their experiences are perhaps ignored, forgotten or negated more readily, also. This would need to be a more explicit exploration, however, and this is currently not an expressed object of study or focus of the performance.

Away from the text (writing and direction by Gary Grant), which I shall emphasise is most impressive and well-conceived, and on to the performance itself and its style.

I understand that there is a desire, particularly early on in the performance, to bombard the audience with incomplete and suggestive evidence and also to highlight how innocent and passing comments can be extracted from conversations and used against individuals in police investigations. This is desired to be achieved through a series of techniques and devices, but the resulting aesthetic is simply too overwhelming, and the play loses its structure, coherency and, ultimately, its identity and artistic integrity. There is a sheer clash of styles and climaxes: stylisations (freeze-frames and tableaux vivants), naturalist representation, fragmentation, flashbacks and flashforwards, chronological presentation, the presentation of audio recordings and films… There is simply no clear-cut identity for this performance, and this is right at the very beginning, when the performance type should, with performances like this, be immediately clear.

There are also far too many moments of silence in this performance, and this is due to a lack of activity, which is sometimes deliberate and sometimes notably avoidable. Deliberate because of the frequent use of tableaux or passive choral presence, and avoidable because there are too many moments where other characters of secondary importance in scenes are simply stood or sat without purpose and intent — to call upon one example. Freeze-frames, in particular, are the greatest cause for concern in regard to this stasis, and I would really recommend against them for this performance — or, at least, for the time being until pacing is sharpened.

I shall elaborate on pacing first. Mostly an issue with tech operation but also a directorial, actor-led and even cinematographic one, pacing is compromised regularly in this performance by awkward interstitial stops: prolonged waiting between freeze-frames and audio clips; between the end of a video and lights-up, and then between this and the action continuing after a freeze-frame; the wait for the next scene to continue when the first has been interrupted; etc. Particularly for this aforementioned bombardment to be effective — though, again, I would discourage the use of such a sheer array of styles — we need rapid succession, precise timing. Do not wait for the lights to come up to break a freeze-frame and start moving; be prepared and in motion already to look less artificial and not so deliberate when the lights come up. Projections should stop immediately upon the end of a video, not remain on the last frame for a few seconds before turning off.

Transitions are also rather messy and too slow due to the sheer number of theatrical properties to re-/organise, despite the actors’ attempt to be as speedy as possible. However, this speediness also looks unprofessional and unrefined: rushing, running, throwing props into place, and then instantly stopping in frozen positions waiting for the lights; Lola crying, still, sat down, and then running off stage as soon as the lights start to dim [and have not yet been fully extinguished]; etc. Topography of the stage should be reconsidered to coincide with the urgency and freneticism desired for the performance style, or I would recommend ensuring a better incorporation of darkness and the interactions between stage lights and the human eye if transitions are to be kept thus.

With pacing being amiss in this performance in this way, freeze-frames add an extra unwanted choppiness and fragmentation to the performance. It would be far more tolerable and impressive if pacing was refined, yes; it would invest the performance with a sense of urgency and modernity. However, it over-stylises the performance, which is already suffocating with stylisation. Ultimately, when we stylise objects of study in performance, we draw attention away from the reality of the object itself and towards the manner in which it is presented, the mood surrounding it or produced by the stylisation itself; in this sense, we distance our audience from a connection with the actual object being presented and compromise emotional identification. This type of stylisation, freezeframes, encapsulates a story or narrative or forces our attention to linger upon what would otherwise be a fleeting, negligible moment. It simply presents a vignette, tells a story; it does not allow us to connect and feel, and this is a performance dependent upon audience feeling, passion and emotional investment.

Whilst I find the lateral movement sequences beneficial — because we are able to home in on Aaron and Lola and to experience in real-time their progressing emotions and reactions to the developing gossips and betrayals, constantly freezing scenes, especially so early on in the performance, takes us out of the reality and world of the play and compromises our emotional connections with the characters.

“A most impressive text portrayed by great young talent but stylistically confused in performance.”


Additional Notes on This Performance [for the Requester of this Review]

This technical analysis is included for free as part of The Performance Critic’s standard service. Please get in touch with Lee James Broadwood to receive your additional support and notes, as part of a premium analysis, concerning:

  • Cinematography

  • Sound Design

  • Ascertaining Realism and Authenticity

  • Notable Trends in the Written Text

  • Alternatives to Current Storytelling Techniques

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