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[Performance Analysis:] VERY SPECIAL GUEST STAR, Omnibus Theatre, London.

Tom Wright aims to challenge audiences through his writing, to have them confront and process difficult and uncomfortable material, and he certainly delivers in Very Special Guest Star.

Directed by Rikki Beadle-Blair, this performance titillates its audience with explicit sexual content, appealing to our natural scopophilic propensities and demanding that we be voyeurs as the three performers meander almost naked around the stage, freely exploring the unclad bodies of each other as well as their own. And then, a clever twist. Youth becomes a questionable object of sexual desire as twenty-year-old Quasim (Jonny Khan) flaunts himself with cockiness and confidence. Then, the boundaries of open relationships are interrogated. And, finally, bordering on a relative of incest, we are to question the potential/implicit adoptive father-son relationships between the three characters who have all just been preparing themselves for sexual intercourse. A veritable rollercoaster signalling not just a well-structured dramatic text but the text’s clever sociopolitical enquiry: what limits must we put on our sexual desire?

This is a challenging text that demands its audience interrogate their concepts of familial status, and the boundaries between sexual desire, and responsibility and civility. As when Michael (Alan Turkington) and Quasim explore one another whilst Phil (Edd Muruako) disappears, or when Michael first enters, dominant and forward, disrupting the calm and amicable mood that Phil and Quasim have cultured together, intent, desire, feeling, commitment and responsibility are all regularly and deceptively blurred to complicate yet enrich our reading of this challenging performance. A very clever and articulate text, almost Churchillian in its manner of presentation.

There is, however, a great lack of naturalism, with dialogue failing to emulate natural patterns of speech, and this does feel overly forced at times. Foreshadowing of later material, which concerns direction as much as, if not more than, the writing itself, is perhaps too overt throughout, and plot developments could benefit from more graduality. Whilst there are notable attempts to develop character profiles, such as references to past sexual escapades, or Phil’s job or gardening hobby, characters remain markedly superficial, with emphasis on Michael and Quasim. We chiefly learn what is overtly ‘relevant’ about these characters, i.e. only information that will directly progress the material, and perhaps secondary information that coincides with this — for example, first that Phil and Michael are parents, and then, subsequently, that their son has to have medicinal foot cream applied every night — and this lack of irrelevant information that would naturalise the characters stunts our reading of these as realistic and multilayered individuals. Nevertheless, as these elements still make for a coherent and linear understanding of the text, they do not subtract from an overall reading or potential enjoyment of the text; what we do learn of these characters is sufficient to develop a connection with and understanding of them. I just feel that some sexually charged content could be replaced by some more profound character profiling.

In terms of acting, all performers demonstrate great conviction and energy, awareness of their character intent, and as much credibility as a rather unnaturalistic dramatic text will offer. Khan, in particular, demonstrates a great emotional range, especially in his later outburst whilst handcuffed to the sofa, and all three perform with great transformativity, dynamism, reactivity and expressivity. Great performers. Scenes of intimacy are handled incredibly well; I must commend intimacy director Robbie Taylor-Hunt for his work. As written above, a rather intense exploration of the bodies of oneself and the Other is inherent to this text, and performers follow this through with remarkable ease and excellent onstage chemistry.

In terms of aesthetics, the set is wonderfully designed by Natalie Johnson, modern and sleek — a modernity coinciding well with the contemporary sociocultural focus of the text. The symmetry it offers is certainly appealing and allows for an audience to be misled that this is a put-together and established couple, communicating well, in particular, Phil’s status as a family lawyer. The inclusion of the red dragon plushy is also a clever initial symbol to forebode content to come. However, set is not without its imperfections. This is a very sleek and refined set design, geometric and sharp, and so to have the ‘fig branches’ protruding from an empty wicker basket is unattractive and disillusioning. Far too fake and out of place. I would find a couple of large plant pots here, instead. Next, exposing the windows is both distracting and incredibly destructive of illusion, with frequent passersby offering the possibility of deliberate and extreme external disruptions. Exposing the ‘realm of the real’ beyond the performance space compromises any altered and particularised temporospatial awareness an audience could develop and reminds them to view the action on stage as a mere ‘inauthentic’ and ‘artificial’ performance. Such distancing does not progress our reading of the material of this play in any way, mostly because the challenging political content requires a particular introspection, one that demands that the audience member seek answers from within about how they themselves feel morally about the content they are being presented, as opposed to a glimpse into everyday society as a whole and a consideration of how one and one's morals fit into this, as implied by the window. The majority of this content does not equate to an everyday struggle we face generally in society — or within the gay community, more specifically — but an internal moral dilemma, the processing of which is dependent on the individual and their own peculiar moral systems. I would recommend simply shutting the curtains; having a tall table behind the sofa in the middle, upon which to place the photo-frames; and have Khan slip out through the curtains alone, as the rest will be naturally implied.

Whilst the modernity of the set is communicated effectively through technical elements, the music (compositions and sound design by Rikki Beadle-Blair) and lighting (designed and operated by Alex Thomas) being activated via Phil and Michael’s tablet, I find its functionality to be rather unrealistic...distractingly so. These elements are explicitly technical and chic, communicative of the class and lifestyle of the ‘trendy’ couple, and with such emphasis placed on them and with such a significant presence, it is important that such technical elements are legible and realistic. The phone is somehow connected to the same overhead system as the tablet, and we hear it when it rings, but when Phil picks up his phone, we do not hear the person on the other end; yet, during the Skype call at the end of the play, we hear the voice of their son, “Daddy!” This should be addressed.

As for lighting in general, I rather favour that the audience are dimly illuminated, as this allows for a shared sense of voyeurism, an awareness of the potential arousal of the Other, and this adds to our reading of the political content as demanding upon the individuals' intimate functions, sexuality and body. However, lighting design and operation during the scene wherein Michael is struggling to control his mood lights and speakers are rather sloppy, with technical cues failing to coincide perfectly with the action on stage; further refinement is needed here. Sound is well designed throughout, but further attention should be given to overall volume — this is not too much of an issue, however.

There is also the issue of topography, with ‘the front door’ seeming to be on the far left of the audience, as evidenced when Quasim first enters, or when Michael and Phil converse with the police officer. At the end, however, once this conversation has finished, Muruako re-enters Stage Left, and Turkington re-enters Stage Right with glasses and champagne. Why would they not both re-enter Stage Left, with Michael needing to cut through to the kitchen? Whilst there are feasible reasons for this, these require a slight [needless] strain on imagination, one not desired towards the end of a performance. I would also pay attention to how close actors come to the audience, often standing amongst them in the aisles. This is far too confrontational and defictionalises the space. Again, I understand the voyeuristic potential here, but this proximal confrontation is too extreme.

Overall, a very intelligent and well-conceived performance, executed very well by all performers and supplemented by wonderful set and technical elements. Most impressive.

“A cleverly structured and challenging performance.”


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