[Review:] WE ANCHOR IN HOPE, The Bunker, London.
As the audience enter the house, there is a huge sense of conviviality. Chairs and tables leak onto the stage and audience members are invited to purchase drinks at a functioning bar which will double as the bar of the Anchor pub. The ambience is lively, social and congenial. It feels like a real, beaming and fruitful pub. This is a most excellent overture, allowing the audience both to connect with the Anchor as it comes to its end, hence intensifying emotional significance, and to be utterly lost in the world of the play.
Then something rather frictional happens. The lights fade, and it appears to be nighttime at the pub. Bilbo (Daniel Kendrick) enters and walks around the pub, forlorn. The space becomes quiet, slow. And then there is a nighttime rave. This previous setting was such a strong and fortuitous one, one which requires a very meticulous, calculated and balanced set-up to be as successful, realistic and evocative as it was. It is a shame to see it destroyed so quickly. I understand that this was to conjure both the sense of loss and of omen, but this should not have to be so immediate and could filter its way through the text later on in the plot. I think it would have been much smoother and seemlier to go straight into the rave, whilst the audience are comfortable and content, to further accentuate the Anchor's appeal. But it is not this later rave that I have a problem with but the entire degradation of the convivial space to a place of sudden dim lighting, of moping and lack of energy and will. This slow transition was just far too disjointed and intrusive.
The first real scene sees a sulky Pearl (Alex Jarrett) enter the stage, at first looking for the others and then presenting the audience with the first of many monologues. It seemed to take Jarrett a while to warm into her character and lines, seeming wooden and unsure of herself at first. This first scene also saw her stumble on her lines, clearly forgetting the manner in which she was to deliver them at one point. However, once she was joined on stage by Kendrick, both her energy and capability seemed to prick up quite significantly. What ensued was a very good performance from all actors, including the initially faltering Jarrett who turned out to be a very convincing and powerful actress. All were believably naturalistic, portraying their characters with endearing and humorous idiosyncrasies, and had each clearly understood the vast majority of their lines. Despite the lengthy text, which I shall elaborate on later, all actors were very gripping and unfaltering in their performance.
Yet, monologues and soliloquies went on to present issues, for me. I was most confused by their rhythm which jumped rather haphazardly from unpolluted divulgences of thought to hesitant and bland poetry. I felt that the intention behind the writing (Anna Jordan) was different to the dramatic text itself, or perhaps the writing indeed possessed clarity but one that was lost in delivery. Either way, there was definitely an inefficacy here. This poetic style was most out of place in this performance. It would have worked were we made to assume that the characters were somewhere in the distant future in these monologues, reflecting upon the fall of the Anchor and the events which took place throughout their time there, and if they spoke as one voice, wise in its retrospection, but this was not the case…at least, not until the end.
Towards the end, we see the characters reflect on their last night, delivering their lines in cannon and in a solemn, mysterious and dejected manner, dotted around the performance space. This is the most effective use of monologuing in this performance, yet there still remain things that distract us from its fluidity. Kenny (Valentine Hanson) is still very much stuck in the continuous narrative, still drunk and murmuring nonsense, yet the other characters are in this future realm, looking back on the past. This distracts us from the emotion and nostalgia present in the text and utterly nullifies the need for this poetic quality which persists to worm its way in and out of the text. I understand, as Kenny had his heart and soul in the Anchor, that perhaps he remains stuck in the past, but this does not warrant a change in performance style. Characters could have easily continued to speak naturalistically in narrative monologue to demonstrate their memories and emotions in this way.
There is another thing that disrupts the rhythm of this end scene, and that is the use of tech. Halfway through this sequence of monologues, the lights drop and re-light violently, accompanied by a jarring resonance. This is used recurrently throughout the production to signal transitions in and out of these monologues. It also creates a sense of the ominous. In this way, this use of tech makes for a coherent style but also a degree of comprehensibility, separating continuous action and narrative, throughout the performance, yet it confuses me as to why it was used so randomly in this end scene.
As a quick, further note on tech, I thought that simplicity was very advantageous in this performance. There was little technicality in terms of lighting (designed by Jess Bernberg), music and sound (designed by Emily Legg), and this made for, yet again, a realistic setting but also allowed for a deeper focus on the story and the characters. In fact, I preferred this lack of stylisation, of raw speech and action, to moments such as in the scene wherein the characters describe a football night at the pub to Shaun (Alan Turkington), where the TV screens turn on and a football game is playing with sound. I felt it was much better to work with the simple instruments of body and voice to create the sense of these memories –– though that is not to say that these scenes were necessarily ineffective as they were; this is more of a personal preference, I would say.
On to writing. This play was very rich and detailed, bleeding generous information about all of its characters, giving foreshadowing glimpses into the future, and deepening the present with memories and histories of the Anchor. It could have benefitted, however, from quite an edit. I felt that comedy, though extremely strong in this performance and executed marvellously by the actors – primarily the play's clown, Kendrick – played too large a role in some aspects, taking away from a sense of plot progression and meaning. Despite the subtle allusions to the hidden realities of the characters, such as Bilbo's homelessness, Kenny's divorce, or Frank's wife's passing, there seemed to be little actually happening. In the end, these forebodings all unravel one after the other, and it feels as though we have been cheated somewhat. It feels too blunt and direct, as though the play were running out of time and had to tell all of the stories it had been hiding before its close. With this in mind, I would urge a reconsideration of the role of comedy and how and when it should be expanded upon or reeled back in, to allow the deeper content to rear its head. This particular balance between comedy and pacing is crucial here.
At the beginning of this review, I mentioned the creation of a unified space, where the audience are somewhat immersed –– though still at a clever distance –– into the world of the play. This sense of co-existence is something that recurs regularly in this performance, with characters directing their lines to audience members and speaking of them as though they were characters in the play, figures in the background of the story. There is something ghostly about the audience's presence, as though they represent the crowds that the Anchor once drew in. In this respect, this openness is effective, in theory, but I feel that there is not enough inclusion for this to be a necessary characteristic of this performance. If this idea of ghostliness was stressed further, I feel that it would warrant this metatheatrical or immersive style, but being that this only applies to a few audience members and happens rather infrequently, it just serves as a cheesy device for insipid comedy.
Overall, this is a very enjoyable play but could be a lot shorter. Its writing is strong and textured, and its actors do a wonderful job of conveying its spirit and comedic appeal. It just needs to figure out the best way to present itself to its audience, to find a steady performance style and a good balance between comedy and tragedy. There are still areas that need to be reworked to make this an outstanding piece of theatre, but this is something it definitely has the potential to be.
“A rich and gripping piece of theatre but one which still has some work to do.”
Photography credit: to Helen Murray.