Saturday, 13 February 2010

Theatre: Review - 'The Distance', Particular Theatre Company, Bike Shed Theatre

In our February show on Sunday we previewed the Particular Theatre Company's production of 'The Distance', a dystopian drama of the near-future written by Craig Norman and directed by David Lockwood. Yesterday I went to the first night of a three week run (8th to 27th February) in the newly opened The Bike Shed Theatre situated in the heart of Exeter between Fore Street and Mary Arches Street.

Particular's autumn production of 'Forsaken' was put on in the cellar of the Hour Glass Inn and featured in my piece on pub theatre. The new, semi-permanent venue is better described as pop-up theatre - a former basement restaurant taken initially on a four-month lease makes an ideal seventy seat theatre space complete with a well-stocked bar - you can take a glass to your seat and replenish it during the interval - that looks like it's been imaginatively furnished from a funky junk shop because it has.

Otto Retro are one of several local companies who deserve credit for part-funding the project in cash or kind. Other Fore Street shops Electric Gypsy and Bunyip contributed costumes. The Bike Shed have lent their name to the theatre and their money to get it up and running while The Fat Pig on John Street not only put on special meal-and-a-drink deal for theatre goers but also support the venture.

Exeter Arts Council have likewise contributed - and if Particular Theatre Company are to survive on more than good will, no doubt they'll need more public money in future from a diminishing pot - but I think it important to mention sponsors when times are hard to encourage well matched local partnerships such as this.

Also to mutual credit and advantage is the  involvement of the Cygnet Training Theatre - for those who don't know The New Theatre at Friar's Gate in Exeter, keep an eye on its programme - Exeter College and Exeter University. Students will be involved in the front-of-house team and some of the 10 o'clock shows (one act plays free to all-comers), while the cast of the main production is both trained and experienced, an excellent way to introduce young drama and arts management students to professional theatre.

On to the review... On Sunday's The Blah Blah Blah Show Rachel McCarthy and I discussed the cinema of the post-apocalypse when reviewing 'The Road', wondering if end-of-the-world art reemerges at times of tension - the early sixties after the Cuban missile crisis, the early eighties at the height of the cold war and the turn of the current decade as the left worry about climate change while the right focus on the threat of terrorists and rogue nations.

'The Distance' might be described as theatre of the pre-apocalypse, and that to me is more interesting. How we'd react in a world that is broken - really broken, as it is in 'The Road' - would be a matter of brute survival. But how we respond as a society is breaking asks more immediate and interesting questions, the situation being much easier to project ourselves into, the scenario of the play one that might not be so far away - once the dominoes of civilisation start falling, perhaps we are so interdependent, they'll all come tumbling down.

So the world of 'The Distance' is wholly recognisable to us, and the four characters that occupy it are ones we can empathise with - a husband and wife, a mother and son, a daughter and her father - and so their reactions to breakdown, personal and societal, are ones we can understand. Madness begins to seem like a sane reaction. And if escapism is not the answer, at least it avoids the question, as does intoxication - and I'll drink to that.

Or do we hang onto the trappings of civilisation, fiddle while Rome burn? Would you bring a child into this world? And if you did, would you want it to live, when it could never be safe from harm? These are the sorts of questions Craig Norman wrestles with in his script, and if the play doesn't provide any easy answers, the same uncertainties will be nagging away at you 24 hours later - and that is the mark of a worthwhile piece of art, it shadows your lungs.

We react to tragedy in different ways: some couples it brings closer together, others it drives apart. We look to others for protection, only to discover they can't even defend themselves. That is where the young couple, whose relationship is the hinge the play swings on, are at when the play begins on a stage that takes up almost half of the auditorium, lives lived in three dimensions from the outset, not squashed into a corner as in some boutique theatres. That gives the set and sound designers a space to work with and they do a good job, painting in a palette of whites and greys, conjuring up a soundscape of millenarian tension.

The first act is a single scene; the second alternates between double headers either side of the stage, bisected by two metal pillars the direction makes use of rather than denying; the third, almost a coda, is an intimate conversation on the lip of the stage that hints at reconciliation, but whether with the future or in the past we are left unsure. We are always inside private domains, but there are enough references for us to know what ever is going on outside, we don't want to be there; that if it comes bursting through the door, it won't be a welcome guest. David Lockwood has to negotiate us through an emotional landscape in which the characters are never quite connecting, despite all the connections between them, and must fill that surprisingly large stage with a small cast, succeeding on both counts.

Charlie Coldfield as Darby impressed with a deceptive lightness of being that didn't mask the desperation behind his eyes. Alison Collinge as Alex has the most demanding role, taking her character to the edge of madness without ever quite tumbling over into the abyss, and brings us back to her with a vulnerability that was perhaps always tat he root of their attraction. The words 'husband' and 'wife' are used over again, reminding you that some relationships sustain almost as a matter of fact against the furies. 'Mother' and 'father' are, even more so, archetypes that cannot be denied. Jane Bennett as Nora brings her experience to bear on a role that has to combine maternal grit with a sense of imminent surrender. David Watkinson as Peter is hollow-eyed and half-absent, having left his better self behind on the front of some unspecified conflict, his daughter relating to him almost wholly as her protector of the past, a role he didn't always fulfill. 

A first night is never perfect and rarely fully realised. This is a demanding play that requires is cast to portray - and audience believe in - some extreme situations and then deal with the emotional fallout. The way in which they do so is very English - and that switchback between confrontation and restraint is the heartbeat of the piece that relies on both full-on and nuanced dramatisation. I'm tempted to return for the last night of the run to see how the performance and its staging have progressed, and it is a play that will benefit from a second sitting.

Particular Theatre is taking risks with this project. They aren't presenting populist theatre. There are no names involved sufficient to draw an audience. This is a play for a bleak February evening, leaving us with a slight chill, a longing for something warm. The Company will rely initially on goodwill and then word of mouth and intrigue in the kind of evening Exeter usually lacks, a dare for the city to respond with its feet and put some bums on seats.

They have already committed to two further productions which I for one look forward to. 'Still' by Steve Lambert from 12th April to 1st May will be previewed in excerpt at the 10 o'clock show on 26th February while a scene from 'Beanfield' by Shaun McCarthy, forthcoming in June, will feature on 27th February.

In between, another eight short dramas will be premiered, all written by south-west writers and free of charge to the audience of the main show and passersby. Last night and tonight featured 'Good Morning', a ten minute two-handed skit on suicide, by Isley Lynn. Check the website for the roster over the remainder of the three week run.

If the venue intrigues you, two evenings of music, poetry, stand-up, drama and sketches - 'Antidote / Anecdote' - are scheduled for Sundays 14th and 21st of February from 6pm to 10pm. We are promised tables with candles and both frivolous and thought provoking entertainment.

Why not spend your weekend getting behind the Bike Shed and combine a variety Sunday with a Saturday night of serious drama?

1 comment:

  1. I am posting my review of The Distance on the Phonic FM website. I'd like to mention that you have a review too on your blog. I would like too to plug your show. Is that OK?

    Martin Hodge from Roots & Shoots

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