first night

The Blue Room

Donnchadh O'Conaill admires "Another Country Productions" staging of "The Blue Room."

The first striking feature of Another Country’s production of The Blue Room was the layout. The audience sat on the Assembly Rooms stage in two banks, against the back wall and on the apron. The staging area was empty but overhung by a network of lightbulbs, creating a space which felt crisp but not bare. First impressions were not misleading; this production was one of the most clear-minded and professional I have seen in Durham.


David Hare’s script, an adaptation of Schnitzler’s La Ronde, rotates two actors through the carnal encounters of ten characters, each one in a different room. This challenge was met by a set which was, as the initial layout suggested, flexible rather than minimalist, offering enough detail in each scene to create a distinct environment but never threatening to overwhelm the actors. This required frequent set and costume changes which were performed with impressive calmness and speed, crucial in maintaining the smoothness of the action throughout.


Oscar Blustin’s staging emphasised the intimacy of proceedings. Having the audience so close to the stage made it much easier for them to engage with the piece. The lighting (both from the lightbulbs and other sources) was excellent throughout, with subtle variations between and occasionally within scenes, and a noticeable but restrained use of colour (mostly blue of course; the only mis-step here being the somewhat clichéd red light used to introduce the prostitute). Some exchanges were staged in darkness, but these always felt assured (also, performing in darkness works much better when the audience are so close to the action). Sightlines, often tricky in a traverse staging, were generally well-handled.


The performances were generally excellent from a technical point of view. Ben Starr demonstrated his copious range, moving from the nice mix of swagger and nerves as the cab driver to an excellent portrayal of the student Anton, his conceit and uncertainty neatly expressed in each self-conscious emphasis on a phrase or gesture. The role of Charles, the politician, demonstrated Starr’s ability to shift to a more mature role, his body language crumpling slightly, his movements becoming more careful. The scene with Charles and his wife was one of the few to threaten to uncover an emotional core beneath (or more accurately, within) the continuous artifice and deceit of the exchanges.


Starr had a great deal of fun with his last two roles, indulging in rampant sesquipedalianism as the playwright Robert, then sliding his whole posture and manner into the aristocrat’s almost reticent mien. However, at times this was taken too far, and characterisation shaded into caricature. In particular, the scene between Robert and Kelly, the teenage model, felt unbalanced, as Starr gobbled up the stage and left Rebecca Collingwood with little room to manoeuvre.


Admittedly, that this occurred was partly down to the script, whose female roles were generally weaker than their male equivalents. This left Collingwood with more work to do from the outset. At her best, she was more than a match for Starr, but I felt she had some noticeably weaker moments as well. For example, she was excellent as the actress; she had full confidence in what she was doing, and every smile and flutter of her eyelids served a precise purpose. However, I felt she struggled to define Kelly’s character beyond the accent and her ignorance. Kelly is essentially passive, especially in the scene with Robert, and playing passive characters is difficult. Here Collingwood didn’t seem to know exactly what to do with herself, especially when she wasn’t speaking.


The role of the married woman produced mixed results. The scene with Anton felt a little awkward, as Collingwood didn’t have the smoothness and composure her older character required to offset the student’s gauche manner. However, in the subsequent scene with the politician, the balance between her and Starr was much better. As far as I can tell, these two are the only long-term couple we see on stage, and the actors captured a tenderness between them which few of the other characters shared.


Polished and composed as it was, this production left me a little cold. Two problems with the script are largely to blame. First, the structure precludes any chance of serious emotional engagement; indeed, it all but precluded the play from having any drama worthy of the name. While Starr and Collingwood demonstrated their ability to summon up and change characterisations, none of their characters made crucial choices or were seriously challenged. They arrived, engaged in (often witty) dialogue, and took their leave, their presence in most cases scarcely making any disturbance at all. Because of this, few of the scenes reached a climax; they just ended. There was little tension, and little sense either of a greater whole in which any of the exchanges could find significance.


Second, there is the matter of theme. The Blue Room is ostensibly a play about sex; the production paid due service to this, offering the paying Durham public Ms. Collingwood in a corset and Mr. Starr in his briefs (something for everyone, then). But the real theme of the play is truth and deception; in particular, I read it as suggesting that people are never true to each other or even to themselves, acting differently when dealing with different people. This is a suitably challenging issue for serious drama, but that is exactly what this script lacked. It made its point, not by seeing how fleshed-out characters would respond in concrete situations, but by parading a succession of carefully contrived mannequins and cardboard cut-outs. In spirit as well as form, The Blue Room is a lot closer to sketch comedy than one might think, but unlike the best comedy its cynicism feels unearned. Ultimately, it is a slight and even shallow piece of writing. While those involved can be proud of their contributions, they created a production which demanded admiration but did not deserve affection.


24 November 2009

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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