first night

Parlour Song

Nikhil Vyas experiences an evening in suburbia with Fortnight Theatre's latest show.

 Jez Butterworth is easily one of the most acclaimed contemporary playwrights, and his masterpiece Jerusalem is a strong contender for my favourite ever play. And so it was with genuine anticipation that I went to see Fortnight Theatre's staging of Parlour Song, one of Butterworth's lesser-known earlier works. A slow-burning, satirical exploration of the powerful desires and paranoia lurking beneath British suburbia, it showcases all of the writer's trademark techniques: quick-fire dialogue littered with pop culture references, poetic monologues, eccentric characters and a lingering, almost violent tension beneath the banal surfaces of everyday chatter. Director Max Lindon and Assistant Director Liam Gill have succeeded in translating this story onto the stage, creating an enjoyable evening's entertainment. However, a combination of first night jitteriness and production oversights prevented this production from being as impacting as possible.

A large part of this may have to do with Fountains Hall, a notoriously clunky venue when it comes to creating a naturalistic environment onstage. While I was fortunate enough to be in the front row, the venue's acoustic limitations mean actors need to project- just for clarity, if nothing else. Furthermore, for a play so deeply rooted in an evoking a sense of suffocating suburban blandness, the show's production values came short of creating this. The presence of poorly constructed black flats at the back of the stage seriously marred the show's professionalism, and I would have appreciated even more in the way of set decoration to immerse the audience in the environment of the play. The presence of ambient electronic music during the beginning of the show and interval felt somewhat out of place with the show's sense of place, and the lighting design could have been better employed, as there were frequent moments where the actors were in darkness during the scenes.

Where Lindon's direction proves to be commendable, though, is in his work with the actors: Wilf Wort, Claire Forster and Alex Marshall. All three should be praised for their strong performances, which went a long way in keeping the audience invested. Wort, as the demolition expert Ned, generally succeeded in conveying the sense of his character's psychological collapse, with his bursts of rage being truly compelling to watch. A highlight of the play was the sight of him attempting to copy the instructions of an oral sex audio-guide, before his wife Joy's untimely entrance. Nonetheless, I felt like more work could be done in filling his quieter moments, especially in interaction with Forster, with a subtly building frustration, in order to make the explosions of anger even more convincing. As Ned's neighbour Dale, Marshall proved to be the funniest performer of the evening, with his nonchalant delivery prompting frequent fits of laughter. His performance of the fourth wall-breaking monologues across the play was also commendable, though hampered by a fidgety stage presence. Forster, playing Ned's wife, was overall the consistently strongest performer- she understood how to communicate as much with her subtle usage of expression and body language as with what she was saying.

As a general note, the execution of Butterworth's dialogue- which has its own unique sense of rhythm and pacing within the lines- could have been improved upon, for this is where a great deal of the characters' convictions lie. There were occasional line stumbles, dropped  cues and lapses in energy that littered the first half of the play, preventing me from fully appreciating the narrative. The second act, however, improved considerably in this regard, with the cast really hitting their stride, and conveying the longing and pain of their characters in convincingly realised detail. A standout moment was Wort reading out a list of interactions with his wife from a diary- a moment which had a heart-wringing authenticity. It was here that I felt fully engaged in the action, with genuine tension taking hold as the audience watched the story unfold.

Such moments of brilliance demonstrated the full potential of the production, and are reason alone to come and watch. For future performances, if the performers are able to invest the rest of the play with as much intensity as the second act (the delaying of the first night by a day can't have helped matters), and if the production team keeps a closer eye on the show's aesthetic details, then Fortnight Theatre will undeniably have a show to be proud of. 

5 March 2016

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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