first night

East

Genevieve Burns sees Lion Theatre Company bring physical theatre back to the Durham bubble.

East is not exactly the kind of play you want to bring granny along to for a nice trip to the theatre. Full of anger and angst, the language lashes out from the mouths of the characters in a brash combination of cockney and Shakespeare, refusing to relent in intensity or vulgarity throughout. The script dares not mitigate the violence of its subject in its consistently venomous ferocity but, unfortunately, nor does Lion Theatre Company’s production hold back from tackling Berkoff’s piece with full vigour.

The task of quite literally getting your teeth around Berkovian language is always going to pose a challenge. And although lines were sometimes rushed rather than savoured in last night’s performance, the cast did a pretty good job on the whole. Andrew Shires and Corinna Harrison, playing Mike and Les respectively, successfully managed to tease out different meanings from the rhythms of the script, and their shared duologues were powerfully fused together with a convincingly angry energy. Shires in particular took a monologue regarding the graphic manifestations of the female—ahem—and made it one of the most dynamic sections of the play. An impressive feat indeed. As the Mum and Dad of the piece, Henry Fell and Adam Evans foiled the youthful brashness of the other characters with their more contained versions of bruised rage, and they both successfully managed to draw out some of the play’s uncomfortable humour. For the most part, characterisation was strong, if a little one-dimensional. In terms of staging, having the characters pinned to one space in various scenes limited their capacity to fully express themselves. Placing Sylv (Talor Hanson) centre stage, laying curled up on the floor, certainly emphasised the trauma she had experienced, yet it left little room for a more complex depiction of Sylv’s emotional development and resistance, of which Hanson was certainly capable.

In order to offset the oddities of a script written in verse, a cockney accent and rounded off with Shakespearean twists, East demands exaggerated movement from the cast. And while physical theatre is certainly not a DST standard, it was refreshing to see it attempted on the Assembly Rooms stage. Despite their obvious talent, the cast occasionally seemed to lack confidence in enacting some of the unified movements (especially when synchronised with the tech), but this is the sort of issue that can easily be ironed out. At times, the clarity of motion suffered from the necessity of walking to and from the chairs at the back of the stage, which the actors would sit upon when not in role. Personally, I would like to have seen the backdrop—which almost represented a meta-version of the show poster—brought forward so as to condense the space and increase the presence of the actors on stage. Despite this, one particular dance between Mike (Shires) and Sylv (Hanson) brought out a sense of manipulative tenderness in their relationship that could have otherwise been overlooked, while the mime of sexual acts provided no doubt as to what was happening.

As the first original DST production of the year, it was both exciting and promising to see the technical scope of the Assembly Rooms Theatre wholeheartedly incorporated into the direction, even if at times it became a little too ambitious. Recorded music served well to break up the scenes, but it had a tendency to impede the pace of the piece. The use of the cast’s own singing voices, particularly Hanson’s, offered a more subtle way of drawing out similar effects. The lighting was creative and vibrant, with beams of coloured light crossing the backdrop and illuminating the side-black curtains, and spotlights were used effectively to foreground certain characters. One particularly nice moment came during a perverse imagining of the British flag, which was projected across the stage space during Dad’s (Adam Evans) xenophobic speech. At times, however, this ambition felt a little misplaced. A couple of shifts in the lighting state were at odds with the action on stage, feeling too bright and too sudden, which thereby jarred the audience’s understanding of the action that was taking place. And while the projection of shadows onto a white cyclorama created some neat images, they threatened to distract from Corinna Harrison’s solid delivery of a particularly brutal speech. Nonetheless, little touches, such as the use of torches, offered an imaginative way of keeping the audience engaged with what was undoubtedly a difficult script.

Theatre, by nature, is subjective. And physical theatre is no exception to this. East is never going to be everyone’s cup of tea, and if you feel a particular aversion to bad language, it may be best to steer clear. However, a huge amount of credit must be given to the cast and crew for putting together this show in such a short space of time. But sadly, although LTC’s production gives a proper stab at tackling East’s fury and shows a great deal of promise, it struggles to authoritatively deal with the piece’s overall challenges.

21 October 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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