first night

Someone Who'll Watch Over Me

Carrie Gaunt spends an emotional evening in a Middle Eastern cell with CTC's 'Someone Who'll Watch Over Me'.

Some productions are so breathtakingly brilliant that trying to write a coherent and unemotional assessment of them is something of an uphill battle. I'll attempt coherent but, given that as I sit down to write this review I'm still shaking, and have only just managed to stop sobbing, I might have to eschew unemotional. A harrowing shout of laughter into the dark, Castle Theatre Company's production of Frank McGuiness' Someone Who'll Watch Over Me is a tour de force, showcasing a potent double whammy of three astonishingly accomplished performances and intelligent, sophisticated staging.

Someone Who'll Watch Over Me features that time-honoured joke book trio, an Englishman, an Irishman and, um, an American, in the decidedly uncomic surroundings of a cell in Lebanon. The play's acknowledgement of the political zeitgeist in the Middle East is perfunctory; McGuiness' script instead explores the psychological effects of incarceration on each man in turn, and the coping mechanisms that each turns to in order to keep that most precious commodity intact: sanity. At times, the effect is chilling and ultimately devastating, but there are also some incredibly touching moments of pure joy, rendered all the more poignant by the horror that bookends them. Director Tom Harper deserves tremendous praise for allowing the moments of comic relief to be treated just as carefully as many of the more sombre scenes. The almost childlike exuberance of the 'Run, Rabbit, Run' sequence, for example, was ultimately incredibly moving. Each innocuous conversation, in its wider context, served to sharpen the emotional shocks.

Nevertheless, the fear lurking on the fringes never quite dissipated, and the fact that this production communicated this constant sense of dread with such clarity is, in part, due to extremely intelligent use of space. Norman Chapel, with challenging acoustics and sightline issues pretty much wherever you sit, is a tricky beast to tame, but if used effectively it can create an incredibly intimate, claustrophobic ambience, which is crucial for a small-scale, individual-centered play such as this one. Harper has pulled this staging off with aplomb, giving his audience the kind of intimate insight into the characters that would be nigh-on impossible in a larger space. Every hand gesture, every painful memory that crossed a character's mind, even every hard swallowing-down of an imminent emotional outburst—being able to see these unsaid emotions portrayed so clearly and so intelligently was a very special thing to witness. As a general rule, I liked the moments of more non-naturalistic staging but wasn't totally convinced by the use of shadow puppets. In a production where prop usage is generally minimal (in keeping with austere nature of the surroundings), they felt slightly fussy and out of place, but this is just a personal preference.

The actors rose to the challenge of this tremendously exposed space like a dream and all three should firstly be commended for their excellent control of such complex material. Never once did I feel that emotion was overwrought or inauthentic. Being so up-close-and-personal with the action necessitates characterisation that goes more than skin deep, and looking into the eyes of each actor, it immediately becomes very obvious how much they have connected with the rollercoaster of emotions their characters are experiencing, and the effect is devastating. George Rexstrew, as well as showcasing truly formidable accent work, gave Edward, from the outset, the kind of manic jumpiness of a man *this* close to total hysteria. This gave tremendous potency to both his anger and his despondency, and his silence and inertia at the beginning of Act Two felt almost as terrifying as the events immediately preceding them, as they so sharply contrasted the volatile character we previously saw lurching through the first act. Rexstrew was very much missed in DST over his year abroad and it is wonderful to see him on stage once more. Adam Simpson's Adam is good-natured, gentle, almost fatherly, and again his predominantly stoic attitude towards his situation kept the emotional sucker-punches his character delivered both shocking and gut-wrenching. Simpson handles raw emotion expertly, and Someone Who'll Watch Over Me is no exception—the end of Act One left me sobbing, and very shaken, throughout the whole interval. Andrew Shires' Michael is heartbreaking to watch, with a tremendous amount of unspoken emotion etched onto his face, finding ultimate expression only at the very end of the play. Watching Michael's conviction and positivity slowly but inexorably fade made for a traumatic second half—Shires' vulnerability elicited immense pathos.

All three actors should be immensely proud of themselves. Harper and his cast have clearly worked very hard on nuanced characterisation and the effect is utterly stunning. This was some of the tightest ensemble work I have ever seen in DST. The actors bounce and fizz off each other with energy, chemistry and at a relentlessly feverish pace, making a tense situation all the more taut, and making the emotional climaxes feel almost like deafening silence by comparison.

Someone Who'll Watch Over Me is not an easy watch but it is so impressive that the inevitable tear-stained mess is eminently worth it. An incredible script, flawless performances, and an amazing space that makes said performances 10 times more immediate. I cannot recommend this production highly enough. A privilege to watch.

2 December 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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