Chamber Music

Mon 22nd – Sat 27th August 2011

reviews

Patrick Sykes

at 10:16 on 25th Aug 2011

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‘I couldn’t follow it’s logic’, says Amelia Earhart Sophie Greenham at one point in this production of Arthur Kopit’s one-act play. Nor could I, but more importantly, nor did I want to; and I say the same of its aspiring absurdist illogic, that might otherwise have been an attraction.

With a cast composed of famous women from throughout history, one might think they have something interesting to say, but one by one the audience is subjected to feigned accents (Austrian, French the Deep South, Spanish or Indian - I wasn’t sure on that one) that are so inaccurate that they couldn’t even be described as racist.

Madness can be a goldmine for varied portrayals of psychological conflict, but in this case it was unfortunately over-simplified to a common tendency to twitch, itch, or say something irrelevant to anything. It must be said that the fault in the latter case lies with the writing, rather than the production. A consistent problem was that any instance which began to approach something resembling mental disease was undermined by the way that the ‘act’ would be dropped as soon as there were lines to deliver. I am sure it is not beyond the cast to incorporate the two.

Sophie Wright’s portrayal of Pearl White was an exception to the rule, with Jenny Woods’s Gertrude Stein not far behind. Both shivered themselves around the stage, and Wright especially used her entire body, rocking up and down on her tiptoes. Greenham should also be commended for the way she protested her sanity, particularly so in an early outburst.

It was also a shame that key moments between the entire group, though clearly having been given some thought, did not make the most of their potential. For example at one point the cast all declare their own theatricality, complaining that their ostensibly enjoyed cigarettes just aren’t the same without matches. This unfortunately lost its comic charge in poorly timed delivery. Likewise, the chaos of the climactic murder scene looked as though it had been intricately directed, but lacked conviction because the victim (who will remain unnamed) barely puts up a fight until her final moments.

Music to nothing but my fears, Chamber Music does not deliver on the psychological thriller it promises. The Delirium Theatre Company would do well to focus their energies on detail, which might help them to instil a little dynamism in their currently self-limiting production.

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Donnchadh O'Conaill

at 12:02 on 25th Aug 2011

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Not everything bizarre is interesting. Too much oddness can have a flattening effect, particularly if everything on display is equally peculiar. Arthur Kopit’s 1962 absurdist play depicts eight female inmates of an insane asylum, each convinced they are a historical female figure. We fairly quickly figure out who is who, but understanding what they are meant to be doing, or the purpose of bringing them together, is rather more difficult.

The cast was for the most part well-drilled and proficient. Some of the blocking in the early scenes was a little clunky and relied too heavily on tableaux, but the pace of the exchanges was good throughout. The changes of atmosphere (particularly when the doctor, played by Shaun Kitchener, entered and left) were precise and effective. But this good work was blunted by the script, which went to trouble of dragging these women onto the stage only to have them talk endlessly at each other. At least we were spared cod-philosophical digressions on the nature of their predicament, but at times it was little better than Loose Women with a better class of guest. The perennial danger with absurdism is a lack of subtlety and narrative structure, and both were on display in Kopit’s script; the undeniably powerful moments were outweighed, in my opinion, by stretches of tedium which a decent cast struggled to alleviate.

For me, the stand-out performers were Jenny Woods (Gertrude Stein) and Sophie Greenham (Amelia Earhart), although neither spoke with an American accent. Woods (who co-directed, with Charlotte Couture) was the most effective at conveying the effect of their predicament on the women; expressive without overacting, she was the most bitter in her exchanges with the others. Earhart declares early on, in a strongly delivered speech, that she is not insane, and Greenham does succeed in distinguishing her from the other inmates. She does not seem as affected by her plight as the others, and refuses to get caught up their enthusiasm for various schemes. Some of the other parts were quite small, affording little scope to the performers. None were weak, but too often they had no chance to impose their own stamp on proceedings.

What was perhaps most peculiar was that the few scenes that called for any degree of action, notably the sacrifice at the end, were very good: precisely acted, vigorous, and bringing strands of the plot and the themes together. At least, I think so: my best understanding of the script was the asylum inmates as a metaphor for ‘sane’ society; peevish, afraid of other groups, prone to scapegoating anyone different from them. This interpretation at least had the benefit of making sense of the ending, but it struggled to get much out of what had gone before. Then again, so did a talented cast and crew.

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