Thirty Two Teeth

Wed 3rd – Mon 29th August 2011

reviews

Donnchadh O'Conaill

at 10:15 on 24th Aug 2011

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Friendships and family ties fraying, a bizarre plot involving a supernatural being and a prematurely-born infant: Thirty Two Teeth (a new piece by Penny Gunter) could, perhaps should, be compelling theatre. But it doesn’t quite succeed, not because its premise is weak, but because it isn’t developed forcefully enough.

Samuel was prematurely born, but survived. Seventeen years later, his younger brother is undergoing the same trauma; he gathers his closest friends, siblings Will and Tamsy, to explain his plan to save the child’s life. It involves a trap being set for the tooth fairy. This might sound ridiculous, but it could have worked. The tooth fairy herself is an initially striking figure, bird-like and beady-eyed, not fully human but not fully without character. She is played with impressive consistency and economy; the problem is that the longer the play goes on, the more peripheral she becomes.

The play isn’t about the tooth fairy or how the characters react to her, but these scenes must feel realistic if the themes of guilt and betrayal are to work, given that her appearance on stage is their vehicle. Unfortunately, I felt neither the writing nor the performances quite captured what was needed here. We know that the characters are surprised to see her, because they tell us so; and we know that they differ in their opinions about her, because they debate – I’m afraid it’s the mot juste – what to do. But we don’t see this in their expressions, their body language, or their interactions with each other. This is crucial, because it feels as though the play hasn’t quite decided to treat this supernatural intrusion in a wholly realistic fashion. The effect is as though they are interrupted by a neighbour or a parent rather than a magical creature.

Partly as a result, the tension which ought to build as the teenagers come to a decision is dissipated. The writing is never bad but is rarely taught or urgent enough. Rather than working out the logic of the situation created, Gunter tends to have the characters dig up little bits of backstory when needed. These revelations tended to drag on the forward momentum of what is, after all, a psychological thriller.

The direction is also somewhat lacking. The early exchanges were sharp and well-paced, but as the actors began to explore the black-box space, the blocking became stilted and started to undermine the drama. A tense exchange about which desperate measure to take requires something more than actors standing still and delivering the lines at each other. The cast were competent but rarely more than that. I felt the portrayal of Samuel was most successful; the actor was reserved, at times almost shy, allowing glimpses of determination and occasionally something more threatening. Will and Tamsy were easier to read, and each became a little predictable.

This isn’t a bad show, but nor is it one I would give my eye teeth to see again.

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Patrick Sykes

at 13:45 on 24th Aug 2011

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Thirty Two Teeth is at its best when it most aggressively collides the dark agenda of its protagonist, Samuel (Ollie Gyani), with its interest in childhood fantasy. It is only in the slippage between the two that the play sustained its momentum. For example the audience enters the studio to the sound of a playful music-box style waltz, and the sight of Gyani, playing indeed, but with a pair of pliers. Likewise, Penny Gunter writes the Tooth Fairy not as the immaculately elegant sprite unable to form a sentence without a rhyming couplet that we are accustomed to, but a desperate, breathless creature, played by Claudia Jolly, who seems to utterly inhabit her unconventional role.

Jolly is particularly impressive in her control of the chain that imprisons her, convincingly manufacturing and reacting to a false force of restraint that checks her movements throughout. Whilst I respect the subtlety of the feature Gunter has her fairy make out of the sound of teeth clacking against one another, the device lets itself down when recreated using contact between fingernails, and was in practice much more difficult to achieve consistently.

But it was Gyani’s performance that exploited the space between darkness and fantasy most effectively. Whilst Will (Joe Alwyn) seems on the whole inflexible, reluctant to stray from his at times offensively moody expression; and Tansy’s (Polly Edsell’s) sometimes unnecessarily aggressive delivery makes you want to reach for the pliers yourself; Gyani coped well, successfully navigating his character’s contradictions as the caring young man resigned to cruelty, and finding a twisted dignity in the calm with which he threatens acts of extreme violence.

Much of the middle part of the play unfortunately allows these atmospheric tensions to be relaxed, perhaps because a preoccupation emerges in the script with explaining away (what are admittedly significant events) in the past to an unnecessary extent. This worked to a point for Gyani, whose character becomes increasingly desperate to plot and predict causations, but as a general policy it is unhelpful, and a little more restraint with these recollections would have made both the past and the present of this piece much more interesting.

Thirty Two Teeth is an original idea, and features commendable performances from both Jolly and Gyani, but it does not make the most of the fascinating conflict implicit in its premise; and whilst it promises to explore what happens when one must ‘explain the impossible’, it is overly concerned with explanations of the possible, and is a little patronising in its justification of itself for the benefit of the audience.

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