The Questionnaire

Fri 5th – Sat 27th August 2011

reviews

Imogen Sarre

at 14:20 on 17th Aug 2011

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Questionnaires are invasions into one’s intimate life, but they are acceptable because a sheet of paper separates and distances the two people involved in the process. Christopher Birks’ and Robert Neumark-Jones’ new play, starring theirs truly, transforms the paper form into the real people behind it, the questioners and the answerers. Set in a tiny and sparsely set performing space, their effective use of space meant the whole room became part of the interrogation cell, contributing to the sense that we, the audience, were privy to a very personal side of someone’s life. We were made extremely aware of the emotional nuances that linger behind the questionnaire: the responder’s self-consciousness that his reply is in some way a public declaration, and the implicitly judgemental nature of the questioner.

Accordingly, the answerer Jack (Birks) is all about rhetoric. Every time he speaks, he seems to be making a huge effort to formulate sentences that have a carefully aesthetic appeal. As he rejects the world with its overriding focus on materialism and resources, so he simultaneously jumps on the bandwagon of political propaganda, turning words, intellect and ideas into commodities. The character One (Neumark-Jones), the questioner, is all about defacing the edifice of words that Jack constructs, and debilitating him through those means.

Perhaps this is why Birks portrays his character Jack responding so strongly to everything One says: as the piece progresses, he shifts from confusion to defensive outbursts, finally resting on fear, as all he thought about himself is slowly stripped away and left shamefully bare. Still, no matter what effect One’s questions and reproaches might have on Jack’s sense of himself, Birks’ performance was a bit too heavy handed. Admittedly, he had his work cut out for him - as the only one onstage and conversing with a voice over, to keep an audience consistently engaged and interested in the action before them is tricky to say the least. His use of the space was good, preventing the play from becoming stagnated, but I felt his multifarious facial expressions were too consciously deployed – I never lost myself in his performance and was too often aware that he was acting. His depiction of fear was disappointingly represented mainly through panting (which, come on, must be the oldest trick in the acting book; plus, it lacks any sort of credibility when the person in question has done nothing more energetic than walk around a 4m² room). Surely, the power of Neumark-Jones’ performance lay with his ability to impress upon the audience a sense of his complete control over both his emotions and the situation in hand – thus making his outbursts so terrifying because so very unpredictable. Luckily, Birks’ constant displays of fear were so unconvincingly forgettable that I did not feel tarnished by the same fear brush and so was taken aback every time One lashed out. This is not to say Neumark-Jones was not chilling and did not fill me with apprehension, because he did strike a very commanding figure, but to suggest instead that by visibly quailing at his presence, Birks acted like Neumark-Jones was going to hit him all the time, which undermined the effectiveness of the latter’s poised control and the contrast in the moments when he lost it.

This may seem excessively critical of Birks, who is a fine performer (and, clearly, writer), but the show only reached five star quality when we got to see some more of the mesmerising Neumark-Jones – unfortunately, this was not for nearly enough of the play. As One, Neumark-Jones’ control over his voice and body was most apparent when he manipulated the funny and scary moments of the play, shifting his tone and movement with outstanding ease, and oscillating between swiftly regimented movements to uncontrollably jittery mania, and then to smiling freakishness. (I do feel for his jaw muscles).

This was a seriously powerful production, not least because so extremely thought provoking. They left us with a questionnaire about the all-elusive meaning of happiness and it, like the play, has left me thinking. This definitely joins the ranks of those Fringe performances you should 100% try your hardest to go and see. You won’t regret it.

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Olivia Edwards

at 14:22 on 17th Aug 2011

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The Questionnaire is a play whose lifeblood is a blend of a sense of mystery and the element of surprise and for that reason I will try hard not to deaden the effect of these crucial ingredients of the play for the sake of readers who have yet to see the production. This is a fascinating piece of new writing written and performed by Christopher Birks and Robert Neumark-Jones, which prompts its audience to examine their own outlook on life as much as Jack (Christopher Birks) – the ‘contrary little know it all’ – is forced to confront his. Jack enters the room confident that ‘I’m not arrogant, I’m just different’, convinced that under his ‘order’ the world would be a better place. Most of us will know a Jack: someone who can speak ardently for hours about how the world has gone to rack and ruin and how everyone else is the problem. Perhaps even we have a bit of Jack in ourselves. What starts as a run in with a man handing out questionnaires on the street becomes an interrogation that strips Jack of his sense of self at its deepest level.

The placelessness of Jack’s interrogation room suits the play’s venue perfectly: the Radisson’s low white ceiling tiles and large beige ventilators often dull any atmosphere a production attempts to create, but, in The Questionnaire they helped make Jack’s prison feel more indeterminate, more undesirable. In a venue as intimate as theSpace on the Mile naturalistic performances are imperative as the slightest hint of overacting would be thrown into harsh relief. On his entrance, Jack could easily be mistaken for a blustering latecomer, then and throughout his performance Christopher Birks does extremely well to convincingly play Jack as one who has just walked in off the street like the rest of us. Only touches like the fact that Jack’s mobile phone ringtone clearly emanates from speakers not the handset itself momentarily break the illusion that Jack is just as real as the rest of us. The entity who so cruelly exposes Jack, played by Robert Neumark-Jones, is enigmatic, passive aggressive and chillingly unpredictable. Neumark-Jones’s performance as the question master with the Cheshire-cat grin is outstanding and his sinister smile is hard to forget. Furthermore, without wanting to give too much away, the moments of physical violence between the two young men are handled with extreme skill in such a small unforgiving space.

As scriptwriters, Birks and Neumark-Jones have done extremely well to strike a good balance between dramatic tension and comic release, which helped to keep the audience completely engaged in the action. I felt that the first half of the piece in which Jack frequently and repeatedly tries to defend his ideals dragged on slightly too long without variation but comic interruptions like the ‘Becks’ moment reinvigorated the production. The writers’ decision to make only minimal references to the fact that Jack is a student is an extremely important one. Students are almost expected to feel strongly about everything and talk of revolution, of humanity’s fundamental flaws, of the need to remove oneself from society, is often excused on the basis that it’s what students should be doing. But, Jack is extracted from his usual cosy habitat where smug talk of civilization’s doom is par for the course and his bold words are put under the spotlight and found to be devastatingly empty.

It is surely rare to find a pair of individuals who are as talented at writing as they are at acting. The Questionnaire is bristling with intelligence and yet never takes itself too seriously. Happiness remains as much of a chimera at the play’s conclusion as it is at the beginning but, you will be invited to rescue one of the cast off questionnaires from the stage floor as you leave so that you can continue to muse over the play’s fundamental question: ‘How Happy Are You?’

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