Counting Syllables - free

Thu 4th – Fri 19th August 2011

reviews

Rowan Evans

at 11:59 on 18th Aug 2011

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Unable to extend beyond a tired irony and the cliches it attempts to examine, this is a clunky play confused in tone. Julia Hartley plays affectionately gawky French undergraduate Camille, who enters a love triangle with a handsome lecturer and his flatmate Tom, played by Himanshu Kaul. Worryingly similar to the English Literature professor of a recent Channel 4 comedy, Christopher Hinchcliffe plays the one-dimensional academic lothario. The man who writes to get laid eventually feels sadly empty and claws towards blatant profundity: ‘who’s behind the mask?’ Not much save a predictable vulnerability, it seems, and perhaps this is what the play is driving at. There’s nothing badly acted about Hinchcliffe’s confident performance, but elsewhere the script’s heavy handling of Arts undergrad humour, mainly revolving around the word ‘metatextual’, feels more like bored self-mockery in the library than anything touching or funny.

The actors know their lines and individual performances, despite the wooden tennis-match of the written dialogue, are often strong. The technical direction, however, is frankly awful, even allowing for the limited equipment of a pub basement. Scenes end with blunt blackout, followed by minutes of fumbling on and off stage as the cast disappear to change costume, fetch props and then adopt opening positions. Putting on a show with such a small cast handling all elements of production is of course a challenge, but without even any music to fill the voids (there is a working sound system used elsewhere), the performance is cringingly unprofessional.

Some relief is provided by Orowa Sikder’s witty breed of performance poetry, intelligent and well delivered. The goateed wordsmith meets us all pre-show, writing down our names and odd titbits, which he has turned into a poem by the end of the show. But Sikder’s character Razeen, a supposed womanizer who barely defends accusations that his work is ‘vapid’, jars against the poet’s genuine skill. Having applauded what I hoped was the curtain to hear him perform, a first poem turns out to be part of the play. Sikder would do better at a private reading sharing stage space with other poets.

Counting Syllables essentially leaves me feeling confused, as moments of tenderness are immediately upstaged by over-acknowledged pretension. Should we laugh at or with the characters? At ourselves? The play seeks to send up posturing literati, but offers little as an alternative to cliche and literary type-casts. ‘Don’t bury your head in a stereotype’ warns the poet; sadly, this play fails to do anything but perpetuate them.

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Annabel James

at 12:31 on 18th Aug 2011

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Ionian Productions’ charming exploration of the complexities of human relationships begins and ends with the interaction between audience and performer. Before the show starts Orowa Sikder, who will play the part of performance poet Razeen during the show, chats with members of the audience about why they’ve come to see the play. He asks each of us to tell him an interesting fact about our lives which we are happy to share with the group. Right at the end, Orowa/Razeen takes to the floor and turns these pieces of information into a poem which becomes play's conclusion.

The sense of a link between audience and performer was further strengthened by the choice of venue: the basement bar of the Phoenix contains a very small audience space which the actors work directly alongside, and sometimes within. The intimacy of the set facilitates a sense of mutual scrutiny – at times I wasn’t sure who was made more uncomfortable by this - and helps the sense that this play is exploring the idea of love in real life, rather than a glamorous or theatrical version. Julia Hartley’s script explores the varieties of emotional relationship possible between Camille, a university student, her thirty-something womanizing lecturer Richard, and Richard’s flatmate and fellow academic Thomas. The script particularly focuses on the role of academia in such affairs: Richard impresses Camille with his critique of her sonnet, and she seems vulnerably naive when she admits to only being able to write them if she counts the syllables on her fingers. Later, however, Richard proudly proclaims to Razeen that he only started writing poetry ‘to get laid’, and Tom calls Richard an ‘abuser’ of culture.

Fiamma Mazzocchi Alemanni’s tight direction means the small cast flourishes in their representation of the changing dynamic between the three central characters. At points of tension the small domestic spaces of Richard and Tom’s flat become claustrophobic centres of emotional conflict. The strong cast all possessed good vocal modulation and movement was well controlled. Himanshu Kaul as Tom was particularly nuanced in his emotional expression, and Christopher Hinchcliffe was disarmingly convincing in his portrayal of the baby-faced, manipulative Richard. At times the actors’ delivery sounded a little stilted, but they inhabited the dialogue more fully as the play progressed. This skilfully-wrought production is romantic without being simplistic, and highly recommended.

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