EFR - Reviews of Phantasmagoria

Phantasmagoria

Thu 18th – Mon 29th August 2011

reviews

Lise McNally

at 09:17 on 19th Aug 2011

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Stop reading this review: Phantasmagoria is incredibly good to watch but rather difficult to summarise, so instead I propose that we all save ourselves a bit of time and you GO AND SEE THIS PLAY. Immediately.

Following childhood friends Malone (Ruby Thompson), Kit (Emily Bairstow) and Florrie (Zena Caswell) through a maze of first cigarettes, symbolic suitcases, morning-afters and shattered dreams, the script is marvellously subtle. “I need light for my darkness” Malone explains, and writer Tallulah Brown has thankfully followed her own advice. Avoiding any of the noxious “themes” which usually plague coming of age stories, the piece combines a movingly understated and wonderfully sad ending with a series of laugh-out load scenes, sharp dialogue and fantastic physical comedy. Most notably, the bed-scenes between Malone and the adorably awkward Moncrief (Josh Allott) had one man in the row behind me scarcely able to breathe. Both actors established a self-conscious chemistry which was truly endearing, with Allot straddling the gap between social ineptness and gallantry. There was something reminiscent of Love Actually’s “Colin, God of Sex” about his performance, which was lively and funny throughout.

Indeed, the professional ability of the whole cast was astounding. Although they are all students, the company delivered performances which would not be out of place on a national stage. I was particularly impressed with Bairstow’s ability to age herself subtly as the play progressed, with an inward sorrow and tension in her face making way for the play’s revelatory climax. If I had to pick a star of this show (although in all truth there are six), Phoebe Janner’s seven year old Hawker was remarkable. Having spied Janner after the performance, I can testify to an amazing physical and vocal transformation. A character exploding with energy, Hawker was pithy, punchy and utterly hilarious, a marvellous antidote to the fraught emotions and adult angst of the final scenes.

Apt for a play which takes it name from projecting images, Phantasmagoria is also a visual treat. Staged in the gorgeous opulence of the Merchants’ Hall, an ingenious set design ensured that the venue’s portraits and ornate carvings did not distract from the scenes. Washing lines and sheets were skilfully manoeuvred to create window seats, doors, toilet cubicles, and a not-so-subtly named “Sex Book”. The play’s actual use of phantasmagoria was also largely effective, particularly the hand written titles for the childhood scenes (kudos, by the way, to Thompson’s ability to write quickly and neatly under pressure). However, at times the alignment was slightly skewed, making the dictionary definitions in particularly difficult to read.

Desperately casting around for some criticism of this unmissable production, the only thing I can legitimately lament was that the audience was too small. Oh, and the venue’s a little bit far away. However, as a play which had me laughing numerously and almost in tears once, I guarantee that this excellently staged and brilliantly performed theatrical treat is certainly worth the walk.

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Craig Slade

at 11:57 on 19th Aug 2011

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I was apprehensive about this. It started off with what initially seemed like an irrelevant childish monologue about a girl watching people from her window, and there were projected slides with a definition of the play’s title on a white sheet hanging from two pieces of wood. When the non-linear scene sequence didn’t appear to make any sense and I (yes, me) was confused, I was ready to give this a couple of mediocre stars.

But that didn’t happen, and I managed to catch up with what was going on. The play follows three girls from childhood, growing up, and the different issues they face that threaten to rip their friendship apart. Estrangement, pregnancy and illness later and you’re at the end of the emotional rollercoaster that is Phantasmagoria.

And that’s what it is – an emotional rollercoaster. When it becomes clear that the same actors are playing characters in different scenes at differing points in the characters’ lives the genius of this play really comes through.

The strength of the cast cannot be overstated; ‘accomplished’ doesn’t go half way to describing how well these parts were acted; convincing tears were shed onstage. If one has to stand out from the rest, it was Phoebe Janner as the headstrong and irritable seven-year-old Hawker, a part as well-written as it was performed – turning a university student into a child is no mean feat, but it was done with aplomb.

As, was, everything – to be honest. From the first-class direction of Tallulah Brown and Becky Lee to the highly effective lighting and sound, not a dramatic stone was left unturned. Even the costume and set designers deserve huge credit for putting bits and pieces of props to the most ingenious of uses; particularly the vertical bed scene was very well done – although I was disappointed to not see the actors drinking full, horizontal cups of tea. You would have thought that some bright physics student at the University of Manchester Dramatic Society would have worked out a way to keep tea in a cup when it’s held horizontally. Ah well – maybe I’m nitpicking there.

Writer-director Tallulah Brown deserves particular credit for her convincing aging of the different characters during the play’s non-linear sequence. Costumes were worn slightly differently, lighting was harsher or less harsh, even the vocabulary and mannerisms of characters were changed depending on the point in the characters’ lives that a particular scene was taking place. Talking to my fellow reviewer following the performance, we swore the characters even looked physically older when it was demanded of them in the script.

There wasn’t a thing wrong with this production, and I cannot emphasise enough how much everyone should go to see it. The poignant ending makes this an immensely emotionally satisfying piece, and one that should not be missing from your Fringe calendar.

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