EFR - Reviews of Exit Stage Left

Exit Stage Left

Mon 6th – Sat 18th August 2012

reviews

Sara Pridgeon

at 09:02 on 10th Aug 2012

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Exit Stage Left, a new offering from Ben Smithard and Paul O’Farell with Ecco Theatre Company, pits celebrity and artistic success against morality. The show tells the story of director Greg Thompson (Joe Lill), a previous heavyweight of the theatrical world who is looking to make his comeback. He’s pinned his hopes on his new play, also entitled Exit Stage Left, and over the course of ninety minutes the audience is privy to both its rehearsal process and completed scenes from his production. It’s an interesting concept, one which becomes more intricate as we get further into the production, but Exit Stage Left is at times let down by the quality of its writing and its acting.

Thompson’s play deals with heavy subject matter – a married couple, both actors at the top of their game, are involved in a hit and run which results in the death of a young girl. There are, in a sense, two casts in Exit Stage Left: the actors in the show and the characters in the play. Aided by a mostly well-chosen soundtrack, the transitions between the reality and the fiction shown on stage are relatively smooth. Comic relief is provided in the form of the rather hapless assistant director Stu (Jacob Wigley), and he is believable as the uncool character who desperately wants to be important.

Other performances are less convincing. Lill’s opening lines, which see him berating Stu, are flatly delivered ; his attempts at intimidation are hollow. The actresses in his production spend much of their time gossiping (especially about the female lead, Liberty (Becky Stordy)), but this, too, fell flat – these scenes feel stiff, overly rehearsed, and, as such, fail to grab our attention.

Much of the action on stage during the rehearsal scenes derives from actors not understanding aspects of their characters or the overall narrative and their need to discuss these points with their director; this leads to the performance of scenes within the play. As the fictional show is meant to be opening in ten days, I did not find this believable. Surely, I thought while watching the production, these issues would have been considered and mostly resolved by an earlier date? The actors seem to be mostly a helpless bunch, and their once great director seems equally incapable of guiding them.

The highlight of the production is Hannah Thomas as Olivia Wilson, the protagonist of Thompson’s play. Thomas is completely convincing as the successful actress who loses everything, who is driven mad by guilt and is driven to take her own life. She is wonderfully expressive and her performance is powerful, poignant, and feels very real. Her devastation and her humanity sustain a show that is too long, becomes overly complicated, and whose ending feels almost cheap and glossed over. Exit Stage Left is interesting both in subject and structure, but it needs tighter acting and writing to make it really click. Still, it does pose provocative questions about the morality of art and artistic success – though these are perhaps better answered outside of this theatre.

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Daniel Malcolm

at 11:42 on 10th Aug 2012

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'Exit Stage Left', a title that to the end is not illuminated or illuminating, is a play about the angsty self-absorption of showbiz. Its only twist - that much of the action you initially take for theatre is in fact the memories of the director - is unexpected only because because also unmotivated.

If you split the play into a few episodes, 'Exit Stage Left' might make a second-rate soap-opera. But while it stays on stage, the tittle-tattle needs savagely cutting. Gossip about imaginary celebrities, to whom we hadn't been properly introduced, by a group of difficult to distinguish hangers-on became dull and inane. The characters who did stand out were one-dimensional: a bumptious bowler-hatted twit's insulting advances to women amused initially but by the third or fourth take had become boring.

I'm still in two-minds about the cues the production took from the screen: the emotion-jerking music that came on at moments of particularly heightened tension at first seemed an imaginative way of evoking the overwrought atmosphere of Hollywood, an effect already conjured by some dazzling red-carpet dresses, and glitzy lighting. But the overuse of these cheap effects, as the production progressed, began to smack of screen wannabe, rather than take-off. The same was true of the acting: if the shuffling, heart-felt, centre-stage monologues, with their oh-so-deliberate delivery had been rained down on the audience a little less indiscriminately, they could have been taken for irreverence. But their profusion suggested that they had become a easy resort for a director relying too much on our quickly waning sympathy. The immense gulf that inexplicably separated audience from stage also deadened their impact.

The play did heroically try to justify its rule-breaking by badmouthing the "illusion" of modern theatre. These were bold claims for a play which offered such a dross alternative. It says something that I was cheering on the director of the play, who was supposed to be the moody villain. His cutting of the weepier scenes as irrelevant was in fact quite right, as much of the play's action - including his own contributions - was draggingly redundant.

In spite of the script, the acting, particularly of Laura, at times made you feel at least something more than the seat of your pants on the uncomfortable chairs. But this play's paper-thin exploration of ambition dissolves into little more than a fest of desperately poor puns and weak humour. The author should take the shallow meta-morals of his own play to heart before writing again.

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