EFR - Reviews of Novel Experiments in Living

Novel Experiments in Living

Mon 15th – Fri 26th August 2016

reviews

Ben Ray

at 09:47 on 16th Aug 2016

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There are certain pieces of new writing at the Fringe that are so complex, with narratives and plots that are so twisting, that you can only sit back and admire the knots that the cast manage to tie the audience up in. 'Novel Experiences of Living' is definitely one of these. A wonderful mess of a play, it brings to mind the concept of Chaos Theory: that there is order and reason in all the madness. Discussing the act of writing and of creation, this show follows self-created characters as they write out their own lives, their movements dictated by the ominous ‘script’ and constantly challenged by the ‘critic’.

What really brings this play alive, and keeps it afloat amongst all these heady themes of self-narrative and literary creation, is the sparkling dialogue. Full of witty comebacks and one-liners, the lines whizz across the stage and keep this potentially overambitious play under control. The characters constantly reinvent themselves: this means the humour is sustained throughout the show, and the possibility of pretentious introspection is neatly avoided. One character who frequently transforms into a hipster, for instance, keeps delighting in his recurring discovery that he is gay, whilst another character, a maverick who has killed her author, is having constant trouble defining her inner London accent. The audience certainly find it all hilarious - every second line seems to elicit a laugh from somewhere in the crowd. This is an impressive feat for a play that runs past midnight, to an audience of tired theatre-goers.

It is hard to believe that these polished performances all come from students. The University of Manchester Drama Society pull off a seemingly professional show, which leads the audience into falling for one utterly madcap situation after another. Numerous touches, such as the repeated use of whiter boiler suits to represent the anonymous, original ‘character’, gives the play a rounded, sculpted feeling, and are proof that there is a subtle order in amongst the maelstrom of chaotic character-based activity.

Although the play’s ending slightly disappoints, falling flat as the final character simply walks quietly off stage, it doesn't detract from the overall high level of energy that is maintained throughout. The slightly cringe-inducing title 'Novel Experiences of Living', with its connotations of introverted literary existentialism, is a misrepresentation of the sparky, hilarious performance it advertises. The piece's perfect send-up, as the characters realise with horror that they might be in a student play, sums up this performance: hilarious, slick and exquisitely honed.

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Christopher Archibald

at 10:10 on 16th Aug 2016

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I have to admit that I had low expectations for ‘Novel Experiments in Living’, a play that describes itself as following ‘some characters in a script, as they discover, to various extents, that they’re characters in a script’. Yet this play is so much more than its groan-inducing, metatheatrical premise suggests. Opening on a writer staring at his keyboard surrounded by (human) scrunched up bits of paper, ‘Novel Experiments’ spirals into a bizarre farce with everyone trying for a chance to be their own author, only to realise that we are all written by the world around us. It is unapologetically meta, but likeably self-deprecating; one character wonders terrified: "You don’t think there’s a chance we’re in a ... student play?". Yet this professional and polished production by Manchester students avoids all the stigma attached to that label.

The production’s look is well thought out and constantly engaging. A simple set, and subtle sound and lighting allow for quite a loose sense of space, but also make the moments of physical comedy and inventive use of props stand out. The white suits and masks, ripped off to reveal characters beneath, cleverly visualise characters coming to life from blank paper.

But it’s the script that really makes the production. Built around a fairly familiar idea, it takes metatheatre in exciting and relevant directions. What’s particularly commendable is that, rather than being a play about plays, ‘Novel Experiments’ uses this format to explore pressing questions of identity, and the contemporary obsession with non-conformity that always seems to end up as another way of conforming. One character/author moans over her white, middle-class background: "not the making of a great biopic. It’s hardly Gandhi. It’s just not fair".

There are no weak performances, and the cast works especially well as an ensemble, yet ‘the critic’ steals the show with her genius comic timing and forensic attention to the mannerisms and gestures of an all too familiar literary critic or professor. Though of course, she does have some of the best lines in the script. My particular favourite is when, after turning her hand to writing, she turns to the audience and with perfect deadpan complains, "I’m starting to worry ... that I might not be the voice of a generation." An amazingly talented comic actor.

We are confidently informed that the golden rule is ‘kill your authors’; yet if this hour teaches us anything it’s that, between popular culture, gender, class, race and narcissism, ‘writing’ yourself is a lot harder than it sounds. ‘Novel Experiments’ is witty and perceptive; it manages to raise head-scratching problems while still being lighthearted fun. If you have an hour to spare, see this show – you won’t regret it.

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