Block

Mon 10th – Sat 15th August 2015

reviews

Michael Roderick

at 09:57 on 14th Aug 2015

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Caricature can be great. For cartoonists, it's the very essence of the work: stereotyping, outlandishly enlarging every detail, every little quirk. For actors, however, caricaturing is often a risky business.When a character is all restless and hilarious surface, with no inner world, the audience may quickly lose interest.

This was my problem with Block, the new musical comedy from company Noonday Demons. Each character was just a boring collection of stereotypes; in fact, so mundane were these traits (for instance: the council worker played by Tim Brown was oh so very bureaucratic and geeky) that any attempt at satire fell flat on its face. Still, the narrative conception is fairly inventive: it follows the deeds and dealings of the petty criminal Block clan, hailing from Bristol (note: if you dislike intermittently authentic West Country accents avoid this play) as the patriarch Ray Block (Sam Sellicks-Chivers) and his son, played by Max Russell, attempt to construct an illegal playground on their estate for the delectation of the niece, Amy-Mae. Meanwhile the Block matriarch, Hope (Tori West), generally stumbles around getting drunk, whilst their daughter (Emily Powell) seduces the aforementioned council worker for her own purposes. The piece, in all its comedy and evocation of an earthier Albion is evidently influenced by Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem.

Commendably, the cast do a good job at directing the audience’s laughter not at the characters, but with the characters; the humour is good-natured and hearty, rather than mean and derisory. Unfortunately, that humour remains awfully silted – I didn’t particularly laugh much, and neither did the audience. Jokes were lost and thwarted; puns and jibes evaporated or were poorly done, which was a shame. This is an intensely wordy play too, and whilst there are some moments of clever lyrical fancy, most of the time the writing left me a little weary and I sometimes found it difficult to keep up with what was going on. This wasn’t helped by the fact that there were large chunks of verbose exposition directed right at the audience. I confess, too, that the ending left me baffled; it really was just bizarre. Musically, the play left much to be desired. The songs were monotonous and unmemorable.

All the actors are evidently talented, even if the material they’ve been given demands that they inhabit turbocharged cartoon cut-outs. Of particular note was Rochelle Oilver’s policewoman, who animated her character with a control and brilliance that stood out. All in all, the play, for me, was a disappointing realisation of what could have been a clever little story.

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Alannah Jones

at 10:30 on 14th Aug 2015

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Block is an ambitious piece, I am happy to grant it that much. Writer and lyricist Duncan Ellis has made a valiant attempt to create a ‘post-modern, heart-warming, nitty-gritty’ drama/musical – however in trying to be all of these things at once it sacrificed any semblance of a coherent narrative and I found myself constantly befuddled as to what exactly was going on. Now this can be an intriguing effect maybe for the first five to ten minutes of play but for the entire hour and a half performance I unfortunately found myself struggling to make any sense of it. Apologies if this is merely my own incompetence of understanding (but I really don’t think it is).

From the little I could grasp, the basic plot is the story of a gang family, ‘The Blocks’ hailing from the west country (the audience was thus subjected to an array of annoying fake ‘Brizzle’ accents) consisting of king-pin Ray Block, his wife Hope, a shambolic ‘pisshead’ staggering about the stage – a joke that was funny for about five seconds but became tiresome very quickly – daughter Zoe, temptress extraordinaire and ‘chip off the old block’ Kieran (cue agonized groan at obvious pun).

Ray Block had apparently had one of his ‘famous ideas’ – to illegally and inexplicably build a playground for the mysterious Amy-May. Unfortunately, the play was clearly devised by somebody with minimal knowledge of either property development or gangs.

Nevertheless, the actors all gave energetic performances and tried to make the best of the material, Tim Brown is to be commended for his versatility and humour, as is Rochelle Oliver who gave an comical if caricaturish performance as an evil property developer reminiscent of Cruella De Vil. The actors did well with what they had been given, but characters remained garish and at times even offensive caricatures of the working classes.

As we neared the end, what little semblance of lucidity I clung to disintegrated and at one point the play’s actual script was brought onstage –presumably an attempt to be self-referentially ‘meta’, the actor flicking through it, ostensibly as bemused as the audience as to what on earth was happening.

But then again, maybe it’s a matter of taste.

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