Venue: The Drama Barn
Right, honesty upfront: I wasn’t exactly hotly anticipating a night in the Drama Barn. At least not one that involved a ‘German absurdist play’, concerning ‘complex individuals’ in a ‘constantly disintegrating personal and collective society’. And don’t forget all the ‘metaphysical banana peels’ scattered about, ready to slip on and induce bewilderment. Perplex sounded like pretty heavy going, let alone when you consider the name…
But I’m pleased to report that my mouldering cynicism and drab preconceptions quickly sidled off, as they were wholly out of place. Director Julia Levai grabbed an interesting play and clearly understood how best to show it. At its core, Perplex pokes fun at the fact that we are all at the mercy of situation and nothing is a given. It suggests the mundanity of everything, but in a charming, questioning and humorous way. It would have been very easy to lose the thread, but when a strong team tackle a well-written, idiosyncratic play, it makes for a successful evening.
With a pretty tricky script, this production was very much at the mercy of the actors’ skills. There was nothing to hide behind. Effectively, you have four characters, two men and two women. But the characters and situations oscillated and dissolved, and with no real narrative arc, Perplex doesn’t really allow you to analyse characters’ motives and interactions. So, hackneyed though it is, this was a play where the old adage ‘acting is reacting’ really came into its own.
Dan South was great. He was fun to watch, had a spark, and got those intonations bang on. The crappy, awkward confusion of being a human, well, he got that. Sophie Shepherd was somewhat tense initially, although that arguably could have been the irritation of her character. However, as the evening wore on she seemed to relax more into the play and exerted a subtle force. Although Amelia Hamilton whipped out a very impressive machine-gun fire bit of delivery, I found some of her acting a little overly considered, not quite loose and natural enough. She seemed to be quite aware of the fact that she was acting, rather than just getting into it. Ted Weston provided the broadest scope in terms of different types of roles. From beginning as a slightly useless chap who can’t pay the bills, he returned as a whimsical, recalcitrant child, and then a deluded part -goer. Also, nice dancing mate.
There was a distinctly German touch and as such some of the cultural references were inevitably a bit diluted, but the humour still fizzed. In a play where nothing could be taken for granted, the choice to forgo an interval was wise, as you really needed to stay in that black box and let it all wash over you. Admittedly, after the first hour there was an ebb. A highly climatic (in many senses, fnarr fnarr) moment was tricky to follow after the audience had been so expectant and wrapped up in that one particular situation. But after a while, the whole slowly built up again and managed to deliver a strong end.
And can’t forget that set – it was very clever. It was effectively bits of furniture drawn in chalk on the walls, and the props pieces of illustrated cardboard. Suffice to say, this all looked good and worked on not only visual and practical levels, but also on an interpretative level. It added to the sense of ephemerality at the play’s core; things can be drawn up and rubbed out in an instant. Dare I say, it was a successful conceptual set – props (sorry) to Lucy Poulton and Ruby Sevink-Johnstone. Similarly, whilst there weren’t many opportunities to go wild on the costume front, the fancy dress party provided a great moment of wardrobe ingenuity.
So, there you have it. Student drama. So meta. Much ideas. Many acting. However jaded the prospect of all that might make you feel, don’t be. Seize it and stagger along tonight, because this lot did a stellar job. And you’ll end up having a good, long think about the meaning of life to boot.