The Man Upstairs

Fri 3rd – Sat 4th February 2012

reviews

Hyunwoo June Choo

at 13:44 on 5th Feb 2012

1agrees

1disagrees

Original productions often have an imbalance where they rely on great acting or performance to outshine their Achilles heel—a dull, pastiche script. Tim Kiely’s The Man Upstairs distinguishes itself for a simple reason: it gets all parts of the equation right. It must have been the character-committed performance or those magical tendrils branching from the painstakingly witty script that held my attention captive for the entire show.

Just a request of a "slight push" is how Arthur Hallam (Vyvyan Almond) meets Zoe Blake (Zoë Bullock), an innocent bystander pulled into Arthur’s attempt to jump off a high building. Panicked, Zoe tries various ways to dissuade him from the act. Arthur, a cynical elitist, takes strange amusement in Zoe’s genuine compassion and naivety, and over some bread, cheese, and Tchaikovsky waltz music, Arthur paints the lofty bitter world he comes from. The mystery behind Arthur’s past remains unsurfaced until his wife Helen Fitzmaurice (Caitlin McMilan) enters with her grim stories of the past.

With a time span of less than two days, the play could not have had an action-filled plot, nor did they have a glittering set. But the audiences were absolutely absorbed because the characters felt so natural on the actors. Arthur is the characteristic genius whose expressions communicate solely with the brain, but never with the heart, causing tragedy within close relationships that are left unremedied. Almond surprised me with the ease in which he could articulate the sophistication so perfectly, the right inflection, tone, and breath. When past is splayed out, from his half-shadowed glare shades into vulnerability. Permanently imprinted on my memory will be Almond’s expression in the last scene, saturated with unruly melodies of the Tchaikovsky.

Bullock complements the dynamic as she emanates the astute, down-to-earth personality which doesn’t deteriorate even when imbued by Arthur with frustration and impatience. Zoe’s best friend, Will Robertson (Richard Hill) lives up to our expectations of the much-underappreciated “nice guy” who will always offer the comfort of a shoulder to cry on. Tersely put, they were born for these roles. With all due respect, Sergeant Holmes (Alice Porter) and Father Fleming (Tim Kiely) played excellent civilians inhabiting the other side of the intellectual divide, providing much humor and dramatic irony with their utter oblivion.

The art in this piece is just as literary as is performing; laying aside Kiely’s delightful wit and fancy clichés, at the end of the day, there are symbolisms and allusions sprinkled throughout, and it’s worth it give it a dwell to appreciate the details of his piece. Kiely explores the logical dissonance of a love very much present between two individuals erring in unfortunate ways, and to the extent that help can be, humans may just be marionettes to life’s mischief—but there’s more. Something to talk over coffee?

It’s a great pity that this show will be playing for only two nights. The agony of a failed love may not be the voyage you’re looking for, but it’s been created with such care and craft that it will definitely be a rewarding one.

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JY Hoh

at 15:06 on 5th Feb 2012

0agrees

2disagrees

The premise to Barbarian Productions' latest offering provides the heads-up that the audience is in for a fairly heavy night. Suicide, philosophy, and an estranged spouse? I spent the long walk from the gate of St John's to the theatre getting myself into a suitably sombre mood. This is high-wire subject matter to handle, but Tim Kiely and his team maintain commendable balance; The Man Upstairs almost falls off the building due to a shaky start and an occasionally bloated script, but stellar performances restore the production to solid (and sometimes soaring) ground.

The play wastes no time in introducing us to cantankerous know-it-all Arthur Hallam (Vyvyan Almond) and his unique style of verbose haranguing. It is difficult to believe that someone like him could exist, and this is where the play briefly stumbles; the opening scenes involving Hallam accosting passerby Zoe Blake (Zoe Bullock) and pelting her with philosophical questions while she tries to stop him from jumping came across as excessively abstract and pretentious. My sympathy for Arthur would have grown faster had his early scenes been better scripted. Arthur is an annoying jackass and the other characters' constant references to it show that his odiousness is intended, but scriptural self-awareness doesn't change the fact that you may lose your audience if your protagonist is too difficult to like.

Arthur grew on me, however, in no small part due to Almond's admirable acquittal of what must have been a very demanding role. Channelling a little bit of Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock, Almond stalks about the stage in a dramatic trenchcoat, intones his lines with gravitas, and succeeds in infusing his character with real intensity. Co-star Bullock gives a flawless performance as Zoe Blake, which is also the most convincingly written part in the entire play; consistent yet multifaceted, Kiely has created a real gem of a character. Whether she is the earnest young woman trying to cope with a weird situation, the embarrassed girl who blushes because her chest has suddenly become the topic of the conversation, or the exhausted mediator trying to empathise with a bitter and angry woman, Bullock remains pitch-perfect, and lights up every scene she is in. Almond and Bullock have excellent chemistry, helped along by Kiely's script, which overcomes its initial teething pains to show itself to not only be clever and contemporary, but capable of real poignance. Look out for a beautiful segment in which the two share a ploughman's lunch, and Arthur bursts into spontaneous dance upon hearing some Tchaikovsky. I can see how the sequence might have gone wrong or felt corny in the hands of lesser actors, but the pair makes the challenging scene look easy. Moments like those constitute the heart of the play, and are far more enjoyable than metaphysical repartee. Bullock and Almond also deserve props for having the glottic dexterity to deliver Kiely's generously syllabled lines with very few slip-ups - words like 'dehydrogenated' pepper every sentence!

The captivating interplay between the two main characters is reinforced by a supporting cast every inch as outstanding. Will Robertson (Richard Hill) as Zoe's best friend is played with such genuine concern and sweetness that Hill's performance telegraphs the revelation about his character way before it is revealed in the second act, and Alice Porter as Sergeant Holmes manages to inject colour and humanity into a largely functional role, portraying the frustrated bureaucrat without once straying into parody or cliche. Caitlin McMillan deserves singular praise as the hard-edged Helen Fitzmaurice. Her tired expression and drawn voice were mostly spot on - it seemed, however, that at some points McMillan was not really listening to the character she was having a conversation with, and was simply waiting for their lines to end so she could cut in with a sharp rejoinder. Her delivery of the line '...then on balance it may be better to remain silent,' was so quick as to be jarring amidst an otherwise riveting scene. These flaws, however, were mere blips in what was essentially a very impressive performance. The writer-director also joins in the fun, playing the bumbling Father Fleming (Tim Kiely) with just enough well-meaning sanctimoniousness, and his exchanges with Arthur Hallam made me laugh out loud.

Although the show takes off and stays mostly airborne after about halfway through the first act, some of the later scenes could use some trimming. Momentum is lost briefly when Zoe relieves Fleming to re-engage with Arthur in debate, and some of the dialogue between Will and Helen could be reworked to seem less hackneyed ('What do you see when you look at her?'). The concluding scene also drags a little too long with its reflective speeches, draining energy from a shocking and well-executed climax. Scripting could have been a little tighter, but The Man Upstairs matches every scene distended by highfalutin bombast or emotional navelgazing with moments of real power and emotion. See this production for its veritable buffet of acting talent, and you will not be disappointed.

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