Never Say Never

Tue 14th – Sat 18th February 2012

reviews

JY Hoh

at 02:05 on 15th Feb 2012

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The blurb on "Never Say Never's" Facebook page suggests romance, intrigue, and lighthearted laughter. This reviewer took the advertisement at its word, and decided to spend his Valentine's Day evening alone at the Burton Taylor, hoping to find some suitable entertainment for the occasion. I am pleased to report that aside from some uneven performances and a dangerously weak start, Ionian Production's éclair of a romantic comedy is sure to delight audiences and should improve even further over the following nights.

Upon entering the theatre, I was greeted by the sight of Valentin (Orowa Sikder) collapsed in the middle of the stage, surrounded by the accoutrements of bachelorhood; bottles of alcohol, bizarre articles of clothing, and newspapers (purely ornamental). This vivid tableau is but one example of many shrewd directorial choices by Julia Hartley, providing a quick and effective sketch of Valentin's character before a single line has been uttered. Sadly, that image of Sikder sprawled on the floor amidst the debris of his debauchery is the only good thing about "Never Say Never"'s opening scene. For fifteen minutes, Sikder and his character's uncle, Van Buck (Himanshu Kaul), sleepwalk through initial exposition and interaction between the two male leads. From Sikder's stilted pantomime-mockery of his uncle and sloppy diction to Kaul's off-key inflections and wooden body language, this first scene falls almost completely flat. It's a shame, because Sikder is perfectly cast as the rakish Valentin, cutting a dashing figure and emanating a kind of dissolute charm. His vocal performance, however, is a lot weaker than his visual one. Sikder's rambling and sometimes slurred style of speech works best for asides and throwaway remarks, but he very rarely deviates from it, with the result that the audience simply cannot catch a fair percentage of his lines.This was particularly frustrating because at some points, specifically during his monologue on his eight-step plan to seduce Cecile, Sikder's delivery was clear, emotive, and convincing, so it is not as if he is incapable of getting it right. If Sikder can work out exactly when to tune up and when to tune down, his performance will improve greatly. Kaul could benefit from a more even distribution of intensity; he is often either droning or shouting, and some middle ground would help smoothen a generally bumpy performance. Much of this is probably attributable to first night jitters; I expect that both Kaul and Sikder will improve drastically over the rest of the run.

The scene that followed was so immediately superior to the preceding one that I thought I was watching a different production. Indeed, this set the tone for much of the play's quality - the portions involving the Baroness de Mantes (Katie Ebner-Landy) and her daughter Cecile (Sophie Ablett) were so impressive they had the unfortunate effect of casting Kaul and Sikder's flaws into sharp relief. Ebner-Landy is absolutely magnetic as the Baroness, and her voice was so commanding and her stage presence so formidable that at some points I could have sworn the entire studio was being sucked into her gravitational pull. It takes an actress of considerable talent to make domesticity sound funny, but every time Ebner-Landy talked about blue balls of wool or sorbets I found myself in complete hysterics. Listening to the Baroness' stern reading of Valentin's note was probably the most hilarious five minutes I've spent all term, but Ebner-Landy was not content to just play for laughs; she went on to demonstrate her range, seamlessly transitioning from iron dowager to vulnerable lady during a touching moment when she cries into Van Buck's shoulder. Ablett as Cecile turns in a comparably commendable performance. Combining a breathy, refined accent, an elegant gait, and an exquisite pout, Ablett transforms herself so convincingly into the 19th century French heiress that I had to look to the blinking lights and switches on the sound booth to reassure myself that I was still in present day. Of particular merit in Ablett's performance is its physical aspect. Cecile has the least lines among the main characters, but through adroit use of movement, Ablett manages to make her presence felt. From an adorably clumsy series of dance steps, to a subtly comic fake swoon, to the coquettish yet demure way in which she carries herself during her scenes with Sikder, Ablett shows that she does not need to open her mouth to make an impact. Whenever Ebner-Landy and Ablett take the stage, it practically reverberates with energy.

Rounding out the cast are four supporting players also deserving substantial praise - the inn-keeper/butler (Edward John Still), the servant (Chris Young), the dance teacher (Vinny Cochrane) and the de Mantes' priest (Sam Young). Still's enunciation of the word 'nibbles' in the first scene as the butler had me in stitches, and his innkeeper's hunch-backed walk was so funny that I was too busy laughing at him to pay attention to the conversation going on in centre stage. Sam Young as the bumbling priest fulfils his function perfectly as the nervous foil to the force of nature that is Baroness de Mantes, and Chris Young and Cochrane also contribute considerably to the comic feel of the piece in their brief moments of absurdity and exaggeration.

While "Never Say Never" does have a shaky start, it does pick up as the play progresses and its cast gains confidence. A particularly well-handled and performed scene takes place in the garden of the de Mantes' mansion; Kaul put a smile on my face with some drunken singing, following which Ablett and Sikder flirt and canoodle until the air is thick with sexual tension. In these moments, "Never Say Never" works, and provide yet more reasons for me to recommend it. The cast's unevenness is distracting, but this is still a play with too many merits to miss.

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