Middle England

Tue 4th – Sat 8th June 2013

reviews

Nick Williams

at 11:04 on 6th Jun 2013

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One day, one city, two little girls - both missing. With their families' lives in turmoil, personal tragedy explodes into a nationwide frenzy.

So much for the play’s marketing patter. However, what I was left with was not a sense of domestic problems blown onto a national stage but a harrowing situation becoming twisted into ever increasing ugliness through the power of the writing and commitment of the acting. This was ultimately a personal play, personally delivered. But it was also something more – it was jarring and even distressing to watch at times. Chairs not facing one direction but set at all angles so that you have to twist in your seat, the staging at one moment end-on and the next in traverse, the rapid, impassioned dialogue immediately tempered with moments of striking comedy; Kingham has not written and directed this play in order to give anyone a comfortable evening at the BT and for that she must be applauded.

We follow two couples, one firmly middle class (Paul and Mai) and the other living on a neighbouring council estate (Dan and Charlie), both struggling to deal with the impacts of child abduction. Phoebe Hames is outstanding as Charlie, balancing a masterful command of inflection and pace with a physicality that gave her an air of utter helplessness, of a woman almost manacled by the world around her. Hames is complimented brilliantly by Ed Price as Dan whose communication of pent up frustration and anger is well judged - if lacking slightly in variety; a wider exploration of mannerism could perhaps have brought greater intrigue to his performance. Francis Thomas’ Paul is strong, commanding, impressive and where I initially felt he lacked engagement with others on stage this is in part justified as his character is developed. Like Price however there could have been greater variation in his vocal delivery. Paul’s wife, Mai, is stunningly portrayed by Claire Bowman. What appears first as an awkward inability to convincingly convey emotion on stage develops into a powerful exploration of a woman of reserve striving to hold on to anything she can. One extended scene between herself and Hames, blending moments of gripping emotional honesty with touching comedy, is one of the most disciplined pieces of student acting I have seen and worth the ticket price all on its own.

Intense, if at times overwrought, domestic naturalism was expertly interposed with absurdity and comedy in Zoe Bullock’s two intrusive characters whose one-liners and effusive personas come completely out of the blue and perfectly cool the heat of the two couples’ private meltdown. One of my few criticisms: perhaps this shift appeared too late to be fully realised in all its cross-generic power. I felt the relentless emotional intensity that we are forced to witness beginning to wear on me before Bullock’s first entry. The dialogue, in the most part absorbing, begins to drag where too much emotional exposition is laboured into a confined space of speech. That said, Kingham’s writing is brave, as are the performances she has prised from her actors, and that is the take-home feeling. A bold play; beautifully staged and fearlessly delivered.

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Lizhi Howard

at 11:42 on 6th Jun 2013

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Middle England is a tense piece of new writing from Carla Kingham. It tells a story that is hauntingly familiar: two girls from different backgrounds are abducted on the same day, and a police hunt is launched to find them. The play is viewed through the families’ eyes: the audience, for the most part, being kept in the dark as much as the parents. The style and subject matter of the play calls for an intensely emotional handling from the actors, which they deliver across the board.

Kingham’s crafting of dialogue really allows her actors to shine. The opening sequence of two similar conversations happening in different households immediately drops the audience into an atmosphere of confusion and apprehension. The following sequence, set in a police interrogation room, involved a one way conversation where the audience could only hear the response of the parents and not the questions being asked. Indeed, it fell to the actors to convey the sense of a conversation that could not be heard by the delivery of their lines and their use of eye contact. Claire Bowman (Mai) was particularly successful at this: I almost felt sorry for the audience member she hand chosen to be her point of focus.

The audience had been warned prior that the seating arrangement was unusual. This was certainly true, with chairs scattered about, facing odd directions. This meant that it was very rare that you were able to see all the actors at once. Instead of being tiresome however, it helped emphasise the audience’s empathy with the characters: we two had no idea where to turn, where to look, what we were missing. In a play with this subject matter and in the BT studio, I found this to be a creative and innovative use of space. The set itself had clearly been designed with the proximity of the actors to the audience taken into account. There was an diligent attention to detail; the letter Mai read from was headed with police insignia and she wore a wedding ring throughout. The use of multi-media was also effective helping draw comparisons not only to the characters and their stories but to examples that we are familiar with.

Francis Thomas as husband Paul was fantastically menacing and yet sympathetic. He used his physical height to cow and intimidate when needed and yet it never felt like he was talking down to the other actors unnecessarily. He was also able to make a wonderful transition from caring, calm husband to (personal) prime suspect without creating a caricature. Ed Price as his counterpart similarly handled his character arch well with one of the highlights of the play being his interrogation sequence where he was able to switch through a range of emotions using the words ‘no comment’ only .

Mention must also be made of the fact that both he and Phoebe Hames as girlfriend Charlie were able to hang onto their accents throughout. Zoë Bullock as Doreen and Tilda provides some light relief without seeming out of place. Her interpretation of Tilda was astute and Doreen provided the voice of the community. Her entrance as Doreen from the audience was also the most appropriate use of this technique I have ever seen in Oxford.

The show is stolen however by Claire Bowman and Phoebe Hames as the respective mothers. They are both able to convey the panic and guilt of the situation as adults, rather than twenty something university students, always a risk with a play about children and parents. Bowman is possessed of an iron focus; every moment she is absorbed in her character even when she is not in the scene- crucial for a performance in this style where the audience’s gaze is more difficult to regulate.

Hames acts with integrity and genteelness, able to seek out many facets of her character and able to convey a nervous tiredness which shouldn’t be possible, but is entirely appropriate for Kingham’s script. My main criticism however is that both of these actresses have a tendency to mumble, especially when their characters are weighed with emotion, which was a shame when I wanted to hear everything they said.

I left the theatre not entirely sure whether I had understood whodunit, but that may not be the actual point of this production. Indeed I’m willing to admit that flaw may be in myself, rather than the writing. Initially I found Kingham’s technique of having characters speak over and through each other a little grating as I lost the threads and facets of the conversation, and was scared it would become a ‘gimmick’ rather than a ‘technique’. These are, however, minor and personal flaws in what was truly an amazing production.

The acting is stunning, the set beautifully haunting, and the writing foreshadowing great things for all those involved.

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