Nicola Guest has mixed emotions about this collection of short plays
by Nicola Guest
Thursday 3rd May 2012, 11:15 BST
Neil LaBute’s bash is a triptych of plays, a duologue encased between two monologues, each exploring an episode of evil in life, and as such can be examined both as a collective and as unique parts. Director Charlie Risius keeps a consistent visual style throughout, opening the house with all four actors onstage such that we settle into the evening looking for what brings them together, not what tears them apart, and a choice to keep all four performers seated throughout also led to a sense of continuity. In the text LaBute writes all the characters as Mormon, something Risius seemed actively to be avoiding combating; although the lines about the church were not cut, there was none of the iconography or tone one might expect in addressing this – but this was not a weakness, in their day-to-day garb and naturalistic sets these are clearly all to be people who we can engage with. There were similarities indeed between the performances. Yet these were three very different pieces which ultimately garnered three very different effects.
Max Upton was by far the strongest performance, his guilt-ridden businessman a master class in subtlety of tone – he, unlike any of the others, injected a level of humour into his performance which gave it colour and shade, his body curling in and his voice swooping so low you could barely hear him at points as he tried to hide from the very words he was speaking. We felt and breathed his shame, his loss and his bitter anger. Fiddling with a single prop, a glass of water, he managed to use stillness and tiny movement to convey a restlessness which infiltrated his whole being and captivated the audience. Truly sensational.
Tom Russell and Jess Peet’s duologue narrates two different viewpoints of the same night. Peet worked well with the far less interesting character, using her fluttering eyelashes and prettily-arranged legs to suggest the coquette, and her story of getting together with Russell shone with coy glee. His character flits back and forth between adoring boyfriend and violent homophobe, and the steely sense of control he emanated perfectly combined these two ideas, contributing to the chilling success of the piece. When the pair come together at the end of their speeches for a perfect, adoring engagement photograph, the discomfort in the room was palpable.
At this point in the proceedings, a short interval fell and I muttered to my companion “four stars, maybe even five”. But as mentioned, this was a tripartite experience, and for me the final third was the most significant let down. Olivia Emden portrayed a female prisoner, describing seduction by her junior high school teacher, her teenage pregnancy and, finally, slaughtering the child she loved to take vengeance on the man who destroyed her. Emden’s performance was frustrating from the beginning – her American accent by far the weakest, faltering from the start and vanishing entirely about halfway through, which really detracted from the realism of the piece. The choice not to use herbal cigarettes for a chain-smoking character was also highly frustrating: she sucked on the same unlit stick for nearly an hour, each time breaking the illusion that the earlier performances had so well maintained. The speech was by no means short, but artificially lengthened by a choice to pause endlessly between almost every phrase, meaning that the silences lost their power and simply became an annoyance – where Upton had used silence and tone to dramatic effect, Emden’s lack of shade and variety were distancing, alienating and ultimately not effective. The anger and bitterness, the pain and guilt of the character were evident, but these overdone pauses and the weak accent simply contributed to the feeling that we were watching an actor act, not a woman speak, and contrasted with the powerful earlier performances left bash ending on more of a whimper than a bang.