“Performances were in general very solid, with Eduardo Strike carrying the piece as wearied lecturer Adrian, and Francesca Bertoletti shining”Alex Power

The Larkum Studio as a venue makes for a very different theatre experience to the one we are accustomed to in the world of Cambridge theatre, one which feels less polished compared to venues like the ADC Theatre itself. Luckily, the rehearsed reading of Romania Swan and the Stranger Than Fictions, a piece of new writing by Johnny King, embraced this more casual atmosphere, making the most of the opportunity to show a piece in development with fewer expectations than a regular show might have. Without expectations, then, I braved the snow to find out what the intriguing title was all about. My main criticism is that I am still not sure. That said, I rather enjoyed the reading; after the first 10-15 minutes the novelty of the scripts in hand wears off, and they did not hinder the performance nearly as much as I feared.

The scripts were not the only constraint upon the piece: the Larkum Studio is an intimate but difficult performance venue, and given the reduced capability of such a small space, I felt the staging was well-managed and lighting was used effectively (both Lucia Revel-Chion). The varying light which imitated a television screen was particularly nice, although there was one moment in which the heavy spotlight and intense music seemed melodramatic – forgivable if overdone for comic effect, though it confused rather than amused me. Director Phoebe Bright has worked with the physical constraints upon the production, and it is pleasantly surprising to see so much physicality in the acting in light of this. Performances were in general very solid, with Eduardo Strike carrying the piece as wearied lecturer Adrian, and Francesca Bertoletti shining as both the playfully vindictive Esme and alluringly elusive Isolde. Costumes suited the characters, though not idiosyncratic to the 2006 setting, and props were effective when used, although the absence of mimed props was equally good, and it would have been a better stylistic choice to mime all props in my view.

The piece starts in a chatty tone, with narrator-figure Amelia (Kay Benson) telling the audience of her brother Adrian’s eventful break-up. The scene was fun, with Strike and Bertoletti miming the actions Benson describes, aided by crashing sound effects (courtesy of Clare Maunder), and occasionally taking over the spoken parts of the narrative. This was effective, and began the performance on a light note, though things were not to remain that way. After Adrian’s break-up his life spirals downwards, and he begins to become lost in his own nihilistic worldview. Meanwhile, his niece Adrianne (Juliette Simon) is living with two of Adrian’s own students: Suzanne and Romania. Suzanne (Susi Mauer) is sort of friends with Adrian, and between herself and Adrianne the otherwise disparate stories are connected, resulting in a web of various relationships which, while successful in holding the piece together, would have benefitted from a little more unravelling.

In fact, the whole piece felt like a work in progress; of course, the script-in-hand nature of the performance contributed to this – though the actors almost knew their lines, so relied on them little – but it was primarily due to the inconclusiveness of the ending. King is clearly aiming for enigma here, and he so nearly pulls it off, but he overdoes it; the piece does not answer enough of the questions it sets up. This was frustrating, because the intrigue had been built up well, and I genuinely wanted to know what was happening to Romania Swan, and why the Stranger Than Fictions were such bad news.

That said, the script had its moments of beauty, particularly in Adrian’s philosophical musings and the scene splicing different conversations. Each of the four characters on stage at this point was engaged in a separate phone call, and their lines sporadically answered each other’s. It was a cleverly composed section, though extended to the point where keeping up with all four conversations became difficult, and the audience was lost in the intricacy. Unfortunately, Romania Swan and the Stranger Than Fictions pulls in too many directions, meaning many remain insufficiently explored; while the execution and performance aspects worked well with script and space, the scale did not suit the concept. The piece would benefit from more development, a stronger conclusion, and in all honesty a larger stage.

Romania Swan and the Stranger Than Fictions was on at the Larkum Studio 1-2 March