Masking, both physically and metaphorically, is a central focus of this playHelena Fox

I should begin by noting that I was ready to fall in love with Conversations With Myself. It is too rare that we see Cambridge creatives comprehensively embrace theatre techniques such as mask work, and even rarer that the Cambridge scene generates a show committed to experimental performance which finds the support and recognition that Conversations has already attracted. And perhaps rightfully so: it’s undeniably fresh, it’s blessed with a universally talented cast, and the issue at its centre is as important as it is still underrepresented.

And yet I couldn’t help but feel, both during the show and after I left, that in telling a story that deserves so deeply to be understood, through such a universal theatrical form, Conversations should have felt more accessible than it ultimately did.

Devised and directed by Leopold Benedict, Conversations focuses on the experience of Nikki, initially introduced as Nicholas, Payne (Jenet le Lacheur), a stockbroker living in Manhattan in 1969. The play seeks to physicalize the mental landscape of its protagonist through a series of masked figures, representing various aspects of Nikki’s psyche. In this manner, the show promises to expose ‘the demons of his mind’, inviting us to ‘plunge’ into its depths as Nikki struggles with a rising mental health crisis fuelled by an ever-present sense of claustrophobia and inauthenticity. The play’s intention is communicated successfully in the show’s dynamic opening scenes, although the truth of what exactly it is that haunts the protagonist is not revealed to the audience for a surprisingly long time. The temporal and geographical setting of the piece will be a clue to many as to its interest in interrogating the constructs of gender and focusing upon the trans experience, as we remember the Stonewall riots this year on their 50th anniversary.

Conversations should have felt more accessible than it ultimately did

In terms of performance, Conversations boasts some impressive offerings; Luke Daniels is sensational as Gino, a boundlessly energetic, wisecracking imagination. His visceral physicality was conjured by nothing less than full-body commitment to his character, and he pulled off a New York accent with considerable aplomb. However, Daniels’ talent was, confusingly, distracting. It was surprising that Gino the joker should play such a pivotal role in Nikki’s confrontation of prejudices and preconceptions about her identity. Indeed, much of the focus that should have been taken up by Nikki herself was drawn magnetically to him. Other colourful characters, from an uncomfortably well-meaning aunt to an insufferable evangelist, also suck up much of the oxygen on stage, leaving the subtlety of le Lacheur’s performance, which is both interesting and adept, struggling to breathe.

Only a fair way through the show do we realise that we are watching someone navigate a personal unmasking. When book-ending the performance with snippets of audio we assume to be from the Stonewall riots themselves, to me this delay seems an odd choice. I wonder whether the scenes in which Nikki is masked and tormented by anonymous demons might have been more powerful as retrospectives, after we have been properly introduced to the unmasked self and become invested in her personal story.

In a show which aims to place her experience front and centre, why did I feel that I was not permitted to listen to Nikki herself?

Perhaps some will say that this is the point, that Nikki’s true self fades inevitably into the background as she is confronted with the noise of a world which refuses to understand her. Yet in a show which aims to place her experience front and centre, why did I feel that I was not permitted to listen to Nikki herself? The piece is preoccupied with bringing to life the tribulations of Nikki’s experience in horrific colour, yet barely allows her a moment in which we might appreciate her for who she is. Le Lacheur is eminently convincing and gives a moving performance, yet I left feeling that I didn’t really know Nikki at all. This is a disservice to an experienced performer, and rather misses the bar that the show sets for itself in its aim of immersing the audience in the psyche of its protagonist.

Neither le Lacheur nor Freya Warsi quite managed to sustain their accents convincingly throughout the show, an inconsistency which nags in a cast of this calibre. Gin Minelli showed incredible verve in several roles, and carried off a well-thought out musical number with charisma and grace, whilst Benedict’s physical work is impressively skilful and his understanding of mask techniques clearly very accomplished.


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In the end, Conversations falls foul of over-intellectualising itself. Much of the physical work is truly impactful, and its cast are certainly able enough to command the audience’s emotions for the hour in which we surrender them, but due to some slightly baggy sections of script and a confused narrative order, they are prevented from doing so with total success. Ultimately, I must give credit where it is due: music was used thoughtfully throughout, the masks are well-crafted, and the show immediately transports the audience to a shadowy half-world in which we constantly lose our grip on reality, offering an enjoyable departure from the earnest naturalism with which Cambridge-based theatre is saturated. It vibrates with energy, and the combined creative talents at play, from writing to direction to performance, are practically aflame with enthusiasm for what they are doing, something which is always a joy to witness.

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