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by on 18 January 2018

Breaking the Fourth Wall


OSO Arts Centre, Barnes, until 20th January

Review by Matthew Grierson

I would have liked to have told you more about StraightUp Productions, who are putting on Suff’ring at the Old Sorting Office arts Centre in  Barnes until Saturday, as both myself and (because she gets a say) Mrs Grierson enjoyed the evening. But perhaps it’s appropriate that the company doesn’t supply a programme, so cast and crew have to remain anonymous.

It’s appropriate because, first, it suggests a lack of preparation entirely in keeping with the disorganised, nameless and fictitious company that is staging the play about suffragettes around which this play takes place. Second, there is every chance that the actual cast feel such sympathy with the pitiful performers they portray that they are embarrassed to declare themselves. Oh, and – third – it makes my job easier, as I only have one set of actors to refer to.

If this sounds an unduly complicated way to begin a review, it also reflects the tricky opening of the production itself. The first scene of this play about suffragettes is actually the final scene of a show about the Vietnam War, and it quickly becomes apparent that real action is taking place in a fringe theatre rather than a parlour around the time of the First World War, as you might have expected.  Once the marines are offstage, there is a riot of cast and crew, busying themselves in preparation for (fictional) director Helena Pickford’s magnum opus about the women’s suffrage movement. At this point, anyone who has ever participated in theatre at any level will laugh knowingly at the chaos of lost props and missing actors. Or wince.


Uptight technician Nicky, obsessed with health and safety, is a particular highlight of this sequence, and it’s a shame that she remains true to professional form and never steps onstage during the “action”. However, as with so many productions, this one is held together by the stage manager – in this case, nervy Kim, who conveys with beautiful precision her increasing desperation as the cast absences mount up. Thrusting herself into the role of Walter Greenslade, vacated first by a missing miss and then the star’s Spanish husband, Esteban, Kim quickly builds up to gestures ever more dramatic in order to fill the gaps left by her talent. When she is told by Isabel – or is it Connie? – that women have the vote in Australia and New Zealand, the suffragette points into opposite wings, and, in character, Kim repeats the gesture in exaggerated form as though a snooker player leaning in for a difficult shot. She’s only outdone late in the second act, when a false arm is deployed by another actor who has pulled herself out of a body bag that has been hidden in the wardrobe. You’re not following this? You have to be there. No, really. You have to be there.

To single out Nicky and Kim is not to deny the quality of a largely strong ensemble cast (would that I could name them). Sisters Violet and Connie – or is it Isabel? – and the director’s Moldovan partner gamely tackle anything that comes their way, as do the two Marines who have inveigled themselves into proceedings so they can catch the eye of Hollywood bigshot Tony Branch, who is, improbably, in the audience. The show is thus an object lesson in what happens when every performer is in it for themselves, and their exaggerated, badly judged performances work when they are part of the performance. However, Branch himself is just a poor performance in the supposed reality of the play, lacking rhythm and spouting his dialogue in a cod-American accent that doesn’t help matters. Similarly, the elderly Ethel, as portrayed by Joyce, could be a real hoot with her impromptu obscenities and politically incorrect outbursts, but her comic timing is hit and miss.

It’s not always easy, therefore, to appreciate the catastrophic play being staged, as the play framing it exhibits the same sloppy tendencies from time to time. The behind-the-scenes shambles, while never close to being an actual shambles, is not as orchestrated as a farce needs to be to keep its humour sharp, and particularly in the opening hustle and bustle it’s not always clear what’s going on as storylines are set up. The play will surely be seen in the line of Noises Off and, inevitably, The Play that Goes Wrong and its ilk, so it’s important that it have a clarity of direction, especially if it wants to make the West End transfer to which the (fictional) director aspires.

When the (actual) direction is clearer, there are several clever juxtapositions, showing what can be achieved if things go exactly wrong. For instance, the sound cues have become mixed up, so when Mr Greenslade makes a dramatic entrance, he is heralded not by a creaking door but by a gunshot from the previous play. Similarly, a crate that is supposed to contain a stolen bombshell drops its metaphorical payload in the form of the original Mrs Greenslade and her (fictional) real-life ex-husband, in front of her (fictional) real-life current spouse, Tony.

In case there’s any doubt about the kinds of film that this auteur makes, by the way, he tells the hapless (fictional) director Helena during the interval – sorry “interval” – that he wants to see the play get grittier. When she relays this note to her cast, they duly oblige, throwing swears and drugs into the mix with free abandon. At both levels, the play does run a constant risk of doing too much, but manages to draw it into a creditable crescendo in which both Vietnam and suffrage shows are playing simultaneously ¬– and makes so spectacular a use of a helicopter onstage that I suspect the producers are begging the comparison to Miss Saigon.

At this point, there’s no need for the show to go any further … though it does. Rather than let us enjoy the ham-fisted and earnest attempts of the “cast” to sell the importance of gender parity – not to mention the futility of war – there is a protracted ending in which these messages are hammered home in the fates that befall the different characters, with the men dispatched in ignominy and the women’s doughty character vindicated. Again, the frame play veers too close to the play within it, which the “cast” themselves have already critiqued for being “too factual” and having atrocious dialogue.

Despite a few mentions of Barnes, it’s clear that the show originated in Edinburgh, where it will have done best. Not only does that set-up make sense of the supposed need for a quick turnaround between shows, it would also have kept the piece tighter, without the bagginess that detracts from an otherwise fine, funny and cleverly conceived production.

Matthew Grierson
January 2018

Image courtesy of StraightUp Productions





From → Drama, Reviews

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