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On Me and Mute

by on 19 July 2022

Love in a Heatwave Climate

On Me

by Caroline Lamb


by Emily Glaze

Festival of New Theatre, at Questors Studio, Ealing until 23rd July

Review by Andrew Lawston

The Questors Studio is a black box of air-conditioned solace on the hottest day of the year until the next day.  A crowd of theatregoers has braved the heatwave, only to step inside the auditorium and breathe a deep sigh of relief at the blanket of cool air that cocoons them throughout two brand new plays.  Festival Producer Alex McDevitt gives a short introduction to the evening, including the fact that three of the five plays selected – from over three hundred submissions – were written by women, including the two that we are about to see.

Other than the writers’ gender, however, these are two very different pieces.

On Me by Caroline Lamb follows the filming of a true crime drama that involves sexual assault.  Young actors Christian (Ben Martineau) and Shona (Maddie Tavare) navigate the post-#MeToo landscape as they re-enact horrific crimes, while dealing with their growing feelings for each other.  When Shona is triggered during the recording of a key scene and rushes off the set, Christian feels conflicted, not wanting to risk exacerbating her obvious trauma.

Shona makes the powerful point that all women are traumatised to some extent by male violence, in a stand-out confrontation, but the play constantly reinforces this point in other ways.  After a night in the pub, Christian and Shona both end up walking home alone.  Shona is clearly anxious, and speaks on the phone to her sister, who is being harassed by a predatory man on the bus.  By contrast, Christian has an airy banter-filled phone conversation with his friend, oblivious to his surroundings.  The next day, he refers to the walk as “a stupid thing to do”, but when Shona asks him why, he merely says that it was a long walk, his privilege as a man making him oblivious to the danger that Shona felt she was in, as a young woman walking home alone.

On the set, the director (Anil Goutam) is sympathetic and compassionate towards Shona as they film these harrowing scenes, but as the Camerman (Lloyd Wallis) and the Clapper Loader (Robert Vass) wander in and out, it becomes ever more clear that Shona is the only woman in a male-dominated environment.  While everyone suggests calling the production’s “intimacy coordinator” for Shona’s peace of mind, it’s also made clear that everyone – including the actors – regards this process as a waste of time.

The question we are forced to ask ourselves, is how much has really changed?  In this case, the young actors have a heightened awareness around issues of consent and violence against women, but the result seems to be that a potential romance between the actors seems to be scuppered, while the Clapper Loader can still wander around the set telling a young woman to “smile, it might never happen”.  Similarly, Shona seems to be a much more experienced actor than Christian, but although the young man defers to her, during filming delays the male crew often seem to be masking their frustration with Shona.

The play doesn’t offer any trite conclusion, however, as clips are played of Maryse’s story, the character on whose ordeal the crime drama is based.  Holly Gillanders plays Maryse in pre-recorded clips projected on the back wall of the Studio, giving a chilling context for the actors’ deliberations.  There is also an effective inversion of audience expectations, whereby Shona is the confident character, forthright in expressing her feelings for the shy Christian, while he constantly fidgets, shuffles his feet, and breaks out into barks of nervous laughter, thoroughly out of his depth.  Although, when pushed on his reticence, his abrupt assertion “you shouldn’t throw yourself at a man you don’t know” makes us question his integrity after all.

With several changes of costume to depict the developing production and the relationship between the two actors, and a realistic set full of monitors, flight cases and other studio equipment, Alison Griffin directs a complex play with great pace and naturalism.  Andrew Whadcoat’s lighting and Emerson Bramwell’s sound switch effortlessly from the starkly-lit silence of a film set to a noisy pub, and the cast give such engaging performances that the human story of their tentative relationship more than holds its own with the issues raised by the play.

Mute, by Emily Glaze, is a radically different play.  This three-hander tells the story of a young writer recovering from serious brain surgery.  Also depicting her relationship with her boyfriend and his mother, the play is structured in a series of short non-linear scenes.

The play opens with Zoe (Jordan Fowler, who takes a hugely demanding and varied role in her stride), having seizures while her boyfriend Ray immediately rushes to take care of her.  In a flashback to before her brain tumour is detected, Zoe clashes with Ray’s mother, Jen (Debbie Sherwell).  The three of them are living in the farm belonging to Ray’s parents.  Following his father’s death, Ray is attempting to take on the family farm while caring for Zoe.

It is hard to watch Zoe flip between being a successful writer, juxtaposed with scenes immediately following her surgery, and others when she is beginning to recover.  Her speech is halting and hesitant, we are told that she is forced to relearn how to read and write.

But as Zoe recovers, we also learn with her that Ray is not quite the caring boyfriend that he appears to be in initial scenes.  Flashback scenes show seeds of resentment being planted, as Ray meets Zoe while auditioning for a part in her show.  “I’ll just say you weren’t right for the part,” Zoe lets slip blithely.  It becomes clear that part of Ray relishes the balance of power in their relationship shifting in his favour.  He becomes controlling, even violent.  It’s a challenging part that Jacob Chancellor takes on gamely, in a spirited performance.

Meanwhile, Zoe’s relationship with Jen blossoms.  While Jen begins the play in what can only be described as “full Mrs Danvers” mode, the two gradually form a touching friendship.  Jen sits quietly to one side for much of the play, and she instantly grabs the audience’s attention whenever she enters the action, as her character’s emotional development is such that we never have any idea what to expect from her – from spiteful outbursts about tripping over wires, to warmly wishing Zoe the best of luck with her writing career.

While the strong performances of the three actors sell the story, and the transformations that each of the characters go through, the production is enhanced by taut direction from Director David Erdos, and a wonderful soundtrack designed by Erdos with James Connor, which takes in piano music and a faintly sickly pulsing heartbeat effect.  The transitions between Zoe’s past life, her illness, and her recovery, are also well-signalled by Andrew Whadcoat’s lighting design.

Both Mute and On Me are thought-provoking and highly-crafted pieces which will provoke much thought and discussion among audiences.  This evening of theatre certainly bodes well for the rest of the Questors’ Festival of New Theatre.

Andrew Lawston, July 2022

Photography by Evelina Plonyte

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