by Nick Walker.

Foursight Theatre and Talking Birds Tour to 31 March 2010.
Runs 1hr 30min No interval.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 4 March at Oxford Playhouse.

Cracks in the construction but solid in individual sections.
Despite a writing credit, this West Midlands collaboration between Wolverhampton’s female-focused Foursight Theatre and Coventry-based Talking Birds, with their traditions of music, multi-media and site-specific productions, shows the weaknesses and strengths of group-devised theatre.

Its setting, if not site, is specifically a North Oxford tower block (the location might travel with the tour) that’s about to be demolished. A woman’s about to throw herself from its roof. A cleaning-woman runs up the staircase and persuades her to come down the slow way. This cleaner also seems to run a band, a family of people sharing the near-suicide’s problem of owing money.

The scenario seems designed to accommodate the expertise of the partners involved in creating the piece. At times the detail and intensity doubtless apparent during rehearsals don’t translate into something convincing at a single viewing.

Yet detail and intensity can inhabit individual scenes. Though the aim has been to examine debt and the strains it places on people in a wider than just pecuniary sense, the financial consequences provide the most dramatic debit crunch.

There seems deliberate alienation in the staging, as the tower block image backing the stage acquires a projected figure on its roof, before live actors play the roof-top scene on the main acting area, its blocks gradually removed and re-assembled, opening up to reveal figures inside. Most women characters are played by female actors, except for one played by a male, while one of the women goes around with a noticeably fake moustache.

At its best there’s an eerie feel, as when one debtor has to work her way back into the black by collecting from others. Journeying with an imaginary mastiff, she opens up blocks where figures crouch as if imprisoned by debt, until she has to unleash the dog on her own sister. The scene, with its accompanying narrative song, has a compelling grip.

The performers switch fluently between speech, song and playing instruments. For all there’s a lack of foresight at times about what an audience might understand, the piece leaves us indebted to the companies that brought it to the stage.

Vera: Sarah Thom.
Geraldine: Jill Dowse.
Pippa: Graeme Rose.
Rita: Emilia Brodie.
Hamlet: Allie Croker.

Director: Sarah Thom.
Designer/Costume: Janet Vaughan.
Lighting: Arnim Friess.
Composer: Derek Nisbet.
Musical Directors: Derek Nisbet, Jill Dowse.

2010-03-12 11:45:11

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