Brighton Festival 2011
As warm, witty and sharply observed as its predecessors, The Growing Room sees Blackman expand from physically acute solo portraits to present the three points of an unusual love triangle. But the theatrical magic is still in the magnified detail
In the opening moments of Rachel Blackman’s new solo show, the last in a powerful trilogy that has gently but assuredly taken Brighton fringe theatre in the palm of its hand, a mother sits in silence in a community hall. She is attending a support group for self-harmers because her teenage daughter has been cutting herself. And, as she waits for her turn to speak, she imagines she feels beneath her ‘the earth creaking and groaning with all sorts of unborn possibilities’.
It’s a poetically apt start to a piece in which Blackman establishes herself as a performer of gaps and spaces as well as words and actions. The lonely wait at the bar for a pint of bitter to be pulled. The aimless walk. The stunned silence while one character works out how to respond to another. Like footholds to a climber, all give her anchorage in her characters’ emotional worlds, and a quiet vantage point from which to view the surrounding tumult.
Premiered as part of the Brighton Festival, The Growing Room is the final instalment in ‘Triptych: Three Attempts at Love’, a collection of warm, witty and sharply observed solo works about the struggle to achieve that most elevated and elusive of human connections. It carries across various aesthetic motifs – the bursts of frazzled dance with which she expresses a character’s inner chaos, say, or that beautiful background crackle of fractured folktronica, reflecting the imperfect electricity of her characters’ attempts to love. But where The Art of Catastrophe and Steal Compass, Drive North, Disappear (the latter also directed by Emma Kilbey) presented isolated figures, here Blackman – still very much alone except for a wheely chair – gives us three people at the point their lives intertwine.
Unbeknownst to each other, determinedly tough-skinned journalist Andrea and teenage daughter Carla both fall for the same guy – straight-talking Aussie Nick, a former sex-addict and scriptwriting teacher. For a while, and with the contemporary parental threat of internet grooming temporarily in play, the plot actually looks in danger of colliding with that of Dawn French’s debut novel ‘A Tiny Bit Marvellous’.
But never fear. In any case, Blackman is less taken with the sentimental sweep of her story than the minute mechanics of its telling. So she steps outside conversations to explain what each character is thinking (‘and this is quite a lot for him…’), replays entrances to make sure she’s getting someone’s walk right, pauses performance to clarify the type of person she is trying to present: ‘he’s open, and he’s cool, y’know?’ At times these scripted hesitations, coming from such a strong and decisive performer, feel disingenuously cutesy. But then Blackman is always so emotionally engaged with her characters – perhaps their fear and uncertainty is catching.
The interaction between characters may provide her with a new toy for meta-theatrical play (and for the first time we also get taped background noise to suggest the pub and the cinema). But Blackman’s natural medium is still the solo portrait. Hence it’s the lonely 15-year-old daughter, tightrope walking her way through her teens along the fine line between flickering sexuality and stabbing self-consciousness, who brings out the strokes of brilliance here. She comes alive through odd, magnified details: her body twisting itself into knots with the idle vigour of youth as she gossips into her friend’s ansaphone; her hand raised in class, circling flirtatiously like a cat’s tail.
Has Blackman grown as a performer with her latest work? The precise and intricate physicality she sustained in Steal Compass… may have been a more distinctive achievement. But her heart has grown with The Growing Room, and in theatre that’s a much rarer development than you’d think