Camden Fringe 2019
A one-woman period piece, written and performed by Beatrice Vincent. ‘Before I am Lost’ tells the story of Hilda Doolittle, the mother of imagist poetry, who’s always lived in the shadows of her male counterparts. Directed by Ross McGregor.
This show brings to the foreground American poet Hilda Doolittle. Heavily pregnant and convinced she won’t survive the birth, Doolittle begins narrating to her unborn child everything that has brought her to this moment. A one-woman period piece celebrating the life and work of Doolittle, the mother of imagist poetry and a queer woman.
The etcetera theatre has been transformed into a small room where Doolittle (Beatrice Vincent) is forced to spend her time before going into labour without even a piece of paper or a pen. A single table and chair, set centre stage and Vincent’s restricted movement, really give the impression of how prison-like this room feels. The story is told as a letter to Doolittle’s unborn child, with the help of a few voiceovers and sound effects and minimal lighting changes. Within her text, Vincent incorporates some of Doolittle’s poems.
This is a great concept by Vincent and on the whole, it is written and staged well. It is evident that she has researched Hilda Doolittle and does a good job embodying her. The performance overall is good and there are some lovely truthful moments. And the themes explored from female queerness to adultery, feminism and giving birth are excellently highlighted throughout the story without coming across as ‘preachy’.
However, the piece was not as strong as it could have been and there are a few things that need tweaking in order to really do justice to this wonderful concept.
One-person shows are so extremely tricky, the moment one thing doesn’t quite work it can drag the entire show down. Whether there is an elaborate set or no set at all, an array of props or just the actor on their own, expensive lighting and sound design or a simple lights up/lights down – at the end of the day, the show is all about the one actor and their relationship to their audience. While perhaps Doolittle is really upset throughout this whole hour and even the most beautiful of her memories can’t change her mood, for the audience to truly be captivated much more variation is required. Right now there are rarely any moments where there is no sense of doom and gloom underlying everything being said and although there is colour in Vincent’s speech it seems forced rather than coming from a real connection.
There are some brilliant moments where Vincent really pulls our attention with some excellent natural changes. Such one is after making a really dramatic and heated speech, where she suddenly looks up and admits, “This was embarrassing”. It is a wonderful moment of real connection, but it would be even stronger if the connection to the preceding speech was equally deep. Another moment is when she is puzzled by feeling butterflies in her stomach, when truly how could any butterflies fit when her baby is taking up so much space? That question is very natural and truthful it really pulls us in.
But especially since this is a solo show these moments need to be happening throughout, otherwise it risks coming across as self-indulgent – an extremely common trap with one-person shows. Some things that may well go unnoticed in a bigger cast are completely exposed in a solo performance.
My advice would be a deeper connection with the audience, make us take the place of the unborn child and speak to us. Especially in an intimate space such as the etcetera theatre, a solo show where the performer looks over our heads doesn’t quite work. We can be that child. I think this will automatically unlock and release Vincent’s performance and help her connect deeper to her character and really bring across all these wonderful themes and celebrate Doolittle’s story. Get rid of the voice-overs and have Vincent re-enact the memories that are currently in them. I understand the voice-overs intent to show her inner thoughts, but they don’t really work. Maybe they would in film or a bigger stage, but now they fall flat. Instead, they could be a great opportunity to add another dimension to the storytelling and give the performance the switch and variation it lacks.
This can be a truly impactful piece and it is on its way to becoming excellent.