Edinburgh Fringe 2010
A’s headache is perhaps the result of over indulgence at last night’s dinner party. But maybe there’s more to it. Maybe something really is wrong. A’s next recollections are vague, dream like, but he’s in a hospital with lots of people peering at him. A tale of how you never miss something, until suddenly it isn’t there anymore.
Freefall, presented at the Traverse by the Corn Exchange Company of Dublin, is a perceptive piece of Irish bourgeois drama set just as the Celtic economic tiger turned to a whimpering pussy cat. It tells the story of A (played throughout in his pyjamas by Andrew Bennett), a middle-aged now unemployed victim of the credit crunch who is in a stale marriage to a frustrated wife. His life reaches a sudden and ultimately terminal crisis the morning after a dinner party with his cousin and his new girlfriend.
A’s crisis turns out to be a stroke, pitching him into a dream-like world in which he revisits moments from his past, searching for his own story both prior to and after his adoption at an early age by his aunt, as well as the sister that he has long since lost track of.
The central event in A’s memory, which punctuates the others in this fast paced piece, is the dinner party the night before the crisis hit him. His need to make a contribution leads him to volunteer to cook but an inability to smell burning causes the comestibles to rest too long in the oven. Cue frantic attempts to source a carry out from the local Indian, the consumption of too much alcohol and a general descent into chaos.
This is very much a play about having the rug whipped from underneath you and that in such circumstances you lose control over your own destiny. A can see what is happening to him but can’t make anyone understand what he wants and he can’t do anything to help himself. Whether this is some form of symbolic representation of the financial crisis that Ireland found itself in just as before this piece was premiered in 2009 is an interesting thought. If it is, then it pretty subtle as politics and the economy don’t really get a mention but you could make the connection nevertheless.
What is not in doubt is that this is a play that requires your undivided attention. The action comes thick and fast with the actors employed as stage hands twixt scenes and in turn employing a bewildering number of guises as they become the memories that make up what is now left of A’s existence. And the acting is of the highest quality, with children, teenagers, parents, professionals, labourers, craftsmen, wives, husbands and lovers all featuring with each being beautifully crafted, however briefly they were exposed.
The technical side of the piece was a revelation as well. A bare stage with just basic tape marks to give the actors a clue as to where to position the props allowed the space to become a house, a hospital, and all things in between. The lighting design, not something I admit to often taking an interest in, was truly innovative, at one point creating a spot lit corridor that you immediately recognised as representing a hospital.
The use of an on-stage camera allowed us to see the medics trying to assess A’s condition as he would have seen them, with the image of the doctor peering closely at A being projected onto a screen at the top of the set. And then stage left and right we had a variety of microphones and sound props which the actors used at various points to provide effects to augment what was happening on stage. There were too many creative effects to mention them all but one series that was almost worth the admission money alone saw A’s bed-time “ablutions” brought to life, complete with flushing toilet.
We had commedia dell’arte, surrealism, mime, tight choreography during the “crash” scenes in the hospital and, just for a change, the occasional bit of straight forward dialogue. We had symbolism, we had allegories (including one that used dry rot as an allegory for a failing marriage – work that one out if you can) and a load more besides.
This piece played to rave reviews when it debuted last year in Dublin and it’s been getting standing ovations since it arrived here in Edinburgh. It counts as an outstanding piece of theatre for a number of reasons – the quality of the acting and the way the actors brought to life a challenging script; the innovative staging and props; the sheer variety of lighting effects; and the actors on-stage provision of sound effects to augment the dialogue. A complete theatrical experience in fact.