Edinburgh Fringe 2015
Comfort Slaves sets out to investigate “the ability those in power have of covering up sexual abuse. Our passive inertia allowing a system to be set in place that makes politicians untouchable and the ordinary lives of those involved.” Strong performances and an at times controversial script mean that the show is successful in achieving this.
Comfort Slaves is an immersive experience played out in the kitchen of the New Town Theatre. The audience gather around the sides of the room and the action is played out using all of the available space – the butcher’s table in the centre of the room, the sinks, and the exit into the back room. The room is filled with a range of lamps, which the cast use to change the lighting states for each scene.
The show gives us an insight into the lives of two groups of people – those with power, and those who perceive themselves to be at the bottom of the food chain.
The story centres around Peter and his pregnant wife Gillian, who has accused Jerry Logan MP of raping her when she was 14. Logan decides to take revenge and use his power to manipulate the lackeys working for him, and this results in some very violent and graphic moments. Peter’s sister Sarah is about to appear on a TV talent show and her boyfriend is paying back a debt. These storylines intertwine throughout the show, which moves back and forward throughout time.
There are some very graphic moments in the play, though all served the story well, and were played out with the confidence needed to ensure they did not lose impact. The script was well written, with each scene serving the next, and each character making a significant contribution to the advancement of the storyline. Monologues were used effectively to explain each character’s involvement in the story, and there were some entertaining (if uncomfortable) conversations between the lackeys as they explained their motivations and the story unravelled.
The play set out to cause discomfort, but much of the impact was lost because of the inconsistent message regarding the role of the audience. It’s important when bringing an audience in to an immersive piece to set the reality and stick to it, but many times I was left bewildered as to my role. Comfort Slaves opens with cast members aggressively confronting the audience, but too soon we appeared to be their friends. The secrets that were revealed and the ruthless nature of Logan would surely mean that any observers would have to be killed, rather than released at the end of performance. Combined with the apparent changes in location from scene to scene this meant that I often felt detached from the action instead of immersed in, and therefore threatened by, it.
Performances were excellent throughout. Sands Stirling was convincing as the disingenuous MP – disclosing details of behind-closed-doors conversations, and manipulating others with the same lurid desires. Nathan Dunn was particularly impressive in the role of Gavin, and the Paul McCloud as Barry should be applauded for evoking a sympathetic response from the audience, even as an aggressive paedophile.
The staging is simple and effective. The space already has everything that the play needs, but the turning on and off of lights by cast members often breaks the reality. On a couple of occasions the back door was left wide open too – meaning that the audience could see the stack of props on display. A fundamental error when attempting to immerse the audience in the performance.
Interaction with the audience felt forced, and on one occasion I was physically dragged into the middle of the play so that Sarah could take a selfie against a particularly graphic background. Being this close actually broke the reality further, as I could see the mechanisms used to create the effect. Being further away would probably have made this seem more intimidating.
Comfort Slaves is well worth a look. Strong characters and a gripping storyline are the highlights, and the script is fresh and engaging. It may have been better promoted as a site-specific show rather than an immersive one, but it’s still a successful production with some interesting, well-defined characters.