FringeReview UK 2018
Jayne Woodhouse Owls comes to the Rialto, directed by Calum Robshaw for Loosely Based Theatre Company after its 2016 premiere and in an expanded version at the Chapel Salisbury.
Director, cast and the Rialto crew keep things minimal. The set’s simply a few strewn bottles as befits a roof. There’s effective bird calls and washes of sound. Lighting here floods neon blue or green from behind to denote sea or woods. Text available, £3 from Soft Touch Press.
There’s been a theatrical if not political shift in the way we look at mental distress recently: the rhetoric’s there, but not the budget. Theatre though often edges slowly around the effects on others.
We’ve come some way since David Storey’s 1970 Home, or Joe Penhall’s 2000 Blue/Orange, with its clinicians’ fight over a schizo-affective patient who might just be Idi Amin’s son. (A production played at the Rialto in 2017.) There’s still a nervous exteriority for instance in Nicola Wilson’s 2015 Knots and Tangles, addressing premature dementia. These, apart from Storey’s (still an empathic work) dramatize how we medicalize and label. It’s rarer to encounter one working within the grain of distress, like Peter Imms’ Section 2 at the Bunker in June. Developed with MIND, it explores outfalls for all from psychosis triggered from a spiked drink.
Then there’s sheer depression, the unspecific monster, malignant sadness in Lewis Walport’s phrase. Jayne Woodhouse Owls comes to the Rialto, directed by Calum Robshaw for Loosely Based Theatre Company after its 2016 premiere and in an expanded version at the Chapel Salisbury.
Director, cast and the Rialto crew keep things minimal. The set’s simply a few strewn bottles as befits a roof. There’s effective bird calls and washes of sound. Lighting here floods neon blue or green from behind to denote sea or woods: in the Rialto’s churchy space, it’s as garish as a Wurlitzer organ.
Owls are where we get to, by indirection. Steve, a security guard lurches at Anna, a woman of twenty teetering on the edge of the building he guards. Kate Austen exhibits a kind of hooded anger, a withdrawn rage in the earlier part of the play. Anna’s negative adrenalin, swaying and making to jump several times powers the early sections of Owls. David House neatly negotiates that cusp of inadequacy of a sensitive decent man who instinctively avoids cliché but can’t convey this. His uneasy, damaged platitudes conceal his own losses, a wife who left him, we discover for a woman yoga teacher, a wastrel son Darren, and much else including a dead-end job after leaving the family home. But he’s not reliable.
The first turning-point’s a lyrical memory of Steve’s time with his father. ‘You didn’t think I’d know what an ornithologist was, did you.’ The return if an owl becomes the play’s motif. Though he increasingly opens up and starts to tell Anan his truth, there’s more pushback, Anna’s hostility to being half-understood is mockingly used against Steve’s own sufferings, but Steve’s resources and patience, despite blips are formidable.
Anna we discover is a fine artist, who’s shrunk from her family’s inadequate coping with her as someone to be negotiated or coped with heroically. Of her mother: ’She self-medicates with gin, that well-known cure for parental disappointment.’ That tone sums up Anna: bitterly articulate, bereft of love let alone understanding. She self-harms too. And she’s concealing where she’s just come from.
But Anna skewers her experience: ‘It’s like there’s a thick black fog… sitting there beside me all the time… I start to breathe it in and it reaches right down inside me until there’s nothing left, no cell or vein or teardrop, that isn’t filled with this foul, black slime.’
There’s several crisis points and a part two set two months later, where Craig Edgley’s Pavel, the first of two roles, is being taken round as Steve is quitting this job for a better one, he says. The insensitive but shrewd Pavel from Bulgaria recognizes Steve as the one caught in that video with the girl. We move to Edgley’s other performance as Darren in a scene from long ago, and then Anna apparently recovered, egging Steve on to contact Darren who’s seen what he did. Anna’s back in hospital, but why is he not visiting her?
The end’s rapidly affirmative, tying up ends, a little too hurriedly touring Steve’s imaginings. Billed at seventy minutes, Owls runs for sixty, and another ten minutes of writing wouldn’t go amiss. Edgley is fine in his contrasting roles. House gets the hunkered-down accent dead right, though isn’t ideally clear. Austen’s clearer and her rationale’s equally strong, and they get through the dialogue at a lick. What the original was like we can’t know, but this play, superb in its articulation of despair, could do with a slightly more drawn-out conclusion to really land it- even though a text’s available. A work certainly nearing the end of progress though, and a sensitive, potentially important addition to plays about distress.