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FringeReview UK 2022


The Berliner Ensemble and The Coronet Theatre

Genre: Adaptation, Drama, European Theatre, Mainstream Theatre, New Writing, Short Plays, Solo Play, Theatre

Venue: The Coronet Theatre, Notting Hill


Low Down

Oliver Reese adapts and directs Sarah for the Berliner Ensemble, Composition Jorg Gollasch, Costume Designer Elina Schnizler, Lighting Steffen Heinke, Sets & Props Facilitator Katja Pech, Musical Adaptation George Rigby

Casting Director Helena Palmer CDG, Stage Manager Nick Graham, Fight Director Renny Krupinski, Assistant to the Director Rasa Niurkaité, Dialect Coach Edda Sharpe, Props Buyer Sophie Meikle.

Performed by Jonathan Slinger.

Short run till December 17th.


“I asked the chicken wings what the future held. They answered: ‘pain’.” In Scott McClanahan’s Sarah – adapted by Oliver Reese for The Berliner Ensemble staged at the Coronet – Jonathan Slinger produces air wings.

Which is unusual, since there’s so many props strategically placed on the stage including a large fridge from which Slinger ring-pulls or swigs many drinks in this headlong blink of awareness as an average man torches his marriage with unforgettable images, poetic, delicate, grotesque. All deadpan. A middling “normal guy” the character, named for the author teaches literature at a trade school (there seems little sense of this), is married with two children. The theatre’s an unreflective purgatory where Scott can’t burn off time by remembering how he set a white family bible alight. Or why. Instead he does time.

Two years. There’s no redemptive spark, no epiphany of self-knowledge, just a studding of memorable scenes: Sarah’s adopted 19-year-old dog doing unrepeatable things, the least of them giving its owners scabies. Slinger’s deliquescing hang-dog face is both acutely funny and poignant as he emulates the dog’s whines of entreaty, which he translates. The lies around that dog’s end, or a kitten’s end; the opening where a drunken Scott celebrates his escape from drink-driving as the police register two terrified children at the back. Killing the computer after Sarah discovers porn with delicious timing: “Am I a pervert?” ‘Funny you should say that… one of them’s called” Or after Sarah declares she wants a divorce, Scott’s “Would you like to have sex now?” And opening that torched bible at the Book of Daniel, where as Scott tells us a furnace seven times hotter than anything preceding it is called for, so its charred middle can erupt like bats out of hell in front of Sarah’s friend. There’s no externalised Devil Scott decides. That’s the point.

Though the Coronet’s black disc stage has no set as such, Katja Pech is effectively its designer, lighting sculpted by Steffen Heinke, broadening from spotlight to patches of revelation, to stark exposure of the whole. It’s exceptional enough to tell the story Scott doesn’t. It’s this mix of hyper-real, the kind you see in the New York Public Theater, with Richard Nelson and his followers, that bisects the Berliner’s bleached hallucination. Reese’s staging of The Tin Drum here in 2020 swept the Coronet’s stage clean of ornament, peopled with shouts and drumming. Sarah – with Jorg Gollasch’s composition puncturing the yawl of pop with haunted sound-drops – lives between this aesthetic and a gestural American naturalism. Air wings. Real drink.

Slinger effortlessly peoples the space with drunk and remorseful selves. From the first pool of light and a strangely redundant mic he mostly dispenses with, he widens the arc of self-destruction, whether pulling out a cardboard box of belongings packed by his soon-to-be ex-wife, or pulling another beer from the fridge – the one stable proposition one might say – pouring commercially cute sand from a bucket, re-enacting early marital joy as the couple emulate a day on the beach in their living room. The sand itself, lifted and dropped, becomes later metaphor for burial.

Scott’s delivery of appalling, if never quite criminal, behaviour – he’s never violent – is only occasionally pulled back in remorse for an action, balanced by surprise when he meets ex-pupil Tiffany who’d been working years at a night club before she dropped out of his “boring” class, and now offers sexual services.

“There is only one thing I know about life. If you live long enough, you start losing things.” Such a litany of debt, spiralling behaviour as Scott inhabits an apartment of his own (rolling out a beige carpet as sheer exemplar of his life), is punctured by his crying on his mother, and unnervingly, his daughter. At the end, again smartly attired, with a different set of partners, you see why the title’s not Scott but Sarah. But whose Sarah is it anyway?

Sarah as realised by Reese, Slinger and the Ensemble is an unnerving testing of that space between naturalism and hallucination, redemption and blank unknowing, studded with a language that flies off the page. It’s certainly an unexpected departure to a familiar format in Reese’s dramaturgy, and like The Tin Drum, refuses to release us to any closure. Even more than the Grass, it asks us to hesitate over the end McClanahan offers, and delivers it raw and unblinking.

Outstandingly uneasy, too easily absorbed, quite unforgettable.