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Brighton Fringe 2011

The Art of Catastrophe

Rachel Blackman

Genre: Drama


Nightingale Theatre


Low Down

Helen’s husband is cheating on her. And that’s not all. There’s a tension inside her that’s straining for outlet and the orderly routines of daily life aren’t keeping it in any more. Helen has a story to tell and in this stunningly well-crafted play, Rachel Blackman gives us visceral access to Helen’s sad, funny, volatile journey into meltdown. 


This is the first time I’ve seen Rachel  Blackman’s work and now I wish I’d booked her other two pieces into my festival diary. I didn’t know what sort of piece to expect and was intrigued from the start. Wordlessly and without moving from the spot, Blackman presents Helen and her growing anxiety, to an increasingly unsettling soundtrack. And suddenly it’s over and a calmer Helen introduces us to her photographic mementos. This detached version of Helen with her photo display becomes a framing device throughout the piece. The inspirational touch is that we see a projected screen but no images. They are all in our heads, based on Helen’s commentary, and are richer and more cinematic for it.

Along the way, Blackman inhabits various characters, from the talkative child on the train and his uncensored remarks about her personal appearance, to the over-cheerful colleague and the gloriously slutty fantasy version of Grace, her husband’s lover. Blackman steps in and out of these characters with ease and comedic skill, but what is astonishing is the way she also shifts with such precision between Helen’s inner and outer worlds. This is what gives the play its unique voice, this multi-dimensional movement, combining physical and spoken language, blending comedy with heart-stopping sadness and palpable desperation.

Blackman is an energetic, risk-taking performer. It can’t be easy delivering a section of the play whilst doing a headstand, but it’s a lovely and apt metaphor.

I am often irritated by music soundtracks in plays as they have become an easy way of telling the audience what to feel. But these tracks were well chosen to match what was going on without giving emotional direction and Geoff Hense’s support on lighting and sound was flawless. The moment when the projected square became the red glowing window through which Helen spied pitifully on her husband and his lover was a memorable one.  

‘The Art of Catastrophe’ was co-created with director Emma Roberts and between them they have developed a very special piece of theatre. The play was sold out when I was there and the audience loved it.

The ending held a final surprise, totally in keeping with the shifts that characterised the rest of the play.

I’m going to watch out for Stillpoint’s triptych coming round again so I can catch the other two plays. If you haven’t managed to get tickets this time round, see it when it’s next on. Blackman is a talent not to be missed. Her work is witty, daring, intelligent and crackling with physical and emotional literacy.