Friday, May 20, 2016

'This Is Living' at Trafalgar Studios, 19th May 2016

"This has been a shit week. I died." Life is so unfair. One minute you're a happy-go-lucky young woman in a loving relationship with a young daughter, the next you're a freezing lump of decomposing meat trapped in a soggy limbo. That is Alice (Tamia Kari), newly dead, and This Is Living.

Fortunately 'life' isn't completely lonely six feet under. She's visited by her husband Michael (Michael Socha), a decent yet vulnerable man riddled with equal parts grief and guilt, facing up to the prospect of raising their daughter alone. Over the course of the play the two pick their way through their past and future to decide what Michael does next and Alice... well who knows what lies beyond the veil?

Cleverly, playwright Liam Borrett (also directing) never defines precisely what form his afterlife takes. Alice could be anything from a literal ghost, the dream/nightmare of a mourning partner or simply his conscience eating away at him as he contemplates suicide. Whatever she is, it ain't sunshine and roses.

Borrett and designer Sarah Beaton stage the play on a large raised oblong, upon which a thick black tarp is fixed. Water puddles on wrinkled service, creating pools that ebb and flow as the characters move about the stage. It's immediately striking: the water both evoking tears and implying a cold fluidity of motion that fits in perfectly with these wanderings between life and death. 

On a purely practical level, full credit to everyone involved for making this wet production work. Splashing about in tepid water for two hours can't be much fun for the actors, and I can just imagine the nonplussed reaction of a lighting designer being informed that they have to place underlighting mere inches from a puddle. But the water really pays off; Tamia Kari appears to be gently rotting the wetter she gets; it accentuates the atmosphere of misery and grief; and the physical moments are that much more visceral when accompanied by arcs of glittering spray.

On top of that, Jackie Shemesh is responsible for one of the most intelligent lighting designs I've seen in a good while. When the play switches gear from afterlife to flashback, the lighting shifts appropriately, seesawing the play between a warm summer's glow and shivering midnight. Most impressive is a moment when the couple stand facing one another. Michael stands with a spotlight that casts a clear silhouette against the back wall, while Alice (despite being lit) casts no shadow at all. It's subtle, striking and spooky in all the best ways.

All that's impressive enough - though these delights would amount to nothing without two sturdy performances at the centre. Kari and Socha more than provide, constantly underlining their characters' normality in the face of the play's surreal supernatural elements. Who can't fall in love with a character who - upon awakening as a magically animated corpse in a gloomy nightmare world - exclaims "Oh god... have I been on the Blue Nun again?"

Both are more than easy to like, and it's obvious they like each other. Kari and Socha's first flirts and romantic encounters have a ring of truth about them, as well as the way they gradually opening up to one another as their lives intertwine. They're also both very funny, and given the grim themes that This Is Living grapples with, some belly laughs are sorely needed to prevent us getting dragged down in the doldrums.

My only real criticism is that the play ends, then it doesn't. No, seriously - the story reaches a satisfying emotional and thematic climax, the lights go out and everyone wholeheartedly applauds what we've seen. Then the lights come back up and we sit through a confusing and entirely unnecessary epilogue. This vestigial scene is narratively extraneous, not to mention that it's aesthetically tone deaf. The play gets its proper round of applause soon after, but this final scene is so obviously surplus to requirements that I can't imagine it'll stay beyond the first couple of nights.

Aside from that, this is great stuff. Borrett, Kari, Socha and Beaton take the audience somewhere that feels theatrically unique - a place of damp, blurred and fuzzy gloom so slick and slippery that its slide between your fingers as you grip it. While some plays flit in and out of memory as passing diversions - This Is Living, with its powerful visuals and emotive storytelling, will stay.


This is Living is at Trafalgar Studios until 11 June. Tickets here.

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