Wednesday, July 27, 2016

'Phoebe' at the King's Head Theatre, 26th July 2016

A.C. Smith's Phoebe is an odd little play populated by characters that're slightly, but not entirely, skewiff. It's part of #Festival46, a showcase for work from some of the most promising new talents, meaning you get interesting and experimental works with the odd rough edges. Phoebe is very much that: a show that contains umpteen great things, but never gels quite as firmly as it should.

The eponymous Phoebe (EJ Martin) is an awkward young woman of indeterminate age. The youngest of three siblings, she works in an opticians and can't quite seem to find a place in the world. Her parents are overbearing, her older sister Ingrid (Louise Torres-Ryan) is consumed with work and, most worryingly, her older brother Freddie is missing. He's left his job, his emails go unanswered and his house is vacant. His mysterious disappearance consumes Phoebe, who decides to play detective and find him. 

On top of all that Phoebe has made friends with an urban fox (also named Freddie) who's been disturbing neighbourhood bins. This raises the hackles of her nosy neighbour, who launches a campaign to snuff out Freddie. With the fox culling specialist en route, time is running out for both Freddies.

Along for the ride is the similarly awkward Paul (Loz Keystone) a flighty young fellow who's been hanging around the opticians trying (and failing) to pick out a new pair of specs. He's clearly enamoured with Phoebe, though both are too socially clumsy to confess their feelings for each other.  

We experience the story through Phoebe's eyes, the other two actors cycling between different characters as the story demands. These characters tend towards the grotesque: her Mum a barely sane nervous wreck, her Dad casually domineering, her neighbour a manipulative harpy, the foxcatcher a swaggeringly masculine dickhead and so on. Kindness is in short supply in this world and, though the staging is minimal, through an effective ambient soundscape we sense the oppressiveness of the urban environment.

That makes the tiny moments of kindness all the more effective. Phoebe's care for the fox, transplanted from that her of absent brother, is beautifully communicated. As is Paul's goofy sweetness, best exemplified when he gifts Phoebe a book and the moment he holds her hand for the first time.

It helps that all three actors put in top notch performances. Loz Keystone, as well as having a marvellous name, has comic timing so precise it may as well be laser-guided. Every single moment he's on stage he's doing something funny, from the casually misogynist exterminator to his gentle, nervy would-be boyfriend. He exhaustively mines every last atom of comedy from the material, singlehandedly responsible for the lion's share of the laughs.

Great though he is, it's EJ Martin who provides the emotional core It's fascinating to watch her react to the other characters: half sussing them out, half confused at how they could behave so wickedly. Her changes in facial expression are almost microscopic - curling her lip with disappointment as someone apparently betrays her, or smiling at a tiny moment of triumph. She manages to be both vulnerable and faintly scary at once - no mean feat!

There's a bevvy of great theatrical moments here - their effectiveness only somewhat diluted by some iffy scripting choices. There's a needless bit of fourth wall breaking early on that should have been left on the cutting room floor (though this may have been an adlib), the parents err somewhat too far on the side of unbelievable and the sister appears to be undergoing constant mood swings - one minute she's cold-hearted, the next warm.

Despite that, Phoebe is an undeniably promising piece of writing. It's a sensitively, imaginative told story that, with eyes squinted, feels as if it could be a contemporary, adult take on Roald Dahl. Though it began at half nine and ended sneaking up on 11pm I deeply enjoyed myself. Can't wait to see what AC Smith does next.


Phoebe is at the King's Head Theatre until 30 July. Tickets here. 

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