Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Review: 'Jailbirds' at the Etcetera Theatre, 4th December 2018

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

I've got a real soft spot for science fiction theatre. It takes a certain amount of gumption to realise a believable technologically advanced world on stage, even one that's broadly adjacent to our own. Split Note Theatre's Jailbirds manages this - and it does it with a few pieces of white tape and faith in the audience's imagination.

The setting is a subterranean women's prison in a dystopic future. The most feared and notorious inmate is Heath Dane (Molly Jones). Her crimes are never precisely defined, but she's a violent serial killer with a sadistic streak a mile long with genius level intellect. 

As we start the play, she has a new neighbour: the prim and apparently sheltered Moira (Stella Richt). Moira is quickly revealed to be the observer in a scientific study of Dane by Bheur (Kirsty Marie Terry) and Officer Oml (Evangelina Burton) - a psychological tool designed to get the perceptive yet egotistical killer to reveal her secrets. Overseeing this is a long-suffering prison guard (Fred Woodley Evans).

It's an interesting set-up but partially hamstrung by the fact that (at least as far as I could see) there didn't seem to be any pressing need to find out what was going on in the killer's mind. Quizzing an imprisoned serial killer immediately brings Silence of the Lambs to mind. The tension in that story comes from knowing that Buffalo Bill's victim is doomed unless Clarice Starling can convince Hannibal Lector to help. By comparison, the objectives of what the 'study' eventually proves to be in Jailbirds felt more like curiosity than an urgent need.

Another aspect that doesn't work is the Brechtian appearance of director Luke Culloty on stage. He exists outside the text, pausing a scene, rearranging the characters within it and setting them on their way. I love a bit of fourth wall breaking as much as the next person, but its use here doesn't add anything. Distancing techniques like this force the audience to consider the artifice of what they're watching, but I'm at a loss as to how doing this in Jailbirds adds to the play's message (which itself is rather fuzzy).

Fortunately, the play is buoyed up by two effective performances from Molly Jones and Stella Richt. Richt initially seems a bit flat and affectless, but as events proceed you begin to understand that this is a deliberate decision. As the play winds towards a conclusion the dramatic focus begins to shift from Heath to Moira, and Richt delivers a couple of powerful speeches that work brilliantly.

But, as in the text, all eyes are on Molly Jones for the majority of the play. Most of the time she's operating in a different league to the rest of the cast, simultaneously scheming, physically intimidating and weirdly vulnerable. Jones manages to underly her outwardly sadistic dangerous exterior with some weird vulnerability. The character is missing an eye (neatly conveyed with an opaque contact lens), and you sense that she knows her powers are gradually diminishing the longer she languishes in her cell. 

So it's a mixed bag. Split Note Theatre clearly have the talent - and they also clearly have an admirable sense of narrative ambition. I suspect a couple of rewrites, a hard think on what message they want to convey and how the story could be tweaked to do that would pay off gangbusters.

Jailbirds is at the Etcetera Theatre until 8 December. Tickets here.

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