Friday, November 19, 2021

Review: Outside at the Rosemary Branch Theatre, 18 November 2021

Outside reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Broken people and bad times are my kinda theatre, and in Outside writer/director/actor Gabrielle MacPherson serves up a positively bulging smorgasbord of misery, violence, revenge and despair. I don’t know why I’m so attracted to stories like these, but give me something gloomy anyway over some saccharine musical.

We spend an hour in the company of Willa, a young woman apparently sorting through the detritus of her parents’ lives. She’s surrounded by cardboard boxes stuffed with documents: love letters sent by her philandering father, business receipts from her mum and, something deep inside, a document that could save her life.

As you’d expect from a play advertised with the main character’s face spattered with blood, Willa’s story isn’t all sunshine and roses. The monologue slowly gives us pieces that make up the sad jigsaw of her life: physical and mental abuse, visits from social workers, moving towns to avoid too much attention, and any thoughts of liberation squashed by being told what’s out there is worse.

It all adds up to a jagged character who tumbles between various emotions, as if she’s never learned the right social cues on how to behave. The piece is full of dark little vignettes, the creepiest of which comes when she adopts a kitten. The “spiky little thing” becomes sick and Willa casually dumps its unconscious body in the bin, so as to hide the fact she had a kitten. Her treatment of it is a subconscious echo of what we gather has been done to her and it sent shivers up my spine.

The reality of what's happening now is a mystery for most of the play (or it was to me at least), but if you’ve seen stories like this before you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out what's bubbling just under the surface.

MacPherson’s writing puts an admirable amount of trust in the audience, giving us a trail of breadcrumbs to follow through the story and having confidence that we’re able to assemble into a coherent whole. This kind of thing is harder than it looks, so it’s a testament to her skill that it all feels so natural.

It’s also performed beautifully and proved my maxim that the only place to sit in fringe theatre is in the front row. That gives you the chance to interact with the performer - and MacPherson frequently made eye contact with me, helping both raise the tension and drag me into her world.

I gather that Outside had its first performances during lockdown over live-stream. While those reviews seem to be positive the show reminded me of the importance of being present during a performance. In person there’s no getting distracted by playing with your phone, no connection issues or audience glitches, and comfort from your familiar surroundings.

But Outside really benefits from being seen in person, as being locked in with Willa was quite a ride. 

Outside is at the Rosemary Branch until 20 November. Tickets here.

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