Monday, September 14, 2015

'Only Forever' at the Hope Theatre, 12th September 2015

Somewhere up above the bombs have begun to fall. Muffled booms shake dust down from the bunker's ceiling. You're deep underground - protected from the apocalypse, the blasts of fire, the radioactive fallout - safe with your family. In comparison with the poor bastards on the surface you're doing pretty good. After all, just a couple of days, weeks or months down here and you can emerge and rebuild, right? 

This is the launching point of Only Forever, an exercise in psychological post-apocalypse drama courtesy of writer Abrahan Arsis. We're locked in with a typically middle-class British family, circa sometime in the 50s. They are; can-do patrician George (Edward Pinner); loving/limping housewife Margaret (Christine Rose); arrested development adolescent Victoria (Jennie Eggleton); and nice-but-dim preteen Charles (Lewys Taylor). 

At the outset they appear the model of stiff upper lip domesticity. The father is stern yet affectionate, assigning his family chores to keep the bunker shipshape. Mother Margaret provides friendly emotional support, washing sheets and fetching water from the well. The children study Shakespeare and power the lights by exercising on a bicycle hooked to a dynamo. Yet as events progress, dark secrets become exposed and fissures form within the family unit, leading to anger, depression, betrayal and all that yummy stuff that makes drama worth watching.

As the play takes place in just one location, set design and dressing is key. The Hope Theatre isn't the biggest performance space around, but the cramped stage with concrete painted walls works well in the play's favour. Sat in the front row I had the performers brushing up against my knees, often in danger of knocking my pint over. As someone who loves getting as close as possible to the performers this is all great stuff - in the dining scenes I felt as if I was sat at the table with them. Similarly, the walls and shelves are peppered with period appropriate books, boxes of recycled scraps and battered looking crockery. The lighting designer also gets decent mileage out of the flicker and pop of fluorescent bulbs as the power on.

Performance-wise the obvious standout is Jennie Eggleton's Victoria. Much of the dramatic weight of the play rests on her shoulders, combining childish mischievousness with hormonal yearnings and Christian sex guilt to marvellous effect. Lewys Taylor also impresses as a child actor - the play is broadly naturalistic and the role requires suspension of audience belief about his age, which he manages with aplomb. Edward Pinner and Christine Rose are a little less effective; with Pinner often sounding a bit Radio 4 Afternoon Drama and Rose substituting character depth in favour of having a dodgy knee.

Still, the narrative rumbles on effectively - the script constantly drops tantalising hints of dark doings within the bunker - leaving it up the audience's wild imagination what they're all hiding. The danger with this is that nothing the writer can do will live up to what the audience wants, but Only Forever avoids this by having a satisfying series of reveals and twists in the final scenes that cast shadows over everything we've seen.

But though this is an satisfying serving of genre drama, recalling everything from Neville Shute's On the Beach to the similarly bunker-set Fallout series of videogames, there's a constant sense of slightness. Frequent reference is made to Romeo and Juliet, though there's scant parallels between these stories' themes and preoccupations. Also, the Church of England religion of the family is often front and centre though aside from them being in subterranean purgatory, the absence of God from their lives is given short shrift. The closest the play comes to being 'about' something is its interrogation of gender politics, though even this never quite reaches full thematic fruition.

This leaves Only Forever as an enjoyable way to spend 75 minutes, yet not a particularly memorable one. Still, Jennie Eggleton in particular should be pleased with what they've accomplished, as should the technical crew and director Poppy Rowley, who create an evocatively claustrophobic mise en scene


Only Forever runs until the 26th of September. Tickets here.

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