Thursday, March 2, 2017

Review: 'The Episode' at Vault Festival, 1st March 2017

The Episode reviewed by David James

Rating: 2 Stars

The rule of 'show don't tell' isn't inviolable, but it's definitely a decent mantra to live by. Tom Brennan's The Episode is pretty much all tell and no show - a play that essentially consists of characters describing gripping events that we never get to see and fascinating characters who we never get to meet.

Set in the aftermath of a reality show gone wrong, we meet three characters who recount their backstage experiences. The show is essentially America's Next Top Model with the copyright sanded off, hosted by Anna Wintour clone Kate (Nesba Crenshaw), assisted by model liaison Jay (Lolade Rufai) and camerawoman DW (Isobella Hubbard). The three women toss the storytelling baton between them, gradually teasing out what exactly went wrong in the titular 'episode'.

Without giving too much away, it turns out to be a cautionary fable on expectations of perfection. We hear how the contestants are placed in precarious situations and constantly judged to impossibly high standards. It leads to a pressure cooker of emotions, exacerbated by a low-calorie diet of celery and raw carrot. Things soon zero in on one of the contestants, possessed of some intangible magnetism that each of the three women are drawn to. Maybe they really have found America's next top model?

Traverse staging not only gives the loose impression of a catwalk on which the characters walk, but also allows us to judge the people sat opposite us. There's several lengthy monologues from the Wintour character about the nature of beauty and fashion, during which she encourages us to examine how she looks at her and how we look at each other. 

Crenshaw's Kate feels like the totemic centre of the show, and when she's rigidly sat on a throne in dark sunglasses and with a severe bob, she looks appropriately regal. It's a performance with real gravitas, making a deeply convincing and intelligent argument that the fashion industry is philosophically and commercially important. She manages to make us think that finding the next Kate Moss is a genuinely important task - that intangible x-factor stirring in a subtle touch of the divine to the show.

DW and Jay are somewhat more grounded, ending up more as exposition machines than compelling characters in their own rights. Both have nicely observed moments, with DW's journey from hard-bitten war photography to getting wrapped up in reality TV ephemera particularly nicely drawn (I also liked the touch of her being late to set because she was busy charging batteries).

This is all interesting and decently performed stuff, but the further we get into the play there's a nagging feeling that simply hearing about all this interesting stuff isn't quite cutting it. Would it really have been too difficult to stage this 'in the moment' and have us experience the drama first hand? Plays that place in the aftermath of a huge event can work - Stuart Slade's brilliant BU21 is about the aftermath of a commercial airliner crashing into west London, but that at least has the excuse that you can't realistically stage a planecrash in fringe theatre. But, I think, it is eminently possible to stage a reality TV show.

On top of that, the grisly event at the core of the drama isn't quite grisly enough to stand out. Nicholas Winding Refn's film The Neon Demon occupies the same territory to The Episode, each being about a particular model's indefinable radiance and each ending in violence. But The Neon Demon cranks things up to an unforgettable avalanche of graphic eye-ball puking, corpse fucking and cannibalistic mayhem. The Episode, by comparison, ends up with a brief, tasteful description.

I'm not demanding buckets of blood, but this is the cherry on an overly detached play that desperately needs an injection of excitement. Part of this is down to the retrospective storytelling mode, part is that we never get to meet the real main character, part of it is down to an inbuilt laconicism that makes the pace molasses slow.

The Episode isn't exactly bad, it just feels someone describing a much more interesting play. 

The Episode is at Vault Festival until 5th March

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