Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Edinburgh Fringe: 'Speaking In Tongues: The Lies / The Truths' at The Green, Pleasance Courtyard, 5th/7th August 2017

Speaking In Tongues: The Lies / The Truths reviewed by David James

Rating: 2 Stars

Andrew Bovell's Speaking In Tongues is a strange bit of theatre. Performed in an inflatable dome at the rear of the Pleasance Courtyard, the audience sits in the centre on swivel chairs while the performance takes place around them. It's inverse in-the-round, or to give it a catchier name, doughnut staging (which is why I imagine the company is called Doughnut Productions). In a further twist, Speaking In Tongues is split into two parts that share chronology, characters and themes: The Lies and The Truths.

It's debatable whether one works without the other. I saw The Truths first, only realising as I entered that it was technically the second part of a bigger work. Afterwards, convinced that I needed to see the whole picture in order to properly review it, I got a ticket for The Lies. 

Both plays are performed by Phil Aizlewood, Kate Austen, Ben Elder and Georgine Periam, who all play a series of married couples in strained relationships. The Lies opens with a synchronised four-way flirt, each on a mission to find a quick shag for the night. The consequences of those indiscretions fuel the rest of the show, their relationships disintegrating, reforming and collapsing in a series of emotional arguments.

The Truths has a slightly different tack. A woman has gone missing on a darkened country road. Prior to her disappearance, she left increasingly worried sounding answer phone messages asking her husband to pick them up. He missed them, having been spending the evening with his mistress. The Truths orbits her absence, flashing back to the missing woman's life as a therapist and showing us the roots of her anxiety and misery.

Speaking In Tongues is often a quite difficult to follow. Part of this is down to it being a story told over two halves and part is that each actor plays multiple roles that look and sound quite similar to each other. It's generally pretty fun when a play trusts its audience enough to play detective and assemble the narrative themselves - and you do get a pleasant buzz of achievement here when you connect the dots and realise you've already heard about some event via another character. But there are moments within this jumble of deceit, misunderstanding and coincidence where I simply couldn't keep a grip of the narrative thread. 

The unusual staging doesn't exactly help. Doughnut Productions website states: "The infinite stage provides the actors with an unlimited performance area, being able to walk, run or even ride a bike through the audience." While I'm sure this is the case elsewhere, it definitely isn't inside the tent at Pleasance. Here the show felt seriously cramped, the actors pressed up against the walls and forced to awkwardly work around the audience as best they can. The swivel chair concept doesn't work either - the place is simply too small to rotate freely without awkwardly knocking knees with other audience members. You end up craning your neck to keep track of what's happening, which defeats the point of the whole concept.

It's a shame, as the show can boast some neat writing and performance moments. There's a great line in The Lies "it's good to be the one who leaves a marriage, having your friends and family hate you is really good for moving on" and, in the midst of some of the pitched arguments there's some nicely acidic ripostes. Performance-wise I seriously enjoyed Ben Elder's buttoned-down rich man in The Truths, both out of love with his wife and genuinely concerned that she's missing. There's a nice balance in the character that makes his interrogation by Phil Aizlewood's policeman appropriately tense. 

Despite these speckles of interest, Speaking In Tongues doesn't quite work, at least in this staging. A lot of that is down to squeezing a few too many seats into a small venue, which restricts the performance space and makes us feel squeezed in together. But part of it is down a script whose components never quite gel into a satisfying whole. It's an interesting experiment, but not a successful one.

Speaking In Tongues: The Lies / The Truths is at the Green, The Pleasance Courtyard Aug 8-16, 19-28. Tickets for The Lies here and The Truths here.

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