Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Review: 'Shadows' at the Tristan Bates Theatre, 2nd July 2019

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Unrequited love is slow-burning torture. Whether because of circumstances,  sexual preference or simply a lack of social awkwardness - a person can end up spending hours in the company of someone who could provide everything they want but never will. Beyond that, there's the quiet desperation of sitting on the sidelines as the object of your desire pairs up, settles down and begins a future without you. All the while you observe mournfully as a potential future recedes into the distance.

Before Morrissey turned into a fascist, he sang "want the one I can't have / And it's driving me mad / It's written all over my face". He knew the score. And so does Want the Moon Theatre's Shadows.

Nat (Madeline Hatt) does too - painfully so. She's caught in a romantic no-man's land with her co-worker James (Ross White). The play follows their relationship as they work in a pub, with the majority of the action taking place in the cellar amidst kegs of beer and crates of bottles. It's not the most satisfying job, with Nat summarising it as something you do for a while and move on. James doesn't necessarily agree.

Playwright Dan Sareen then works through an intriguing split narrative. We see each scene twice; once in the imagination of Nat in which she and James gradually grow closer and form a romantic bond; and once in cold reality, in which two co-workers put together by circumstance realise they don't have as much in common as they thought they did.

On paper, showing each scene twice sounds pretty terrible - why do I want to see a variation on something I've just watched? In practice it works very well, with the direction, writing and performances doing more than enough to make the contrast between the two versions of each scene interesting.

This narrative structure feeds back into some of the plays other elements. Throughout Shadows the characters discuss music: Nat is a classically trained pianist and James prefers rock music - with moments where they attempt to connect with one another through pieces of music they love. This is echoed in the structure of the play, in which the repetition creates a narrative melody that's gradually iterated on as the relationship evolves.

It's clever stuff and exactly the kind of experimentation that I look for in fringe theatre. This sense of ambition extends to the direction and set design. Initially, things look rather plain, the selection of white props creating a sense of place rather than a simulation of it. But these props are also used as a background for digital projection mapping in which we see fantasies of Nat and James' imagined perfect lives play out between scenes. Throughout the play, these surfaces are continually reconfigured, with the actors having to put props in exactly the right place to show the projections. It looks complicated and time-consuming, but the effect is well worth it.

Cementing all this into place are two great performances from Hatt and White, who are directed very well by Jess Williams. They nail the change in tone between the two versions of scenes, and for the audience it's painfully easy to spot parts of yourselves in each of them. Though there's a profound sense of melancholy running throughout Shadows, Hatt and White nail the funnier parts, and have a genuine chemistry without which the play wouldn't work half as well.

Shadows is a fine bit of drama. It's got a clear dramatic objective that everyone involved understands, meaning that cast and crew are all pulling in the same direction. This purity of focus and narrative discipline is surprisingly rare on stage - making this a tight and effective show.

Shadows is at the Tristan Bates Theatre until 6th July (tickets here), then at the Edinburgh Fringe from August 2nd - 26th (tickets here).

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