Saturday, February 22, 2020

Review: 'House of Commons' at the White Bear Theatre, 21st February 2020

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

Titling a play House of Commons gives the audience a pretty hard nudge into reading it as a political allegory. So, with Boris Johnson set to be Prime Minister for a large chunk of the next decade and all the fun of Brexit to look forward to, what's the play about?

Set in a high-security psychiatric treatment facility, we follow a series of deeply damaged individuals who have been convicted of heinous crimes. Over the course of the play the spend a lot of time yelling at one another, detailing the horrors they're accused of and miserably laying out their lot in life. At times the only thing stopping their interactions from spilling over into gruesome violence are the electrodes implanted in their necks, which shock them if they get too far out of line.

So yeah, House of Commons it is.

This gang of patients has spent so much time together that familiarity has curdled into contempt, with everyone able to push each other's buttons whenever they please. But tonight there's something new to focus on. Lana (Sarah Collins Walters) is a new inmate, assigned to the facility for one night as she awaits the verdict of her trial. The inmates circle her like vultures, wondering whether she'll get away or become a permanent addition to their lives.

It's a decent set-up and the inquisitorial style works well in giving each character a moment in the spotlight. Throughout the play, most of the characters reveal the traumatic experiences that placed them here, which usually reveal them to be as much victim as perpetrator. Thing is, it's the ones we don't learn much about that prove to be the most intriguing.

Nomi Bailey's Peta is particularly sphinx-like. Despite not saying much she dominates the room from her wheelchair, regarding the others with predatory gazes from her glittering yet cold blue eyes. Then there's Luke Culloty's Andre, who is blind (wearing just creepy looking white contact lens), and just sits at the rear of the stage regarding the action.

But the enigmatic characters being the most interesting perhaps speaks to the play's occasionally frustrating narrative elements. These are characters who spend a lot of time talking over each other, heading down conversational cul-de-sacs and turning on emotional dimes. Consequentially, it's often tricky to figure out what's actually going on.

That feeds into an overall lack of narrative thrust. The tension in the show feels like it should be Lana's fear over her verdict and facing up to a potential future in this facility. This feels like it falls by the wayside early on in favour of exploring the other characters. 

It leaves the play feeling more like a series of loosely connected sketches than a sustained narrative, which slowly drains away your engagement. In a similar vein, while I could mentally wrestle it into a basic political allegory, the show itself doesn't seem to have any interest in exploring why it's called House of Commons.

It's probably telling that I brought someone along to the play who doesn't often visit the theatre. Their reaction was "Well, it was interesting, but I couldn't work out what the story was." 

House of Commons is at the White Bear Theatre until 22nd February 2020. Tickets here.

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