Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Theatre Review : Small Hours by Lucy Kirkwood and Ed Hime - Hampstead Downstairs (dir Katie Mitchell 17/1/11)

The audience is restricted to 25 for this intimate site-specific piece in the Hampstead Theatre's Michael Frayn space. One is asked to take off one's shoes, and sit on the furniture around the edge the living room of an undistinguished IKEA-furnished flat.

A woman stands up, sniffing. One immediately suspects that she may have an issue with 25 newly released pairs of feet, but, no, she sprays some perfume into the centre of the room. One of the benefits of the claustrophobic staging is that one can smell the cheap perfume.

Something is disturbing her. She turns on the radio - Severe weather warning in Scotland. She phones but rings off - after all, it is about 3am in the morning. Someone calls her - father? boyfriend? She says no I don't have a boyfriend. Does he want to go to see The Social Network this weekend? We're only getting half this conversation.

She rings off, disturbed. She slowly and carefully puts her make-up on (at 3am - before going to bed? - no, she's putting her coat on. So is she going for a walk? Is she on the game?) and is about to go out when a baby cries. Is it her baby? She wouldn't go out and leave the baby? Would she? She ignores its cries - but, wait, she's going to it, and returns with a nappy sack. She sniffs again and sprays her perfume - is that baby's nappy I can smell now, or is that autosuggestion?

To say much more would give the game away - suffice to say that the director is Katie Mitchell, so she is a master at using sound to create unsettling tension. Noises we cannot ignore - telephones, babies' cries, Chemical Brothers cranked up at an unfeasible hour in the morning (turn it down think of the neighbours we shout inwardly - no, don't put it on again...).

This is a portrait of isolation - the woman (played by Sandy McDade with proper restraint in her despair) is by herself in the small hours apart from her loved ones, failing to cope. What her backstory is we never know. Fill in the gaps from the hints provided. What has pushed her to the edge? - again we don't know. What is the resolution? It is left ambiguous.

Is this a worthwhile piece of experimental theatre? Undoubtedly yes. The claustrophobic staging is an integral part of the theatrical experience, immersing the audience into the sights, sounds and smells of the woman's flat. But did it work as drama? To a certain extent. For a piece that lasts only an hour it has its longueurs, and its finale is so underplayed that there is a temptation to say is that it? But it is a play that reverberates as one reflects upon it - the unanswered questions, the heightening tension, the soundscape, the ambiguous conclusion - and as I sit here writing this review I realise that Katie Mitchell has got to me once again.

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