by Nikki Packham
I didn’t know this play at all and avoided Google, so I had no idea what to expect. I love BLT Bar Shows because, as you enter this intimate space, you have the first flavour of the piece before it even starts. Friday night was no exception. The full floor acting area between the pillars was a carpet of leaves and Tony Jenner had turned the pillars themselves into tree trunks, decorated with branches, cleverly fixed to the ceiling beams. The only furniture was a bench against one wall. The music playing then and through the play perfectly complimented the setting and the dark stories we were about to witness. I do wish we could have more adventurous lighting for the bar shows, but I know there are technical issues.
There are so many elements to this play, including bullying, peer pressure, mental health issues and lack of empathy, and that is probably why it is on the GCSE Drama syllabus. Art and science come together with a terrible ‘final solution’, not once, but twice. When, having been taunted, bullied and manipulated, a school student falls to her death, her fellow students gather together in panic. They eventually turn to Phil and Leah, the only two not directly involved, and more particularly to the young man, whom we have seen sitting on the bench, carefully eating silently, while his girlfriend ‘rabbits’ on.
Phil considers the problem and orchestrates the action to be taken by the others calmly and firmly, thus taking the burden of proof from their shoulders, and putting it onto those of a stranger, via the victim’s DNA. The twist in the tale is that, after all has gone to plan, the victim appears, having survived her ordeal physically, but deeply traumatised mentally. Madeleine Rawles gave a well-paced, totally believable account of her survival and her mental state. I did think she should have dirt applied all over her face, hands and fingernails, and her clothes should have been more distressed from scrabbling in mud and living in a hedge.
Once again the others turn to Phil and his decision, carried out by the most mentally unstable of the group, perhaps suffering from bi-polar, is the most terrible of all. Leah, who has been fiercely loyal to Phil, can’t condone this and walks away. She is referred to at the end of the play, but never seen again and you are left to draw your own conclusions! The acting of the eleven young players was uniformly excellent. Each actor gave us their character with appropriate body language and movement or stillness, as well as delivering the text with meaning; though I would have liked more projection at times from one or two. I know this is a small space, but two blocks of audience can deaden the sound and words can get lost as a result.
Robert O’Neill and Lili Herbert as the couple on the bench were very good indeed. Lili made every word count and her expressive face showed us the dilemma she felt in trying to reach this seemingly unresponsive boy next to her. As the boy, Robert perfectly captured someone with OCD, putting butter and jam on a waffle in a very controlled and precise manner for instance – everything had a place and had to be placed. He maintained this attitude when speaking to his ‘followers’ and whilst his orders sounded so reasonable, you realised that, because of his inability to connect emotionally to anyone, he was, in fact, condemning an innocent person to imprisonment. Robert then brought the same terrible logic to his demonstration with the plastic bag, so that, when given it, the doer of the deed was completely compliant.
Director Jess Jenner moved her large cast around well in that tiny space and she brought out the students’ foibles and prejudices, even when they naturally formed pairs, or groups in the face of this catastrophe. Isobel Edwards, Arthur Maunder, Kira O’Sullivan, Ieuan Harrild, Joshua Williams-Ward, Holly Wilson, Louie Chapman and Alice-Rose Foster gave us fear, bravado, career choices, (Danny wanted to be a dentist), cunning and hysteria in good measure and left us wanting to discuss the play afterwards, which is always a good sign. Great to see so many young people in the audience too!