Barons Court Theatre
Reviewed – 23rd July 2018
“with more careful direction, this interesting yet flawed production could have its message fully realised”
The London skyline is meant to be Anna’s last sight of the world that she wants to leave. Weighed down by depression and devoid of hope, she climbs onto a rooftop and prepares herself for the final fall. ‘Look on the bright side,’ chimes in Steve, the tactless yet well-meaning security guard who is trying to stop her, ‘at least you’re not in Syria.’
Produced as part of The Actor Awareness Festival of new writing, Owls promises to use humour to facilitate a ‘bold and unflinching’ look at mental health. Its protagonists are strangers who meet and bond in unusual circumstances, namely during Anna’s suicide attempt at Steve’s workplace. The minimalistic set – an empty stage littered with discarded rubbish – draws focus away from the external world and on to the characters’ tempestuous relationship. In its best moments, this relationship is used to tackle clichés and misconceptions surrounding mental health. Steve’s faith in “mindfulness” and talking therapy is scoffed at; their mutual lack of sympathy for each other’s problems conveys the prevalence of this attitude. Writer Jayne Woodhouse also makes some effective comments on the awkward nature of mental health discussions. Anna finds it difficult to open up, whilst Steve finds it easier to talk irreverently about politics and Candy Crush than the problem that is (quite literally) right in front of him.
Whilst the dialogue holds a lot of potential, it is not fully realised. Calum Robshaw’s direction feels heavy-handed: the lines are not given room to breathe, and as such their impact is not fully felt. David House’s performance as Steve is most impacted by this. Although his frantic delivery conveys the character’s uncertainty, it tends to overwhelm the lines. His clumsy attempts to distract Anna from her thoughts should be laugh out loud moments, but the lack of pauses mean that the jokes do not land properly. To his credit, House does grow into the role, but he would benefit from a more controlled delivery. Kate Austen’s Anna is more nuanced and believable. Austen captures her wit and humour as well as her emotional fragility, ensuring that the character does not become the cliché of the sad girl who needs to be saved. That being said her performance is a little erratic, and her character changes too suddenly without reason. The minor roles of Steve’s colleague Pavel and his estranged son Darren are taken by Craig Edgley, whose performances are funny and memorable in spite of their brief length. The three actors do well to create believable relationships between their respective characters, which sustain some of the more unbelievable moments.
Is Owls a ‘bold and unflinching’ portrayal of mental health? In a sense, yes. Woodhouse forces her audience to confront and question a situation that too often remain hidden. It is unfortunate, therefore, that the premise does not come to life as effectively as it could. Perhaps, with more careful direction, this interesting yet flawed production could have its message fully realised.
Reviewed by Harriet Corke
Photography by John Bruce
Barons Court Theatre