As part of the ‘Working Class Stories’ season, the Tristan Bates Theatre opens its doors to the Loosely Based Theatre Company with ‘Classified’ which, in response to the growing inequality between classes, envisions possible eventualities in a gratifyingly old-school production. Writer, Jayne Woodhouse, creates three imaginative and perceptive worlds, with a strong feminine slant, to discuss causes and effects of this division and to reflect on how we are becoming trapped within our own lives through the control of data. Each play has its own style but they are connected by a portrayal of different human reactions to injustice and impotence.
In ‘Choices’, set in the present day, the offer of a better life for her new-born baby leaves Leanne disillusioned about the inevitable prospects facing her son, as an unnervingly persuasive ‘Interviewer’ reveals the effects that the negative algorithms of her lifestyle already have on her child. Anna Hallas Smith plays the young mother, swaying sensitively between tough exterior and internal vulnerability while David Lenik is an appealingly comic tormentor.
‘Classified’ takes us to 2080, when society has succumbed to an enforced class structure. Reminiscent of the ‘angry young men’ dramas of the 50s, a couple discover that their mismatched resistance to authority has unanticipated results. Kate O’Rourke and Aaron Kehoe show a very real and heart-felt dilemma, enhanced by the mindful character writing and unpretentious acting.
Moving ten years on, ‘The Watchers’ depicts two generations, mother and daughter, their grasp of the tighter restrictive barriers and their coping strategies. In stirring performances by both, Kate O’Rourke as the mother is shattered by her passive resistance to the system and resigned to her ensuing downgrading but her daughter, played by Anna Hallas Smith, knows nothing else. She feels protected against the ‘dangerous’ lower classes by the fierce authoritative constraints and reacts disturbingly to the taunting she suffers when she and her mother are forced to move to the other side of ‘the wall’.
Calum Robshaw’s direction is direct and unaffected, providing a welcome simplicity, though the initial set-up as the audience enters is becoming something of a cliché; in retrospect, it detracts from the straightforward nature of the concept. Jayne Woodhouse builds interest and tension in scenes with skill and observation and most of the time the dialogue is in keeping with the roles, occasionally becoming somewhat strident. As a personal note, it would be interesting to interchange the order of ‘Choices’ and ‘Classified’ to reshape the dynamics and make the audience’s participation more poignant. A refreshingly uncluttered trio of plays, ‘Classified’ encourages a consideration of our prevailing social climate with sincerity and charm.
“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.