“The writing has a really interesting rhythm that creates tension and fear, but occasionally this tension leads nowhere.”
Brooke Robinson’s one-woman thriller has an interesting concept and an exciting premise, playing with our inherent voyeuristic desires to watch lives unfold around us, despite us never really knowing anyone’s truth.
The play is about Ann (Grace Chilton), a lonely recluse who obsessively watches her neighbours through the windows to their flats. The arrival of a new neighbour and his daughter – a girl in a pink dress – sparks Ann’s attention. When the new neighbour denies the existence of the girl in the pink dress, Ann is left to question the accuracy of her own vision, regularly complaining about her sight and thereby leaving her dangerous obsessions to spiral.
The set of hanging blinds that set the stage is simple but effective, not only making great use of the Studio at The Vaults but also allowing us to focus on Grace Chilton’s disturbing performance as Ann. Although the fast paced monologues occasionally become confused, they are delivered articulately and succinctly, allowing Chilton to give life to this unstable character who is frightening and endearing all at once. Through Melissa Dunne’s neat direction, the performer manages to break through moments of obsessive intensity and create moments of genuine comedy, like when she phones a neighbour in distress to then proudly admit to us, with a humble smile, that she knows all the tenants phone numbers by heart.
However, it is these changes in tone that the play lacked. The writing has a really interesting rhythm that creates tension and fear, but occasionally this tension leads nowhere. Chilton packs an emotional punch when the action climaxes, but the play feels like it needed more of these outbursts. Despite the fast paced nature of the writing and the performance, the often unchanging tone somewhat slowed the piece down.
The play certainly has some tension and mystery and the performance does have a haunting quality to it, but there is opportunity within it to create even greater suspense, even more fear, and perhaps just a little more clarity.
“the empty stage makes it difficult not to disengage with the narrative at every scene change”
Behind sheets of plastic that reflect red lighting, magazine covers that feature naked women are plastered across the walls. This is the backdrop to our narrative, a revival of Sarah Daniels’ radical play ‘Masterpieces’ first produced in 1983, which discusses the possible ramifications of the casual consumption of porn on everyday society and the way that women are viewed and treated as a result of that. We begin at a dinner party where three women endure their husbands sharing rape jokes, sparking Rowena’s own investigation into porn and its effect on the way men see women, with extreme consequences.
Olivia Darnley plays Rowena and delivers a standout performance, tight, energetic and committed. Darnley approaches the role with a fantastic balance of warmth and strength, and doesn’t waste a word of this well-written script. Rob Ostlere is strong as Yvonne’s horrible husband, but otherwise the male characters are one dimensional, not helped by predominantly weak performances. Sophie Doherty’s Jennifer starts promisingly but quickly becomes generalised and undecided in her character choices and uncertain in her movement. Doherty also has a tendency to swallow her words so that we lose moments of comedy in the text. Whilst Tessie Orange-Turner has some lovely moments, she stumbles over her words and seems to be constantly ‘acting’, so it is increasingly difficult to believe in or empathise with her, a trap that many of the actors fall into in this production.
Melissa Dunne’s directorial choices are clumsy and lack detail. Full wine glasses are refilled and the same pile of laundry is unfolded and refolded before our eyes over and over again. In multiple scenes there is an overuse of movement with no reason behind it, people sitting down and standing up, or even circling the stage in what is clearly a device, rather than a character motivated movement. The scene changes are achingly long, often ten seconds of wasted empty stage for no apparent reason as we listen to music of the era. Whilst music early on helps set the scene, the continued use of it between every scene change (of which there are many) is ineffective, protracted and grating, and the empty stage makes it difficult not to disengage with the narrative at every scene change. Whilst the set design (by Verity Quinn) is visually appealing it adds little to the narrative itself, and is unhelpful when it comes to scene changes.
Reviving this play in a relevant way is no easy feat as the conversation has moved on so far from the concrete anti-porn message of the piece. Daniels’ narrative insists on a direction correlation between violence and pornographic images and films, and dismisses any idea that women might enjoy sex, sex toys and pornography themselves. It is not the nuanced discussions we are used to surrounding these topics today, however Daniels’ play still has the potential to be topical and contemporary in its portrayal of rape culture, and the empowering narratives of four women refusing to accept cheating husbands and abusive bosses as the norm. However Dunne’s direction does not push this piece far enough, and it falls short of what it could achieve.
‘Masterpieces’ is a disappointing revival of a well-written and potentially extremely topical and exciting play, let down by weak, over-acted performances and ineffective directorial choices.