Reviewed – 27th April 2018
“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.
Reviewed by Amelia Brown
Photography by Bill Prentice
Finborough Theatre until 19th May
Previously at this venue