“the energy peters out as the story, which is somewhat predictable, unfolds”
‘Afterglow’ first appeared at the Davenport Theater in New York and boasted the longest run the theatre had seen. Its UK premiere was at Southwark Playhouse, and now it is being reborn, here at the Waterloo East Theatre. It is a play about the possibilities of consensual non-monogamy, and the complication of love that stretches in too many directions.
The central characters are three men, but it avoids gay stereotypes – a purposeful decision by the writer not to talk about the AIDS crisis, coming out, homophobia and so on. In this way the story is a very universal one, a married couple, a younger lover, a decision to be made. We know this narrative well.
S. Asher Gelman certainly has a lovely knack for creating conversational dialogue, that feels based in reality. There is certainly a fascinating discussion to be had here, and the stage is a wonderful place for it, about the possibilities and challenges of non-monogamy. This play offers the beginnings of that, it just doesn’t quite get there. The play begins with an explosive start, in the midst of our characters’ first threesome together, but the energy peters out as the story, which is somewhat predictable, unfolds.
Peter McPherson plays Alex, the accommodating and then jealous husband left out of this new love. He is the strongest and most believable of a cast that is overall too weak to carry the production. In defence of the actors, the characters are predominantly one dimensional, but with the exception of McPherson’s performance, there is little to emotionally engage with onstage. The relationship between Darius (Benjamin Aluwihare) and Josh (Adi Chugh) lacks chemistry, and the accents of both these actors are off which is a constant distraction.
The versatile set (Libby Todd) which moves from bed to massage parlour to roof garden is clever in its possibility. The onstage shower is the jewel in its crown, a fantastic visual, filling the space with steam and water. Overlaying this is light (designed by David Howe) pouring through the shape of blinds or window panes, heavily evocative of so much cinema set in New York and so immediately transportive. As the set is changed, heavy beats punctuate, something that initially works really well but as the scene changes gets longer becomes a monotonous thud.
This is a subject matter that could create a really engaging drama onstage, but the production and its script, fail to meet this latent potential.
“Georgie Staight’s no-frills revival is powerful and chilling”
Penelope Skinner’s Eigengrau, originally produced in London in 2010, follows the intersecting lives of four young people struggling to get by in London. Cassie works for a feminist organisation that lobbies parliament. Rose believes in fairies and star signs and true love. Mark is a womanising marketing bro. Tim, suffering from depression, barely manages his shifts at a fast food takeaway. Their lives intertwine with devastating consequences in this modern-day Grimm’s fairytale.
Director Georgie Staight’s no-frills revival is powerful and chilling. With a sparse, efficient set (Bex Kemp) – just a few wooden boxes used as benches and tables – Staight boldly strips the show down to its leanest form. Fast-paced and highly entertaining, there isn’t a dull moment in its nearly two-hour runtime.
Staight’s faith in the strength of her cast to carry the show barefaced, without the padding of excessive design, is not misplaced. Four well-selected actors deliver accomplished performances. George Fletcher is easily convincing as the cocky, manipulative Mark. Callum Sharp is subtle yet nuanced as the harmless – but perhaps not quite – Tim Muffin. Isabel Della-Porta wholly owns her role as the strong but still immature feminist Cassie. And Katie Buchholz shines, earning her place as the star of the show, with an exceptional performance as the idealistic, desperate Rose. Buchholz is captivating: fluttery and electric with madness at all of her edges. She effortlessly draws focus and holds it for the duration she’s on stage. Like a violin string wound too tight, she keeps us on edge, uneasily wondering when she’ll snap. Cassie says she’s a little bit afraid of Rose. We are too.
Although there are moments of the play that feel dated – in the post-Metoo era, a ‘feminist’ is no longer a curiosity – Staight is smart in realising the many ways Eigengrau is immediately relevant. Men pretending to be woke (or worse, believing they are), while demeaning and manipulating women, are still sharks in 2019 waters. And the overall feminist message still rings true: Rose embodies the damage done by years of consuming misogynist ideology packaged as fairytales and rom-coms. Disinterest from men means she’s deficient. There’s no relationship that can’t be fixed by the right dress and a grand gesture. It’s no wonder her optimism, at the age of twenty-seven, is beginning to take on a manic quality. Cassie wants Rose to see the world for what it is: cruel and oppressive, full of untrustworthy people. But Rose shuts her eyes to any evidence that contradicts her belief the world is a good place. If the world is hideous, isn’t it better to be blind?
Eigengrau is the name for the shade of black seen by the eye in perfect darkness. With this revival, Staight is shrewd asking the woke generation of 2019 – who see, daily, the harsh realities of a sinister society no longer bothering to disguise its hate – how tempting, how soothing, must eigengrau be? To shut your eyes, shut it all out, even for a moment? But while eigengrau may seem like a safe haven, Skinner’s story reminds us of the danger in seeking it. No progress can be made in darkness. There’s no going back to sleep, now that we’re awake.
With this production of Eigengrau, Staight is asking feminist questions that, nine years later, audiences still need to hear. Don’t miss the opportunity to see Skinner’s enthralling, razor sharp play revived by a strong cast.