Excellence beyond doubt

Doubt: A Parable (That Production Company)

Studio 188

December 3 – 12

“What do you do when you’re not sure?” …. The initial words of “Doubt: A Parable” are shared as part of a sermon about the notion, however, their speaker, Father Flynn (James Trigg) could just have as easily have been talking directly to the audience about the conundrum at the centre of the show itself, filled as it is with contemplative notions to linger long after its experience.

This is the power of “Doubt: A Parable”, John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatic exploration of the idea of certainly verses ambiguity and the lengths that we should go to in support of what we believe is right. They are themes with modern resonance, untempered by audience disassociation from its context of a 1964 civil rights America still reeling from the assassination of President Kennedy, as the work also taps into fears of fundamentalist intolerance corruption and clerical abuse of authority.

At the St. Nicholas Church School in the Bronx, the Sisters of Charity teach children under the watchful eye of Sister Aloysius (Rachel Hunt) whose unflinching demeanour keeps everyone on the straight and narrow. When a number of dubious events raise her suspicions, she wastes no time in cornering her respected and much-loved parish priest superior and convincing the innocent Sister James (Lauren Roche) of his guilt at having an indecent relationship with the working class Irish and Italian school’s token black student, Donald Muller.

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Having once again chosen a robust work, That Production Company more than does justice to its stellar script. The small cast all are measured in performance, in manner that suits the text. As Mrs Muller, Asabi Goodman is heartfelt in reflection that the Father is her son’s only friend, engaging audience empathy in her controversial acceptance of any relationship if only to keep him in school because ‘maybe the Father is doing some good too’.

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Roche’s performance as Sister James, is perfectly paced – diminutive in response to her superior’s determination to bring down the father with or without her help and reflective in her desire to never have become involved. Commanding the stage, however, Trigg conveys an immediately likeability that makes it easy to imagine his affinity with the (unseen) children, yet is simultaneously so convincing in role as a Irish man of the cloth that you almost fine yourself making sacramental sign of the cross along with him at sermons ends.

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However, it is Hunt who gives the most astounding performance as the widowed Sister Aloysius, initially an almost quaint, nostalgic relic of a society since passed and ultimately bitter and unsympathetic. Her performance is controlled to the finest of details of reaction to the use of ballpoint pens and condemnation of Christmas pageant music, always conveying an unwavering self-righteousness in her modulated delivery of biting dialogue and so sanctimonious as to make you want to slap her as, like Shakespeare’s Iago, she pours pestilence into the ear of the young Sister James with suggestions such as “they look smug, like they have a secret.” Far from progressive in her approach as Convent Principal, she presents as a perfect antagonist to the vibrant popular parish priest in her personal crusade for his removal and their final, passionate confrontation showcases a masterful performance from them both.

Staging is simple and effective, thanks to clever design to open up the space through the creation of faux walls, and good use is made of it, even down to entrances and exits, which is of greater importance for a work with so little stage action. So snappy is its dialogue though, that its running time flies in a flurry of changed audience opinion as to who might be right.

Although it certainly stands a show in good stead, solid source material can be no guarantee of excellence. In this instance, however, it is supplemented by the company’s respect for the work’s integrity that makes it well worth an Ipswich trip. With little doubt, That Production Company is a company to watch, thanks to their quietly ambitious show choices that continue to impress.

Photos c/o –  LeAnne Vincent Photography

From civility to Carnage

The God of Carnage (That Production Company)

Studio 188

April 30 – May 9

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Before “The Slap” there was “The God of Carnage”, Yasmina Reza’s critically acclaimed and perpetually popular comedy of manners, without the manners. It is a dramatic work hinged on simple enough opening premise: two couples meet to discuss a playground fight between two of their children. Discussions are initially amicable; they are all decent people and, as they observe “there is still such as thing as coexistence.” However arguments soon ensure over the fine line between misadventure and menace and things begin to unravel. As the couples sip espresso and discuss all things cultured, hostility becomes more apparent. And when rum replaces coffee, the afternoon’s courtesy descends into carnage as the allegiances are tested and transferred on what becomes, by each character’s own admittance, the unhappiest day of their life.

Hostess Veronique is an advocate for civilised behaviour. And Alice Barbery plays her to precision, full of eye-rolling passive aggression and political correctness (she’s just completed writing a book on Darfur). Frustratingly, she cannot help herself in taking arguments too far, time and time again. However, although her conflict with smug corporate lawyer Alain (David Paterson) is ultimately predictable, it is also absolutely understandable given the frequency with which his mobile phone calls punctuate proceedings, to his wife’s perpetual annoyance.

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There is wonderful contrast too, between the initial polish of Annette (Hilary Caitens) and the every-man appeal of the laid-back Michel (Charles Allen). As things progress, Caitens perfectly unwinds to tipsy and slurring, while Allen maintains a somewhat understated performance, which serves to ground the work. This is a balanced ensemble and all cast members need to be commended for their commitment to these largely unsympathetic characters. They also hit their physical comedy marks with precision in support of the script’s humour, bringing both the comedy and later the pathos of the play to life.

The initial setting is minimalist and politely elegant, almost clinical in its shiny white starkness with black and red accents, ready to be littered with reminders of how badly parents can play. The setting gives characters no real exit, which only heightens the sense of audience voyeurism as we observe a collapse from civility to carnage in just 90 minutes. It not only suits the subject matter, but also a small company production and That Production Company more than makes use of its possibilities.

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“The God of Carnage” is a popular play (it was the longest running Broadway comedy of the 2000s and won the 2009 Olivier Award for Best Comedy and Tony Award for Best Play) because it is a good play. And That Production Comapny have done a good job in bringing it to the Studio 188 stage. Indeed, there is much to be enjoyed in this production, full as it is of humour and contemplation courtesy of a wonderfully witty script.

What would youth know?

Pains of Youth (That Production Company)

Studio 188

November 5 – 15

Studio 188 at Ipswich’s old Baptist Church is an intimate venue whose charm reminds me of Greenside’s Royal Terrace setting alongside Greenside Parish church in Edinburgh. Seeing “Death of a Salesman” at the Ed Fringe there was a memorable occasion, firstly because any decent production of the greatest play of the 20th century is noteworthy, but also because, due to an audience member taking ill, the production had to be stopped to allow their exit passage across the stage. Like ‘Salesman’, the experience of “Pains of Youth” in the Studio 188 venue is certainly impressive, however, it is due to everything other than the text itself.

Expressionist German playwright Gerindand Bruckner’s story takes place in 1920s Vienna, a time when Austria was caught up in a swell of modernism following World War One. On the eve of their graduation, a depressive, depressing group of bisexual upper-middle-class medical students who share a boarding house  all struggle with the need to transition into adulthood. “Bourgeois existence or suicide. There are no other choices,” they lament melodramatically.

“Pains of Youth” is an ambitious work and That Production Company is unflinching in its depiction of the dark subject material in this version by Martin Crimp. Every relationship is toxic, however, the action is dominated by the sinister, Nietzschean Freder who delights in orchestrating the destruction of those around him. He corrupts the innocent maid Lucy (Ellen Marshall) from her ‘sleepwalk through life’ to prostitute herself and feeds the suicidal tendencies of the aristocratic Desiree (Jane Flanagan). Initially flirtatious and flamboyant in his embodiment of the romance of eternal student existence, Patrick Dwyer is ultimately beguiling in his cruel manipulation, delivering a standout performance.

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Hysterically volatile like Tennessee Williams’ Maggie the Cat, Lauren Roche anchors the cast as Marie, the gorgeous, multifaceted protagonist, whose descent in madness intensifies as her every layer is shed. Her performance energy is engaging in its liveliness as her mad desperation increases. Indeed they are all quite mad but, as Desiree wonders, ‘what’s the point in being sane’?  And what would youth know?

Sane or insane, there is little to care about in this group and without this, no amount of thematic universality can make give the text substance. The dialogue is dense with sometimes quite poetic inner thought declarations regarding love, life and learning, however, their poignancy is sometimes lost in the frenetic gabble of its adolescent tedium and naivety of statements like “being young is the one great adventure of our lives”.

Staging is deceptively simple and fluently functional, however, as the madcap desperation escalates to increased door slamming, it is clear that perhaps a sturdier set is needed. Costumes, however, are superb, achieving a strong visual appeal, which is no mean feat in a play of such moral repugnance.

On its release in 1926 Bruckner’s play “Krankheit der Jugend” (Sickness of Youth) must have seemed daring and controversial in its depravity in its thematic touches on (but no real exploration of) drug use, lesbianism, and euthanasia. Even today, it is not a work for the faint of heart and That Production Company should be commended for not shying away from its discomfort.