A woman and a man, waiting. They appear to be a couple, but are alone in their thoughts. The silence between them is unbearable.
The Frights by Louise Taylor explores the aftermath of traumatic events: the comedown from extreme experience. What’s it like to live with the memory of being kidnapped and tortured? What’s it like to live with the person remembering it?
Taylor’s first full-length play uses a familiar group of characters, two couples from differing social backgrounds – but unlike many first plays, The Frights commendably sidesteps the familiar flatmates on a sofa scenario. Instead, Taylor disconcertingly places her characters in a waiting area, each couple hoping that their ticket number will be called. It’s a hyper-real place with extraordinary waiting times and a queuing system like a less organised version of Argos. Above all, it’s a room where private, confidential conversations take place in public, because the rest of the queue is conveniently somewhere off-stage; if it is actually there at all.
Taylor intersperses the action with flashbacks. Hanny, a charity worker in an unnamed war-zone, has just been released from imprisonment. She relives brief but brutal details of her ordeal, interludes which unfortunately don’t add very much to our understanding of the people in the play. They seem to more about creating an impact on the audience than the characters.
Perhaps Taylor is emphasising the idea that Hanny is now undergoing a second interrogation by those around her – both loved ones and strangers. Once Hanny sells her story to the papers, she becomes public property. The play seems to be saying that, as hungry consumers of the news, we are just as guilty as Hanny of succumbing to the media dollar.
However, I may be over-interpreting, since the play’s intentions are not always clear. That’s perhaps an indication of how many ideas the writer throws in the air – and perhaps too, of how many of those ideas actually land. For instance, the waiting room is a vague space, its purpose never really explored sufficiently to allow the audience to understand it, either with certainty or ambiguity.
The writer isn’t helped by a production in which many physical aspects are indistinct: for example, the waiting room’s ticket counter display is hidden from half the audience (the kind of sightline issue that more touring experience will no doubt resolve). More crucially, the actors are constantly making unnatural, stagey moves around a space that is supposedly filled with people queuing. Perhaps director Ali Pritchard wanted to give this dialogue-heavy piece some much-needed visual variety. More focused direction would have helped characters to have a stronger relationship with the fictional space they occupy.
A hugely positive and active force on the burgeoning Newcastle fringe scene, Alphabetti Theatre is here producing its first full-length play. There isn’t really enough development of the material to sustain the 70 minute running time. There’s an interval, even though there are no tensions or suspensions to justify a break in the action.
Taylor’s central idea is strong, but the themes tend to get buried beneath meandering dialogue. As a result, the play doesn’t ever really ask the questions that its themes set up. The bafflingly sudden ending leaves the intentions of the play dangling in the air. Leaving questions open can be a good thing, but you have to ask them in the first place.
The play is driven by dialogue. It never pauses for breath or for action. The dialogue is circular in nature, often returning to the same point. Because the conversations don’t develop, the dialogue is overwritten, whilst characters are underwritten.
Alphabetti clearly want to produce ambitiously. And it’s reassuring to see a company led by no less than 4 men commissioning a female playwright. I hope future commissions from promising new voice Taylor will marry this ambition to stronger dramaturgy and more focused direction.