It revolves around the evening of Saskia’s 33rd birthday & kicks off with the unexpected arrival of her brother, joined eventually by her friends as they settle in to celebrate her birthday before things turn sour.
It’s an intimate six hander piece, although sometimes I felt we were all part of the party, especially the young couple next to me who felt the need to narrate their thoughts and opinions constantly during the show. Maybe it was the excitement of their phones vibrating that kept them tantalised through the events. Or the fact that they had imbibed an extra 30 minutes of alcohol as the show went up late and we were forced to hang out in the bar with Rocky, the ginger tom. And that is not a euphemism.
There were lots of things to like about the show, even if it’s not quite there yet. The first 20 minutes is particularly engaging as the surprise arrival of Saskia’s brother Josh, (played by co- writer Alistair Powning) sets up a tension straight away. Things start to drift a little as the rest of the guests arrive. There’s Saskia’s (Emily Stewart) friend Maya, (Jessica Donoghue), whose marriage to Tim, (co- writer Michael Booth) has broken down as they head in different directions. Throw in lesbian friend, Lily (Gemma Atkinson), and lothario Lachlan (Ben Dalton) into the mix and you’ve got a recipe for a young person’s guide to social diversity and dramatic foils.
Each character has their moment in the sun, so to speak, although the play gets confused by whose story it is telling and doesn’t always succeed bringing about closure or develop a clear function for each character.
Cathode Ray Tube, formed in early 2009, set out to “be like a rock band, to jam regularly, muck around with material, create stuff and most of all to have fun”. The play certainly has that feel. It emanates a collective and devised vibe. After the success of ‘That Old Chestnut’, ‘33’ has a very similar feel and this is a tight working ensemble. There is a sense of real life and a rapport amongst the collective - they are having fun, are very comfortable on stage together and that makes the audience feel relaxed in this intimate space.
Of course, this doesn’t always work theatrically. Staging is, at times, awkward in the several split scenes going on at once, fighting for the focus of its audience. The character-driven plot gets lost amongst quick unpredictable transitions and character intent is not always clear. Sometimes the whining of the characters feels much younger than I would expect from people who are 33 and if not for the device of Saskia’s 33rd birthday party, I would have felt I was watching characters much younger. Lines like “I will always hold you in my heart but can no longer hold you in my arms” may have cemented that impression. Or maybe that’s my middle-aged-self speaking…
I think the piece’s greatest weakness lies in the fact that there is no director. Actors beware. As good as you are, do not underestimate the power of an appropriate and skilled director, (unless, of course, that director is Benedict Andrews and then ‘33’ would have been set in a Gulag in 1940, complete with firing squad, a coal mine and a flying fox). A director would have ironed out some of the devised indulgences of the staging and asked some of the big character questions like why Josh has run away from commitment now and why did he break contact with his sister, why no-one made poor Saskia lunch when she was a little girl, why Lily doesn’t seem overly concerned by the fact that her partner broke up with her that night, why Tim doesn’t want a baby, why Josh is so angry by the prospect of Saskia and Lachlan’s flirtation and why Saskia doesn’t come to Maya’s rescue in covering up her infidelities.
Having said that, there were some funny moments and some of the acting was strong and engaging. Full credit to Jessica Donoghue for going on even though she was ill- the reason for the show going up late I am told. None of that came through in her performance. There is also a naturalness in delivery, an organic communion between characters that the actors demonstrate in moments on stage and it was clear that the audience felt they were getting value for money. There are great moments of truth in there, coupled with times of missing the mark.
Overall, the play felt like a long form improvisation. There was a lovely sense of spontaneity but moments of lost artistic control. Like a choir without a musical director, there were great voices but no-one to tie it together and manipulate or conduct focus, intent, action and staging. Some of their internal conflict didn’t seem to be enough to push them over the edge. It would not be hard to achieve –it just needs more workshopping with a director. I would love to see this play again once they have a director’s vision and skill in place and have a chance to review the dramatic function and objectives of the characters.
Whilst they haven’t managed to tie all the threads together, they are on to something worthwhile and I hope they pursue drafting and controlling this piece. It has all the makings of a good piece of theatre.