Live theatre is back. At the end of The Beach House, written by Jo Harper and directed by Bethany Pitts, two people were whooping.
It was promising a welcome jaunt, to come and see new writing staged in North London.
Heads up: This piece felt like a distinctly unfinished piece of work-in-progress, and I'm going to give my reasons why.
The opening premise (and promise) to The Beach House seems simple. A couple of women, strangers, are at Kate's party, but they're in the coat room, one is in there for a quiet illicit drink of wine (early signs of things to come). The other is looking for her coat. They meet, chat, flirt, mention Kate, her foibles, her party, and then Kate comes in and their initial intrigue is interrupted. One is Kate's Lover, the other is Kate's Sister. Oooh!
The Company is also called “Kate”. What gives?
Anyway... onwards we go through three parallel love stories, between Kate and her sister (Jenny), Kate and her lover (Liv) and Liv and Jenny's illicit love affair. There's also the love affair between the established couple and their pending, and then born, baby Lola (strains of “Lola” underline that she's called... Lola.).
Jenny's flirtation with motherhood too comes into the mix but not to the liking of everyone.
Jenny's a dancer... apparently. Liv's a songwriter.. apparently. Kate? Not sure... something to do with spreadsheets.
Soon, they've moved to A Beach House. Where...? We're not told. Does it matter? I think it probably does.
It's great to get theatre staged in London. There's still a chance this piece could develop into something stronger, with time and real reworking.
Here were the issues for me... and it's almost one of Kate's spreadsheets I feel I need to reach for.
Within about 10 minutes the prevailing pattern of the text is established, consisting of brief lines back and forth, a tennis match. Often with just two on stage at any one time. The rhythm becomes therefore stuck in a surfeit of staccato, the conversation being batted back and forth, when other rhythms were being asked for, yearned for. Unfortunately for Jo Harper, this piece was shortlisted for an award, which means she likely thinks it's now beyond reproach. Such awards can be the death knell of creative continued working on your writing.
Could writer Jo allow other rhythms in? Allow one of them a monologue, or to speak uninterrupted, to not have a reply that was, again, a repetition of the last word or phrase of the previous speaker's line (this device so heavily overused)?
As well as rhythm, could there also be more variety... of pace, of tonality, of volume (the baffling misting machine was a constant noise that undermined any chance of any quiet speech)?
The batting to and fro, meanwhile, seems to keep the players firmly in their heads, remembering, being nifty on their next lines, rather than them having a chance to relax, relax into feeling, into the emotional landscape of one extended, flowing and affective piece of text to speak. Now, of course, nifty and witty verbal fencing can be real fun, wonderfully exhilarating, Unfortunately, this wasn't witty. In fact, distinctly pedestrian.
The writing was predominantly combative, leaving little room for genuine vulnerability, any emotionality seemingly taken out of the hands of the actors and put into various devices, such as strains of music, (there's “Lola” again); a constantly-on misting machine (why was that smoke machine, that added nothing I could discern to the play, on the whole time, and why did I have to battle to hear the actors over the thing?); the sounds of drips in a bucket under a leaky roof used every single time a “poignant” moment was to be signified as... poignant (the “this relationship has a leaky roof” metaphor did not need so many re-iterations, and fewer of them would have put more trust into the audience to “get it”.)
It was almost as if the writer, or the director Bethany Pitts, did not trust the actors to be able to carry the emotion of the story. And in the end, they lived up to the expectations.
I didn't believe in the emotional landscape I was being invited to buy into.
Jenny falls for Liv based on... what? She's not funny, witty, vulnerable, interesting, or anything. Apparently, she writes a song or two. Do we get to hear these amazing words, and think “Aha... this is why someone loves Liv... it's because she's a beautiful poet”? Nope. Do we see her pick up an instrument? Nah-ah. And Jenny?
How am I expected to believe either would fall for the other, and in such a quick time? Even in “theatre time” I couldn't believe in their “love” (or even attraction).
Sure, there's drunken base attraction, and yes, Liv drinks, Jenny is pretty and youthful, and the whoopers seemed to have had a few too, but in the end, if I'm not drawn to feeling enough (or anything for that matter) for a character, how do I buy that any of the other characters do either?
Moving on: Could the transitions have been more elegant? Could the third actor come on and set scenery / strike scenery for the next scene, either in “neutral” or as a version of her own character, saving the other characters from having to break spells at the end of their scene?
Could perhaps whichever actor having just “put Lola down” come back in a tad more after the act, rather than seemingly sometimes almost whilst we could still hear that character speaking to Lola through the baby monitor? When you've just got a baby off to sleep.... You're gone a loooong time... parents tiptoe out very (very) slowly.
Could the space be used more effectively, more creatively, more variety? Sitting on the edge of the stage, speaking directly to the audience, sitting in an audience seat... perhaps?
In the end, then, I'm afraid I also didn't believe... in Lola, and her effect on the family, the exhaustion and upheaval a baby brings into a life. It wasn't palpable.
The setting too, was not palpable. I didn't feel like I was being taken anywhere near a beach. I wasn't helped to feel the beach nearby, by the writing, acting or directing, except for the occasional swim Liv and Jenny apparently went for. How could I have been invited, more, to see and feel “beach”?
And why does it matter where The Beach House is? Setting the scene grounds the piece in a living emotional landscape. If someone talks in generalities, being conceptual, it doesn't attach to real-world examples that we can relate to. We get lost, spaced out. As soon as they get personal and specific, the stakes go up. We can connect, and care. We have emotional relationships to specific things, places, types of work. I have widely different feelings about Brighton beach versus Devon beaches. I have real attachments and give a shit about certain types of work versus others, I want to have the story grounded somewhere real, so I can identify, (or not) or relate (or not). Conceptual and vague places, ideas of work, of parenting...? I'm non-plussed and definitely not invested. What about Kate and Jenny's back story? Why is Liv drinking? What effects is it having? Tell me more please? I want to key into the whole thing, to the dirty details of someone's story, but I'm being kept out. Being skimmed, over the dirt. It's vague, unsatisfying, and disengaging. Boring.
What did I enjoy? I quite enjoyed the fireworks effect. The tension built when we wonder when Kate will discover the affair. I enjoyed the bare bones of the story, and the anticipation that those bones could have real meat put on them. I enjoyed the first few times the water seemed to drip into the bucket. I enjoyed many of the setups, the three-way possibilities, the pregnancy. The potential of a seething jealousy between sisters. The potential for a child-custody battle. I enjoyed watching other audience members across the space.
Gemma Lawrence (Liv) is the lightest on her actor's feet in the trio, bringing some versatility to the piece, working hard it seems with, or against, the text and the direction. Kathryn Bond (Kate) plays the seemingly semi-neurodiverse, emotionally-repressed mother of Lola, making a fair go at portraying a distinctly unlikable, bullish and domineering character. Gemma Barnett (Jenny) does her very best to provide some sense of the refreshment, escape and the exoticism to the stultifying relationship between Liv and Kate, with her backstory of dance, circus, freedom and youth, and an allure for the bored-of-the-claustrophobic-Kate Liv.
And all that said and done...
There were people who whooped at the end.
This piece, as the estate agent might say, has great potential.
Runs till 11 March.
Review: JP Brown Photo: Hodge Photographise