Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Broken Space Season, Bush Theatre

Review: Broken Space Season, Bush Theatre

Published on Culture Wars, 14.10.2008

Snaking its way up the stairs at the Bush is a timeline of decay, detailing the theatre’s journey into darkness as flood damage escalated. Far from closing shop, the theatre has gone dark by commissioning a series of short plays to be performed without theatre lights. However, the resultant Broken Space Season is a muted response to an emboldened battle cry.

What really comes to the fore here is atmosphere. More than simply broken, the space is a wilderness of peeling paint and exposed wires. Yet there is a magic within: from shelves overhead, a hoard of desk lights peer down on us like nymphs. The air crackles and tickles as the real intermingles with the fictions presented therein, various giving the event shades of site-specific work, happening and immersive experience. It feels quietly underground, at once illicit and tacit.

Each night showcases two plays – responses to the growing darkness of night – around Declan Feenan’s constant centrepiece St Petersburg. Beginning with one of three monologues, accumulated under the title Falling Light, the evening ends with a play presented in pitch black from the collection What The Dark Feels Like. However, despite the presence of talented writers – Neil LaBute, Simon Stephens and Lucy Kirkwood among others – one can’t help but wonder how much further it might reach in the hands of, say, Punchdrunk or Sound and Fury.

In St Petersburg the deterioration of the theatre becomes that of an old man’s living room, neglected through his own physical decomposition. As a cartoon blares away in the midst of the dust, John (Geoffrey Hutchings) tries to rally his silent grandson before in turn being cajoled by his daughter (Mairead McKinley). While the atmosphere created – creaking and heavy with the scent of burnt bacon fat – is strong, the text itself is subsumed. Feenan paints such a bleakly realistic picture that mundanity and absence overtake events as John rasps his way towards a passive expiration.

Equally ensconced in the pitfalls of the past is Simon Stephen’s monologue Sea Wall. Spiralling haphazardly around a child’s death on a family holiday, Andrew Scott addresses us directly with the stumbling hesitation of lingering pain. Stephens’s exploration of memory, whereby athlete’s foot cream remains as vivid as a daughter’s blood, is touchingly truthful. However, his reliance on a story recounted with shambolic honesty requires almost too much of its audience, as words drift into disappearance and conjured mental images fade.

Where Stephens relies on the reality of the space, Anthony Weigh places us graveside, with peat underfoot, in his eerily comic ghost story, The Flooded Grave. John Ramm, all bucolic turmoil, tells a tale of a very everyday exorcism, in which the mundane and the mystical coalesce. In the near darkness we can finally find ourselves transported elsewhere, cast as curious local sceptics, we look on at Ramm through torchlight, a railing madman in the throngs of grief. Weigh’s script is both sharp and poignant, while Josie Rourke’s simple direction creates a questioning tingle of uncertainty down the spine.

As with those before it, The Flooded Grave is an exciting experience but leaves little to linger long in the memory. The Broken Space Season is a triumph of atmosphere over action in which the space itself emerges as star, lacking in electricity but always brimming with charge.

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