Heather O’Shea’s new play, Blue Fence, is a funny and intelligent, if a little clunky, piece of writing, a new perspective on the prejudice and marginalisation so prevalent within our deceptively equal world. What’s tricky here is the actualisation of this promising blue-print. Much like the Olympics, which her play concerns, what we are sold and what we get are not the same thing; a Britain currently spending millions on a building site that has forcefully relocated many and sucked valuable resources from most, knows this feeling only too well.
Flora Nicholson plays Claire, an artist commissioned to create the flagship ‘piece’ for the Olympics. When she suffers a stroke, her project is changed with typical bureaucratic classification by the ‘Board’ to a piece for the Paralympics; she is now a disabled artist representing disabled athletes. O’Shea’s text positively drips with Claire’s frustration, with one tense wrangling for power flowing into the next as she battles to cope in her new world, often turning on those who love her the most.
Nicholson succeeds in showing this bloody mindedness as admirable determination, her intelligent playing of this difficult artist meaning Claire’s struggle is one we care about. Movement Adviser Imogen Knight has worked with Nicholson and her post-stroke physicality is an impressive, uncomfortable feat of performance.
Thomas Hunt does a sweet job with love interest Tom but is ineffectual as Claire’s sulky assistant Benji (himself a fairly pointless character) and Chris, Claire’s Sloaney brother. Antonia Kinlay is stronger and more defined as the cold-hearted suit Astrid, Chris’ clueless fiancé Sophie and best friend Karen. Karen and Claire’s relationship translates real warmth and Kinlay’s comic timing is spot on, adding a much needed lighter note to the proceedings.
Though director Francesca Seeley has tried her best and she has succeeded in drawing out a moving central performance from Nicholson, the production remains a scrappy affair punctuated with awkward pauses, stilted interactions and some genuinely confusing double casting. It was difficult to tell you whether Hunt was playing Tom or Benji until five minutes into the first switch. Loose accent shifts are not enough, a real physical distinction is absolutely necessary in shaping and defining character wherever doubling up is used and this is painfully missing here.
Jon McLeod’s sound design fills the threadbare setting with ambient modern sound, bringing some much needed class to Giulia Scrimieri’s strange and tatty set. Whilst the red, blue and yellow ribbons are attractive to look at and do, on occasion, bring to mind Olympic logos, the moveable posts they are attached to are continually positioned in such a half baked fashion that each location feels shapeless and unclear.
O’Shea has created a fascinating platform to discuss subjects which have never felt more contemporary. As the shadow of the Olympics slowly begins to engulf the East End, Government spending cuts are placing minority groups in ever more vulnerable positions. O’Shea’s story peters off at the end and you feel Claire deserves a rounder finale, but this is a play of ideas that are communicated through character and language, not by bashing the audience over the head with them; an impressive feat. Frustratingly this winning potential concludes in a just missed the podium result.