Firstly let’s talk about the space. The National Theatre has opened up their Paint Frame for this showcase of four new plays, a vast backstage area which has been transformed into a striking and versatile performance venue for the occasion. From the beginning, as the audience enter through a side door besides the entrance to the Cottesloe, there’s a sense of excitement at being allowed to go behind the scenes, to venture into places the public usually don’t see. No attempt has been made to camouflage the space, in fact the opposite is true and there are plenty of brooms and tools and paint cans scattered about. A temporary bar has been squeezed into one corner and a band is playing on a gantry above; the bench seating looks like it’s been knocked up from off-cuts they had lying around. They’ve really played up the transitory pop-up nature of the project and made a virtue of the roughness of the space.
The first of the two Double Feature double bills features work by Sam Holcroft and D.C. Moore; the second double bill pairs new plays by Prasanna Puwanarajah and Tom Basden. The same company of actors – Basden among them – will perform in both sets of plays.
Sam Holcroft is a playwright with an interest in the lies that people tell each other and themselves. Her recent play, While You Lie, staged last year by Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre and set in a skewed near-future, was a hyperactive collision of satire and body horror, complete with a plastic uterus and an on-stage caesarean. This new play, Edgar and Annabel, though shorter, is a more cohesive piece. It’s a playful and two pronged: on one hand it’s highly successful in the way it makes its audience think about the scripted nature of reality, about the roles people play and the ease in which life descends into routine and habit.
The first line someone utters is: “Hi, honey, I’m home,” and from then on Holcroft takes a familiar domestic situation and makes it seem increasingly artificial and constructed, little more than a series of line-readings. Holcroft’s device is simple and yet ingenious; employing elements of the dystopian thriller the play unfolds in an Orwellian world in which someone is always listening – something that feels more pertinent than ever in light of recent headlines. The play that results is like a meta-theatrical take on The Lives of Others with judicious use of SingStar. Floor tiles and cutlery drawers become hiding places while wine bottles and cartons of Pringles, the trappings of the middle class drinks party, acquire an amusingly grim new significance.
Holcroft takes pleasure in wrong-footing the audience and the play retains a sense of ambiguity throughout; their are revelations, but guarded ones and she doesn’t play all her cards at once. Director Lyndsey Turner manages to maintain an engaging balance between silliness and tension, a balance encapsulated by a wonderful central scene in which the characters silently and secretly carry out a forbidden act while belting out 1980s pop songs.
Though it doesn’t share the former’s structural playfulness, the second play of the night, D.C Moore’s The Swan, is also concerned with truth and communication. The Swan of the title is a faded London boozer, carpeted by crisp packets, the furniture stained and tatty. Jim, a regular, is taking advantage of the landlord’s absence to enjoy a furtive indoor cigarette. A funeral is in progress nearby and one by one the mourners straggle in, the characters connections to each other only slowly coming to light.
The dialogue is ripe and rich, thick with expletives; Moore really knows how to write sweary banter and the transition from fairly broad comedy to something more emotionally searching is very nicely handled. The performances are also strong. Trevor Cooper is gruff but endearing as Jim and Claire-Louise Cordwell is brilliantly brash as Amy, a woman whose tongue is as sharp as her killer pink stilettos.
Moore’s previous play Honest was actually performed in a real pub, the monologue accompanied by the clink and chatter of afternoon drinkers. This is inevitably a less intimate experience and the size of the space occasionally works against the piece; Soutra Gilmour’s design for both pieces does however demonstrate the versatility of the space and, in keeping with the ethos of the evening, the transformation of the sets between plays is turned into part of the experience.