We are looking through a window into a room. The accoutrements of dinner have been laid out, ready: an old man and a girl cross paths, the man pottering, fretting, preparing for his guests, while the girl worries at her dress and fusses about her hair – a dozen tiny gestures that let us know without words that what they want and expect from the coming evening is very different. So begins this elegant revival of Vanishing Point’s Interiors.
As more guests arrive, an unseen narrator speaks: she is our host for the evening, us watchers, our guide as the action unfolds. But this is not a running commentary – the play is pleasingly unafraid of silence. We see the characters speak but never hear them – instead we have access to their thoughts.
It’s a device that works incredibly well, and is sparingly and cleverly deployed. This illumination of the characters’ mental interiors is an often comic counterpoint to what we see going on, but can also be poignant, illustrating the distance between the people who are in such proximity, the misunderstandings and tensions that bubble beneath the surface. It is also a device that usefully pulls the audience in closer: we may not be able to join the party, but we have an ally on our side of the glass, to guide us through the night.
It is complemented by believable and engaging performances from a universally strong – and often very funny – cast. It is quite an achievement to create such vividly rendered characters without speaking a word, but this never feels like we are simply watching a dumb show, and we never lose track of what is happening inside. Most of the cast play characters bearing their own first name: Peter Kelly brings real pathos to the jovial host whose cheerful demeanour hides his grief over his dead wife, while Ann Scott-Jones perfectly captures the perpetually disgruntled look of a woman living life on the sidelines, without ever being aware that it’s through her own petty grumbles and insensitivities that she places herself there. Ruby Richardson’s Ruby is a gauche and slightly insecure granddaughter in pursuit of the restless Davide Pini Carenzi, who spends the evening mentally plotting his escape from this small town, while Robert Jack and Aurora Peres have great chemistry as the couple whose relationship provides both the high point of the evening and its lowest. Rounding out the guest list is the mysterious and slightly tactless Damir Todorvic.
Based on a 1894 piece by Maurice Maeterlinck, there is a timelessness about the story that works well: friends coming together on the longest night of the year to find human warmth against a hostile, frozen backdrop (we are told, early on, the temperature outside is well-below freezing, and the guests all arrive armed against the threat of roaming polar bears). It also avoids falling into the trap of feeling that such an event needs some dramatic catalyst: the presence of so many casual weapons sets up a threat that is never realised, and a moment that seems a potential tipping point into darkness – when Ruby’s lost contact lens is rather forcibly reinserted while she is held down by the guests – instead becomes just an illustration of adults’ clumsy disregard for the personal space of their juniors. This makes what actually does unfold feel genuine and believable, and all the more affecting for it. The deliberate ambiguity of the nature of the Rosalind Sydney ‘s narrator – rather than the neat resolution that your initial assumptions lead to – also nicely sidesteps the obvious.
Kai Fisher’s set (and Finn Ross’s projections) artfully conjure the cosiness of the house and the contrasting cold of the outside landscape – the exterior to which we and the narrator are condemned. It’s also cleverly blocked, so that even when the cast are seated, some, by necessity with their backs to the audience, we miss very little of what is going on.
Having conceived and directed the show, Matthew Lenton possibly gives it too much leeway: the central action is bookended by a too-long set up and a too-slow winding down. The former does have some wonderfully judged scenes – the intimacy of which are the only time we feel uncomfortably like voyeurs rather than observers – but it could do with trimming, and once the party is played out and we know the fates of the participants, the production loses momentum and rather fizzles out.
But even with these minor frustrations, the production never feels less than totally human, and utterly real, and this is what makes it so powerful. Its warmth is that of the well-lit window you pass on a dark night, drawn by the domestic glow to wonder, if only fleetingly, about the lives of those inside: the gift that Interiors gives you is that this time, you are allowed to tarry, and this time, you are not alone
The Brighton Festival runs from 5th – 27th May 2012.