Along the cobbled alleyway, down the stone steps, into the cellar bar decorated with curios and mismatched furniture. Towards the circle of comfy chairs snuggled into the far corner, welcomed by dimmed lights and the bright smile of playwright Cally Hayes. A chunky set of headphones each, which glow electric blue when we’re on the right channel and clamp down firmly around our ears. A thumbs up from Hayes – and we’re away.
Documental Theatre’s Split Second is a fifteen-minute radio play about a couple in crisis. They didn’t plan for a pregnancy, and now there might be something wrong with the baby. Overwhelmed by how their lives will change, they struggle to find common ground, shutting each other out but fighting to stay together. As with all of Documental Theatre’s work, the script is based on testimony and real stories, gently and sensitively fictionalised.
Split Second has played before, but previous performances have been presented via speakers in quiet rooms. The ten of us (Hayes included) listen to the play simultaneously but separately through our headphones, surrounded by the noise of the Bike Shed Theatre’s bar. It’s inevitable that, before we begin, we’ll talk about the unexpected news that this venue will close its doors at the end of March. As we listen, the sounds of the Bike Shed occasionally break through – the music, the chatter, the coffee machine. We discuss this afterwards, and whether it’s distracting or focusing. It makes me feel like we’re special. This is just for us, a private performance in a public space.
And since there’s been so much talk about Bike Shed memories – it’s lovely to hear Charlie Coldfield, a regular Bike Shed performer, as Martin, joined by Georgia Fox Robinson as Jude. It takes a moment though to adjust to the differences in their voices; Coldfield frets at a distance from my right ear, while Robinson murmurs closely into my left. Most of us spend those first minutes fiddling with the volume controls, trying to find balance between them.
But once the play moves into scenes where the characters are together, mostly set in the couple’s bathroom, it becomes beautifully immersive. Coldfield and Robinson deliver grounded and sincere performances, and beats of awkwardness where both feel like they’re holding back add credibility to a couple at odds but trying not to push each other too far. The script is unassumingly deft, weaving together escalating arguments with moments of quiet sadness and fear. Philip Robinson’s sound design is particularly strong when we hear the conversation from the baby’s perspective while Jude is in the bath; doubly submerged and surrounded by water, the couple’s voices are drowned out by a fast but steady heartbeat.
As someone who finds it hard to sit still and listen to a radio play, it’s a real gift to have this time properly carved out and shared with others, even if that shared time is spent in silence, only occasionally sneaking glances at each other. It’s the kind of theatrical experiment that can only happen when companies like Documental Theatre get access to spaces like the Bike Shed – a strange but special mix of the bold and the familiar. And although the play is recorded and the performance will sound basically the same every time someone hits play, I still come away from Split Second with that live experience heartache of knowing it won’t happen again, not like this, not quite.