Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 3 March 2020

Review: I Think We Are Alone at Theatre Royal Stratford East

Are we alone? Frey Kwa Hawking writes on Frantic Assembly’s ‘unwieldy’ new show that constellates characters in grief and loneliness.

Frey Kwa Hawking
Frantic Assembly's I Think We Are Alone. Photo: Tristram Kenton.

Frantic Assembly’s I Think We Are Alone. Photo: Tristram Kenton.

Have you noticed the way that Google occasionally tries to incorrectly correct your searches? At time of writing, Google is sure that Frantic Assembly’s show marking their twenty-fifth anniversary isn’t I Think We Are Alone, but I Think We’re Alone. It pushes this suggestion really hard, even when you type “frantic assembly” along with it. A little digital wishful thinking, a name which someone, somewhere – probably just some skewiff spoke of the algorithm – feels needs contracting.

I Think We Are Alone does feel unwieldy, beyond its title; maybe it could use the kind of editing Google’s suggestion thinks is needed? A little tightening, a drawing closer together. Sally Abbott’s play, directed by Kathy Burke and Frantic Assembly artistic director Scott Graham is two hours long (plus interval), and pulls its six characters apart to show you the loneliness which runs through them like a bright seam.

Josie (Chizzy Akudolu) is a proud mother of Cambridge student Manny (Caleb Roberts). While he struggles to articulate the alienation and aggressions he undergoes as a black man while studying, she’s dealing well with the death of her dog Queenie, and less well with the recent death of her father. Ange (Charlotte Bate) is a hospice nurse, estranged from her sister Clare (Polly Frame), who is being haunted by a childhood ghost. The story of Graham (Andrew Turner), whose wife Bex (Simone Saunders) is being treated for cancer at Ange’s hospice, is intercut with these other lives.

There’s not too much room here for movement work which knocks you out, which you might be expecting from a Frantic Assembly show. Morgan Lange’s design is dominated by tall plastic screens on wheels, manipulated by the cast to form homes, workplaces, clubs, and to divide characters from each other. They trap and occlude. Strip lighting at the bottom of the screens strains colour up through them, often contrasting with Paul Keoghan’s sunset-coloured lighting at the back of the set. Characters stand behind them and make marvellously blurred, ominous silhouettes.

I appreciate Ella Wahlström’s breath-heavy sound design for closing some of the distance these screens create, but this staging is so anonymous, so strongly suggestive of sanitised ultra-modern office spaces that it’s hard to sink your fingers into the characters. The screens make everything feel hard, manoeuvring them seems laborious, and they take up much of your attention while watching.

Ange and Clare’s story feels the weighty heart of the play, centring around a shared trauma and the guilt both feel from how they managed it as children, and how this guilt has dried up their ability to talk to each other. Bex and Graham, comparatively, don’t get much of a look in. Graham, by dint of being perhaps the only cab driver in London, meets some of the others briefly, and shares a moment of grief with Josie. Abbott’s initially monologue-loaded form favours some characters more than others: Clare and Ange, in particular, get to assert more of their idiosyncrasies; other characters live and die as broad outlines still.

I Think We Are Alone wants to do so much, and its heart is achingly big, but it ends up sort of sprawling. There are neatly realised moments: Clare screams against her sheets at night, like the ghost she tries to avoid in her empty, plush flat, while Ange describes her hospice as “blonde,” “fifteen deaths a month – minimum”. The denouement of Clare’s haunting feels like a quick, rushed joke, and though, as Josie, Akudolu is commandingly funny, her closure with her father feels equally uncharitable in its neatness. Is a relationship effectively solved if you hear confirmation that your father assumed you knew he loved you? Surely for it to get bad enough that you needed him to explicitly say it, that love really wasn’t coming across?

Abbott observes many of the little and bigger ways we neglect each other, but it’s as if I Think We Are Alone tries to both whiz past and include everything it can into itself. This play is really schmaltzy, and more than a little bit silly, but this production doesn’t let it soak in that schmaltz. As a result, while some audience members will be affected (like my friend, whom I love, was!), if you aren’t, its ungainly length and structure is all too apparent. It doesn’t coalesce. I imagine where this play wants to take its audience is a good place, big, expansive, full of hope, and raw, and I wish I could have reached it.
I Think We Are Alone is at Theatre Royal Stratford East till 21st March, then touring. More info and tickets here

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Frey Kwa Hawking

Frey Kwa Hawking works as a dramaturg in London. He likes to go to the theatre and the cinema. Sometimes they let him in. He is trans and Malaysian-Chinese. He always orders xiao long bao. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @absentobject

Review: I Think We Are Alone at Theatre Royal Stratford East Show Info


Produced by Frantic Assembly

Directed by Kathy Burke, Scott Graham

Written by Sally Abbott

Cast includes Chizzy Akudolu, Charlotte Bate, Polly Frame, Caleb Roberts, Simone Saunders, Andrew Turner, Tarinn Callender

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