Reviews Published 27 February 2019

Review: The Trick at Bush Theatre

Staged magic: Alice Saville writes on Eve Leigh’s play, and its explorations of grief and artifice.

Alice Saville

Lachele Carl in ‘The Trick’ at Bush Theatre. Photo: Helen Murray

The red curtains close, mechanically. The gleaming coffin starts to vanish. Music plays. They might be entirely artificial, but the familiar devices of a funeral parlour still produce real tears. And behind the cloak of gathered red velvet, there’s a kind of transcendental magic trick: a life, turned into ashes.

Eve Leigh’s play explores grief using magic as a kind of metaphor, using a succession of scenes which play with ideas of artifice and reality. Mixing a suitably theatrical grandeur with splashes of angular neon, Jemima Robinson’s set could make its mark on a space several times bigger than the Bush’s tiny studio. A gaudy proscenium arch and velvet curtains frame Mira’s room. She’s grieving for her husband. Lachele Carl’s central performance is full of a spark and life that ties the text’s disparate parts together; we see her struggle to care for her pet fish, locked in a battle of wits with manipulative builders, and lying, worn out, on a hospital bed. It’s moving to see her adjust to a life where there’s no one worth cooking a nice meal for (she doesn’t count herself) and where everything feels strange and uncertain. Still, at least her deceased husband Jonah isn’t quite gone: David Verrey plays him with a larger-than-life geniality that’s anything but spectral, booming instructions on goldfish tank cleaning from beyond the veil. Leigh’s writing is at its best in their conversations, especially Mira’s affecting, painful final goodbye to him.

In between these scenes, there are more abstract interludes. It’s been billed as “a magic show” but there’s no literal sleight-of-hand here (and I’ll freely admit I was kind of hoping for some). Instead, there’s a looser magical aesthetic, and a sense of slipperiness which shows itself in performers Ani Nelson and Sharlene Whyte’s endless shifting between roles, from shambling tradesmen to wistful young versions of Mira. Shifting between vignettes, The Trick feels episodic – it stretches out and grows baggy, even over a 70 minute running time. And the small stage feels increasingly crowded and cluttered – I found it hard to focus with the sensory overload of having so much, so bright, so close.

Director Roy Alexander Wiese has explored the supernatural before, with the closely observed, realist Nine Night. Here, he’s on very different form, with a cluttered production that feels like it’s drawing on the strategies of live art. It’s an influence that’s seen in moments like a closing section where the performers frantically eat pints of ice cream, pausing for greedy lumps to melt on their tongues. There’s something so self-consciously ‘real’ about this scene, something that sits uncomfortably alongside the more traditionally scripted scenes.

The Trick is stretching and pulling at questions of what theatre can be, how needed narrative is, and where the boundaries sit with live art, and I like it for that – it makes me think of Ellie Kendrick’s Holes at the Royal Court, a kind of non-linear feminist cabaret made with RashDash which stared down an audience’s need for one sweeping throughline. At the same time, live art has other ways of commanding your attention. When the people on stage are the people who’ve devised the work, that changes things: their personalities hold you. If they’re performing feats of digestive endurance, you know it’s because it’s how they want to convey an idea, not because they’re following stage directions. There’s more room for roughness and liveness and spontaneity.

In The Trick, an audience member is invited on stage to have their palm read, and is told they’ll have a long life. It seems like a spontaneous, if potentially ill-judged, interaction, but a look at the playtext shows that the palm reader’s words are actually carefully scripted. That’s an interesting strategy, but for it to fully work, I wonder if it would need to be framed within a production that had a more self-conscious, controlled kind of relationship with artifice – one which made it clearer who’s pulling the strings, and what that means. Like in Misty, where Arinze Kene’s charismatic presence on stage held our attention as the show’s structure collapsed and fell apart, the more he grasped it.

Ultimately, this production feels like a homage to its two central characters, Jonah and Mira, and their grief is portrayed with tenderness and realism. There’s something appealing about them that shines through The Trick, even their light is sometimes crowded out by a pile-up of stage devices.

The Trick is on at Bush Theatre until 23rd March. More info and tickets here

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Alice Saville

Alice is editor of Exeunt, as well as working as a freelance arts journalist for publications including Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine. Follow her on Twitter @Raddington_B

Review: The Trick at Bush Theatre Show Info


Produced by Bush Theatre, HighTide, Loose Tongue

Directed by Roy Alexander Weise

Written by Eve Leigh

Cast includes Lachele Carl, Ani Nelson, David Verrey, Sharlene Whyte

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