A woman sits at a dressing table clad in wedding lace. She turns to her audience, talks to them. It is this process of engagement with the audience that makes Belt Up’s latest production (one of three they are presenting at Edinburgh this year) so exciting, the way it plays with the relationship between performer and spectator.
Written by James Wilkes, the play takes the form of the ramblings of an eccentric old raconteuse. It is a meandering but also often hilarious piece of writing. She chatters away, describing her relationships with her parents, her obsession with death. It is left to the audience to make sense of what she says, to pick up these threads of memories and build something from them.
There is a delightful and slightly unnerving quality to Lucy Farrett’s performance; she improvises with apparent ease, commenting on people’s appearance, and asking the roomful of listeners to contribute to the story she is telling. The piece is staged in the kind of intimate space that will be familiar to those who know Belt Up’s past work in Edinburgh, strewn with cushions and draped in fabric. Farrett includes the audience from the start, constantly acknowledging them as she tells her story.
The shape of the production is in some ways limiting. Twenty Minutes to Nine is essentially an hour-long monologue which is, in part, reliant upon the audience to supply some of the material. Several members of the audience were becoming fidgety towards the end, and the static nature of the performance was perhaps unrewarding. The ambiguous and cryptic nature of the stories told probably didn’t help; at times she seems to be playing games with the audience, using them for her own amusement, and the piece can seem quite closed off as a result.
What Belt Up have clearly grasped here is the essence of great storytelling, the joy of having a tale told to you by a charismatic narrator. The ambiguities of the piece succeed in making the audience focus on what they’re being told and Farrett’s performance is exceptional, splicing a streak of madness with something more poignant and reflective. I suspect some people were waiting for the production to really get going, for the meat of the piece to reveal itself, but the magic of the play is the fact that these tales are what you make them, the real drama occurs not there in that lamp-lit, cushion-studded room, but inside the audience’s heads.