Based on a number of early works by Tennessee Williams and the oral histories of Studs Terkel, this immersive, physical theatre experience about the satisfactions and frustrations of working life has been dressed with great detail and care. The upper floor of 35 Marylebone High Street has been transformed into a series of atmospheric spaces: a dance hall, a cluttered apartment, a clock-lined study at a high society party and other liminal spaces in which working people attempt to make sense of their existence.
For the most part the audience are guided gently from room to room until gradually the seams between spaces are ruptured by a stumbling drunk or a reckless dancer drawing us deeper into the abstract.
A combination of dreamy lighting, detailed dÃ©cor and the intensity of the performers’ connection with one another invites us into another world. The experience is like being in a fug of the past, the atmosphere heavy as jazz plays in the background and a couple weave through the audience, toying with one another on the dance floor. Suddenly the music turns woozy and we skip a few hours ahead: the couple are in each other’s arms, then the action snaps back. The subtlety of the soundscape and the precision of the performers’ movements are really transporting. The effect is disorientating, heady and pleasurable.
The first of the three main scenes takes place in a one-room apartment. A young couple, committed to one another by circumstance rather than love, are lumbered with a baby; he toils all day at work while she does the same at home. You can hear the echoes of his future plays quite clearly in this early example of Williams’ work, Moony’s Kid Don’t Cry, on which the scene is based. The man grieves for a father who skipped the light fantastic out of town while the woman riffs on the irony of a ‘fire escape’ as if fire were the only thing from which people might need to escape. Both references would recur in The Glass Menagerie some years later.
This fire escape motif is one of the central considerations of the piece: how, working six days a week for somebody else, might one achieve any personal, emotional or spiritual fulfilment? The character of Tom Wingfield, in that later play, is endlessly tormented by the gap between what he has to do and what he wants to do. He wants to be a writer of course but the characters in this piece don’t appear to have any specific ambitions, simply the desire to feel connected to one another, to be listened to and understood without the ‘toad’, work, as Philip Larkin memorably put it – squatting on their lives.
The single room which they share becomes a scaffold around which the performers skip and dance, they become the tools for each other’s daily struggle, squirreling their way into each other’s thoughts and private spaces. The choreography is effective here, conveying a sense of the daily blur of their lives, one monotonous day at the factory blending into the next, merging and repeating.
The design is beautiful: Beata Csikmak’s set is evocative and detailed and John Zalewski’s soundscape effortlessly conjures the past, in both a literal and abstract sense. It is in that abstract and poetic opening scene where the piece works best. As the experience continues it loses focus a little and although there are lots of interesting ideas still at play, the piece runs out of steam. Despite this it remains, an evocative production, sumptuous and, at times, consuming, if at times a little thin on content, never quite enrapturing the audience as much as it might.
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