monster. : Unnervingly Hypnotic

Review

I think the best way to begin talking about monster. is to talk you through my posture. It’s a play that has to be experienced, lived through almost as you undergo a watching experience that is bodily. I experienced it hunched over, my head resting on my fists, my elbows on my knees, finding myself leaning further and further forward. Then back, suddenly, joining the audience in collective gasps and tight lungs, eased just as quickly and unexpectedly by laughter. When the curtains closed and the rapturous applause subsided, we all sat for a moment, letting our bodies calm.

Watching monster. felt like a sharp inhale after a strong peppermint. It takes you by surprise, hurts almost, but you still want to do it again.

monster., written and directed by James Huxtable, is played out by three plotlines, the most notable being the story of an elderly couple, Annie and Martin, who are harboring an unknown creature in their basement. Without spoiling the plot, Huxtable shows his merit as a writer by expertly weaves these storylines together, letting the audience like and dislike each character, making the finale even more intense as all the prior opinions and emotions are culminated and questioned. The ability to leave the audience completely in the dark until the final moments is a huge merit to the cast and Huxtable alike.

The promotion for the show was minimal and cryptic, leaving the plot largely unknown. But from the off-set it was clear that the minimalism of branding and promo, did not reflect in preparation. The work and development gone into characterisation was apparent, especially in the case of Emily Bowles, playing the elderly Annie. Bowles’ performance was in a word, show-stealing, due to her full body and mind characterisation. She appeared almost engulfed by the frail, anxious Annie, appearing to shrink more and more as the character falls deeper into her worry. Her performance, capturing the personal torture of trauma, pill abuse, and psychosis, is unnerving yet graceful, you can’t help but feel for Annie, desperate for her to find some ease in their isolated life. Credit in part is due to Charlotte Schofield for incredible make-up, managing to turn the 20-something into a 60-something, but my eyes were always on Bowles, twitching in the corner and spiraling into insanity.

Emily Bowles and Jack Hewitt’s anxiety-provoking performance as the couple try to live with the beastly secret, was perfectly aided by the shows clever use of sound and lighting. The most effectively used feature of the set was the door to the basement where the creature was kept, which glowed red as shrieks filled the theatre, sending us all shooting backward in our seats. It was the use of sound that brought me fully into Huxtable’s chaotic nightmare. When Bowles, Bevan and the shadows broke into a dance scene, disco dancing along to Sweet Jane, I thought I might be the one who had lost their mind.

From the hellishness of Annie and Martin’s beast, Lucy Bytheway and Jake Bastable’s performance as Angel and Lamb, a young married couple failing to conceive, moved me from fear to near tears. Jake Bastable’s performance was both vast and deep. His range of emotions from pure joy and love as we meet the enamoured couple, to deranged desperation as he tries but can’t make his wife happy, is astonishing, with each performed as fully and believably as the last. The chemistry between Bytheway and Bastable was natural, perfect casting for the volatile couple. While Annie and Martin’s plight is scarily unknown, the struggle of Angel and Lamb is upsetting due to the audience’s complete understanding. The woman, longing for a child, for something to give her love to, Bytheway brought that pain to life in a gut-wrenching performance, adding a real-world element to the seemingly otherworldly aspects of the play.
Lorna Dale’s performance at the young girl brings relief to the darkness. The character’s infectious naivety and joy is, as she says, ‘a nice thought’. However, Dale performance captures a sense of instability in the girl’s eyes, a frantic happiness on the edge of a cliff. The multi-layered performance managed to be both a relief and an unnerving warning. The character proves Huxtable’s talents for the highs and lows, showing his range in the switch between the young girl’s monologues on love, Angel and Lamb’s intense arguments, the comic relief of the nurse, and the pure darkness of Annie and Martin. Each of his characters moves in and out of good and bad, they’re complex and developed to the point that the audience isn’t quite sure what to make of them, as though who are we to judge these people?

monster. isn’t easy to discuss through free of revealing too much. It’s an intricate web of clues and links, coming together in the last moments and closing the curtains on a gasp. The merging of the complete unknown and conventionally scary ‘monster’, and the all too familiar problems haunting the characters, show the sophistication of Huxtable’s writing, tackling major issues in a plot that is as uncomfortable as it is gripping. It’s unnerving, but you find yourself leaning into the chaos. A real merit to all involved, monster. is student theatre at its finest, hypnotising, challenging, and new.

5 stars – intense, comic, and clever. Huxtable is one to watch.

monster. is playing at Sheffield University Drama Studio until 17/11/2018. Read more HERE

Beaker’s Place : Dark, Strange, and Hilarious

Review

If I could save an art form, I would pick theatre. I would save the puzzlingly intimate relationship between actor and audience, the goosebumps of dimmed lights and carefully selected sounds, the aim to immerse; to engulf the watcher through dialogue, costume, setting, things explained and things understood. I would save theatre, for all the sensations you can’t get through a screen.

 
That’s why my heart lies with student theatre, and writers who choose to mould their words into lines in alternating voices. So when James Huxtable, a contributor for KILORAN, actor and writer, announced that his debut play; Beakers Place would be going to Edinburgh Fringe, taken there by the theatre company, Only Lucky Dogs, which he set up with his peers, I was immediately excited. But James revealed nothing, keeping the plot a mystery, revealing minimal clues or information about his characters, so I saw it fresh-eyed and free of expectation as they previewed the play ahead of the Fringe.

 
The first thing that struck me was the minimal set; only a table, shelves lightly decorated with an urn labelled ‘paul’, and two chairs with a noose hanging above one. There’s little to rely on, but when Matthew Bevan, playing the titular role Beaker, starts to speak, you quickly realise he needs nothing. Eloquently and with-ease, Bevan slips into mania, switching in seconds between humour and hysteria, each as believable as the other. Talking to himself in a tone that’s reminiscent of a modern-day Macbeth, the audience is introduced to the inner turmoil facing Beaker, as the confident and charming character lightly contemplates his suicide plans. Revealing the name on the urn, Paul, to be his dead cat, Beaker’s one-sided conversation with his lost companion opens up the challenge to the audience; you can’t help but like this psycho. Bevan’s faultless presentation of turmoil, moving seamlessly between fast-paced raving coated in dark humour to tears, builds dimension upon dimension, confronting the audience almost instantly with a character so intense and real, I wasn’t quite sure how to react except to let myself go. I laughed at Beaker’s mindless thoughts on Hitler’s art career and felt myself ache for him as he dusts his feet, before climbing onto the chair in front of the noose.

 
The one thing we know for certain about Beaker is that he disposes of bodies, knowledge that prompts the arrival of the not-dead Drew, played by Lorna Dale. Again, the audience isn’t sure what to do with this character, as Dale’s initial presentation is one of innocence with a sinister aftertaste. The two characters interactions start almost as weirdly as they end, with Beaker sharing too much and Drew stabbing back with brutal one-liners, asserting herself as an outright, no-bullshit presence in contrast to the frantic Beaker. Paul Simon’s Call Me Al makes it, providing the strangest soundtrack to the strangest meeting of two of the strangest characters, a sickly sweet backdrop to total mania as the characters yell at each other.

 
Strange is the perfect description. Huxtable’s characters are a constant conflict, both in the plot and in the mind of the audience. You should hate them; you should hate Beaker who talks pleasantly about Hitler and Drew who is unphased and unsympathetic to the signs of Beaker’s suicidal thoughts. While the play deals with difficult subjects like suicide, depression and loss, Huxtable’s character are insensitive, making them all the more captivating.

 
Lorna Dale as Drew was especially captivating as the character begins to unravelling, undoing all the earlier misconceptions of her innocence and naivety. I found myself unblinking during her monologue about Pandora’s box and the danger of curiosity, a moment that suddenly crescendos. It’s poetic, displaying Huxtable’s merits as a writer, and again is reminiscent of Shakespeare as Dale has the intensity of Lady Macbeth in her eyes. You can’t help but feel a little guilty as an audience member, undeniably curious about these two characters, secretly willing them to boil over and reveal the reasoning to their condition, to open the box and release it. The addition of sound effects, used sparingly in the rest of the show, heighten Drew’s sudden transformation, dragging the audience into whatever sinister trance the character is lost in. The goosebumps change to sweaty palms.

 

The only thing that I could criticise was the speed of the ending. The intensity deserves more, Huxtable’s talent for writing complete chaos deserves a longer time in its climax. I would’ve liked a slightly slower unravelling, and to hear more from Beaker during the finale and a pause to check in on his mental state since we first meet him in a suicidal state. However, Dale and Bevan carry the mania off perfectly, never slipping up and fully diving into the confusion and hysteria of the scene. Despite the sudden increase in pace in the final moments of the play, the quirks and personalities of the two characters remain, allowing them to stay complex and challenging even as the action picks up. Down to the last second, the audience is still left unsure whether to like or hate them, and whether to celebrate or mourn the outcome.

 

Without stumbling, Huxtable’s writing flows between these two states; humour and intensity, full of the honesty and uniqueness evident in his poetry too. The concept would be laughable if it wasn’t executed so well, circling serious topics around the focal point of a dead cat, with Paul’s ashes sitting centrally in the story. Peaks and troughs of mania and humour, comedy and tragedy, power shifts and moments of intimacy all sit around this centre point, rocking back and forth between the two like a lunatic in the corner. While the storyline is fiction and exaggerated, the anxieties that float between these two characters are real and reflective, confronting the audience again and again when we suddenly start to see ourselves in the carelessness of Drew or the obsession of Beaker. Beaker’s place is exactly what I love about theatre, it’s controlling, making me laugh, cry and gasp on cue. All the jokes land, all the twists are shocking, and the characters, with their complete lack of morals, make you question your own stability in this world. I won’t forget it in a while, I’m still contemplating whether the curiosity would get too much, whether I would open the box.

Rating: 4.5 Stars – Unique, unexpected, and captivating; add it to your Edinburgh Fringe itinerary immediately.

Cast & Crew

Beaker – Matthew Bevan
Drew – Lorna Dale

Writer – James Huxtable
Director – MichaelSalibaa
Technical Manager – Iz Potter
SX – Conal Gallagher

More information and tickets HERE