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