Mindgame

Mindgameby Anthony Horowitz; dir Anne-marie Greene
Criterion Theatre, Earlsdon, Coventry
1 – 8 February 2014
A Rare Gem

Mindgame is an appropriate title for this piece, which attempts to toy with the perceptions of the audience. Styler, a popular writer, has apparently turned up at an asylum for the criminally insane, hoping to be able to arrange interviews with serial killer Easterman. He meets Dr Farquhar, who is initially intransigent but whose behaviour becomes increasingly disturbing, and Nurse Paisley, who seems desperate for Styler to leave. Events overtake Styler, however, and he finds himself at the mercy of Farquhar, who has revealed himself to be Easterman and murdered the nurse. Not that the mind game itself is over by then, but you get the idea.

In practice, what we got was a show that kept the audience riveted to the edges of their seats, mouths agape, breath hushed and hardly daring to blink – even screaming at times. This was theatrical immersion of the best; what more can I say? Not everyone who left the theatre may have enjoyed the production, but they would all have been stirred up and would think about it for days at least.

The set was low-key, clinically white, with the audience raised around it on three sides – somewhat reminiscent of those medical lecture halls you see on TV and appropriate to the kind of surgical butchery we almost see. A speaker on the wall would intermittently spark into life and play a bit of ‘elevator’ music before dying out once more and there were also some very brief snatches of low-key, suspense-type music – both added to the disturbing effect very well.

Of course, all this would be pointless without strong performances from the cast and they did not let us down. Jon Elves as Styler smoothly progressed from confident writer to terrified victim to unhinged patient with consummate skill, whilst Craig Shelton as Farquhar performed the same feat, progressing from urbane doctor to disturbed psychopath to obsessed psychoanalyst. It is these two who held us so rapt, supported well by Jan Nightingale as the trembling Nurse Paisley, apparently being murdered twice before revealing her true identity.

The only aspect of the whole production worthy of criticism was the projection of images onto the white wall during the nurse’s first ‘murder’. This, I feel, was a mistake and risked cheapening the whole sequence. It would have worked so much more effectively to have relied just on Jan’s screams from off-stage and allowed us to use our already fired-up imaginations to fill in the details. Negative point though that was, there were more than enough positive points to overwhelm it.

This was a great production and all involved should feel very proud of it and pleased with themselves.

Millicent Short

Hypnosis

Hypnosisby David Tristram; dir Phil Quinn
Talisman Theatre, Kenilworth
3 – 8 February 2014
Good

Hypnosis eh? I want you to close your eyes and empty your mind. It is 1954 and you are stuck in Clacton on a wet Tuesday in June. Fortunately you have a ticket for the show at the end of the pier. This is where the Talisman’s current offering would be at home. This is a play which comes from a world when television was black and white and footballers had a full head of hair.

This is merely descriptive of the genre and should not be seen as a criticism. There is a place for the retro, and here, thanks to director Phil Quinn, we have a gentle enough piece, well handled by all involved.

It is short, highly implausible and at times amusing enough. Just three actors; an alcoholic hypnotist, a psychotic detective with a gun and his wife, a libidinous banker, have devised a plot to rob her bank. It doesn’t go smoothly.

John Francis gives us a rather deranged detective. An effective piece of acting as he offers a very energy packed performance. Throughout he puts one in mind of a mad axe man on the edge of committing mayhem. There might, however, have been some benefit, at times, in considering the gloved hand approach rather than presenting the bare knuckle. This would have offered him a richer palette.

Kathy Crawshaw invites you to see bankers in a different light – a very revealing one at times. Another well considered performance full of pace, venom and urgency. Given the low regard in which bankers are held these days we might have hoped for a clear invitation to chuckle when she invites our respect by saying, “after all I am a banker”.

The hypnotist at the centre of the play is Graham Underhill. His bumbling incompetence in his chosen craft suits the play well and, at times, he attracts our concern for his welfare. A nicely varied performance and he succeeds in driving the rapidly changing and unlikely events upon which the play depends.

The evening is made the more enjoyable by June Malcome’s delightful black and white set which clearly defines the two locations demanded by the plot.

squirrel

Hitchcock Blonde

Hitchcock Blondeby Terry Johnson; dir Darren Scott
Loft Theatre, Leamington Spa
22 January – 1 February 2014
Uninspiring

Hitchcock Blonde tells a hypothetical story of two modern-day researchers finding some scraps of film shot by the famous director in 1919 (before his film career) which seemed to presage the shower scene from Psycho. Parallel to this is a story of Hitchcock himself and the blonde who played the body double for that scene in 1959.

The stylish set showed the former story in the foreground with the latter played upstage on a raised platform in front of a large screen which created a slightly unearthly quality to those scenes and was used to display some of the film frames the researchers were working on. This looked promising. Our interest was further piqued at the start by a film clip in the style of the ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ introductions asking us to turn off mobile phones.

Sadly things were rather a disappointment from then on. The 1959 story was the more interesting of the two, with the Blonde, driven by ambition for fame and money, attempting to turn Hitchcock’s comments about the disposal of murder victims against him by dumping a body on him that unconvincingly turns out not to be dead after all. The motivations of the Blonde could at least be grasped at and the forceful performance by Karen Brooks certainly helped with that. But she was fighting in a losing cause and the story as a whole was disjointed and confusing. It didn’t help that Hitchcock himself was played in a most distracting manner: mouth permanently agape and head leant back as though in the grip of a badly-fitted neck brace. It is always difficult to portray such a well-known and distinctive figure, but there are many available examples of the man himself to study. This was not so much Hitchcock as Hitchcock’s corpse.

The modern-day story saw a university lecturer inviting his much younger student to a holiday in a Greek villa to investigate and preserve the decomposing remnants of film from 1919 – his ulterior motive was to also get her into bed with him. This whole story lacked credibility in so many ways, the combination of those two things not least of all; valuable decomposing film is treated in controlled conditions, not over a glass of wine while chatting someone up. The characters had little credibility too and not only due to the performances, although these were poor: the lecturer being too laid-back and the student over-acting as though her life depended on it.

At the root, it was difficult to identify with or believe in any of the characters from either story and consequently we didn’t care what happened to any of them. Add to that the generally tenuous and convoluted story and you end up with an experience that I just found boring. Judging by the gaps in the audience during the second act, I was far from the only one.

inkblot