The Listening Room

Harriet Madeley

Crowded Room

Theatre Royal Stratford East (Gerry’s)

From 16 September 2017 to 30 September 2017

Review by Howard Loxton

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This is a verbatim show presented in the “recorded delivery” form probably best know from the work pioneered by Alecky Blythe in which actors speak the text of actual interview answers which they hear played to them over headphones. In this case, the people interviewed have all been involved in crimes of violence as perpetrators, victims or otherwise affected.

The Listening Room draws on accounts of three different crimes: a murder and two cases of GBH. It looks back on the incident itself, how and why it happened, following through trial and conviction to what happened after.

The story of the murder is told by Ray and Viv, the victim’s parents, one of the others by the perpetrator Jacob and the third uses interviews with both the perpetrator Khamran and Jim, his victim.

The telling is so interwoven that it would be easy to imagine that you are hearing different accounts of the same incident and that could be taken to represent a very wide range of crimes of gratuitous violence, but it is the precise and very personal voice of each individual that gives them their powerful impact. The production gives the telling a very formal framework that heightens the effect of the fresh and natural performances all these actors deliver.

To open, the usual announcements are made by voiceover which goes on to describe the black box setting with its sofa and chairs for the actors who are dressed in identical russet jerseys and grey jeans and bare-footed. They then ask those audience members who found an envelope on their seat to choose one of the actors and hand it to them. Inside is a photograph of the character that actor will now play for this particular performance. It is random gender- and colour-blind casting.

I saw Cathy Tyson playing a middle-aged white mum and Mark Knightly as her husband Ray, interviewed together about the murder of their son Christopher. Ryan Gerald played Jacob who had seen friends caught up in a street fight and pitched in to support them landing a punch that sent him to prison; it wasn’t premeditated with malicious intent. Harriet Madeley played Khamran who, as a teenager, got his kicks from attacking strangers, in this case, drugged up, he smashed a baseball bat into the face of university lecturer Tim, played by Neran Persaud.

It is a fine cast who handle the technique beautifully. The timing is perfect, not just in the overlap of Ray and Viv’s conversation but in the way all the voices fit together, yet Max Barton’s direction marks out the change of speaker artificially: each switches a light on as they speak and off again afterwards.

The production also divides the performance into segments between which the cast remove their headphones and line up centre stage before applying white paint to one wall. First they apply dribbles, next time handprints and face prints, then a broad spatter that seems to mark the emotional state at that point. Then black paint is used to cover these marks leaving three white figures standing in amazement. These get reduced to first the handprints, then eventually removed completely.

By now, things have moved well past crime and conviction and talk is about after-effects and programmes of what is called "restorative justice" in which criminals meet their victims or their victims’ survivors.

Here perhaps is the core of what this play is about for this is no arbitrary process: Ray and Viv travel the country speaking in prisons 15 years after their son was murdered. Tim and Khamran have become friends. It is not clear what the inserted performance art passages represent, that’s for each audience member to decide for themself, but they and the other stylisation add a visual theatrical element that helps rivet attention. These are all real cases, real people and their own words.

The Listening Room is a compact piece of work of a quality that this bald description can’t convey. See it: it is both disturbs and offers hope.