Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Blackbird

David Harrower
Pilot Theatre and York Theatre Royal
York Theatre Royal and touring
(2011)

Blackbird dress rehearsal photo

David Harrower's 2005 play is an electrifying piece of writing, capturing the lope and falter of everyday speech and combining it with an extremely tense situation. This production, directed by Katie Posner for Pilot Theatre, gives a pitch-perfect, intelligent realisation of this brilliant script.

Blackbird works best, in a way, the less you know about it on entering the theatre. It's a single-act piece, centring around two characters, Ray and Una. Like David Mamet's Oleanna (also recently staged in the Theatre Royal's Studio space), it's a confrontation between a younger woman and an older man. Also like that play, it tackles deeply controversial subject matter with a brutal honesty. Harrower's script, however, leads the audience on even more of a winding path of emotions and conclusions, and this production plays its twists and turns to perfection, often at break-neck pace. As a piece of writing, it's superbly crafted in terms both of the shape of the story and the shape of each line, as faltering, stuttering thoughts collide and the characters compulsively rephrase themselves.

This super-naturalistic turn of phrase (which also brings Mamet to mind) has been treated here almost like verse, so while one could imagine a more "naturalistic" reading of the text, Posner's decision to power through, particularly in the opening moments, is justified in the precision with which she and her actors have worked through the rhythms and flow of the lines. Not a single ellipsis has been left devoid of meaning, and the performances, as a result, are compelling, with each line shining with clarity and purpose despite the rapid-fire intensity of their delivery.

And what performers they are. George Costigan, as Ray, is crumpled, downtrodden but constantly hopeful. In fact, to attempt to define the performances in this manner seems reductive, as both actors are constantly shifting, realigning themselves as their character learns more about the other and readjusts their tactics. So while Costigan is more on the back foot, he plays moments of watchfulness, and even brief spells of attack, superbly. Charlie Covell plays Una with an entirely credible twitchy energy. From the very opening of the play, Ray bundling Una into the room as the soundscape of white noise builds to a crescendo and the lights are flicked on, she is spring-loaded. Like the situation, she is a flickering ember on a pile of highly flammable material, constantly ready to explode in unpredictable ways. She is entrancing - menacing and vulnerable by turns - and injects an incredible venom, a phenomenal passion, into the performance.

What's more, the actors perform the show at a phenomenal lick - they're in and out and say exactly what they have to in just over an hour. It suits the play, and the time speeds by, the audience drawn in towards the performers, sucking up every word and assembling and reworking the story almost line by line.

This is a one-act play which consists of a single scene, but Liam Jones's lighting is impeccable, and shifts subliminally; there is also one great coup. Likewise the soundscape by Craig Vear, which is constantly present, reinforcing our distant awareness of the world outside. Lydia Denno's design is also spot-on, the filth and detritus of the one location perfectly captured, the back wall doing just enough to transform the Studio space - and the psychological space of the performance - in a way I have rarely seen before at the Theatre Royal.

It is rare, in fact, that one gets an opportunity to be so hyperbolic about a production - this is by quite a long way the best piece of theatre I've seen at the Theatre Royal's Studio. Whether you already know the twists and turns of the script in detail or not, you will be engrossed, astounded and quite likely moved by this powerful piece of theatre. A modern masterpiece given a unique but perfectly fitting new production.

At York Theatre Royal until Sat 12 Nov, then Tron Theatre, Glasgow (15 - 19 Nov), Mercury Theatre, Colchester (23 - 26 Nov), Northcott Theatre, Exeter (30 Nov - 3 Dec).

Reviewer: Mark Smith