Blowing

Jeroen van den Berg, translated by Rina Vergano
fanSHEN and Company of Angels
Southwark Playhouse
(2010)

Blowing publicity image

Blowing is a Dutch play. If the programme didn't tell us this, the distinctly European feel of it would have. The question is: is a British audience ready for European plays?

The play begins with the cast racing around the space and freezing in their happy family snapshots. It's your average, picture-perfect family: mother, father, older son and younger daughter. The mother, Jules, played by Louise Bush, has just turned forty and is celebrating with a birthday brunch which she has slaved to put together, as she is eager to tell her family and sister Thea on the phone. She is happy and bubbly and certainly doesn't feel forty. The other day in a shop she was told she looked more like her daughter's sister than her mother.

Looking at the family, she does look more like a sister than a mother. In an odd bit of casting, the two parents don't look quite old enough, and the two children are certainly too old to be children. Mostly this doesn't distract too much, but there can be something rather uncomfortable about watching an adult woman play a child.

As the scene continues, we see that this family are not as picture-perfect as Jules would like them to be. As the phone call to her sister continues, husband Leo (Paul Brendon) is fiddling with the security system, daughter Jessica (Jennifer Jackson) is complaining about being hungry and no one sings happy birthday on cue. There's nothing for it: they shall have to start again.

The scene resets. Quickly, however, things start to go wrong again. Leo is quickly criticised, Jessica is complaining again, and son Thomas (Peter Bray) seems to find the whole thing too funny. It's a shame that the scene reset is used only the once: it is such an unusual device that it would have been nice to see more of it and indeed the audience expects it to be used again.

Instead, Blowing walks the line between being naturalistic and extremist, never really achieving one or the other. The acting for the most part is naturalistic with the exception of the obviously faked stage slaps. In a small space with a close audience, the choice is between making a point of faking the hits or making them look as realistic as possible; this production chose to do neither, resulting in amateur looking slaps that distract from the action.

Also to distract us from the action was Emma Chapman's lighting design. Like many things in the production, it needed to be either reduced or made more of. The lights fading up and down could have become a character in its own right, but never went far enough to achieve it.

The extremism comes from the actions: whilst the dialogue remains fairly naturalistic, the set is pretty much trashed. As the family crumbles, so does the birthday brunch, which ends up all over the stage, and the walls begin to cave in. The snapshots from the beginning are repeated in a clever parody - the poses that were happy earlier are now tense and violent.

The script, which won an award in its native Netherlands, has moments of wit and poignancy. However, for a British audience a little more subtlety would have gone a long way; it is obvious that Leo is being stifled by his over-critical wife and his monologue explaining it just belabours the point rather than clarifying it. For what feels like experimental theatre, some ambiguity could have been used to engage the audience further.

Throughout the production was the feeling that it was almost there, but not quite. What could have been a thought-provoking show was somehow lost in translation.

Reviewer: Emma Berge