Arcola Theatre and Defibrillator
Written for the stage but first heard as a radio play in 2006, what Mike Bartlett calls his “first proper play” gets its theatrical première in a remarkable production by James Hillier served by four fine performances.
It is made up of four monologues that are interwoven so that at first they seem like conversation, the characters two couples: elderly James and Lucy, married to each other, and Mark and Amanda, both recruits in an army boot camp where soldier suicides have been reported.
They seem to be in two separate worlds; only towards the end of its intense 75-minute playing time do we discover their connection, but they have the same problem, the things they don’t talk about, for what we hear is them talking to themselves not to those they should share their thoughts with.
Gentle James, kindness personified in David Horovitch’s performance, and his wife Lucy (Kika Markham being loving but a spike of malice beneath her stubbornness) have never discussed the loss of their daughter, already named Mary, who was miscarried, nor James’s decision to become a conscientious objector when called up in 1939. He’s never spoken of the woman in white gloves who spoke to him afterwards, nor she of what she found out after finding a photo.
Mark and Amanda both remember their first meeting, their attraction, in detail but she has never spoken of the trauma that followed it, nor he of the rape that he witnessed but, following orders, has kept shtum about.
Gemma Lawrence suggests Amanda’s memory of happiness as well as negotiating the hesitant recounting of horror and Lawrence Walker projects the enthusiastic innocence of a lad who wants to fit in, be one of the boys, prove his military manhood but can’t supress feelings that don’t fit orders, as he sees Amanda subjected to disciplinary beasting in a culture of silence and following orders.
Not talking can blight lives and we see its effects here over a sixty-year cycle as we hear what is unspoken. Words undelivered about the same things, though not at the same time, not being synchronous adding to their dramatic effect, the lack of connection, of communication.
Bartlett’s clever construction is clarified by Zoe Spurr’s lighting, which emphasises the switches of viewpoint, time and location without interrupting the flow of what isn’t actually dialogue.
A piece of sheet music plays a somewhat contrived role in the plotting but there are moments when words give place to Chopin and Lucy and Amanda express what they are feeling through their playing. A piano is the dominant feature of Amy Jane Cook’s set which consists of little more on the thrust stage than two chairs with a frame at the rear for characters to retire to when out of the action.
Both writing and staging are complex but come over as direct and straightforward and very effective. Bartlett has gone on to award-winning success as a writer. This production puts Not Talking up with his best work.