pool (no water)

Mark Ravenhill
Frantic Assembly
The Drum, Plymouth Theatre Royal, & touring

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Mark Ravenhill's new play, premiered by Frantic Assembly at The Drum, is a visceral piece of work which pushes the boundaries of theatre with authority and imagination. Four friends, artists, recount the story of an horrific accident that befalls a member of their group, who has long since risen to fame and acclaim. In the coma that follows, the paper-thin veneer of their friendship and the professional jealousy that has torn it apart is exposed in all its malice and unsightliness, as they turn their unconscious friend into their next art project.

Ravenhill's text has a hypnotic fluidity; his four characters are nameless and the lines of the script are not allocated to any one of them. Directors Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett give the production a stark naturalism as well as a dynamic form and structure: the actors complete each other's sentences and thoughts without ever sacrificing their own distinct identities. Like an anti-chorus, their co-dependency is clear as they tell the story as one.

The agility of the text and the choreography is amplified further by stunning lighting from Natasha Chivers and a spectacular set designed by Miriam Buether. The set is an elegant, gleaming, white-tiled space: part hospital room, part empty swimming pool. The drug-induced madness of the penultimate scene is amplified with momentary sparks of light, pulsating like epileptic synapses, to which all four actors jerk in time. It is subtle, fleeting and understated. The arresting soundtrack, composed by Imogen Heap, is an additional and exhilarating element in this sensory assault.

The four-strong cast - Kier Charles, Cait Davis, Leah Muller and Mark Rice-Oxley - are authoritative and mesmeric. When they first appear on stage, one twitching her nose, post-snort, one picking his nose, playing with his hair, each character is utterly self-absorbed. This lends each a distinct identity from the start, and is delicately done, but at the same time wholly indicative of the group's egocentricity which they are about to lay bare.

None can forgive their friend for daring to raise her head above theirs. That peculiarly British trait: to see success as an affront to the rest of us.

The casts' gritty, filmic naturalism makes you feel you are not so much a part of the audience, as participants in some group-counselling session. And then in a moment, that über-real, balletic physicality cuts through the naturalism, but never interferes.

Ravenhill raises dark questions about friendship, about ambition and success. The excitement the group admit to feeling in the aftermath of the accident: the thrill of any real-life drama that enables us to crack the shell of our tedious daily lives. The abusive, de-humanising of their unconscious friend, whose 'absence' prevents them from making any emotional connection with her at all, in her coma, much as it did in her conscious (and successful) life.

This darkly comic, visually spectacular and at times challenging and uncomfortable production is the culmination of Mark Ravenhill and Frantic Assembly at their finest.

Runs in Plymouth until 22nd September and tours to The Everyman, Liverpool; Contact Theatre, Manchester; The Lyric, Hammersmith, and The Point, Eastleigh.

Philip Fisher reviewed this production at the Lyric, Hammersmith

Reviewer: Allison Vale

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