Contact Theatre, Manchester
As a regular theatre-goer, I often find myself in a packed auditorium wondering, ‘why are all these people here to watch this rubbish?’. At the Contact Theatre tonight, I’m having precisely the opposite thought: ‘Why isn’t this theatre packed out to witness this imaginative, exuberant and technically flawless production?’
Stephen... sorry, Sparky, is a “difficult” fifteen-year-old. The Ritalin he’s taking to dampen his ADHD is making him hear voices; voices saying bad things. Sparky blocks out these voices, by wearing a chunky set of headphones—all day long.
Mrs Kelly, the school’s ‘Behavioural Support Teacher’, is trying to help Sparky to believe in a better future. Mrs Kelly gave up ‘real teaching’ when she started having violent nightmares about the kids.
On one of his regular detentions, Sparky meets Siouxie—a girl who ‘would have been burned at the stake 300 years ago.’ Certain adolescent girls, Siouxie tells him, have the power to make terrible things happen, just by writing them in a special book. She herself has done one such terrible thing. Now though, Siouxie retains the knowledge but not the power. She sacrificed that when she gave up her VL (Virgin Lips). Sparky, though, has never been properly kissed, and so still has his VL.
Coached by Siouxie, the increasingly besotted Sparky begins to develop his own special powers. Will his obsessively jealous speculation about who took Siouxie’s VL prompt him to use these abilities to some terrible end?
The set of Static is simple and brilliantly effective—a whitewashed row of school lockers, which is also fully utilised as a prop throughout.
Davey Anderson’s decent script could use more humour and provide a fuller sense of the emotional lives of these two young people leading up to their first meeting. It is also seriously underwritten at the climax, where insufficient tension is allowed for the dilemma facing Sparky—will he give up power for love?
The magic of this production (and there’s plenty of it) rests heavily on Neil Bettles’s direction and choreography. The stage is fully exploited in ways that are powerful and relevant to the emotions of the piece, and the physical theatre elements burst with imagination, skill and courage. This is a cast who trust each other, and their thrilling manoeuvres make full play with this trust.
If the cast’s movement and physical skill are exceptional, this is not a ploy to mask weaknesses in the acting—they excel on both fronts. Nick Rhys, whilst sold a little short in the cartoony PE teacher, Mr Murphy, convincingly inhabits the voice in Sparky’s head. Pauline Lockhart brings a winning vulnerability to Mrs Kelly, though again, the writing could give her more to work with.
In Samantha Foley, the play has a charming and energetic Siouxie, and it’s entirely believable that Sparky finds her irresistible. In the main role, Brian Vernel portrays a twitchy, troubled misfit in ways that are compelling rather than irritating. Direct address monologues are really tough when facing a sparse audience (especially one largely consisting of teenagers). Vernel projects and holds our attention without flinching.
Lighting and sound are spot on, and Static has the best (and most restrained) use of video projection I have yet seen in a multi-media drama.
If there’s any justice, the next time I see this company (Thick Skin), there’ll be ‘Sold Out’ signs pasted across the posters.
Reviewer: Martin Thomasson