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Sunday Morning at the Centre of the World

Louis de Bernières
Bad Physics
Southwark Playhouse
(2011)

Sunday Morning at the Centre of the World publicity graphic

Dylan Thomas described his Under Milk Wood as 'a play for voices' and this is how de Bernières describes this sixty-minute play which was inspired by it and which, like Thomas, he originally wrote for radio. While Milk Wood looked down on a Welsh seaside village, in Sunday Morning at the Centre of the World we get a multi-faceted picture of Earlsfield, a south London district beside the River Wandle in the borough of Wandsworth.

Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in 1999, this is not the first time it has been staged but Bad Physics are claiming this to be the first live performance by a professional cast and it offers the opportunity to its audiences to either chose to wear a blindfold throughout and experience the play as a sound piece plus other sensory stimuli or to watch it eyes open and see all the workings of the production. I must confess I cheated, with permission, and alternated between both experiences and sometimes just shutting my eyes to avoid fiddling with the mask.

With blindfold on you are led, very gently, into the Southwark Theatre's Vault and warned when there is a step to mount until you are told that you should sit. It is an oddly secure experience. You can hear bird whistles and bell-like sounds, the guttural gurgle of someone gargling; occasionally there is a sudden draught of air on your face or a faint smell but, as the rest of the audience are carefully brought in, any suggestion of an atmosphere being built up is drowned out by the banal chatter of the people around you. It becomes a tedious wait, though it could be possible the play has begun for those who can see, despite the continuing conversation. However, when the rich voice of Christopher Hammond as narrator announces it is Sunday Morning it is clear it really has.

This is a play made up of multiple vignettes. Even though characters recur there was little sense of narrative, though this may partly because one was too involved in registering a new character or group of characters and you certainly get a strong sense of the mix of people that you so often find in London, old buffers chatting on a bench, the local woman with posh airs, a slightly batty older lady, rowdy kids kicking a ball about, a guy taking a toke, the keeper of the Chinese chippy.

What I did not get was any real sense of different locations. At one point the setting is underneath a bridge, you can hear water dripping 'plop plop' from above and even feel a few spots on your head but this playing space is already beneath a railway arch and there is an over-riding acoustic that only disappears if voices are very quiet and since the production has audiences on three sides vocal levels are perhaps necessarily high. Delivery is also rapid; although de Bernières' script shares the alliteration and colourful wordscape of Thomas, at this pace it sounds good but makes it much more difficult to take it in. I was often swept away by the music of the sound rather than capturing its sense. Director Amy Draper should have risked lingering on the language more, relishing the literary style would give space for understanding.

The soundscape, not just the spoken dialogue, seems entirely man-made, there are bouncing balls made with the actual objects, squeaks, beating bird wings and the clatter of horses hooves are mechanically simulated by the cast, but almost everything else seems cleverly vocalised, dogs, cats even a few instrumental bars of the Marseillaise are probably mouth-music.

I must confess I long ago lost the ability to hear bat calls and my sense of smell is similarly no longer particularly acute so others may find the added sensory elements more effective. A cat rubbing against you as it passes (and if you have bare legs it really will feel furry), or a football bouncing off your shin is certainly effective but momentary smells I often found difficult to identify and unless from some passing object or person they don't persist throughout the whole sequence that they go with. Certainly smells sometimes certainly waft by, carried on a breeze but I was usually much more aware of the sudden disturbance of the air than of the scent that it was intended to blow into my nostrils.

Two readily identifiable smells did work in adding to the experience: the bitter antiseptic odour of a chemist's shop and the aroma of Bisto gravy. Then the brief stink of what may have been sweaty socks (or worse) may have represented an old lady's lack of hygiene. Therein lay a problem: that little draft of air diverted the brain into trying to identify the sensory element and its meaning, interrupting attention to what you were hearing.

These were almost never background smells (that chemist's shop excepted) and the momentary sense cues pass through the audience, they don't hit them all at the same moment. To do so, or to sustain them, would create the problem we all know from more conventional theatre when the heavy incense of a cathedral scene lingers long after we have moved on to other locations.

The cast are all involved in providing these added stimuli when not actually playing a particular character. Even then they may be making sound effects (though sometimes, as in Katie Mitchell's Waves production, another actor does the Foley work as the actor performs the action). It is very much an ensemble teamwork but that doesn't prevent some performances from standing out: James French and Panny Skrivanos as a couple of old codgers, Danielle Nott's trolley toting Potty Ingrid, Avita Jay's stick-hobbling Antique Annie, Georgina Landau's Posh Kelly, Mark Conway's Sarf London yobbo and Jade Willis's vicious feline Martha and heartbroken John burying his dog. I may not have got them right for, though I cheated, I could not always see them - but they know who they are!

If you are going to see it, and especially if you plan on being blindfold, what follows is a spoiler so perhaps you should stop reading. For those who have eyes open the setting is a bare concrete floor with prop tables lined up at the back. Actors move around silently in stockinged feet except when footwear contributes to the performance. All the roles are fully physically acted and at least partly costumed, Performances are so strongly physical that actors moving around waving the lids of plastic boxes to blow the scent of their contents into people's faces or holding scent soaked tea towels in front of them are no real distraction, you soon ignore them and when someone draws a long fake fur boa against other's legs you can image the cat against yours.

Much more effective than the sensory gimmicks however are the aspects of the production that use the techniques of theatre rather than trying to give radio an extra dimension. Seeing Martha having her tummy tickled with paws waving in the air. (OK, I confess, like de Bernières himself I have a particular penchant for cats) or the carthorse made up of most of the company clacking its plastic cup hooves with the narrator waving a scarf to make its tail, or another mass of actors swerving through the space as a packed car with an overloud sound system gave me much ore of a thrill than any sniffy! I was very glad I cheated.

Until 16th April 2011

Reviewer: Howard Loxton