Howard Coase and Douglas Grant wrote Bluebeard, a one-hour play, with the French folktale in mind but there is little in the first 20 minutes or so (the section that I viewed in their open rehearsal) to bring that gruesome story to mind.
Thematically, the pair assure me, there are resonances, but it seems the modern story being told could stand without a literary allusion that lingers just out of reach. Bluebeard actually focuses on Claire, a 67-year-old woman with dementia living in a care home, played by Becky Banatvala, and her two children Emily and David, played by Carla Kingham and Michael Roderick respectively. Claire finds herself reliving memories, inadvertently casting her children as characters from her past.
It’s a play that demands a lot from its small cast: both Kingham and Roderick must instantly switch between characters, only a few of which allow for easy caricature; Banatvala, meanwhile, has to convey Claire’s fractured mental state without fracturing her performance, keeping a through line of her personality even as she jumps between memory, dream sequence and the present day.
Of the three, Kingham was the most intuitive, differentiating between her roles through subtle vocal and physical changes. Roderick, having described David as ‘a pushover’, proceeded to give a fairly aggressive performance, tending towards volume over subtlety. His portrayal of Joe later in the extract proved far better, so it may simply have been nerves ramping up his performance from naturalistic to obvious. Still, there’s a sense that – without firm direction – he simply adopts a default that doesn’t quite fit David. It’s even harder to get a handle on Claire, deliberately so, with Banatvala’s fumbling hand gestures and ponderous delivery not quite translating into sympathy. However, Banatvala does well in conveying Claire’s condition – an admirable feat.
With no one off script yet, the direction from Grant tended to focus on blocking issues and line fluffs rather than the nuances of performance. Still, improvement was visible even in the hour I was there for.
The scenes were well structured and the crucial transitions between memory and the modern day work seamlessly, a testament to the potential quality of the show. The writing also shows a good ear for dialogue, with David and Emily’s early interactions proving a highlight. Claire’s speeches are more complicated – an early monologue from her younger self on the pains of being middle class and privileged may alienate some, though her character seems cast as the emotional core of the play.
The basics of blocking and simple character development seem to be almost locked in. What will prove crucial is if the cast can get off script in time to work on achieving detailed, naturalistic performances and thus bring out more emotions from the piece. Otherwise, for all its charms, it will remain forgettable.
Bluebard runs Tues-Sat of 3rd Week in the Burton Taylor Studio. Tickets: £6/5
PHOTO/ Celia Stevenson