Based on a survey that asked British people in their twenties to identify the experiences and qualities which most accurately summarised their generation, Ella Hickson’s award winning Eight is a blend of acute contemporary social and political observations and deeply personal musings, and it this aspect which is conveyed so beautifully in this latest student production, directed by Tommo Fowler and Jessica Lazar.
If this play were analysed merely in terms of its subject matter, it would be easy to dismiss the bitter rant of the impoverished single mother against the unequal distribution of wealth, or the complaints of a pregnant teenager with a difficult home life, as unoriginal dramatic fodder. Yet, when combined with the nuances in speech pattern, as well as in accent and in thought process, it proves to be a very engaging and moving piece of theatre. This is also aided by the fact that, as a chain of monologues, there is sole emphasis on character, and an absence of complicated set, lighting and sound.
The play consists of eight monologues by eight different characters who range from homosexual art dealers with suicidal partners to 7/7 survivors – however, the title is misleading. Audiences will be given a summary of the characters and will have to cast a vote to choose four to perform. Not only could this be interpreted as a gimmick, it may frustrate audiences; those intrigued by the prospect of listening to the jingoistic views of a middle-class prostitute may have their hopes dashed and might instead have to submit to the account of a soldier injured in the Iraq war. Yet, this onus on the audience to enforce order and make the production their own is perhaps a clever reflection of the play’s central theme – the need to impose meaning on the chaotic and arbitrary nature of life. In any case, if any members of the audience are left feeling disappointed by the selection process, their sentiments will soon be replaced by those of awe and wonder at the consistently high quality of acting and interesting musings in every monologue.
Perhaps the most striking character is Bobby, a Scottish single mother who is desperately attempting to overcome her difficult financial situation and provide a fun Christmas for her children. Phoebe Hames is utterly convincing, managing to produce an almost flawless accent whilst still delivering her speech with brutal honesty and an unnerving realism. She is constantly on the verge of tears yet never becomes boring; her perfect timing and range of expression ensures that the performance remains extremely varied. Another result of these subtleties is that Hames’ endeavour to inject humour into what could be considered a very bleak story is undoubtedly successful.
Also promising is David Shield’s portrayal of Miles, a high-flying American businessman who descends into a life of hedonism, following his liberation from all moral and societal duty after the shock of his experience in the London bombings of July 2005. At first, Miles appears as a brash and unambiguously unlikeable character, yet Shields weaves in subtle threads of vulnerability which helps the audience relate to him. His nuances also add an interesting dimension to his speech, as the audience starts to question his truthfulness and realise that he may not be as in control of his life as he claims. There is an element of the unreliable narrator (typically restricted to novels) which is particularly tangible and effective in Eight, for its monologue form ensures that the only information conveyed is one-sided and selective. This uncertainty is unnerving, yet exciting and fascinating.
If this production lacks any polish, it can be more than accounted for when one considers that this is still in the early stages of rehearsal. With a week to go, the show looks set to become one of the most profound and professional pieces Oxford University has ever seen. Its major flaw is its greatest success, as the selective restrictions will leave audiences pining to hear the other speeches and could very well draw people back for more. Given that in the space of an hour, Eight manages to say more about the mood of modern Britain than many acclaimed writers can, this may not be necessary. Nonetheless, it would be an abominable mistake to miss this show.
Eight will run in the Burton Taylor Studio from Tuesday 5th to Saturday 9th March at 9.30pm each night. Tickets are available from £5.