Arcadia is set in the house of Sidley Park, and across two time frames; the action alternates between 19th century to the present day and back again with at the drop of a hat. It is a great credit to the staging of this production, from St. Hilda’s Drama Society, that the lines between the past and present never become so blurred as to be unclear.
The distinction is aided by an excellent choice of costume for the older scenes, but even the scene which takes place in both time frames concurrently (and has the modern actors wearing period fancy dress) is staged well; the split is obvious without the action feeling forced. However, having sat through two perfectly entertaining hours of a show performed admirably by a talented cast, I realised I was nevertheless in something of a quandary; I had little notion of what the play was actually about. The plot, driven almost exclusively by dialogue, relates past with present; we see, through the 19th century scenes, the answers to mysteries being debated and studied by a writer and a literary historian in the present day. However, there are so many strands to the story that it is unclear which events have great significance to the action. It is in fact perfectly possible for entire sub-plots to pass the inattentive viewer by, particularly when they revolve around such topics as the finer details of mathematical science. When certain strands do finally come together, the feeling elicited is all too often apathy rather than satisfaction.
This is understandable in a student production – many professional companies have faced the same challenge with Arcadia – but it could perhaps have been avoided with more sympathetic performances from the leads. In particular, Tash Miah’s Hannah and Adam Gethin-Jones’ Bernard are as emotionally distant from the audience as the chairs they sit on. This is not to say, though, that they give bad performances. Both turn out excellent, realistic character studies; Miah as the haughty author and Gethin-Jones as the foppish journo getting under her feet. Their dull interplay, however, highlights the production’s key problem. Though there are some superb performances – Richard Grumitt as Valentine Coverley stands out in particular – there is a lack of chemistry between some important characters on stage, which results in a lack of connection between such characters and the audience. This is not the fault of a cast with very few weak links, but instead seems a conscious decision to entertain rather than fully engage the audience in a complicated story.
There are two more productions of Arcadia later this year, and it will be interesting to see if either manages to get round this problem. Before then, however, St. Hilda’s play is worth seeing; if not for the hit-and-miss narrative then certainly for the fine acting performances which enliven the bare set, and raise the show above the ordinary. The production is, in the end, much like Valentine’s fancy dress; a little rough round the edges, but guaranteed to bring a smile to your face.
**** (4 Stars)