If the lavish sets and extravagant costumes of the latest OP musical are the soy caramel machiattos of the Oxford drama scene, then a rehearsed reading at the Michael Pilch Studio must be an espresso. And, just like the proverbial espresso should be, this performance of the latest work of established writer Sami Ibrahim is black as hell, strong as death, and sweet as love.
The play features a troupe of dramatic players in the last days of the Caroline monarchy, in the dog days of the Civil War. This is a wonderfully textured premise – they are in a purgatorial limbo, both historically (England is not quite a monarchy, but certainly not a Republic either), and generically (they are not quite revenge tragedians, but certainly not Restoration comedians either). As they wander from village to village, the play focusses on a young actress (Ali Ackland-Snow) and the unwanted advances of her company’s sleazy director (Jack Taylor). The play is quick-witted and intelligently self-referential – featuring, for example, an inspired sequence that depicts a play rehearsal. But it also represents a finely tuned literary awareness on the part of Ibrahim, with a rich network of allusion – a strained encounter with a professional Hamlet-esque gravedigger was one highlight. Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead also casts a long shadow over this play, not only in the Shakespearean references but also in its premise and its absurdist, existentialist tone.
Like much of the best black comedy, the timbre of the drama walks a constant tight-rope between hallucinogenic surreality, disturbing darkness, and almost slapstick broad humour. These constant shifts meant that the reading felt energized rather than academic, despite asking for a lot of attention and understanding from its audience. There were some very decent stabs at comic set-pieces – no mean feat in a rehearsed reading – and some slick, sick jokes (“You don’t appreciate the thrill of a cemetery?”).
It must have been a devilishly difficult play in which to act, though, and Ackland-Snow occasionally struggled to keep pace with the changes in mood, despite a very capable performance in individual scenes. Jack Taylor was a satisfyingly hate-able rake, with some excellent monologues that were delivered with smirking gusto. Both were supported by a strong supporting cast, but it did feel at times as if they were drowned out by the sheer kaleidoscopic idiosyncrasy of the text itself, which eventually began to lose its initial impact in a sort of surrealist Stendhalism.
Despite this, with a play that is as enjoyable as it is cerebral as this one, whatever Ibrahim does next constitutes a major event.