New play Zennor looks on paper to be one of the most exciting shows to come out of Oxford this year: it is a devised piece in collaboration with the Experimental Theatre Club, the first Oxford student show ever to be performed at the North Wall Arts Centre, and the creation of Lamorna Ash, of New Writing Festival fame.
It is difficult to describe precisely what the play is about. Suggestions from the play’s own marketing material have included “the Celtic folktale ‘The Mermaid of Zennor’”, people’s “childhood dependence on stories in defining cultural identity”, and a woman returning home to find “the boyfriend she left behind”. Another source announces that it is a play about “climate change”. This multiplicity is to some extent necessary – with the actors given free rein to shape their own characters and worlds, it is inevitable that the play’s concept would change and evolve. In its final form, the main story follows Jen, who, after years away, has returned home to her dying mother in Cornwall; there she finds former lover Matthew and in the strange, unsettling atmosphere of the village of Zennor, they re-open old wounds and consider whether their story together has really come to an end.
Sometimes, the final play still bears hallmarks of its unusual composition process. A sub-plot about a politically radical radio station run by mermaids is not comfortably assimilated into the sweep of the action and dialogue sometimes feels ‘devised’ only in the sense of being slightly awkward. It is an ambitious and ambiguous play, whose many elements are not always quite at ease with each other. These shortcomings are not easy to overlook, but, when you consider what the piece has gained from the devising process, they are easily forgiven: instantly convincing characterisation and a powerful, ominous sense of place give the play a firm grounding, and Ash’s skilful patterning of themes and motifs serves to charm and delight the audience. Though the subject matter doesn’t suggest it, the play is also surprisingly funny.
It was clear from the opening sequence that this was a student production of the top tier. The expected dimming of the house lights was forgone, and the audience’s attention was grabbed instead by a single sound effect. This developed into a frantic, tightly choreographed sequence of movements, accompanied by Tom Stafford’s original score – a dark, vervy electronic sound. And on it went. Characters moved fluidly about the well-designed set, which was populated by the sort of clutter that seems not to have been touched for years, to be a reminder of old stories and memories. Sammy Glover’s direction worked consistently well without drawing too much attention to itself – this is no mean feat. After all the hype, the play itself is surprisingly conventional. Though the performances are gripping, naturalism is the rule rather than the exception. The play itself is not nearly as “experimental” as its mode of composition.
Nonetheless, you should go and see this play – not because of the accomplished and compelling performances, or the novelty of the venue, but to witness the end result of a thrilling creative process. If you can stomach the cycle to Summertown and back, you won’t regret it.
Zennor is on at the North Wall Arts Centre until Friday 5th June, performing at 8pm.