Thursday, 14 June 2012

Only Us @ Bristol Old Vic

Only us. Two words; what are your first impressions? Solemnity, insignificance, tedium? Or, in contrast, depth, exploration, honesty? Although both sides of this same coin are perfectly applicable, I was inclined to indulge in the latter list of adjectives and hopefully, so did everyone else in reference to Adam Peck’s moving theatrical piece of the two-worded title. I’m glad to say I was not disappointed and, from what I can gather from the audience’s excitable whispers of praise after the performance had ended, so did all who were privy to it.

I was instantly enamoured by the Old Vic’s studio venue for this performance and although this is most likely due to the main auditorium being recently refurbished and used for other such performances, I thought the setting was perfect. This was in no way a glamorous cabaret style show requiring fancy fluorescent lights and decadent pyrotechnics, (not that the Old Vic is famous for cosseting such features anyway), and so the dimly lit dark room with an almost pagan ritual style seating in-the-round layout evoked an atmosphere of eerie anticipation. I eagerly plumped for a front row seat so as to be as close to the action as possible which seemed to be focused around three solitary chairs in a relatively small amount of space but I was aware that my note-taking – however discrete – may prove hazardous to the performers’ concentration. Not to mention the fact that a story involving a person’s notes once being ripped from her hands by one of the actors onstage and thrown around the audience kept playing across my mind. I was sure Adam wouldn’t do such a thing but I didn’t want to take my chances.
My second choice of seat was perfectly adequate and I slowly noticed that wherever I chose to sit would have meant close proximity to the actor(s) as the cast wove in and out of the audience members, calling on single seats that had been previously reserved as a means of reference to the story. This intimacy immediately reflected the personal aspects of this play as it soon became apparent that the stories being told were in fact anecdotes of the lives of the people telling them. This rapport was noted from the very beginning of the play as Adam directly addressed audience members as they entered, briefly conversing with them and even introducing the play himself to everyone. It was only when the lights suddenly went down and he appeared on the opposite side of the studio from which he had last been seen exiting under a spotlight that all became aware that the play had begun.

Now, everyone’s familiar with the traditional proscenium arch stage that you come across in most theatres upon which most shows are performed on. Only Us looked to hypothetically expand on that idea – indeed the Old Vic’s studio is not the largest performance space but when one takes note of the personal concepts of the show, effusive direction and expansive spaces were not necessary. The sporadic layout of the audience chairs meant that Adam and the other actors that were incorporated in the second half of the show could weave in and out, not only symbolising their journeys and interesting time jumps through their lives as they spoke of the events but also allowing them to designate certain areas to certain anecdotes. I became very familiar with the mute childhood friend in the empty chair to my right, the close family circle in the centre and with ‘Lucy’ the aliased girl in the hospital bed across the ward that was situated in the empty chair on the other side of the studio. What is important here is that although the movements of all the actors were staged for the audience’s benefit, they remained genuinely impulsive to the engaged audience member and this way, each was kept continuingly guessing and interpreting.

I remember speaking to Annys Whyatt, (one of the actors), after the performance and asking her, is it not a little daunting spilling your life story to complete strangers in a dark room? And, funnily enough, her answer was simply, yes. However, the clarity, precision and commitment shown by each individual on that night would not have suggested that at all. Frequently actors are shy people which is why they become actors – it give them a persona to take on, to hide behind. The nature of this show did not permit that and, in a way, that makes it all the more difficult to perform. They all remained casual, colloquial and familiar: a fair representation of themselves but also, I infer, a message to the audience that this is purely about life. That way truth was conveyed with alacrity and emphasis, right from the expressive theatrical gestures to the sincerity of vocal detail in order to capture a nine year old self even though the band on your wrist claimed you were twelve. All accounts were refreshing, touching and amusing, in particular the story of Joseph Langdon who, due to his confinement at a young offenders institute told his story through a recording and was represented by another empty chair.

 It was suggested that this show was all about emptiness and loneliness; about never quite getting there or feeling you belong. The light and shade expressed throughout and the strong inkling of wanton independence amongst empty chairs that should be filled echoed this. There seemed to me a strong resonance of juxtaposition between the simplicity of life but then how complicated it can become which is almost always due to the presence of other people. What I would like to question is – is life simple when we’re lonely and complicated when others interfere or is it the other way round?

A thoroughly enjoyable piece of modern theatre. Commendations go to director Caroline Hunt and the writers and performers Adam Peck, Annys Whyatt, Amy-Louise Webber, Penny Reynolds, Kirstie Paul, Kevin Strachan and Joseph Langdon.

 (Image taken from

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