Jude Battersby reviews ‘Incremental’ by Max Shanagher

Max Shanagher’s ‘Incremental’ follows Marcus as he repeats a day in his life in an antique shop, gradually becoming more desperate as he seeks an end to a seemingly unescapable loop. In this first half of the Assembly Rooms’ student-written double bill, the deceptively mundane meets the absurd to create a piece of theatre that is a meditation on free will, agency and shattering conformity in an often-captivating way. Although the many moving-parts of the play, from an all-powerful director figure hell-bent on control, to an examination of a young couple’s fragmented relationship, do not quite come to a cohesive, satisfying whole by the play’s conclusion, each individual idea in the script is unique and original enough to entertain and charm.

On entering the Assembly Rooms, we are immediately lured into warmth, mundanity and security as the audience is greeted by the seemingly banal interior of an antique shop. The set is meticulously crafted by a production team of Carrie Cheung and Matilda Bell containing everything from scarves, to headless teddies, to Furbies-galore, embodying the piece’s understanding of the meaning and importance of objects. The set elevates the drama by disarming the audience, ensuring they are not ready for the steadily rising sense of dread and increasingly sinister tone shifts as the plot unravels. 

The technical elements of the show, particularly lighting by Carlos Davies, are also startlingly impressive and serve as a highlight. The orange hues of the antique shop are immediately shattered by the entrance of the looming figure of the Director, played by Cory Broadbent, who is accompanied by sharper, cooler moving spotlights. As we delve further into the emotional core of the play, the relationship between Marcus and Sophia, a near-dark, frosty blue wash is brilliantly adopted to underscore the sombre tone. Equally, lighting is used to great effect to support the clarity of the narrative elements of the play by signalling each redo in Marcus’s life. Certainly, ‘Incremental’ features some of the smoothest and most effective lighting choices I have seen on the Assembly Rooms stage.

The surrealist nature of Shanagher’s script requires bold and stylised directorial choices, and the directing team of Lily Gilchrist, Raphael Henrion, and Nat Pryke deliver. The decision to break the fourth wall by placing the Director around the theatre, and even in the seating area is ingenious; it at once unsettles the audience, feeds into the omnipotent aura of the character, and contributes to the metatheatre of the narrative. Julie Bickleby, Marcus’s mother, was confined to a chair, before eventually breaking the invisible barrier between herself and the other characters to explain that the shop is ‘cursed’: this was a genuine moment of exhilarating drama. A sequence relying entirely on tightly choreographed physicality as the Director decrees no one should speak is both clever and amusing. That said, more conversational and heartfelt moments in Shanagher’s script are sometimes under-directed, leaving actors at times stagnant, and dialogue flat. Nonetheless, the direction ensures a forthright clarity to a narrative that otherwise has the potential to confuse.

Each cast member deserves plaudits for the subtlety and care taken to slightly alter and change their performances in a variety of scenarios to support the ‘incremental change’ narrative. Samuel Bentley as Sam deserves special attention for this, switching on a dime from aggravated customer to ferociously angry with subtle vocal changes. Oli Butler is fantastic as the comedic, slightly unnerving shop owner Lewis; his dry, vacant, bitingly sarcastic delivery was delightful in his declaration of “I hope the toilet is clean.” Equally, Cara Crofts is hilariously convincing as the exaggerated, condescending, snooty Dame Julie Bickleby, intent on dropping Waitrose into almost every sentence.

Nell Hickson as Sophia and Edward Clark as Marcus both wonderfully perform the emotional anchor of the piece. We immediately sympathise with the anguish and frustration Sophia battles over the course of the play. Meanwhile, Edward Clark is lively and engaging as Marcus, and we as an audience are deeply invested in his journey to save himself from the increasingly nightmarish devices of the Director. Cory Broadbent is genuinely chilling as the Director, with crazed, sharp, neurotic physicality that keeps the audience unnerved as to what his next move will be.

Shanagher’s writing is fluid and navigates a myriad of tone changes, from excellently comedic, absurdist moments about a humidifier to the mental breakdown of Marcus towards the end of the play. The script could do with increased focus: plotlines about Sophia’s imprisoned brother or Dame Julie Bickleby’s dementia, though intriguing, feel like loose ends, and this contributes to a lack of cohesive conclusion at the play’s finish. That said, the writing effortlessly slips from the absurd, to the dreadful, to the heartwarming with ease.

As such, ‘Incremental’ is a very well-directed, thoughtful play supported by a boundlessly energetic cast that delves into some genuinely intriguing explorations about how we live our lives.

Image taken from @1tc_durham Instagram page. 

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