Running at only one hour, Wrong Tree Theatre’s Test Bed–writer and director Cameron Ashplant’s Durham debut–is certainly a production which is aware of its own potential. The premise of the play is simple: protagonist ‘1386’/Dreamer (Sean Alcock) is held in a facility which ‘tests’ his dreams and enforces a bland and cyclical livelihood, until one day they allow him to visit a nearby city (where he meets Maisie (Abbie Priestley)) to examine the effect on his dreams. Ashplant’s claim—that the play is one which defies the assumption that “having both naturalism and physical theatre staggered through a play is implausible”—is admirably posed, but stalls just short of realisation. However, this may either be because naturalism and physical theatre aren’t all that unfamiliar with one another in experimental theatre anyway, or it might be (more probably) because to describe Test Bed as a play which engages this relationship would be a rather simplistic misunderstanding of its remit. Ashplant’s admission that the current version of the piece was born out of a series of “short frames and eventual physical sequences” is extremely evident, and this is perhaps the production’s greatest asset as well as its most troubling thorn: the physicalised ‘dream’ sequences are entirely more effective, affective, and intriguing than the only-half-realised plotline which has been arranged around them.
Choreographed by co-director Francesca Haydon-White, the movement sequences are certainly striking and impactful, performed consistently by both the ensemble and the two principle characters (Dreamer and Maisie). Alongside Haydon-White, who fills in seamlessly for an absent ensemble member during this performance, the chorus includes Eleanor Storey, Charlotte Hartley and Iz McGrady, who also multi-role as various medical / scientific technicians, porters, or passers-by. The plight of protagonist Dreamer’s situation is acutely and powerfully represented through these ‘dream’ sections, such as in the unsettling dementia of one in which he is doused with cornflakes and milk while dreaming about being forced to live on a repetitive and lacklustre diet. In the same scene, I must admit, I very nearly cried over (actual) spilled milk; the stage was littered with tripping hazards, but I was too anxious about them to discern whether they were accidental or indicative of an existence which skates on the edge of precarity. Robotic and cyclical behaviours in Dreamer’s waking hours inform us that his character is one who is encircled by numbing mundanity and, apparently, some kind of psychological slavery. Later, during his experimental excursion into the nearby metropolis, his dreams begin to incorporate a softened tone, producing a sense of his accelerated affection for Maisie–a girl whose refreshing normality suggests that there might be some hope for an existence outside the Institute after all. Thankfully, Priestley and Alcock’s chemistry is immediately apparent, as, so often, movement sequences of romantic gesture in physical theatre can easily become complacent and dull.
Despite a strong portrayal by Priestley, however, Maisie doesn’t seem to have any function outside of enabling Dreamer to prepare a Pot Noodle, and then reminding him of what romance he might enjoy outside the Institute. Aside from the impressive physicalisations, this rather confusing exchange is indicative of a wider issue in this play: the logic which drives these characters doesn’t seem to be loyal even to itself, and there are some strange inconsistencies. Upon finding out that Dreamer is affiliated with the Institute, for instance, Maisie is immediately reproachful of him. Moments later, she is markedly sympathetic, seeming to have acquired an uncanny knowledge of the conditions of his containment in the Institute’s facilities. The two-dimensionality of the character might be justified in light of the final ‘twist’, but we are scarcely given time to process or appreciate its significance before the play has suddenly ended.
In fact, like Maisie, the Institute itself is also a dubious entity, not only in the sense of its (obviously) underhand tactics, but also because both its pretended and its actual intentions are never explained. We are told that Dreamer is being held so that they can monitor and ‘test’ his dreams, but there doesn’t seem to be any substantial demonstration of or reference to what is truly at stake, or even what the dreams are really being tested for. Similarly, it isn’t clear whether he is voluntarily or forcefully involved in their operation. Upon entrance to the city, he meets a woman (Iz McGrady) whose emphatic but incongruous personality forces us to be suspicious of her tale: that her husband seemed to disappear at some point in history, with some tangential relation to the Institute, and that Dreamer himself is the same age as her son, who also disappeared mysteriously. Sadly, we are aren’t told whether these are tactful red herrings or pointless ramblings. Though it would have produced an interesting dimension of contextual closure had they been intended to foreshadow the truth of Dreamer’s origin, I am somehow more glad that they didn’t actually rise to any significance, as their rather obvious and ham-fisted delivery would have ruined any of the further dramatic suspense, which, admittedly, was excellently mediated throughout.
I am keen, though, to stress that this play is still a compellingly-intriguing debut. Ashplant does himself—and the cast/crew—a service by admitting that the plot only came into being much later than the physicalised elements, which are by far the strongest feature. While the narrative’s world (and its underpinning philosophy) are troublesome, they have at their core a very exciting idea, which is paramount above all else. Despite some prickly audio feedback, the original music by Nico Wood-Olivan is very well matched with the more stylised aspects of this play. Likewise, Fergus Carver’s technical direction of the production smartly handles the sinister rumblings of the waking and dreaming states, even in spite of some awkward hiccups during transitions.
With a sixty minute run-time, the production is perhaps its own nemesis by giving itself less room than is required to grow what could be the seeds of an arresting narrative. Dreams and technology are two entities which many a successful dystopia novel have employed to great ends. A further revision of the show—and I would personally advise that the show be extended and re-staged at some point in the future, as the simplicity of its set-up makes it ideal for festival performance—would likely bring out more of its obvious potency. It is a testament to the direction and performances that this production actually endures its more porous writing into quite a thought-provoking piece, and with some redrafting could potentially enjoy even wider success. For now, while sometimes clunky, it remains a production which is at least well performed, visually striking, and theoretically exciting.
But, please, be careful with that spilled milk with barefoot actors running around. It’s going to give me nightmares.
‘Test Bed’ continues with a final performance in the Vane Tempest room (DSU), Friday 21st June at 7:30pm.
(Image courtesy of Wrong Tree Theatre)