St John’s Chapel is inarguably an atmospheric setting and Polly Stenhams’s That Face is the first play that I’ve been able to view there. Bailey Theatre Company’s current production is worth watching if what you look for in a cultural night out is some cracking acting.
Having minor difficulties with discovering the aforementioned Chapel turned out to be due to a combination of my own uselessness and the reduction of the production team’s handmade signs to mush by the rain. Upon arrival it was clear to see that the stage was already set with a solitary Polly Norkett sat on the end of a bed with a sack over her head – a rather disturbing image that really succeeded in setting the tone for the evening.
The play itself focused on the dynamics of a family made up of members on alternate ends of the emotional spectrum, yet began with a rather incongruous scene about the phasing of a thirteen-year-old girl who does incredibly little during the play. At this point I should mention that, whatever issues I may have had with the piece itself, I simply cannot raise a single genuine critique about any cast members’ acting. Each character was developed with care and presented to the audience with real thought and consideration.
Carrie Gaunt (Martha) gave a particularly passionate performance as the mother in the piece, and her energetic portrayal was offset well by that of John Halstead, who played her ex-husband Hugh. His calm near-rigidity was well juxtaposed with Gaunt’s hysterics, and when both were onstage together they really managed to draw the audience’s focus straight onto the dynamics of their relationship. Angharad Phillips (Izzy) brought a lightness to her scenes, which kept the momentum of the play running along nicely – something which was really starting to feel vital at the points in the story where her character was onstage. In fact, on reflection, I found myself wishing that she’d been present for more of the play.
Alex Colville (Henry) performed fabulously and proved himself more than up to the task of playing a character with such complexity and depth. Special mention, however, must go to Lydia Feerick whose performance as Mia stood out as one worthy of the highest acclaim; when onstage she was constantly immersed in the performance, regardless of whether she was involved in the action or not. Her performance managed to keep the whole piece cohesive and at no point did she slip out of character, which wasn’t necessarily true for all onstage.
Unfortunately, the overall emotional impact of the piece was rather perplexing. The ending left a lot to be desired and the build up to the climax involved shouting at a level just about acceptable for the chapel space; space that, unfortunately, was not used to the play’s full advantage. The stage itself was restricted into a tight square by the placement of pews to the side of the performance space. This left the actors with very little room to maneuver and led to them frequently blocking each other. The actual seating inside the chapel also restricted viewing. From the third row I really struggled to see the action and, though everyone spoke with wonderful clarity and diction, parts of the story were lost on me as I simply could not see the actors’ faces when they sat near the end of the bed onstage (which occurred rather frequently).
In all, the cast really should be commended. The subject matter and general demands of the piece were very difficult and everyone involved did a good job of making the characters engaging yet realistic at the same time. The main issues with the piece stemmed from directorial decisions or ones to do with the general production, and so may not be that easy to fix. Not being able to see most of the action pretty much ruined the show for me and no cast member can really be blamed for that, especially when the blocking that occurred seemed truly unintentional and unavoidable with the space given. The chapel setting probably could have been used to greater effect, and in fact it would probably have been better suited to a different play; the ambience in there was all wrong for That Face.
The cast did a great job of making this piece watchable and the show is worth viewing to see them perform, but I won’t be rushing to see this piece again and doubt that anyone else will be either.