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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Believers
Tricycle Theatre  Spring 2014

A collaboration between the company Frantic Assembly and playwright Bryony Lavery, The Believers overlays a small horror story with thoughts about religion, personality and marriage, and with inventive staging techniques, with the goal of creating a textured rumination on the nature and limits of belief.

But the underlying story is too fragile for all this added weight, and the metaphysical speculations, obscure in themselves, frequently get in the way of clear story-telling, and you are likely to come away more impressed by some individual scenes and by some of the staging for their own sake than by their contribution to the whole.

In a heavy rainstorm a couple whose home is on high ground invite neighbours whose house is likely to be flooded to spend the night with them. While their children – a little girl each – play upstairs, the parents sit down to dinner and quickly discover in a comic way that they have very little in common and actually don't like each other much. 

The guests are an easy-going pair with some tensions in their marriage, largely caused by their troublesome daughter. The hosts are evangelical Christians who are also, improbably, sexual swingers and potheads.

In between alternating unsuccessful attempts at conversion and seduction, all four wrestle with the realisation that this evening is a big mistake. A religious conversion actually does take place, and there is an offstage exorcism of sorts. 

And then something truly dreadful happens, so unbearably bad that religious belief, rationality, marital loyalty, civility and even the ability to grasp the simple facts are all tested to their breaking point, leaving all four adults not only traumatised by the event but deprived of any mechanisms they had for making sense of the world. 

That at least is the intention. In practice Lavery's text and director Scott Graham's production put the emphasis on the fragmented perceptions and attempts to make sense out of them on the part of all four adults. 

This produces a disjointed narrative, largely presented in not-always-reliable flashbacks from the jumbled after-the-fact perspective of the traumatised, and a staging whose emphasis is on the subjective presentation of a shattering world. 

The first means that, since none of the four is able to grasp the horror or bear the memory of what happened, we are never clearly told the facts, scattered references presented with no more stress than various alternative guesses and misrememberings, and that a lot of essentially irrelevant memories, like the invitations to partner-swapping, are mixed in with the rest. 

The staging of mental and metaphysical breakdown is more successful, though too often more as a demonstration of the director's inventiveness than as an evocation of the play's ideas. 

Some of the action is built around a skeletal set that is rotated, reversed and turned on end, often carrying a performer with it, to give the sense of characters literally unable to keep their feet on solid ground, while John Bausar's design criss-crosses the stage with a series of illuminated bars that break it up into various shard-like pieces. 

Eventually the two combine, with performers breaking with gravity and leaving the stage floor to stand or hang within one or another of the shards at skewed angles. 

At its best this does give a sense of fragmented memory dancing around the unbearable, but too often it is impressive just for its cleverness, as a string of rapid blackouts leaves you with no idea where the actors are going to pop up next or from what perspective you're going to view them. 

It would be quite possible to leave this eighty-minute play without being absolutely clear on just what the terrible event was, and while you would understand that everyone involved was badly shaken by it, just what all this had to do with religious belief (or, for that matter, with swinging, organic food or marijuana) might well remain fuzzy. 

What will be clear is that Scott Graham is a very inventive director-choreographer and that Christopher Colquhoun, Penny Layden, Richard Mylan and Euileen Walsh are very hard-working performers.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  The Believers - Tricycle Theatre 2014

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