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The Theatreguide.London Review

Testbed 1            March 2015 

All but unknown in Britain, the writer who uses the single name Elchin is Azerbaijan's leading poet, playwright and critic, along with being his country's Deputy Prime Minister, and an Azerbaijani arts festival in London provides this introduction to his work. 

Telescope is a slight and deceptively light-hearted fable that, like most fables, carries the sense of being more meaningful to its own culture than to outsiders. 

But even without the resonances, possibly political, that a British audience can only catch glimpses of, Telescope makes for an entertaining evening, particularly in this inventive production by a British director and cast. 

A man dies and finds himself in an otherworldly way-station where souls await assignment to heaven or hell. The post is understaffed, with a backlog of cases, so he has time to encounter his ex-wife, who has been there long enough to lose any bitterness and happily show him around. 

Included in the tour is the titular device that allows the dead to look back on earth and, despite her warnings, he wants to see how those he left behind are grieving. 

From that point on, unfortunately, you could write the rest of the play yourself. Inevitably he's going to discover that his second wife has already begun the campaign to find his replacement, his children are squabbling over his money, and so on.

Until the ending, whose shape depends on an audience vote, there are no surprises left in the play, and the versions of each scene you imagined are likely to be more textured and original than the rather bare ones Elchin provides. 

If the script itself gets thinner as it goes along, at least for those of us who don't catch its Azerbaijan-specific resonances, the production carries much of the evening. 

Working in a large bare room with the feel of a warehouse, director Matthew Gould and designer Faye Bradley make no distinction between actor-space and audience-space. Parked on stools strewn seemingly randomly around the room, audience members find the action before, behind, between and amongst them. 

Except for a final sequence that makes us briefly co-inhabitants of the heavenly waiting room, this immersive experience is more imposed on the text than inherent in it. But it is a big part of the show's fun and the play's success. 

If Chris Simmons as the man leans a little too heavily on befuddlement as his keynote, with too little hint of what made the character less loved than he thought he was, Tanya Franks captures his guide's mix of amusement and concern in a warm and attractive characterisation.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Telescope - Testbed 1 Theatre 2015

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