The Grandfathers, Ovalhouse Theatre
With this production being likened to Arinze Kene’s Little Baby Jesus and forming part of the Ovalhouse Theatre’s 33% London festival - a show case for young emerging talent, I went to see this piece with high expectation. I enjoyed all of the performances I saw in last year’s festival and hoped for this, the production with the longest run in the festival, to deliver in much the same way. The description of The Grandfathers by the production team as ‘combining poetic movement, puppetry and text’, served to further reveal the high aims that the team has for the piece. It is therefore a shame that the execution of these adjectives was tepid and often confusing.
The context is a group of eight teenage soldiers in army barracks being drilled relentlessly by their Sergeant Major. Here, we see a snapshot of their lives in the army and it is through a series of situations delivered, often as monologues, by each cast member that we are supposed to learn a little more about the characters. While this premise appears to have promise (also being topical given the various wars we have been engaged in) it’s all but lost in this production. The piece opens with some of that ‘poetic movement’ referred to. The choreography here is lacking in creativeness and Toby Clarke’s directorship is muddled which shows in the delivery. Action and movement largely takes the place of actual props throughout and when done well this is a treat to see. However, there were many occasions when I was unable to interpret what a character was actually (supposed) to be doing so I was left thinking ‘Is he making something to eat? But they’re in the bedroom. There’s no kitchen in there. Is there?’ Also, the execution of this movement by some of the actors, if not all, at points throughout the piece did not always convince. The ‘puppetry’ with the paper pigeon was however performed very well.
The sequences or scenes from which we were to learn a little about each character unfortunately exposed Rory Mullarkey’s writing in this instance to be dull and unrefined in content and structure. The monologues were largely boring so I didn’t really care when the low-pitched delivery by at least two of the actors meant that I couldn’t hear what they were saying. With the exception of Ria Zmitrowicz’s exuberantly played ‘Kost’, the characters lacked substance therefore failed to engage so, once again, when the audibility of the actors was lost to the gunfire and action-on-the-battlefield sound effects, I was not overly concerned as to what I had missed. Rather than a fault with the sound however, this was a case of timid vocal projection on the part of some of the actors.
The material for at least three of the characters also seemed rather sparse yet it was clear that we were supposed to take something from those characters as well. It seems the ink ran dry when it came to writing the characters for half the cast. Moreover, the degree to which some of the characters seemed to have a more prominent role in the scene that clearly ‘belonged’ to another character was yet also another weakness in the writing and directing, it just didn’t make sense.
Mullarkey’s writing in this instance is not strong enough for a piece of work, which is not plot driven but steered by the characters and their experiences.
The technical aspects of this production were on point; Lucy Read’s set design in combination with Pablo Fernandez Baz’s sepia hued lighting made for a credible army barracks and battelefield. Rupert Cross’s sound was indeed impressive and added atmosphere.
The young cast on the whole worked well with the disappointing material and unfocused directorship and did actually raise a few laughs on several occasions from the enthusiastic and familiar audience.
The Grandfathers is at Ovalhouse Theatre until January 14, 2012
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