May 2014 | The Tricycle Theatre, London
Frantic Assembly are known for their projects of combined movement, design and text, having toured and collaborated in countless shows. The Believers is a play by Bryony Lavery and brings two neighbouring families with overtly expressed differences reluctantly together during a flood and ends in a tragic disaster, although it takes over an hour to discover what actually happened.
It begins with a series of odd tableaux structured around a large metal apparatus that eventually becomes representative of the rooms of the house. The performers stand around or lounge on the frame but not in a way that alludes or reveals traits of their character, rather, they all look a touch too serious and overburdened with ominous angst, which would be fine if the whole thing wasn’t a mystery. As an introduction it comes across as quite pretentious, it’s obvious they’re dying to unleash their troubles but have to strut around taking strange poses.
Then they start speaking and it gets a bit worse. Lines are thrown out alluding to ‘the catastrophe’ as they try to re-establish the events with such weight and pained effort that we’re supposed to be drawn in but this kind of clunky exposition is like switching the light off; it’s sudden, certain and we’re just as in the dark as before. It’s structured in parallel sequences, the developing story and the unbearably bad aftermath scenes with the parents of the two families having domestic arguments over and over managing not to drive the story in any direction. It’s the real scenes that redeem it with mostly snappy dialogue, giving the actors lots of material to play with, and three out of four actors are good so it’s watchable (I say ‘redeem’ but it’s full of terrible moments.) With the specific lighting and black background the set is sparse allowing the action to take precedence with a nice eerie electronic music score to help.
But most of the time the two sets of parents annoyingly unpick every detail they hate about each other, with plenty of other-room bitching, which is evident in the actual scenes, so it’s a waste of time. The host parents are pretty contradictory, one minute goody goody born again Christians flapping about the overuse of bad language from their guests, then practicing sinister exorcising rituals, then having a party, taking drugs and drinking too much with a ridiculous “let’s get shit faced!” after all the flapping and wincing because the other dad said “cock.” Credit is given to the plot unravelling that there is a clear nice child and evil child situation, with the rough parents becoming convinced that their child is the devil in such a way that the audience feel that she’s a wrong’un, too. This has a satisfying twist.
Frantic Assembly don’t gain points for using bungee-cords, or even the so-called choreography. For a company that have built a reputation making physically energetic theatre, this show is quite restrained. For example the mise-en-scène is shaken up by staging scenes at 90 degrees as though the audience is above looking down on the characters; perhaps like god, who has been dominating conversation all night; or simply eavesdropping, but it’s not enough to warrant great praise.
Not a lot happens in a play which uses text to build tension and atmosphere and too many elements and performance decisions that spoil it. I wish it was less angsty and more straightforward. While the design helped to strip the play to its barest form the show still contained superfluous action or not enough. The switching back and forth constantly reminded one of the horrible opening bit, and although the performances were conventionally good, to say that Frantic Assembly have created a reputation for so called hybrid performances of physicality with text has put this show at odds.
p.s. I was excited to see an unacknowledged Hollywood Actor tucked away in the audience and wondered what he was doing in Kilburn!
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