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Review: A Life In Monochrome

Posted on 23 July 2012 Written by

Set in a bar in downtown Chicago, the collaboratively-devised A Life in Monochrome begins in style. Through the use of cabaret seating and an onstage jazz band, the company inventively transforms a former Presbyterian church, inviting its audience to step into a 1930s world sinfully soaked in cigarettes and alcohol and heavily inspired by film noir.

In the Great Depression context, the use of such immersive staging is clever. Throughout the piece, the unruly bar is celebrated as a place to escape to the past through music, seduction and alcohol. As interactive staging and plot combine, the implication is clear: in a similar, economically-troubled time, in looking back on someone else’s nostalgia we too are acting out our own escapism.

The unique selling point of new theatre company Blind Tiger is its ambition to blend music and drama, and we see this priority immediately as Claire Sharpe takes to the microphone as the jazz bar singer in a siren’s red dress. The character of Susan Lyons is far from perfect yet she is embellished well by Sharpe’s singing ability. Hers is the character with the most flair and elegance, reinforced later in a manipulative and coaxing monologue, where the role of a necessarily unattainable female fantasy is persuasively deconstructed.

The transition from actor to musician is not so smooth with the other main characters, and so the performers’ versatility works to distract from the plot rather than enhance it. As each company member drops their stereotypical portrayal in favour of a musical instrument, the gap between drama and music is reinforced. While they are not altogether pitch-perfect, that’s not to say the musicians aren’t skilled – the evidently talented Jennifer Johnson, for instance, hops from the saxaphone to the piano after exhibiting a tremendous flair on the cello; rather, their unnatural, dual parts jar with an already messy plot.

Johnson’s clear musical talent is made even more enjoyable by the fact it grants us a break from her thoroughly implausible and irritating character, Helen Scott. In Helen, scriptwriters Callum Hughes and David Shopland have given us the first insights into a production that bears an unearned impression of its own worth. The ambitious secretary is an offensive know-it-all who throws the first blows in the tedious and superficial gendered war that continues throughout the piece. The result is a patronising air and a volatile mood driven by a sense of point-scoring over plot development. Lazily built on types taken from the genre of film noir, the characters are not strong enough to hold our interest and so, after numerous cringe-worthy lines, the reshuffled murder mystery narrative doesn’t hold much weight.

Unfortunately, despite boasting an immersive involvement in American culture, Blind Tiger does little to build upon its pastiche, ultimately giving us no more than cliched digs at stereotypes. By echoing a world of fierce Americana and amped up emotion the company generates a world that, while evidently stylised, is never fulfilling. Disappointingly, as the evening continued, cliches flowed as liberally as cocktails and the company did little to build upon vulgar, angry men and downtrodden yet feisty women. The production seemed to soullessly criticise the genre rather than celebrate or channel its excitement as if, in embracing a black and white tradition, the company had forgotten that you can still have nuance in greyscale.

A Life In Monochrome is playing at The Space until 28th July. For more information and tickets, see The Space’s website.

Amelia Forsbrook

Formerly one of the Wales Arts International critics, Amelia moved to London in early 2012 with two big aims: to continue working as an arts writer, and to discover whether it's ever possible to pull off both telephones and flying in theatre. With particular interests in regional arts, South Asian performance and twentieth century European theatre, Amelia writes for a number of other publications, as well as being an Off West End Assessor.

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