Review: Brenda, Aldeburgh Parish Church

The writers at this year’s HighTide Festival seem to love a prolonged silence to start: Luke Norris does it in So Here We Are, and in Brenda E V Crowe utilises the same trick of making her audience wait for any dialogue. It creates anticipation, consternation, discomfort: as an audience, we don’t quite know how to react. However, when Brenda does get going, not much more is clarified.

Crowe’s new work explores ideas of identity and humanity: is it our bodily presence that makes us a person, our emotions or maybe our relationships? Is it societal pressure or personal struggle that robs us of our ‘person’ status? Brenda and Robert are preparing to address a community action group, in a bid to receive help with accommodation and work. Yet Brenda doesn’t think she’s a person at all; throughout, Robert tries to convince her she is. It becomes an irreparable fracture in their bond, and Brenda seems to have been set adrift in a world she no longer finds affinity with.

The performances of Alison O’Donnell and Jack Tarlton are strong throughout, with Tarlton particularly engaging as he cajoles Brenda and charms the audience. O’Donnell’s desperation is measured but constant, in a disquietingly self-assured performance of what amounts to a form of breakdown.

However, Crowe’s script never takes these characters anywhere, or offers enough context to enable the audience to grapple with the big ideas that are present in this work. The characters simply seem to exist in this state: the play’s vagueness allows no progress or descent, and the lack of development becomes frustrating. The ‘unconventional means’ through which the story is related, with characters frequently leaving the performance space but seeming to exist beyond it, create a static atmosphere that stifles rather than provokes thought and enjoyment. Crowe flirts with some immense questions, and no-one would expect this play to solve them all. Yet I couldn’t avoid a sense of the Emperor’s New Clothes – that we are being tempted into finding meaning or ideas in the dialogue that perhaps aren’t really there.

There is no avoiding the subjectivity of theatrical experience, and this is certainly a show that divides audiences and critics. Some may find beauty in its depiction of fragile human existence, and may be intrigued by its claustrophobic angst. For me, its resolutely abstract nature becomes a barrier to engagement, and its inability to commit to ideas leaves me just as adrift as Brenda herself.

Brenda is playing at the Aldeburgh Parish Church as part of the HighTide Festival until 19 September. The show then plays at the Yard Theatre from 22 September-17 October. For tickets and more information, see the HighTide Festival website. Photo by Nobby Clark.