Tracey Sinclair’s Bystanders first premiered at the Baron’s Court Theatre in 2011; this new production directed by Jeremy Stockwell has been given a freshen up for its visit to firstly The White Bear theatre and now the Tristan Bates for one night only.
Bystanders tells the story of a married couple, leading a seemingly uneventful but comfortable life is suddenly destroyed by the revelation that Martin (Edmund Duff) was the inspiration for a character in wife Ailsa’s (Carrie Sutton) favourite teenage novel. Martin, known in the novel as Declan had a tempestuous relationship with a young women who later commit suicide while “Declan” was found to be cheating on her. Ailsa revisits the book and finds it to be much darker and more bleak than she remembered. It’s a revelation that threatens to break their marriage.
It’s the anniversary of the novel’s publication and meanwhile, young and inexperienced local journalist Katrina McNabb (Zoe Cunningham) won’t rest until she’s got Martin’s side of the story. There are rumours of a film deal and mainstream press attention, Katrina knows this could be her big break. To tame her excitement, mentor and stereotypical sweary and cynical hack Dave (David Lemberg) is on hand to bring her crashing back down to earth with an f-word or ten.
Bystanders is a play that builds effectively. All involved seem innocent enough at the start, but the decent into bleakness, especially when Martin vividly describes how he scrubbed his ex-girlfriend’s blood from the floorboards when she was discovered. Both Sutton and Duff demonstrate the dynamic of a married couple perfectly and are very believable. On stage they feel very comfortable with each other, the authenticity of their relationship means the sparse set and props are not apparent or important.
Cunningham’s Katrina on the other hand, in unpredictable and intriguing. It is never properly revealed why she is so fixated on Martin’s story yet she is continually persistent and intrusive but not in a way that’s dislikeable. Katrina’s eagerness and naivety contrast well with her boss, Dave’s disengagement and flatness about the whole situation works well. Katrina seems sincere and genuine in her desire for the story which is why it comes as a shock when she attempts to seduce Martin when he finally does agree to meet with her. “Fuck, you’re just a Geography teacher.” She sighs on realising her mistake. Perhaps Sinclair is suggesting this is something Katrina feels she has to do to be accepted into the world of journalism and gain respect from her mentor.
Overall, Bystanders is an absorbing story told with sincerity and humour. The final scene depicts Martin and Ailsa ripping up original copies of the book that caused them so much difficulty in celebration that it won’t ever hinder them again. I found Ailsa’s sudden transition from turmoil to a celebration that everything-will-be-just-fine a little too swift but it tied the story up to a satisfying conclusion.
Bystanders played at the Tristan Bates Theatre on 18 December. For more information, see the Tristan Bates Theatre website.