Tape is one of those plays that has style. It takes a while to become immersed in the strange dialogue and eccentric characters, but once it finds its flow, Tape stands alone.
Stephen Belber’s play has been adapted for film – the unique quality of his writing has clearly been noticed. Tape’s charm hinges largely upon the character of Vince (Marc Elliot) who is constantly high and drives the pace and direction of the play. Vince is in Michigan supposedly for his friend Jon’s (Darren Bransford) film premier, but he has a more perplexing motive. He tapes a conversation in which he gets Jon to admit that he raped Amy (Kate Loustau), the woman Vince loved – his first girlfriend in fact.
The concept behind this play is genius. It’s a dark tale of rape injected with high humour, as gender politics comes into question with Amy adamantly arguing she wasn’t raped, but Jon assuring her she was. One moment they’re utterly loveable characters and the next they’re – in their own words – dicks. To begin with, it’s difficult to believe that a character can be so poisonous as Vince, but as we realise how complexly messed up he is he quickly becomes endearing. Elliot goes where many soap opera stars have boldly gone before (and not necessarily returned): with the mission to break their image of being seen as the same character they’ve played for years (Syed in Eastenders). His performance as Vince is energised to say the least; he’s twitchy, bitchy and adorably childish. His dialogue fizzes and his eyes look ready to pop. His character is grounded by a level-headed Bransford, and his tormentor Loustau quickly evolves from the character that’s walked into a crazy scene off the street to holding the other characters in the palm of her hand. Belber’s dynamic, traumatised characters carry this play.
What’s most engaging about Elliot’s performance is his physicality and interaction with the space. However the opening itself is a little obscure as he trashes his hotel room à la rock star, but lacks definable motives. Arguably, Belber’s reveal is slightly too slow. Alex Marker’s set definitely communicated motel: muted colours, framed in a way that confines the characters almost claustrophobically. At times, it’s hard to imagine that the audience can see everyone all the time with the way it’s blocked on the thrust stage, but the movement at least feels naturally impulsive. Elliot is like a wide animal waiting to break out, and his fight scene with Bransford almost tumbles into the audience in this brilliantly intimate studio.
The Trafalgar Studios is the right place to stage a play like this. A small audience are confidantes in a dark revelation and director Thomas King forces them to consider what exactly defines rape – a question plaguing politics still. Tape managers to inhabit a current voice twelve years after its conception; Belber’s vicious style pushes the characters’ buttons, whilst King’s direction pushes the characters over the edge. It’s the only way they can come face to face with their fears.
Tape plays at the Trafalgar Studios until 10th November. For more information and tickets, see the Trafalgar Studios website.