John (Alec Gray) is a charlatan, a sham. Convincing in his craft, but swindling Miss A (Nicola Peluso) out of her fortune nevertheless. Stricken with grief over the passing of her mother, she is desperate to make contact, seeking out John as a medium in the process.
There is a something of the Paul McKenna about Gray’s performance – every movement is measured, purposeful, and designed to progress the dialogue, keep us the ruse, and stop Miss A from halting the tricks and gaps in his game. But for the most part, the performance is superficial, offering movement because of direction and not because of natural characterisation.
Francine Morgan directs David Mamet’s The Shawl as part of the Stomping Ground Festival, a Young Director’s training programme set up by StoneCrabs Theatre Company. As the opening production, Morgan has the tricky job of setting the tone and standard for the remainder of the event. Morgan recognises and effectively emulates Mamet’s typical writing style – the rhythmic to and fro between characters, with a razor-sharp edge known as ‘Mamet Speak’.
But Morgan’s dogged pursuit to ensure that this flow is maintained throughout the show is executed to the detriment of character development. Peluso lacks desperation and suspicion; fellow scam artist Charles (Sean James) equally producing a surface level performance. Even the shift in power between the two men towards the end of the show is underwhelming – James lacks an edge, urgency, or menace that should accompany his threats to his beloved. As the central character, Gray sits head and shoulders above the others, a performance that initially comes across disjointed but congeals as he is faced with the dichotomy of helping the vulnerable Miss A or helping the ever-insistent Charles.
Morgan considers production concepts to good effect. Scene changes are met with white noise faintly buzzing the background, an indication of the spirit world that is ever present, but slightly out of reach. The set, whilst simple, sets the formality of the conversation, from contacting Miss A’s departed mother to a lover’s argument. The Shawl delivers a competent directing style, which can be improved through focus on the background, the people behind the lines.
The Shawl played The Albany as part of Stomping Ground Festival on 15 March. For more festival information, see thealbany.org.uk.