How do you write a review of something that possibly never actually happened? I mean to say, I know I sat in a room while people did things in front of me, but who, what, why, how was never entirely clear and still isn’t even now, some many hours after I initially left feeling disorientated and mildly depressed. When I review a play it always helps to know that it was one (just for peace of mind you see) yet despite the overt metatheatre of James Wilkes’ Atrium, I don’t think I can be certain of anything that went on in Malcolm Kinnear’s study – or head – that night.
My initial question is one that I think Malcolm Kinnear could probably answer if he wasn’t such a self-absorbed, self-indulgent, cruel and bullying nut job. At first, Marcus Emerton’s Malcolm is suitably enigmatic, inviting us to dance for him and play with him so that we unwittingly warm to our host for the evening. Yet before long the eccentric old drunk act stops masking Malcolm’s dark fantasies and delusional behaviour and we watch, horrified, as he humiliates and abuses Paul, the perfectly pleasant ghost writer of his memoirs, along with his maid, his wife, his mind, his audience.
Not that the others are that much nicer truth be told – Malcolm’s wife Pennie may be able to affect a posh accent, but she’s certainly no lady in any possible sense of the word. Even the one shred of goodness in the play, embodied by the Kinnears’ maid Butter (Lucy Farrett), and the hope she holds for her and Paul’s chance of romance and happiness, is pissed upon before it ever has the chance to take hold and thoroughly destroyed by developments at the end of the play.
Yet for all it’s strangeness, Atrium demonstrates many traditional theatrical elements. The slips and shifts in Malcolm’s ravaged mind are accompanied by a simple but effective lighting change, and the more moving sections of dialogue are performed as direct address. While the script itself is not quite perfect it is nevertheless a well constructed and acted black comedy, with moments of perfectly timed comedy and a fine balance between shock value and gratuitousness. Alexander Wright’s songs – and James Wilkes’ hotdog costume for that matter – are pure Moldy Peaches-esque Antifolk: irreverent, singalong tunes, which despite their dark subject matter succeed in bringing a little bit of cheerfulness to an otherwise bleak evening.
The fact is, nothing that the audience sees or hears during the course of Atrium can be trusted and so you end up feeling betrayed and confused. I can’t say it’s a pleasant sensation, but perhaps that doesn’t matter. Maybe it never happened at all.