The House Project is a poignant piece of theatre about a house, a family, and the way that the two are intertwined. The audience are divided into groups upon arrival and then move from room to room of the four-storey house, witnessing different scenes from the life of a middle-class family who have, as the story goes, occupied the house for nearly 40 years.
The central theme is loss: the house is now for sale, there have been deaths in the family and Katherine, mother and grandmother, is moving into an old people’s home. Thus the transience and impermanence of life are emphasised as we bear witness to memories surfacing and resurfacing. One of the most effective and affecting scenes is Katherine sifting through possessions as she prepares to leave the house where she has raised her family and spent most of her adult life. There are letters from grandchildren, photographs and a copy of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. “Ridiculous the waste sad time”, Katherine reads aloud, an appropriate motto for this play.
Eliot and modernism are helpful reference points here given the way that the audience experiences the play in fragments, meaning that they themselves must play a greater role in the construction of the narrative than in more traditional theatre. The audience’s role is consequently less passive than is usually the case, with any solid barrier between actors and audience becoming a little blurred.
The play also attempts to move beyond the concerns of one bourgeois family and become of universal interest by referencing Mass Observation studies and the house’s previous inhabitants. In this way the house itself can be said to be the principal character, outlasting the lives and concerns of its occupants. There is a curious and touching sense of repetition, created by the actors playing out their scenes several times during the hour, so that Matthew, the son, seems as if he will forever be shouting ‘I’m going out’ to his mother, before leaving late at night to his death by car accident at the age of 22.
This is a thoroughly well-constructed piece of theatre. The exciting possibilities for asking questions about how we form the narrative of our own lives, opened up by the ingenious setting of the performance, are hinted at but not explored to their fullest extent. Instead the play chooses to focus primarily upon the memories that a house holds and the consequences of living in an age in which cherished possessions can have both a value and a price.
The House Project is playing at the Brighton Fringe until 25 May. For more information see the Brighton Fringe website.