Review: Kaspar and the Sea of Houses, Barons Court Theatre

Deep in the basement of the moderately creepy Baron’s Court Theatre, the audience are greeted by classical music which echoes through the uninspiring, beige set. Boxes, files, folders, notebooks, and post-it notes lie scattered across the stage. The design is disarrayed, and not in a well-intentioned manner. I initially do not understand why such a large red telephone is mounted against the back wall. This ill-fittingly absurd set piece is never explained, yet it remains an absolute joke throughout.

If you anticipate a play about the brutal murder of a two-year old child, this is not your show. There is no mention of this case throughout the performance. We follow three social workers, overloaded with cases, who try desperately to gather strength in their helplessness against a sea of everyday brutality.

The major problem with this production is indeed its blandness. An overarching aesthetic or colour scheme could have elevated this performance on a basic visual level. Instead, the soundscapes are uncomfortably loud, coupled with clumsy lighting and stale costume.

Vocal work is poor beyond belief. The mouthy lines are carried with absolutely no control and a total lack of pace. The unison between the three actors is hit and miss. It is extremely difficult to invest in the characters when their voices are grating and they shout with misplaced conviction. Then there’s the matter of poorly executed physicality. The actors’ movements lack purpose as they aimlessly scatter piles of paper around the dull space. There is no rhythm to their movements, their intentions entirely unclear. One feels as if they are watching a school play rather than a professional piece of theatre.

These melodramatic performances are exhausting. There are no distinct relationships between the characters and one must strain to connect with them. This show is static, disjointed and stagnant. Ellie Madden’s muted portrayal of a struggling mother is captivating, albeit ruined by the performances of her co-stars. The actors do not seem to listen to one another, but absently await their next cue only to mince it in tedious speech.

The intricate details of Felicia Zeller’s writing are unfortunately lost in Michael Wade’s unmoving construction. The play itself is the most redeeming aspect of the show; I only wish it was served with better foundations. Three well-written females grow unsympathetic in forceful characterisation which drives them into the realm of amateurish pantomime.

This play is grounded in heavy dialogue, which would infer more structure in physicality and set-design to create a dynamic performance. There are no clear attempts made to facilitate the constant monologues, rather the passages are tiresomely long, with no fluctuations in tone. The text offers huge opportunity for a stylistic approach towards some of the most devastating political issues of our current social climate. Unfortunately, there is no conceivable build as the tension is consistently at a ten. It is hugely ironic that emotional control is a founding theme of this performance.

Portrayals of chronic depression and alcoholism are ultimately unconvincing and frankly, disappointing. Madden’s efforts in her performance thankfully means that motherhood is explored intimately in contrast to the neglectful women the social workers face. The realisations of children slipping through the cracks is crafted elegantly through the writing, only to fail miserably in an unmoving performance. Horrible things happen in this play, but the delicate moments of despair are trampled in disordered delivery.

Kaspar and the Sea of Houses is playing at the Baron’s Court Theatre until the 16th February. For more information and tickets, see the Off Westend Website.