A Life in Monochrome’s inaugaral scratch performance is the start, the cast assure us, of bigger and better things to come. The programme ambitiously – and not a little pretentiously – declares the newly written play to be a “love letter to the old ‘Noir’ films of the early twentieth century”: it is an attempt to capture the essence of black and white cinematography in the theatre. There is, however, little sense of the ambitious in the actual piece: overladen with cliches, at first glance the play just joins the hordes of other poorly-constructed and -delivered homages. However, the cast’s determination to try to use music to tell the story, not just enhance it, is visionary, and their efforts to capture the spirit of the time and spontaneously jam onstage are very brave.
Although remarkably multi-talented (the cast of five performed on at least a dozen instruments), I would suggest that the preparatory day spent ‘jamming’ was not enough. Rather than creating a tuneful melody that complemented the action, most of the time the ‘music’ was rather a cacophany of noises discordantly played together and working in direct competition with both the dialogue and the actors. On two occasions the music worked as the creators intended it to: firstly in the opening scene where, in conjunction with a great set, good 1920s costumes and well-used lighting, it perfectly captured and conveyed the atmosphere of a smoky speakeasy Chicago jazz club; and secondly, to build up tension as the red-dress wearing Susan Lyons (Claire Sharpe) was chased. This latter scene was partly so effective because the spotlight focused our attention on Sharpe, (in response to a Q&A query, cast and crew should note that music is not distracting in film because, unlike on stage, one cannot see the musicians), and also because the drum beat in sync with her shallow breathing, making us feel that the music was intimately connected to the events going on. The well-timed addition of cello and clarinet helped to build up towards a climax where shouting in unison actually worked – usually this A-level technique should be left in the classroom, but on this occasion I felt real shivers run up the spine. Music’s ability to evoke and create an atmosphere was powerfully manipulated for both these moments, where in others it fell flat or dangerously undermined other theatrical elements.
In a way, the upside of having a Q&A session is also its downside: by discovering what effects were intended, what is not achieved is also starkly highlighted. The supposedly interesting relationship between the two women was never that – partly because all characters seemed only skin deep, and partly because their exposition was so shoddy. Apart from with Detective Bradshaw (Callum Hughes), I never once forgot that an actor was adopting a persona. FAO Jennifer Johnson (Helen): repeatedly rolling your eyes, looking upwards and to your right, and talking to an empty part of the stage (neither engaging in conversation with audience or friend Susan), does not constitute acting. Sharpe actually had some sort of a stage presence, however, forcibly trying every stage trick in the book to appear sultry does not, unfortunately, make you a wanton sex goddess. Less of the posed moves and more apparent enjoyment of being in the limelight would have helped her emanate the confidence and attractiveness she desired.
A huge amount of both character and script development is required to make this a play palatable for any other than the nearest and dearest, and I fear that, as playwrights Callum Hughes and David Shopland are also actor and director, their intimate connection to the piece might prevent them from having the objective distance required. I beg of them: take a chain saw to this piece, hack it to bits, and take only the smallest nuggets from it. Do not build upon existing material and hope the shallow sparks of quality will see it through, but have the courage to transform the sparks into a brand new piece.