We enter the old, disused Victorian house and our photos are taken by the door while Always Look on the Bright Side of Life is playing in the background, juxtaposing with the almost depressing aesthetic of the building. Before the show starts we are allowed to roam freely in the house, exploring the different rooms. A girl’s bedroom is decorated with funeral selfies while Bridget Jones plays on an old TV in the background. Further along is a small, eerie room featuring photos of teeth and UV lit bottles and boxes and pills with labels on them saying ‘touch me’, ‘feel me’ and ‘bite me’, and then there is an almost friendly living room, with a charismatic young man keeping light conversation with the arriving spectators. This is how Ransack Theatre’s Enveloped in Velvet starts, one of Basic Space Festival’s site-sensitive plays. It is easy and effortless, and before you know it, the narrative has started already; you are invested, intrigued and pulled in.
The play consists of a series of monologues from four different characters. The absence of dialogue allows the actors to interact with the audience instead of with each other. The often confessional speeches are quite intimate, and the small house offers an atmosphere that heightens this sense of privacy. It works wonderfully; the audience relentlessly follows the narrative, and even though we always have the option to walk away and enter a different room, both the characters and the plot are so captivating we never do so. The interwoven monologues leave no time for a pause, though the next piece of the story usually comes from a different room, which creates an exciting distance and new quality of sound that changes as we catch up with the characters.
Piers Black-Hawkins, who was recently shortlisted for the BBC Alfred Bradley Bursary Award, has written a play that handles the theme of grief with both poetic gentleness and raw familiarity. His characters are believable and easily relatable, yet in no way unremarkable. Cat Robey directs this text with a precise sensibility to spatial relations and intimacy; the audience never feels in the way or unwanted. The performers interact with the spectators with great skill, never shying away from looking people in the eye or building in the occasional responses they receive into their monologues. It is a very well cast play and even though they never interact with each other, they move as an ensemble to the same rhythm. They keep the play’s reality firmly in place, aided by Irene Jade’s design which is both uncomfortable and aesthetically pleasing, and so maintains that the audience is constantly and fully submerged in the performance. Even when we are all gathered in the last room around the coffin, and the last sentence has been said, we don’t clap, just leave the house and allow the haunting experience to sink in.
Enveloped in Velvet is a unique theatre experience that is definitely worth going to Peckham for. It is certainly one of the best things I have seen in an old, disused Victorian house.
Enveloped in Velvet is playing at the Basic Space Festival until 21 February and at the Arts Theatre from 1-6 March. For more information and tickets, see www.basicspace.org.uk