I think it’s fair to say that most of us, at some point in our lives, have uttered the words “It’s not what you said, it’s how you said it”. We often reckon that tone and context have more of an impact that the actual words that are said to us, but just how true is that really? Back Talk Theatre seek to test this hypothesis in Refract, written by Kate Reid. They seek to examine the power dynamics in modern relationships, and whether it truly is the words we say that matters, or whether it’s really how we say them that counts.
The show begins with three cast members alternating playing two characters. Alex and Sam are a young, middle class couple. They have just returned from a party at Alex’s workplace, at which Sam felt out of place and ignored. They argue a bit, drink wine, contemplate having a child, and then go to bed. Sounds simple enough, but the scene is repeated three times, the actors playing Alex or Sam rotating each time. Scene one sees Reid as lawyer with an attitude problem Alex and Marco Young as sensitive, “housewife” Sam. Scene two features Reid as Sam and Charlotte Wyatt as Alex, and scene three has Wyatt as Sam, and Young as Alex.
Reid’s concept is undeniably interesting. Exploring if there’s any truth in the idea that certain things can be said in less offensive ways is obviously intriguing, but is the stage the right place to explore this? I’m not so sure. After scene two begins and it becomes clear that we’re going to go through the exact same lines, same jokes, same everything, three times, a little wave of “oh god, no” washes over me. Surprisingly it isn’t unbearable, and the way in which the same lines are spoken in different ways does indeed make an impact. However, the whole thing could benefit from a vaguer script with less specificities. Hearing the same punchline about something in the fridge being there since “the first Bush administration” (which was in 1989, and therefore seems like a bit of a weird, niche, outdated gag) three times definitely wears me down. The same goes for a probably well-meaning but distasteful conversation between the pair about a “homeless woman” they regularly encounter, which I feel would be better off being entirely left out. It’s slightly nauseating to hear the couple bickering over whether or not to give money to the homeless, then almost immediately after bickering over whether to have the Bordeaux in the proper red wine glasses or not — #firstworldproblems and all that.
Wyatt gives the most nuanced performances of the three of them, with Young and Reid playing Alex and Sam as the villain and hero respectively. Wyatt’s Alex is softer, less obviously awful than the others, and while what she says is actually the same horrible nonsense, it’s cloaked in a playfulness that makes it harder to detect. Something that is underexplored, and of more interest to me than perhaps any other aspect of the play, is the role gender plays in all this. Reid’s Alex, to me, is a bit of a busybody, controlling, but underpinned with love and therefore nothing a serious chat couldn’t sort out. Wyatt’s Alex is cheeky, a tad rude, but again salvageable. Young’s Alex is the only one who seems deeply disrespectful and properly threatening. Perhaps this is down to Wyatt playing opposite him as the meekest Sam of the lot, or perhaps it’s due to the fact that Young’s is the only male Alex, and therefore, rightly or wrongly, the power seems to shift dramatically, and with it the possibility of real danger.
While Reid’s play seeks to ask, and definitely answers, some interesting philosophical questions, I’m not sure this anthropological study is best suited to the medium of the stage where attentions can so easily wander.
Refract played at the King’s Head Theatre until 5 August. For more information, visit the King’s Head Theatre website.