Adapted from her own book of the same title, Soho Theatre welcomes Sarah Cameron’s The Red Chair into the throng, in all its linguistic richness. A delectable, albeit overlong, flowing monologue, Cameron combines the storytelling tradition and a Grimm Tales-esque mysticism with a surrealist inflection in this funny and subtly tragic theatrical enigma.
Told in Scots dialect as an agonising monologue, Cameron tells the story of a husband and a father who, upon sitting in a red velvet chair, never rises again. There he remains, requesting meal after meal, all cooked and prepared by his poor and unappreciated wife. She slaves away in the kitchen, like a modern day Sisyphus, labouring at the cooker though never sating her husband’s insatiable appetite. Side-lined by her parents is the couple’s “inveesible daughter”, whose solipsism and loneliness is articulated in lamenting diary entries.
The play has a real love for language, Cameron serving up a veritable hotpot of word plays, rhyming couplets and painfully vivid descriptions. The Scots dialect gives it an archaic and folk tale feel, channelling an almost Chaucerian style of storytelling. Cameron’s ability to paint a rich and multi-layered scene with long, winding metaphors and delicious imagery is impressive and contributes to the linguistic mastery of the piece. More impressive still is Cameron’s ability to commit such an extensive script to memory, displayed most strongly in a scene in which she reels off a seemingly never-ending list of the foods which her gluttonous husband consumes.
The production is stripped back and minimalist, finding its heart in its scintillating script rather than in a snazzy set. A single chair stands centre stage, surrounded by a circle of salt. Intense and murky lighting is used, giving the play a physical and figurative darkness to accompany its spritely energy. It would seem that the majority of the budget has been dispensed on the menu of treats given to each audience member as the play went on, including a small cake, dates, chocolate and a drum of whiskey, an affectation which I think all the audience members appreciated.
The Red Chair finds its core strength in the storytelling process, with its idiosyncratic script, meaty monologue and energetic central performance from Cameron. It loses some of its strength in the story itself, occasionally being difficult to follow and a little dry, perhaps compounded by the mostly effective use of Scots dialogue. With no interval and nothing other than a monologue to engage you for two hours, even the majesty of the script cannot stop your mind from occasionally wandering. It is, however, an undeniable achievement and I raise my tumbler of whiskey in hope of its success.
The Red Chair played at Soho Theatre and is currently on tour. For more information, see the Clod Ensemble website.