The Liverpool Fringe Festival is a chance for writers, directors and actors – both old and new – to come together to create some work that is everything from laugh-a-minute, to hard-hitting and emotional. It gives companies a chance to see how their new writing fares in the public eye, as well giving a first-time writer the chance to dip their toes wearily into the murky world of fringe theatre. So with that, we look at Last Appointment, a show developed by John Mc and formed through first-hand encounters of survivors of familial childhood abuse and other horrifying crimes in the same vein.
So, without insulting the victims and families of those affected, does Last Appointment serve as a ghastly look into the world that abuse victims have to live within… Or does it need refining to be able to deliver the hard-hitting punch to the gut the unaffected public so deserve in being thrown face to face with these shocking subjects?
The Casa is one of the medium-sized spaces in terms of performance space for the Fringe this year, but it proves to be too big at times for the duo of Damien Rowe and Mairi-Claire Kennedy. The stage itself is set to one side of the audience and given the amount of space on the opposing side of the room, the action feels somewhat hemmed in and one-dimensional at points. Sadly, this theme continues throughout the action, as the boiling point a show like this promises never really gets past tepid.
Now, forgive me for being too honest so early on, but I hate to dance around the issues at hand with a piece of theatre that has such potential, especially with such a subject that has the impact to be so powerful. So, as the old adage goes: ‘on with the show.’
The piece of writing itself has legs, that’s for sure. A piece with this much tragedy is almost impossible to not give any nod of potential to. Sadly, as is so often the case with fringe theatre at the minute, the writing is very much ‘tell, not show.’ What I mean by this is as follows: the best thing to feel as an audience member, is to be drip-fed information and be trusted to be given just enough of a clue so as to be able to piece the information together themselves and not be told what the twist/mystery/pivotal information is. This keeps the audience salivating for more and wanting to be able to figure out the plot for themselves. Last Appointment though, does not do this in the writing. It is too quick to pull the different pieces of information together and present it to the audience in a shiny gift-wrapped bow for the audience to admire. In other words, the audience are told what and how the piece should be put together, and don’t become invested in the piece as a result. This takes away from the atmosphere that the script and everyone involved in the production are working so hard to create.
Moreover, one other subject that threw me a little bit, was the lack of knowledge in terms of the professionalism of the therapist known as Stuart (Damien Rowe). Alice (Kennedy) divulges some seriously traumatic past information to Stuart, and rather than dealing with the issue, the character tries to palm her off with a new therapist! Now yes, I know this is a piece of theatre and so there is a certain degree of dramatic license involved in order to raise the stakes. However, this simply doesn’t do that and only highlights either the lack of foresight or the lack of research into dealing with traumatic experience. Something with which almost an entire page of the programme is used to suggest this piece is trying to do.
Carrying on from this a topic mentioned above, the second line of defence in the guard against the evil ‘tell, not show,’ is the directing. Unfortunately for Zara Marie Brown, she allows this to slip through her fingers and not give it the attention to detail it deserved. More creativity in the directing and rehearsal process would have allowed for a sidestep to the parry of ‘tell, not show’ punches that the script throws Brown’s way. I’ve seen Brown direct before, and it was inventive and creative in the way she brought a show to life, so to see the directing seem so lacklustre and laboured was quite the shock. What really surprised me about the directing were two things:
- The transitions. Now, the script in the way that it is written does not stand out as pushing for huge, flashy transitions… HOWEVER, ending each scene with Kennedy walking off stage, the lights going down, a clock ticking, and then walking back in again 10 seconds later as the lights come back up is nothing other than either laziness or sheer lack of creativity. Now having seen Brown direct before, I am in no way siding with the latter. But that worryingly leaves me with the former. And I don’t know if that is worse or not.
- There were glimpses and sparks of creativity in this piece, and they came when the room was plunged into a deep and foreboding red light and Mairi-Claire Kennedy gave a haunting retelling of her childhood, which was brought to life by Rowe. Unfortunately though, these retellings occurred a number of times without the haunting action and without the sense of danger. They were simply being told to us by Kennedy sat in a chair. Another prime example of ‘tell, not show.’ Now, these moments of creativity did happen, so I’m inclined to believe that they are possible throughout the other moments of going into Alice’s (Kennedy’s) memories. So I was racking my brain when they didn’t even happen at other moments in the piece?
Finally, we move on to the acting. Now, what I will say at this point is given what I have touched on above, I think the two actors involved in this piece did what they could to create the work they did. Alas, we must continue. Mairi-Claire Kennedy portrayed Alice; the mother with a backstory that could cause even the most hardened of war heroes to wince. For the most part, she played the character extremely honestly, and had one hell of a job trying to fit all of that grief and anguish into a piece that doesn’t have much wiggle room in terms of expression. However Kennedy does give this a go and it is apparent that she is invested in the character herself. What does come across as well though, is that maybe Kennedy is pushing that little bit too hard and loses the battle of presenting the grief and anger of the character without using it so much that it becomes the default emotion for Alice in every scene. In other words, there doesn’t seem to be a journey for her character’s emotions for the audience to witness. She seems to be at the peak of her emotions within the first scene, and it is incredibly hard to keep an audience engaged in that emotion when you don’t budge from it throughout the show.
Damien Rowe has arguably one of the hardest jobs in this production, he plays the ‘straight-support guy.’ In that there apparently isn’t much to his character and just seems to be an echo chamber for Alice to tell the story of her heart-breaking memories through. So I feel that gives him a hard task in trying to find a way to build a character around what is the aforementioned throughout the majority of the play. In that regard, I think Rowe does a good job. He brings a soft, calming presence to the stage that contrasts nicely with Kennedy’s volatile Alice. He works around the action with a subtlety that is sometimes often lacking in fringe theatre. This contrasts the character of Alice delightfully, although I would have loved to have seen more of this. I do however, understand that being a therapist, the talking stems from Alice and thus leaves Stuart with not very much to do. When called upon though, he does a job eloquently and at no point did I feel Rowe push too hard in presenting the audience with his side of the story.
Overall, this story, does have the potential… to have potential. But from what I saw of its current incarnation, it didn’t come close to bringing the right kind of attention to the issues in which it tries to address. To approach an issue that is so sensitive and to cover the turmoil that it tries to address, the attention to detail in every aspect of this production needs to up its game. From the writing, to the directing, to the acting and the technical side of it, too. Simply put, if it is to have another run out, it needs to go back into the rehearsal room with a fresh perspective from the outset to inject new life into it, and give it the push it needs to reach the rewarding heights of highlighting the insidious stories it is trying so desperately hard to shine a light upon.
Theatrevolt rating: 1.5/5