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Stacked! (Susan Elkin reviews)

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The Marlowe’s third annual community play is hugely ambitious. There are 150 people in the cast from primary school children to retirees. Some of the technical effects are spectacular, the action uses the auditorium as well as the stage and there’s a rather good four-piece band.

The plot, assembled by director Andy Dawson, uses contributions from half a dozen local script writers and is about Canterbury, its history and current concerns. Rooted in The Canterbury Tales – that is both the pub opposite the theatre and Chaucer’s masterpiece – we are also led to think a lot about asylum seekers, traffic jams caused by Operation Stack and about World War Two bombing among other things.

Strengths include a fabulous and enormous puppeted dragon in full fearsome colour. Then there’s a delightful camel which owes quite a lot to Handspring and War Horse. The set (good work from Rachael A Smith), which creates a constantly expanding refugee camp stretching as far as the eye can see using parallel gauze drops with tents painted on, is as effective as it is simple. Strong performances include Alda Daci as Maryam, the immigrant barmaid who tells a moving tale about her background. Ardit Daci has real stage presence as Guled and Ryan Hill impresses as the well observed, rough but oh-so-familiar street voice of anti-immigration. Peter Smith as Mahat plays well off Ardit Daci and Oliver Dawson scores as the man struggling with a stomach upset – funny but he certainly makes sure you feel his grief. Hannah Farley-Hills’s entertaining number as the predatory widow who has seen off four husbands is a delicious set piece. The piece also features some pretty moving moments.

On the other hand there are problems. The show is far too long. It really doesn’t justify almost three hours. I’ve seem shorter King Lears. And the first half runs for 1 hour 45 minutes – what Charles Spencer, former lead critic at The Daily Telegraph, used to call a bladder buster. It’s conceived as a fairly episodic piece, of course, but actually it’s disjointed in places because it’s so fragmentary. For the first half hour it isn’t clear what is happening or why.

This is the first time the Marlowe has staged its community play in the main house and it isn’t a good idea. Obviously you need a big space to accommodate such a large number of performers but few of them are up to reaching into the space with their voices. Audibility is a big issue particularly when younger actors are positioned upstage and their words, typically spoken too fast or pitched too high, simply disappear into the flies. And why put music under most of the dialogue which means that the actors, already struggling, have to compete and usually lose? The size of the space also means that it takes a relatively long time to get different groups on an off and that slows the pace of the piece even more. The Studio might have been a better choice although it would probably have necessitated a smaller ensemble.

There’s an old adage that you should never turn your back to the audience while you’re speaking. Professionals cheerfully ignore this because they know how to compensate and still reach the back row audibly. Untrained amateurs are put in an impossible position (literally) if they’re deliberately directed to face away from the audience. The long scene with actors in the front row of the theatre facing the stage, as motorists in the traffic jam, is disastrous. From row L hardly a word of it is audible.

Originally published by Sardineshttp://www.sardinesmagazine.co.uk/reviews/review.php?REVIEW-Marlowe%20Theatre%20(professional)-Stacked!&reviewsID=2482

 

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Susan Elkin
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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