By Simon Fearn
There was a palpable air of tension in The Assembly Rooms Theatre as audience members settled down to Hidden, a play teasingly shrouded in mystery. This production is the second from new theatre company Battered Soul Theatre, which specialises in 21st Century plays. After the success of Cock last term, expectations were high. Thankfully, Hidden proved to be mesmerising, and a breath of fresh air for Durham theatre.
The production played out as a compelling mix of stand-up character comedy, confessional monologues, hilarious sketches and naturalistic two-handers. The six roles were played by just two actors, and as soon as the show began you understood the need for keeping the cast secret, which is why this review will not reveal who was involved, referring simply to Male and Female Actor.
Both performers were for the most part impeccable, and Female Actor in particular showed a command of a large variety of voices and accents. Multi-roling was never going to be easy, but they both managed to utterly transform themselves with a few costume changes. Male Actor had the audience in stitches as James, hilariously turning a momentary encounter on the train into a grand romance. He was equally effective as Gareth, naturalistically playing a troubled and socially awkward twenty-something. Female Actor was endearing as both Claire, a libidinous Scottish cashier, and Cara, an overweight employee struggling to shed the pounds.
Of course, there were roles they were more suited to than others. I was not immediately won over by Female Actor as Nina, whose opening monologue did not quite attain the same levels of naturalism as some of the other scenes. She did not immediately convey enough of her character’s personality to make you really care about her. Similarly, Male Actor was captivating as Colin, a man struggling with disturbing impulses, yet his low-key performance in the final scene was not entirely in keeping with his earlier characterisation.
These, however, are only minor criticisms. It is no mean feat to command the Assembly Rooms stage on your own, but it seemed like second nature to both of these performers. Not only were they both adept at switching between characters, but they deepened and expanded their characterisation as the play continued. Some of the roles risked become a little one-note at times, particularly Claire, yet a sudden revelation about their lives would force the audience to see them in a new light. The sparkling comedy was complicated and problematized; the fabulous one-liners always gave way to something darker.
Director Alex Prescot succeeded in overcoming most of the obvious difficulties in staging a play like this. The set was minimalistic but effective, conveying with a few pieces of furniture the supermarket, office and dining room which feature in the play. Some of the blackouts between the costume changes were a little bit clunky and disrupted the flow of the play, but it was difficult to see how this could have been avoided. The blocking was simple but effective—for the most part the characters stood centre stage in conversation with the audience, as if they had chosen to confide their fears and anxieties to us in particular.
Both the actors and their director know that this is a clever play, and it is clear that they have all enjoyed weaving the web that connects the six seemingly disparate people. The lasting impression, however, was of naturalistic characters that a more traditional production would not have been able to reveal in such intimate detail. Some roles were definitely more successful than others, my personal favourites being Gareth and Cara, but there was not a badly-constructed character in sight. Prescot and his actors should be very proud of pulling off this odd but engaging play, and count it as another triumph in the so-far faultless career of Battered Soul Theatre.
Photograph: Leying Lee