Review: Test Bed

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Wrong Tree’s ‘Test Bed’ follows a test subject, who is held in an isolated institute and whose dreams are being experimented on, as he journeys to and returns from the outside world. The play is innovative, seamlessly fusing physical theatre with naturalistic scenes, and unpredictable, featuring one of those twists which you fail to see coming but which makes total sense when you look back at the work as a whole. Writer and Director Cameron Ashplant must be commended for creating a play which is accomplished and ceaselessly engaging.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

‘Test Bed’ is intense and unnerving from the very beginning. As the audience enter, the Dreamer is lying asleep on a bed, with two macabre figures stretched out in front of it and otherworldly music playing. As the play begins, a hand appears from under the bed and a previously unnoticed figure emerges. The ensemble convulses and chokes. The Dreamer (Sean Alcock), has a daily routine in which he whips around the stage, brushing his teeth, munching on grapes and cereal, taking pills, injecting himself and reading. Two members of the ensemble (Iz McGrady and Dorottya Farkas), their faces hauntingly painted with black veins, aggressively mimic this routine, staring into the audience while they crush the grapes in their fingers and snap the toothbrushes. They come right up to and address the front row, giving the definition of asphyxiation. It is simultaneously unsettling and transfixing.

Ashplant has skilfully scattered the play with instances of humour to counteract the darkness.  A highlight of the show is the scene in which Judith (Iz McGrady) accosts the Dreamer as he sits on a bench. McGrady excels in immediately establishing an eccentric and distinctive character. Judith, gushing and gregarious, gives the Dreamer a butterscotch, an item which he has never seen before. McGrady’s facial expressions as the Dreamer scrutinizes how she unwraps her sweet are priceless. Another delightful and amusing moment comes shortly after. The Dreamer meets Maisie (Abbie Priestley), who asks his name: unable to think of an alternative, he attributes to himself the only one he has recently heard and proclaims, much to her bewilderment, that he is called ‘Judith’. It is these changes of mood, these fluctuations between the eerie and the humorous, that make ‘Test Bed’ such a consistently gripping watch.

‘Test Bed’ evidently has a talented production team who pay great attention to detail. The sound effects, designed by Fergus Carver, are always perfectly timed and enhance the play: the ticking of a clock creates a claustrophobic, unsettling ambience; elsewhere, the sound of crying babies and wailing sirens evokes the hustle and bustle of the city. Nico Wood-Olivan’s original music is hugely atmospheric. The costumes have been carefully considered: at first, the decision to have the eerie ensemble which haunts Test Subject 1386 wearing black and 1386 himself wearing white seems like an obvious choice, but his pristine and pure white costume becomes haunting itself in light of the play’s twist. Francesca Haydon White, the play’s physical theatre director, must be praised for choreographing routines which are memorable and arresting. Some sequences are frenetic; others are lyrical. Whatever the tone, the routines are slick. The actors are often back to back, mirroring each other, a feat which is challenging, but which the actors nevertheless accomplish. The only part of the production’s design which I would question is the fact that the lead tells Maisie definitively that ‘There aren’t any benches around here’ when a bench is clearly visible on stage. This is jarring.

Sean Alcock gives a laudable performance as the Dreamer (a.k.a. Test Subject 1386), deftly creating a character who is partly terrified, partly terrifying. He is compulsively watchable and succeeds in making his lines sound authentic and spontaneous. Abbie Priestley, playing Maisie, captures the awkwardness in her initial meeting with the Dreamer very well and her reactions are just as compelling as her speeches, especially when she watches the Dreamer gulping pot noodles. The four members of the ensemble (Eleanor Storey, Charlotte Hartley, Dorottya Farkas and Iz McGrady) are endlessly expressive both physically and facially.

It is clear that a huge amount of effort has gone into ‘Test Bed’ and it certainly pays off. Thrilling, polished and unique, this is not a production you want to miss.

Test Bed is on at Vane Tempest, DSU, 20-21 June at 7:30pm.

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