Theatre: An adventure in parallel universes

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The Independent Culture
MAINSTREAM

MACROBERT ARTS CENTRE

STIRLING

WE'VE ALL played the what-if game, tracing chains of cause and effect in our own or others' lives, speculating on the different turn events might have taken had so-and-so done this, or not said that. Suspect Culture's newly devised production, developed in association with London's Bush Theatre, enlists such imaginings as the basis for its minutely focused exploration of human interaction. It takes a single scenario - two strangers meeting by appointment in a seaside hotel - and runs permutations of its possible constituents and outcomes. With four actors - two male, two female - alternately playing either character, the encounter is variously enacted between a man and a woman, two men, or two women; also as it might have transpired depending on what is or isn't said and done.

According to the extensive programme notes, one of the company's aims was to investigate the nature of performance, and the relationship of performer and audience, in both a dramatic and an everyday context. The overlap between the dramatic and the everyday is, in fact, the piece's primary conceptual milieu, on the basis that virtually everything we do or say, before an audience even of one, contains at least an element of performance. The physical and temporal artifice inherent in theatrical production is elegantly highlighted. You see this in Ian Scott's design, a square platform set out with minimal emblematic props denoting four locations within the hotel (bar, bedroom, breakfast-room, etc).

Direction-wise, too, Graham Eatough has his cast share a lexicon of half-a-dozen or so key gestures or displacement activities, replicated throughout the jigsaw of short, interchanging pas de deux - in front of and behind said screens - used to suggest the multifarious paths potentially leading the characters to and from their rendezvous. Within these formal parameters, aurally augmented by Nick Powell's collage of sounds and original music, the writing and performance styles employ contrasting elements of naturalism. Of course, the whole set-up is designed to question that very notion.

The waters are further muddied by a deliberate ambiguity as to whether events or conversations are really taking place or not.

The problem, as so often with this style of collaborative work, lies in bringing it to viable dramatic life.Mainstream's methodology shares some ground with Forced Entertainment's recent work. The Sheffield ensemble, however, negotiates its theoretical terrain by making us believe, even momentarily, in the characters and emotions they conjure. Other than fleetingly, Suspect Culture's production fails to muster that precision- honed intensity of execution. Ultimately, it comes across as perhaps a little too self-absorbed for its own good.

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