BWW Review: [BLANK], Donmar Warehouse
Alice Birch's [BLANK] comprises 100 scenes, any number of which can be selected and performed in any order - it's all in the hands of the creative team. For Maria Aberg's production at The Donmar Warehouse, an all-female company has been cast and 22 of the scenes have been pulled together. The common thread between all of the scenes is the experience of women in the criminal justice system, whether they work for it, are in prison themselves, or are victims of crime.
It's important to point out that there are no names provided (or genders specified) for any of the scenes, allowing total freedom for companies who choose to perform this material; it shows the versatility of the writing and how it can be applied to a range of situations, slightly changing meaning depending on the characters' names and genders. This all-female production ensures that a female voice is well and truly heard.
As well as it not imposing particular ethnic or class stereotypes on each character, the fact that the actors use their own names suggests that this could happen to anyone - whilst also shifting the emphasis back onto the content of the scenes. Some scenes, though not performed consecutively, appear to have been linked to form slightly longer plots; this is great for delving further into the stories, however with everyone keeping the same name and not changing costumes you are left wondering for a while if they're the same person or not.
A little ambiguity is fine, though for anyone without a playtext or a programme things could be made a little clearer from the outset - especially as it runs straight through, without an interval, for just under two hours.
Scene 100 ("Dinner Party") is a great little play of its own, steadily moving from a comedy drama about some middle-class friends meeting for a catch-up (and being introduced to one of the group's new girlfriend) into more and more serious territory; #MeToo is mentioned, as is the effect of abuse in childhood on a person's actions in later life. The characters develop throughout the scene, there is a surprising twist, and it's quite challenging to watch at some points.
Either this scene or the one that follows (20 - "Smash") feel like natural endings, as they seem to be making quite clear statements and are quite shocking in nature. The subsequent scenes lose a bit of oomph following that, and the final scene is maybe a bit too subtle to close with.
Rosie Elnile's design makes excellent use of the Donmar performance space. The two levels work well as both different areas of a prison, and the upstairs and downstairs of a house - the latter is particularly good at showing the natural progression for scenes that have been linked together, such as opening with 57 (two friends in the kitchen making dinner) and later 52 (one of the two friends sat upstairs with her daughter, waiting for her partner to get back).
The use of video projection (Heta Multanen) onto the set is at its best when the scenes are set in the prison environment, as it's very suggestive of the constant surveillance everyone would be under. Otherwise, it's maybe a little over-used and doesn't seem to have quite the sense of purpose that it does in these scenes.
Jackie Clune is fantastic - particularly in the more comedic roles, such as the documentary director in 76 ("M4") - and Ashna Rabheru gives an hilarious, if brief, turn as a Deliveroo employee in 100. Shona Babayemi is also brilliant in that scene, playing the new girlfriend - she quietly and politely observes, trying to join in when she can, but can't help but let her frustrations bubble over in the face of hypocrisy.
Kate O'Flynn stands out across the board; she has excellent comic timing, which brightens scenes when they most need it, and is capable of really digging into the emotional heart of a scene - even when called upon to be thoroughly unpleasant, there's a vulnerability behind it that sets her apart.
[BLANK] is an intriguing and intense two hours; the 'create your own adventure' nature of the creative process helps it to really stand out from the crowd, and on the whole serves to bring something very watchable to the stage. Though aspects of it could be made a little clearer, it's definitely food for thought - and a concept to watch out for in the future.
Picture credit: Helen Maybanks