BWW Review: STRIPPED, King's Head Theatre
According to their website, "Bitter Pill believes the only way to tackle any subject is to first entertain in order to engage. Our work with never seek to lecture unless it has first made people laugh." They've certainly achieved their objective with their latest effort, Stripped. Written by Hew Rous-Eyre and directed by his co-founder Max Elton, we are offered a fresh perspective on an important and timely issue.
Ollie (Charles Reston) has offered to pose nude for artist Lola (Antonia Kinlay). Cue many laugh-out-loud moments as Ollie awkwardly goes about undressing and, once fully nude, recoils as Lola switches on a portable heater.
But Lola isn't just interested in drawing Ollie. In fact, her intentions are to draw things out for him in black and white. As we learn that the two actually know one another, dark events from a drunken sexual encounter in their past are revealed to us but with two contrasting perspectives - two very different pictures are painted.
We open to find Ollie standing nervously across from a seemingly more confident Lola, in a small art studio. As detailed and realistic as Filipe Miranda's brilliant set is, our eyes are of course drawn to these two as they radiate nervous energy. This level of immediacy prevails throughout, with the tempo shifting up and down and the initial lighter moments soon darkening.
From capturing the early apprehension of Ollie and his nervous verbal ramblings in response to Lola's to-the-point instructions, to the final showdown where he allows wonderful moments of silence to do all the talking, Rous-Eyre demonstrates masterful naturalistic dialogue. The script is brutally honest, as it should be, but there are also instances of character-driven humour that make for a good laugh.
A strong script needs strong actors, and Reston and Kinlay more than step up to the plate with the two complementing one another on stage very well.
Reston succeeds in portraying the nice, charming guy. He projects the nerves of someone undressing in front of another with the slight tremble of his hand and the avoidance of eye contact. His awkwardness at folding away even his underwear and adopting each pose is quite endearing.
When the truth is revealed, we of course look at this character in a different way, yet still the emotions he experiences - ranging from anger and frustration to quiet panic and guilt - prevent Ollie from ever morphing into the two-dimensional villain of the piece. It's a multi-layered and engaging performance.
Kinlay, just as her character does, commands the stage throughout. She starts with confident control. This is her space and she uses it, circling Ollie like a shark without ever getting too close. Even during her quirky putdowns and pithy remarks, though, Kinlay manages to display an air of unease. Her subtle facial expressions and mannerisms speak volumes.
As Lola's anger builds, Kinlay opts to stick largely with these subtleties. The result is a carefully constructed, highly believable and poignant performance which lingers in the mind as you exit the theatre.
What is also of note is that both characters are afforded equal time to fight their own corner. It's refreshing not to cast sole focus on the victim, but to actually concentrate on the perpetrator as well, and bringing them together in such an intimate setting with all on show and nowhere to hide makes it all the more enthralling to watch.
It's more than apparent that writer and director are very much on the same page here. Elton directs sensitively, knowing when silence should be allowed to prevail and extracting such a vast array of emotions from his actors whilst avoiding anything remotely near the realms of stereotype or cliché. It deserves a bigger stage, not least because of the topic the play explores, but also because of the sheer quality exhibited in all aspects of the production.
What makes the play work is the lack of melodrama. There could have been loud, angry arguments with the smashing of furniture to convey the upset, fear, panic and humiliation that our characters feel, but sometimes a whisper can be louder than a scream. Stripped stimulates our thoughts and opens up a discussion - surely two of the main reasons we choose to go to the theatre.
Photo credit: Christopher Tribble