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A Lady of Substance, Tristan Bates Theatre

Jon Cooper
Directed by Samantha German
★★★
Pros: Fantastic performances, great performance venue and good to see daring pieces of writing being aired.
Cons: The script is rather indulgent and it’s a bit too long. 
Our Verdict: A very good production of a script that needs a bit more work.
Courtesy of Sheer Drop Theatre Company

Over the last few months we’ve started to properly branch out into the world of fringe theatre. As a result we’ve discovered some absolute gems, and it’s certainly clear to me that some of the most exciting work is hiding in these darker corners of the theatre scene. Our latest discovery is the Tristan Bates Theatre in the heart of Covent Garden. Part of the Actors Centre, which does terrific work promoting young and up-and-coming writers and performers, the Tristan Bates proudly boasts to be a ‘key lifeline for all theatre artists seeking a space and an organisation dedicated to the promotion of new writing’. These sorts of venues are so important to the theatrical landscape; they are the places in which sparks are allowed to turn into flames, and we will certainly be keeping an eye on their future productions.

The Tristan Bates’ current productions are two shows from Sheer Drop Theatre, namely The Death of Norman Tortilla by Charlotte Coates and A Lady of Substance by Jon Cooper. The former is reviewed separately here, and the latter is a 90 minute piece involving just two characters: Cassandra, a middle-aged alcoholic in a downward spiral, and Jasmine, a sixteen year old who has run away from home. They meet with Jasmine breaks into Cassandra’s home, and they end up spending the night taking drugs, drinking, talking and writing about their respective lives. 
Jon Cooper’s script is poetic and in many ways very beautiful, and throughout the performance the focus is heavily on this language (from Hip Hop to Blake!). It is certainly an impressive piece of writing, but it was not without its faults. The most basic problem is that it is too long; the same effect could have been achieved in 70 minutes. The length makes it reasonably hard to stay engaged throughout (despite some fantastic performances), and towards the end in particular I found my thoughts starting to drift. The deeper issue is that, like many pieces of this nature, it is rather indulgent. It’s a huge outpouring of emotions, tackling some very big issues; substance abuse, suicide, depression – as you can imagine it is quite heavy stuff. The result of this combination of it being too long and rather heavy is that the messages get diluted, and by the end of it it’s hard to tell what Cooper is trying to get across to his audience. 
That being said, the production is kept alive by some wonderful performances. Joyce Greenaway is excellent as the depressed Cassandra, and you really do feel her pain in places. It’s an exhausting performance for an actor, and she handles it well. However, the star of the show for me was Tia Bannon, who delivers an outrageously good performance as Jasmine. It’s full of energy, and she hits a note which allows the character to be exaggerated but believable simultaneously. From start to finish she was thoroughly engaging, and she will be one to watch in the future no doubt. 
So where does that leave us? It’s a good show, with great performances. It’s a super little venue, it’s worth a visit, and I would always encourage people to check out new writing, regardless of the risks. However Cooper’s script needs a bit of work – despite its impressive use of language, it needs to be shorter and a little punchier to make the messages about modern day life in Britain a bit clearer. That being said I would genuinely recommend it, especially if you are a fan of quite serious and hard-hitting work like this.
Please feel free to leave your thoughts and comments in the section below!
A Lady of Substance runs at the Tristan Bates Theatre until 14th April 2012.
Box Office: 020 7240 6283 or book online at http://www.tristanbatestheatre.co.uk/

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Founded in 2011, Everything Theatre started life as a pokey blog run by two theatre enthusiasts and – thanks to the Entry Pass Scheme for 16-25 year olds – regular National Theatre goers. Today, we are run by part-time volunteers from a wide array of backgrounds. Among our various contributors are people who work in theatre, but also people who work in law, medicine, events, marketing and even psychiatry! We are all united by our love for the London theatre scene.