Pros: Actors portrayed children effectively; the play dealt with heavy issues subtly.
Cons: Far too long, especially without an interval, especially on those seats.
When I received, along with my press ticket confirmation for The Cement Garden, a cryptic list of instructions of how to get to the venue, I was a bit hesitant. London was on the brink of ‘being held to ransom’ by the Tube strikes, the wind was gale-force; I wasn’t in the mood for wandering the side streets around Waterloo looking for a hidden theatre. But the instructions (also on their website) make complete sense when you get there and the staff at the ticket desk are friendly and helpful.
If you’ve been to the Underbelly at the Edinburgh Fringe, the venue in the tunnels of Waterloo will remind you of it: graffiti tunnels, concrete, wooden crates, corrugated iron. I was pleasantly surprised to find I literally had a seat with my name on it (and yes, I kept the sign). The seating itself required some figuring out but I was eventually able to perch on the cushioned bench, balancing my complimentary drink, programme and notebook on my lap.
The set existed on two levels, which the actors climbed between with surprising agility. The rest of the set was pretty simple–cardboard boxes, sand box, a few beds, and a metal crate–but was used with versatility. Even the trains thundering overhead throughout were explained as the cars from the nearby motorway.
The time period was the late seventies, communicated succinctly by ELO songs as the audience came in, and the costume. The setting: a suburban house belonging to a dysfunctional family who are about to be torn apart by the deaths of both parents. The play dealt with some difficult subjects, such as grief, parenthood and sexuality, with a light touch and laughs throughout.
Besides the set, the production had some other excellent technical elements. The lighting was used effectively to separate the space and change the mood. Pieces of music were used as themes for certain plot elements, and worked well to reinforce moments of both comedy and pathos.
The physicality of this piece was terrific, with the characters leaping between the different set levels, using their bodies to create a sense of childhood and play. The actor playing youngest brother Tom (David Annen) was particularly impressive. He manipulated a puppet that was used to represent the small child. It was easy to buy into the character existing both as the child puppet and the clearly adult actor, and it created some interesting moments between Tom and older brother and narrator, Jack (George Mackay). The story was told in a mixture of dialogue, interspersed with narration from Jack. These narrative interjections made for some poignant moments at the play’s climax between Tom and Jack, though at times felt awkward.. As Jack’s state of mind became increasingly fragile, he retreated into a fantasy world, taking advice from space captain Commander Hunt. These sections were by turns hilarious, and touching.
The main problem with this show was a big one: its length. There was no interval and parts of my body I didn’t know existed were getting pins and needles from about two-thirds of way through. One explanation for the length is that it was a condition of the rights licensing (rumour has it author Ian McEwan himself was in attendance). It’s a real shame, as an interval to refresh ourselves probably would have added another star to this review.
The Cement Garden is a solid production and certainly worth checking out; just bring an extra cushion.
Author: David Aula and Jimmy Osborn (adapted from Ian McEwan novel)
Director: David Aula
Producer: Mat Burt at Heritage Arts Companyy/Fall Out Theatre
Designer: Georgia de Grey
Booking Until: 8th March 2014