Pros: Great performances in a character-driven play that touches on important social issues.
Cons: Minimalist writing, lots of pauses and a slow build to the climax can audience cause attention to drift.
Brenda and Robert are down on their luck. They live in a dingy little apartment, Brenda’s unemployed and Robert’s security guard job isn’t enough to give them the quality of life they seek. They’re about to speak at the local Community Action Group open meeting in the hope that someone there will be able to help them find work, a place to live, anything. They’ve arrived early to practice what they’re going to say, but the trouble is that Brenda believes she’s not a person. She’s more of a liquid.
As Robert struggles with his patience and Brenda plays a jolly game of pretend in order to keep up appearances, the play becomes a study of social issues. Deteriorating social services, a struggle for quality of life for the working class and coping with mental health issues are all exposed here. Unfortunately for the play, not much else is done dig deeper into this subject matter. Instead it focuses on Brenda and Robert’s deteriorating relationship at that moment, selling these issues short. The sparse language similarly prevents in-depth character development, but the tension between the two actors is wonderfully palpable, keeping the audience in the moment. This is a quiet play that demands much attention and focus from its audience. There are moments of outstanding writing and very flawed, human characters we can all relate to at different points.
Alison O’Donnell and Jack Tarlton do a great job in playing characters Brenda and Robert. There isn’t much romantic chemistry there, but it’s understandable given that Brenda doesn’t believe she’s a person. How can a person and non-person love each other? Robert is at breaking point with Brenda and is reduced to manipulation. Brenda, as she isn’t a person, has no cares in the world at all. After all, what can affect you if you don’t really exist? Tarlton’s a tightly wound spring for much of the play, O’Donnell is a bit nervous, and then carefree. It creates excellent tension and conflict between the two, and helps compensate for the lack of dialogue. Their work is the best thing in this production.
The main disadvantage faced by this production is that E V Crowe’s script is so minimalist that it feels underdeveloped. The bigger-than-Pinter pauses foster Brenda and Robert’s frustrations, but they often feel too long. I want to know more about them, their lives and how Brenda got to this point in her life. She clearly suffers from depression, delusion or other illnesses, but was it brought on by her life circumstances, her relationships, or something else? It’s never revealed. Robert’s own gradual transition from optimism to despair gives the story a narrative arc, but it still feels skeletal.
Brenda, though with a feel of a work in progress, is still a highly developed piece of theatre. The concept is original with a potentially important piece of social commentary performed at one of London’s most progressive venues, the Yard Theatre.
Author: E V Crowe
Director: Caitlin McLeod
Producers: Hightide Festival Theatre, Daniel Brodie Productions in association with The Yard Theatre
Designer: James Turner
Booking Until: 17 October 2015
Booking Link: http://www.theyardtheatre.co.uk/event/brenda/2015-09-22/#tab-id-2