Pros: Striking and original, innovative characterisation and interwoven plot
Cons: Not so much a con, but the play was short at 70 minutes, and I felt sad to let the characters go
Close to the beginning of Reel Life an actor exclaims that we all probably “hate this set”, yet a tiny raised platform in a corner of the St James Studio proves to be the perfect spot for introducing the snippets of lives and nature depicted in this play.
This is the second full length play written by Alys Metcalf after receiving critical acclaim for Unearthed, and I wholly expect Reel Life to reach similar heights. The play is set on the edge of a remote riverbank where two unlikely strangers meet. Jo (Lizzie Stables) is a children’s writer wrestling with a fishing rod and Mark (Michael Palmer) is a dryly eccentric individual wishing to continue his Tai Chi practice in peace. Gradually their emotional defences weaken and they learn firstly to tolerate one another’s presence, then to enjoy it. They bond over tackle and fly with a sense of humour, Mark in particular with his tasteless jokes and teasing. They keep themselves guarded from verbally verging into the profound, but the poignancy of their private moments together invokes a lingering background sadness to Jo’s failed attempts to catch a fish. There is also the presence of Huw (Matt Tait), whose emotional speeches, delivered directly to the audience, slowly begin to reveal a darker side to these recreations.
In direct contrast, we are introduced to two further characters, performed by Palmer and Tait again (only with their hoods up). It takes at least two exchanges for me to realise these characters are fish! At first you believe these characters are a lost man and an angry local reluctant to provide directions. Their mentions of “old trout” and the poor memory of the one in gold (see what they did there?) seem coincidental. The audience actually laugh out loud when it is revealed in its certainty that these are the very fish under the feet of Jo and Mark. I find these exchanges particularly clever and enjoyable to watch. I love the novelty value of having goldfish and trouts as characters. Over time the tragedy behind these repeated meetings is made apparent.
At roughly seventy minutes long, and despite the seemingly tranquil backdrop, Reel Life incorporates subjects of love, loss and loneliness, compartmentalizing them into tiny moments in a tiny place, packing an emotional punch. The beauty of this piece is that we’re not supposed to know too much about Jo and Mark’s lives outside of the setting (Huw’s monologues only drip-feed background information), just as we know very little about the fish. Indeed, we only know that the goldfish came from Bowl. The play shows us the importance of being, here in the present moment, and it is these moments which define ourselves as living entities, no matter if we live above or below the surface.
Author: Alys Metcalf
Director: Adam Lenson
Assistant Director: Francesca Bailey
Production Company: Folio Theatre Company
Booking Information: This show has now completed its run.