Pros: Raw performances draw the emotion and horror from a blunt, hard-hitting script.
Cons: Sound levels are difficult to get right in a small space, and the play takes a while to get going.
Those who had friends in bands during their adolescent years will remember trekking to tiny rooms above pubs on the other side of London, standing on sticky floors for hours, being elbowed in the darkness and paying £5 entry for the privilege. At first sight, Hostage Song at the Finborough Theatre is a bit like that but more civilised. For one thing, we are sitting down in traverse seating either side of a stage. At one end is a small rock band: guitar, bass, keys, drum box, complete with a leather-clad lead singer standing tall at the mic. The band strikes up a punchy opening after which comes the bizarre twist that gives this play its uncomfortable, unusual feel. A man and a woman are led on stage. Their hands are bound, they are blindfolded and they are caked in filth and dried-up blood. They join in the singing.
A journalist and a Pentagon contractor have been taken hostage in an unspecified location, at an unspecified time. Scenes of their interaction getting to know each other, playing games to pass the time, living in fear or playing out fantasy are interspersed with their families dealing with the horror back home. Verity Marshall plays Jennifer, the journalist, young and blonde, while Michael Matus gives a raw, intense performance as Jim the contractor. The other cast members double up as both the hostages’ families and their captors.
To pass the time, Jennifer and Jim play games. They are blindfolded for the entire performance. They lie on the floor and pretend to look at the stars, unable to see where the other is pointing. When they pretend they are on dates, they make one another guess what the other looks like. The levity and childish fun is a poignant counterpoint to their inescapable, terminal situation.
Pierce Reid leads the band, singing with sneering glee like a male Lana Del Rey. There is a lack of boundaries between the music and the play, which works remarkably well. Reid knocks Matus’s character out with the heavy end of the mic stand. Reid squirms as he sings, Matus quivers as he performs. Eventually, Reid adopts the stage and becomes Jim’s son. He finds the video of his father’s execution online and describes it, making me squeamishly shift in my seat.
Kyle Jarrow’s music, though not particularly special, is played very well. The songs are fairly standard versions of that punk-teen rock sound that has dominated the last 10 years. As such they accentuate the horror of the hostage situation by contrast. There’s a satisfying discomfort in watching Reid and the band perform with smiles and exuberance, while we watch these grim, hopeless scenes unfold on stage. My natural instinct is to get involved with the music, tap my toes along and enjoy the live sound. Except there are these vivid characters describing in agonisingly minute detail the intricacies of a beheading.
Clay McCleod Chapman’s writing gathers momentum and becomes increasingly brilliant, with dazzling poetic flashes. It also becomes increasingly gruesome as scenes flit imperceptibly between horrific reality and childlike fantasy. Matus and Marshall are thrown a vast range of emotions and situations to react to and rise to the challenge with engaging performances.
In such a small space the plugged-in band has a raw, karaoke quality that plays well with the equally raw script and performances. Any audience laughter from the lighter moments is uneasy and short lived. I don’t particularly enjoy the discomfort, but there’s a certain satisfaction in experiencing a piece of theatre that fulfils one of its most important aims: to make you feel.
Book: Clay McCleod Chapman
Music and lyrics: Kyle Jarrow
Director: James Veitch
Musical director: Michael Riley
Booking until: 8 July 2014
Box office: 0844 847 1652
Booking link: http://www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk/productions/2014/hostage-song.php