The dead walk among
us at the Etcetera Theatre in Split Note Theatre’s tale of immortal lovers
reuniting for one final showdown. There is fun to be had from literal bloodletting
in Who They Were (of which I can sadly say no more without giving away
important plot twists) but it is emotional bleeding that dominates. In
fact, writer Luke Culloty relies on angst-ridden confession and oversharing
more than storytelling and action for long, long stretches. It is all
incredibly inward looking and self-involved. Characters take an age to
describe, rather than show us, a prime example being their mental health issues.
Fortunately, Culloty, who directs as well as writes, has found a cast of three talented actors who aren’t daunted by the challenges of the text one jot. It is probably not an exaggeration to say they save the day. Throwing themselves into their roles, they are wonderfully watchable and their fast, snappy delivery means there is never a dull moment. The few laughs, when they come, are richly deserved. Lucy Abraham (Eros) and Adela Rajnović (Florence) remain believable throughout as the tortured ex-lovers. They overlap and interrupt each other with skill and confidence as the sparks fly and they go through the emotional ringer to confront their epic complicated pasts. I can’t give you details, partly to avoid spoilers, but also because the backstory is, frankly, as clear as mud. As a quick example, the central couple seemingly broke up 90 years ago but had their first date watching Top Hat; a film released 85 years ago. Ruby Herrington, in a delightful turn as suicidal yet surprisingly chirpy Joe, interrupts the action with some welcome awkward questions. She has relationship troubles of her own, but we don’t get a sense of what that really means because she arrives like a whirlwind and leaves far too abruptly. An opportunity to tell a clearer, more engaging story missed, perhaps? Certainly, Herrington’s performance deserved more stage time.
There are lots of brief diversions. Notably, there’s a discussion about female homosexuality in the 1920s which feels brave for a young male writer to tackle. It did make this reviewer wonder if Culloty had read much of the major women’s literature of the period though. Intriguing dreams are raised and discussed too, but never explored fully or resolved. This unfinished and under-researched feeling applies to so much of the content here. This is a piece of writing that seems to fling everything at the wall to fill its hour, without necessarily worrying if much of it sticks. I am perhaps expecting too much clarity from a play that, alongside gothic horror and lost love, saddles itself with every 2019 issue going from bipolar diagnoses through social media addiction to ageing parents with alzheimers, LGBT acceptance and work life balance in the hospitality industry. A late rant about everyone’s current misplaced need to feel ‘special’ probably comes closest to a clear and fully developed argument.
There is no question about the potential of everyone involved here. The cast especially deserved their warm applause at the close. A tighter rein on the writing would perhaps have created a more rewarding end result, but Who They Were still feels worthy of your support.
Writer & Directed by: Luke Culloty
Produced by: Split Note Theatre
Booking until: 9 November 2019
Booking link: https://www.citizenticket.co.uk/event/who-they-were-written-and-directed-by-luke-culloty/