all in one brings together a trio of short, surreal pieces by Alistair McDowall. The three are written for and performed with extraordinary ability by Kate O’Flynn, thoughtfully directed by Vicky Featherstone and Sam Pritchard. It’s a bizarre, sometimes graphic, and unsettling collection, but completely compelling. Channelling a twisted form of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, in each solo performance the unnamed female characters exist in a world where mundanity is juxtaposed with realms of nightmare and science fiction.
The first piece, Northleigh, 1940, opens with a woman gripped, reciting a grotesque fairytale, brimful of horror and peril. It then shifts abruptly to her as an everyday person in wartime, sharing a Morrison Shelter with her unseen father. As they speak of their ordinary lives little happens, yet much is revealed. Caged with him, she is closeted in societal rules and expectation, a victim of social programming. McDowall’s script is crafted, insightful and secretive, planting tiny details and suggestions to reveal unfulfilled experience, and unspoken knowledge. It draws the curious audience in tightly. O’Flynn performs skilfully, offering unsettling oddness alongside pathos, but also impeccable comedic delivery. At times she channels Victoria Wood and Alan Bennett characters, but in a Dr Who-esque world of horrific slippage, fragmentation and decay.
The second piece, In Stereo, is a surreal enactment of a woman who finds a damp spot on the wall, which becomes an organic entity that causes her to lose her singularity and instead exist in multiple forms. Told in disembodied voiceover, stories overlap in cacophony, as she is absorbed into the wall. Time passes, life changes shape, raising questions of the human relationship with nature, and of being. O’Flynn is totally magnetic, the audience focussed on her excruciatingly protracted journey around the stage, as her words consume the space.
Her performance for the final piece, all of it, is, quite simply, astonishing. Sitting on a bar stool, microphone in hand, she could be a cabaret artist. In a remarkable stream of language she propels us through a life intertwined with multiple other lives until it becomes all life. She relates recognisable stories and moments, in descriptions that are richly evocative – a perverse Under Milk Wood perhaps – and we live them with her in heightened dramatisation of normality.
Drawn into this final world view, it’s as if the organic growth from In Stereo has led us to this place. Human existence feels part of a mycorrhizal network – an almost fungal, complex set of connections with nourishing, sensing, communicative features that is unseen yet present across space and time. This conceptual enormity is complemented utterly by O’Flynn’s deliberately erratic, relentless delivery.
Clever set design by Merle Hensel ties the pieces neatly together, describing boundless worlds using the physical and the absent. Besmirched walls and a literal cage depict the restricted world of Northleigh, 1940. Then for In Stereo a chair and television are the only physical representations of an otherwise isolated life. Between this piece and all of it the set’s walls are literally stripped away in plain view. Now it’s the voice alone that matters, as ideas of life itself become abstract.
Macdowall has an incredible ability to juxtapose normality with enormous concepts, and this triptych is an excellent example of this. His choice of O’Flynn to deliver the work is inspired, as she achieves such a breadth of challenging emotions and styles. She balances comedic, naturalistic performance with poignancy and anguish, such that we believe her reality, no matter where it takes us, even into realms of extraordinary bizarreness. This is a fascinating production that will absorb you and make you part of a world seen differently.
Written by: Alistair McDowall
Directed by: Vicky Featherstone and Sam Pritchard
Design by: Merle Hensel
Lighting Design by: Elliot Griggs
Sound design by: Melanie Wilson
Video Design by: Lewis den Hertog
Produced by The Royal Court Theatre
all of it plays at Royal Court Theatre until 17 June. Further information and bookings can be found here.