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HE(ART)
Theatre N16
11th January 2017

★★★★☆

Alex Reynolds as Alice

Photography © Jesse Night

You know those funny images where you see a vase, yet someone else sees a pair of faces? You know, those clever little optical illusions, where one picture can be very different depending on who's looking at it at the time? Gallery curator Alice (Alex Reynolds) and her self-employed boyfriend Rhys (Jack Gogarty) are trying to find the message in a painting by an up-and-coming young artist. As they both stare at it from different angles and Alice pushes Rhys to really dig deep and reflect on its true significance, little do they know that siblings Kev (Shane Noone) and Sam (Flora Dawson) have already eyed up the same artwork and arrived at a very different meaning. One which isn't compatible with their plans. HE(ART) is the story of how two worlds collide, with art at the very heart of that explosion. (Yeah, pun intended. It's a play with a title that just cries out for punnery.)

To say much more would be to give away too much of the plot; it's the sort of show where it's fun to just let things unravel in front of you and enjoy the ride. All four protagonists are fleshed out in glorious detail, as you would expect from playwright Andrew Maddock. Their individual backgrounds are tantalisingly drip fed to us over the course of the 65 minutes, allowing us to further our connection with them, understanding what really makes them tick. The language however is the other big surprise - not only is this a four-hander rather a monologue, but it's a piece of writing which doesn't use that familiar poetic style of Maddock's and it takes us a few moments to recover from that initial sense of loss. Thankfully, the real gut punch isn't until the very end, by which point we've forgotten to miss a clever rhyme here and there and we just what to find out what's in store for our group of Wembley Warriors.

What elevates HE(ART) and makes it so engaging is Dawson's performance. Nuances of other people's behaviour and dialogue are lost on her character Sam, even when they relate to people she knows well. Dawson fidgets continuously, blinking, tilting her head and wringing her hands; Sam's anxiety manifesting itself in lots of little non-verbal tics. The bond between Sam and Kev is beautiful, with Kevin always playing the protective brother. However the pressure of his home life and his sister's vulnerability do also prompt him to lash out in frustration a few times. It's not to be condoned and yet it is to be understood; an honest portrayal of a man at breaking point and trying so hard to do what's right. It's easy to pen saint-like characters, it's far more challenging to create credible ones. We feel Sam's fear as her bother initially loses it, but are reassured by her clear faith and trust in him all the same.

Flora Dawson and Shane Noone as Sam and Kev

Photography © Jesse Night

Although Rhys and Alice share some stereotypically classic couple arguments, they don't all end the way we expect them to. Rhys' impassioned defence of his window cleaning business for example is met with immediate acceptance rather than more shouting. As with all of Maddock's characters - ever - he can't make them that mundane. It's not in him. There's a real sense of depth to Rhys. He tries not to take life too seriously, he's not a man of many words, however there's an energy to him that makes him instantly likeable. Whilst Alice is a slightly tougher protagonist to love, the more we see of her feelings for Rhys, the more we understand what's motivating her behaviour and we soften towards her. All four characters have their individual quirks and flaws and win our affections for different reasons.

The space is set up in the round, with bold, colourful artwork hanging from each wall behind the audience and sofas making up one of the rows. We're right bang in the centre of an intimate performance. Director Niall Phillips hangs some carefully selected props from the ceiling in the middle rather than anywhere in our direct line of sight, so whilst they intrigue us while we're waiting for the action to start, they don't become distracting. They also neatly poke fun at the pretentiousness of modern art, with a brown paper McDonalds bag amongst some of the suspended faux objets d'art. Although getting Dawson to deliver such a heartbreaking and accurate portrayal of a woman with emotional behavioural difficulties is by far his biggest success, these little touches by Phillips are also pleasing.

It's a play with heart, it pulls on your heartstrings, it's so heartfelt. There, we've got most of it out of our system. HE(ART) isn't quite what we would expect from Maddock, but there's nothing wrong with shaking things up from time to time - especially when this is the outcome. A touching and beautiful exploration of the extraordinary lengths that we would go to when trying to protect our nearest and dearest.

HE(ART) opened on 10th January and runs until 28th January 2017 at Theatre N16.

Nearest tube station: Balham (Northern)



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