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Radiator
Tristan Bates Theatre
4th August 2016

★★★☆☆

Publicity photograph for Radiator

Photography provided by the Camden Fringe

I have a special place in my heart for any theatre professional who has studied the art of French clowning. Gaulier certainly won't thank for me for saying so, but just like Lecoq-trained graduates, you can spot one of his protégés very easily. There's always a subtlety to their performance and a wonderful physicality too. In writer and director Madeleine Bye's Radiator, a young woman called Susan (Julia Masli) makes her favourite breakfast, drinks some tea and waits for her grocery shopping to turn up. It's all very mundane and everyday and yet Bye somehow transforms this arc into something absolutely mesmerising.

Every one of Masli's little movements is controlled, her whole body telling us a story. It takes quite a while before there's any spoken dialogue, to that point that when Masli first opens her mouth it feels unnatural and a bit of a shock, to be honest. Initially she comes across as a bit strange, preening herself in a way that doesn't make her any more attractive, and even as she speaks to a radiator, the penny is still up there circling in the air. To an extent, we're still focussed on the comedic aspect of the show, which makes her attempted interactions with the outside world all the more devastating because that's when the penny actually drops that the woman we've spent all this time with has significant mental health issues and we haven't grasped that. The radiator is actually talking to Susan, because her perception of reality is that skewed.

The design is very stylised with straight white lines surrounding the different key parts of the set, contrasting with the black box environment of the Tristan Bates to make everything look very delineated and clear. Which of course it isn't - Susan's life is full of confusing shades of grey. Again, she's talking to a radiator. This isn't harmless fantasy, it's a sign of her mental instability. When we listen to the tone of the radiator and what he's saying to her, we begin to feel even more concerned for Susan. Her self-imposed isolation is horribly sad; she may have more unusual idiosyncrasies than some, but we sense she does have something to offer and deserves some form of meaningful companionship.

The shift between jaunty music and no spoken word, and conversations with a slightly muffled piece of plumbing feels a bit jarring, however it does create interest and break up the monotony of Susan's day. Whilst the direction and writing are generally very good, we don't get a lot of hope and there are opportunities to add more possibility to the storyline. Once you join Team Susan - I couldn't tell you exactly when this happens, but you do find yourself firmly rooting for her, even if you initially dismiss her as a bit of a strange loner - you do find Radiator heartbreaking as it is. However, Bye could push us even further by allowing us to dream of something more for Susan.

Although Radiator only be 40 minutes long, it's exactly the right length of time we need to become emotionally invested in Susan and go on a journey with her. It's quirky, funny, poignant and promotes awareness of mental health without being preachy.

Radiator opened on 2nd August and runs until 6th August 2016 at the Tristan Bates Theatre, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Leicester Square (Piccadilly, Northern)



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