views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

The Trunk
The Space
25th February 2014

★★★★☆

Publicity photograph for The Trunk

Photography supplied by The Space

Chekhov plays are like buses. You complain you don't get any funny ones, then two come along at once. Not Chekhov plays, exactly, but pieces inspired by his work at any rate. This time, Savio(u)r and Crow Theatre have apparently used the title (if not the contents) of his short story The Man in a Case to thread together the stories of five strangers all touched by a man who has decided to lock himself in a trunk.

Maybe my opening metaphor isn't that apt. Perhaps I should be referring to trains, as the bulk of the action takes place in a train station populated by both our heroes and the townspeople who flit about The Space, its grounds and the upstairs Hubbub bar. They interact with the audience for about 30 minutes before the show starts, flirting, questioning, generally chatting, in a nod to immersion that doesn't go much further than that. Director Tim Sullivan's move here is a good one, but not entirely necessary. Crow Theatre, who play the townspeople, are all perfectly adept at what they are doing, but their inclusion adds little to the meat of the piece. Still, a round of applause for seeking out added value.

When we do find a seat in the space (along with the townspeople), Mike Carter's original tale begins to unfold as The Servant (Ella Gamble) pushes the titular trunk to the station. At once tied to the trunk and her master, but equally resentful and puzzled, the bedraggled lass acts almost like a Shakespearean fool, commenting on the action but separate from it - chiding and with what could be considered a dozy northern accent hiding an astute mind. Don't worry, I can say that, I'm northern too. As the other main characters meet the trunk, The Porter (Michael Shon), Doctor (Tom Blyth), Bag Lady (Tamarin McGinley) and Lonely Girl (Antonia Bourdillon) - his daughter - all undergo various transformations, some for better, some worse.

Chekhov's themes of failure and the importance of communication are touched upon by all, as is class. It's not just Chekhov on the outside, it's also to its very centre. The Porter fails in his duties, The Doctor at writing a decent novel (despite the monkeys) and even of getting to the bottom of the man in the case's strange behaviour. We're given no satisfactory explanation or reason for his decision to build a shell around him and the outside world, but to be disappointed at that would miss the point of Carter's effervescent, yet heartfelt script. It crackles with one-liners that really should make you groan - especially from Blyth's wonderfully ineffectual doctor - but they're delivered with such dry wit by the entire cast that you can't help laugh along. Even the bleak moments are punctuated with dark humour.

While the publicity asks the question "why do we need other people quite so much?" and that is explored, Carter cleverly goes further than that and it could be interpreted more widely as a treatise on religion. After all, our fab four (Servant not withstanding) don't really know that there is anyone in the trunk, taking it on faith. Their willingness to speak to this unknown quantity, to put so much stock into solving its mysteries, its silence or even defining their duties (and therefore success) solely from it seems to be almost pious. What Carter has essentially created is almost literally Schroedinger's God.

This is hammered home by Sullivan's direction, which anchors the work in a single spot, but equally makes the space universal. It's a train station, true, but with each character inhabiting their own distinct space, it could just as easily be a girl's bedroom, a therapist's office, or by the back of some bins. Despite coming together latterly, they're initially ignorant of one another, apparently freed from the constraints of linear time, all talking to their mystery man simultaneously but on different planes. This all serves to add a satisfying extra dimension to the work.

With a small but perfectly formed cast each fully realising their archetypes, snappy writing and considered direction, it's no lie to say that this is probably the most I've ever enjoyed Chekhov's work - whatever his contribution to the finished product. There's a strong case to be made to watch this strong case for ninety minutes.

The Trunk ran from 25th February to 1st March 2014 at The Space.

Nearest tube station: Mudchute (DLR)



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