views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Theatre N16
26th May 2015


Robin Jordan and Ellie Jacob as Michael and Tessa

Photography provided by Theatre N16

At what point do you truly stop giving a damn about someone who used to be the most important person in your life? In Isley Lynn's play Lean, Tessa (Ellie Jacob) bursts back into her marital home, declaring that if estranged husband Michael (Robin Jordan) is going to starve himself to death, she'll stop eating too. "I cured you once", she states defiantly, and the battle of wills begins. Tessa has been out of Michael's life for a year now and is in no mood for reconciliation or forgiveness, and yet she can't let him slowly kill himself; she's determined to save him. Even if she's still mad as hell.

The basic outline can be easily extrapolated right from the opening scenes. Girl used to be with boy, something bad happened, both now have unresolved issues, and we're going to at least attempt to work through some of them over the course of the upcoming hour. But it's much more complex than that, and that's what makes Lean beautiful. You could argue Tessa's intervention is solely about petty point-scoring, but it seems more that she wants to help. And she shouldn't - we sense the elephant in the room is pretty heavy. Ignoring the facts we have to go on, intuitively, the separated pair's behaviour makes perfect sense.

Although there doesn't always seem to be a lot of logic, we always understand. We can empathise with both protagonists - we might not have predicted exactly how they would react and we can't say with confidence we wouldn't do the same in their shoes. There's something pleasingly messy about Tessa and Michael's dynamic - there are enough complications for their relationship to feel genuine. Of course, the flip side is that with the writing being so human, it can lag much in the same way real life does.

Many will pick up on the fact that this is a play about male anorexia and well, yes, daring to write about that is to be applauded. Props to the playwright - go Lynn. While Michael's eating disorder is integral to the play, for me, this entire piece is less about creating awareness and more about the breakdown of a marriage and the inherent tragedy in that. On one level, we want them to patch things up - who doesn't love a happy ending? - but at the same time, should they? Is that actually how we want things to pan out?

Jacob's expressiveness is wonderfully utilised by co-directors Sarah Chapleo and Emily Collins. We see Tessa's desperation, anger, confusion - sometimes even hope, and that's what haunts us the most. She doesn't exactly mince her words, but there's still a great deal of information to be gleaned simply from the way she looks at Michael. Jordan may be less expressive, but whenever his character thinks he's unseen, we catch some moving half-glances in Tessa's direction. There's a base warmth and tenderness - things are not right between the couple, maybe they won't ever be right, but there's still a lot of residual affection from Michael for his estranged wife. The moments in which nothing is said are so very poignant, and this is where Chapleo and Collins really show the production's strength.

One sequence fittingly makes use of Spanish Flea to stress the repetitiveness, ridiculousness and black comedy of Tessa and Michael's constant war over food. However, although it's delightfully effective, it does draw attention to the lack of incidental music at other times. Most blackouts are quick and don't need it, but others do take longer for the new scene to be set up and this can be slightly awkward without any music to cover them.

Theatre N16 is a brand new theatre pub - given its size and layout, any production with a large cast just won't be suited to it. It does have some limitations, that's for sure. Happily it's not just a basic function room cynically rebranded as a performing arts space, it does have an intimate feel to it, and there's a clear passion radiating from the venue's artistic directors. If every show sold out and every run had to be extended by popular demand, I'm sure they'd be utterly delighted. Still, you can sense they're not just looking to programme the obvious commercial hits, there's going to be an element of experimentation to follow - basically, taking a chance on new things. And that's what you should do, particularly if you live in Stokie yourself - Theatre N16 is only going to make it if the locals take it into their hearts and show their support for emerging talent.

Islington newcomer The Hope has been whole-heartedly embraced by its local community as a venue committed to new writing and creating fair opportunities for companies. You wouldn't know to look at it that it's been established a mere fraction of the time as Upper Street relative The King's Head. When Londoners get behind their local fringe theatres, it just proves that we do all care about the arts and it's a powerful and gorgeous reaction to witness. The opening programme at Theatre N16 - with its diverse mixture of rehearsed readings and short plays like Lean - is a promising debut and we're certain there's even better to follow.

Lean ran from 22nd to 30th May 2015 at Theatre N16.

Nearest station: Stoke Newington (National Rail)

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