saints and sinners of the stage and screen
saints and sinners of the stage and screen
Map Studio Cafe
28th August 2015
Photography provided by Mind Engagement Productions
When Dawn (Julie-Ann Nye) turns up out of the blue to see Moira (Zoe Cunningham), both women are forced to revisit a difficult episode where their lives monetarily intertwined and the world burned. As we gradually find out, Moira used to be a social worker and Dawn was her "greatest failure". The context for this is slowly teased out through a series of flashbacks. Some of these take place at Dawn's home, and with others taking place at prison, you know this isn't exactly going to be a tale with a happily ever after tacked on.
Chris Lee's writing does eventually provide an insight into the sheer horror of social work, but he takes his merry time, with all the early dialogue in Shallow Slumber deeply frustrating and contrived as his protagonists talk about the elephant in the room without actually naming the elephant. Nye is constantly anxious and on edge, contrasted against Cunningham's emotionless, almost unbelievably calm demeanour. There's a very knowing nod to this delivery when Moira declares "professionals don't have any feelings". We do wonder how she manages not to react to Dawn's antagonistic behaviour, but then again, we're not social workers ourselves, and can only imagine being able to detach yourself from the situation is a key part of doing the job well. And as Moira points out, she likes her job and she's good at it.
The bare stage is used to represent various locations, however the company don't give much thought to this. It takes us a while to realise that Dawn is standing on Moira's doorstep then when we get a sense for the delineation between the inside and the out, the walls are trod on. Cunningham makes a cup of coffee using a kettle which is actually plugged into the wall, and the uncomfortable silence as her character waits for the kettle to boil is a nicely considered touch. The intelligence behind this choice is however spoiled when Dawn pipes up about how surprised she is that Moira remembered she takes her coffee with milk and three sugars. Either make a cup of coffee properly, tweak the dialogue, or just mime making it. A middle ground spoils the overall effect.
As Nye shouts at the top of her voice with a Moses basket on stage and even accidentally knocks it a few times, you do wonder why there aren't at least a few panicked glances in its direction by Cunningham, whose character would certainly be concerned the baby was being disturbed by the noise. Again, it's just attention to detail. In a space this tiny, you do really have to go the extra mile in creating a credible setting. Whilst you don't need a massive budget or a bulging props cupboard to convince the audience, you do need to be a lot fussier than this with the finer points.
The Map Studio Cafe is admittedly a difficult space. It's small, which isn't in itself an insurmountable problem, but you have to cross the area used as the theatre to get to the only customer toilet, and with the venue downstairs being a functioning eaterie, this was aways going to be risky. A small child wandered upstairs during the inaugural performance with her need to use the facilities and her curiosity rewarded by a torrent of strong language and the big horrific reveal. Unfortunate for her little ears to overhear that, and unfortunate for our big ears to get distracted by the unexpected visitor after all the waiting. Timing is everything, and mishaps like these are part and parcel of the performing arts.
You can't really blame the actresses; if anything, you have to credit them for ploughing on without a flicker of acknowledgement for the surrounding chaos. However, you have to wonder what kind of venue management allows someone to interrupt a play in the first place, and then allows the door between the cafe and the theatre to be left open, so the production is marred by the sounds of diners. Up until this point, it was already fighting with music bleeding through, so the gentle clatter of plates was really the final straw.
All in all, Cunningham and Nye don't come out of this too badly. Although Nye is ambitious with her playing age, she effectively conveys Dawn's highly strung emotional state. Cunningham's delivery is always fitting with her character, with Moira's awkward attempts to mirror Dawn's language to gain her trust a particularly strong example of this. In the absence of a director, the pair could have made some better decisions, but it's largely the constraints of the venue holding them back. The venue undoubtedly contributes to the problems with the production, but the it's the dreadful script which chokes all involved. We don't expect pleasant dreams from the nature of the play, but Lee's writing is so unsatisfying, and this is a bitter disappointment given his years in the field to draw on.
Shallow Slumber is a noble if somewhat unsuccessful attempt by Mind Engagement Productions to highlight the tragedy and thanklessness of social work. All we can really say is hopefully, lessons will be learned.
Shallow Slumber ran from 28th to 29th August 2015 at Map Studio Cafe, as part of the Camden Fringe.
Nearest station: Kentish Town West (Overground)