Directed by Beth Crossley and Ginny Davis, ‘Speak Easy’ delivers exactly what its name promises. The Glad Rags Theatre Company’s feat is far beyond the standard parameters of a typical University play, starting with the impressive transformation of the usual layout of the Stage @ Leeds space. The stage management and design parts have successfully created a playful and experimental set reminiscent of the 1920s speakeasy, encouraging and indulging in whispers and gossip shared across dimly lit, decadently decorated round tables (Maisy Dodd’s prop design).
One of the most innovative parts of the play is the initial process of being seated. The immersive theatre begins upon arrival as audience members have curtain doors drawn open for them by gloved fingers, revealing the first room that offers a spotlight on a singular table with red envelopes. The arrival parties are split up as you are given an envelope with a table number drawn in cursive, and then are greeted by the world-famous singer Venus at the second door. After this, the speakeasy space is revealed as we are ushered in to take our seats at one of the 12 round tables that surround the stage in the middle of the room, decorated with pearls and drinks menus and mirrors. The provocatively dressed performers sashay around the tables, flirting and giggling with audience members and insisting on strangers introducing themselves to each other and sharing their secrets. The audience members play their own role in the production as the cards inside their envelopes dictate whether they are new or regular customers, or even more importantly, benefactors. Murmurings and conversation continue until the overhead voice declares the show is about to begin and suddenly the slow struts of the performers are interrupted as they break out into their first dance number, sung by the talented Katherine Moore as Venus.
The structure of the play explores the reality of the hard work that is rarely understood behind such impressive productions. The audience is physically caught in between a constant flurry of the performers back-stage practising, prepping and cleaning, then taking the stage and performing. It is almost reminiscent of Christina Aguilera’s Burlesque in which we are present for both the commotion in the wings and the spectacle of the performance. Lead choreographer Rosie Margree has composed Broadway worthy dance numbers that boast flexibility, unison and fantastic animation, with undertones of Cabaret style in the abstracted, individualism of the performers and story-telling. The plot can largely be read in the performers movement as they leave behind the original show girl dancing in the play’s progression and non- naturalistic movement is prioritised. The line between performance and emotion is blurred as we lose sight of where the performers planned steps end and escaping emotions bleed through. Control appears lost. A standout moment is Sally’s (Cam Griffiths) emotionally charged solo, very impressively sung, that finishes with a spotlight on a cascade of red petals being poured out from a glass.
As the performers dancing is permeated by their emotions, their movements become more abstracted – what is meant to be invisible becomes one of the most visible parts to the audience. This is further heightened by Iris Webster and Ruby Spark’s accompanying projection videography which features pre-recorded scenes of the actors faces distorting. Erin Cooke and Kyle McPhee’s clever writing is perfectly complimented by the characters costume and individualism that each performer brings. Their respective performances are so enticing that the audience is totally immersed in the backstage competition between the new and old hires of the speakeasy. The play explores how the presence of new benefactors and a drive for profit from company owners ultimately pits workers against each other in a rat race to stay irreplaceable. The audience is privy to a unionisation of the dancers as they reject the every-man-for-himself mantra that the company owners instil and instead form a collective that advocates for equal recognition. The cohesion that was previously exclusive to the dance numbers is made present in their coming together as one voice.
If the show hadn’t been sold out for the following two nights, I would have relived it all over again. ‘Speak Easy’ was seductive, clever and offered just the right level of immersive theatre for all to enjoy.
Words by Ruby Truman (she/her) and Photography by Tony Gardener.