Julia Brookes reviews the play for Lippy...
Chances are, if you took drama at school, or even if you didn’t, you have seen or at least heard of Things I Know to be True. The play by Andrew Bovell was famed on its tour with Frantic Assembly for it’s beautiful script, stellar cast and moving production. The play is not an easy feat, especially for student theatre, addressing themes of drug use, death, infidelity, and identity crisis. However, Theatre Group’s production, performed in Stage One this week and directed by Jamie Walker, managed to encompass all this in a touching but understated light.
The production on this show was incredible. The intimidatingly big space which Stage One gifts was used well. Every inch was transformed into parts of the Price’s home creating a uniquely intimate feeling in this large theatre. Half the stage was dedicated to kitchen suburbia, sporting everything from a countertop to a fireplace, while the other half of the stage was modelled into the back garden. Producers Dec Kelly, Hannah Rooney and Liv Taylor- Goy really went to town here: the garden boasted real flowers, rose bushes and grass complete with a bench and white picket fence.
The top tier production elements did not stop at set but bled into the lighting and music throughout the show. Not only did the lighting feature exposed lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling but also a range of tailored coloured effects to add to the tone and mood of the piece, bold choices which served to transport us willingly into the world of the play. The production even featured its own animations, designed by Annie King Ferguson, which floated behind the actors’ heads at key moments, like the stars during Rosie’s opening monologue.
It would have been understandable to cut the original dream-like movement which Frantic Assembly had in their production of the play, but this was included too, choreographed by Jenny Wilkinson. The movement was intelligent but understated: it felt professional. Actors lifted each other with ease, and the character of Rosie was often in the air before I’d realised how she got there. Wilkinson’s clever choreography made the production feel intimate, but also surreal. It did not subtract from the action but instead added to it: raising it above a naturalistic, family drama and into something more. All these high quality, careful crafted production decisions gave the show a polished, sleek feel setting it apart from typical low budget student theatre.
But a show is nothing without its actors, and here the cast of Things I Know to be True did not let the stellar design elements down. Niamh Walter opened the show with a powerful rendition of Rosie’s monologue. Drawing us into her world and her experiences effortlessly, she communicated the hopeless yearning of her character in an understated and understandable way, characteristics which bled into her performance throughout the whole show. As character who is often on stage, but not often at the heart of the action, I found it difficult to stop watching her as she held space and attention impeccably.
In a similar light, Meg Ferguson’s performance was hard to beat, rarely offstage and playing the matriarch of the family Fran Price, her performance progressed seamlessly from one scene to another. She made the audience laugh with one sentence and hate her with the next. A difficult character, whose outbursts and no-nonsense attitude towards her children make her rather difficult to stomach, was portrayed brilliantly. Ferguson pulled off the complexity of this character well: you disliked her, but you also understood her. This is something which could have easily been lost in her violent use of language, particularly towards her son Mark. But not in her portrayal: you are just as heartbroken as the rest of the family from her untimely death at the climax of the play.
This strong characterisation was equalled by Erin Carney’s depiction of Pip and Seb De Pury’s portrayal of Ben. Carney captured the restlessness of family life in an emotional light. You felt her pain at leaving behind her children to pursue a lover in America. She added humanity to what could be mistaken for selfish decisions. The relationship between Pip and Fran was heart-wrenching. I found myself internally screaming at them to just TALK to each other. This was emphasised in a craftily directed moment where Pip recites a letter she has written to her mother. Directorial decisions to have Fran brushing Pip’s hair and Pip stealing Fran’s glass of wine highlighted their similarities, which put distance between the two.
In the first act, De Pury’s Ben added much needed light-heartedness with his schoolboy cheek. This was contrasted well in the second act when we learn of his illegal money laundering and drug use. He played this cleverly: you believed how unintentionally Ben had let his situation spiral out of control. The relationship between him and his father Bob directly contrasted with Pip and Fran’s relationship. It called into question mother-daughter/father-son gender dynamics in an interesting way and despite both being the same age, De Pury and Josh Murphy, who played Bob, showed the generational gap between their two characters. Much like Ferguson, De Pury added a phenomenal level of realism and humanity to his boisterous character, you felt sorry for him, despite all he had done.
Evan Harris’ Mark caught me off guard. As the sibling who announces to his parents he wants to become a woman, his is the most difficult to storyline to uphold, but one to which Harris did an abundance of justice. He embodied this character exquisitely. Their portrayal hammered home to the audience the lack of understanding and the lack of willingness to understand Mark’s parents push onto him, and just how much it hurts. It was moving, tender and relevant. Harris’ portrayal caused you to see into Mark’s soul, and the stillness he brought to the stage held the audience’s attention completely.
This strong cast was rounded of by Josh Murphy who played the bumbling, comical Bob marvellously. His dynamic was different with each of his children, as well as his relationship with his wife. Murphy’s character was nuanced and refined wonderfully: you couldn’t not love him. This meant that the breakdown of the character after he learns of his wife’s death was utterly moving. It was impossible not to have tears in your eyes as he throws flowers across the stage in his dressing gown before lying face down in the mess for the entirety of the last scene.
Theatre Group’s production of Things I Know to be True was carefully crafted from beginning to end. Production, direction and acting came together to punch you in the gut, bring tears to your eyes and give you a theatre experience you won’t be soon to forget. I only wish I could see it again.
Words by Julia Brookes
Photo credit: Abby Swain