More than black and white [by Matt Baker]
Meet Cassie. She’s just moved in with Rose, who’s just had a one-night stand with Mark, who’s fed up of living with Tim, who secretly loves Rose, who’s just using Tim to get to Mark (who she loves), who’s just become very interested in Cassie. While the magnitude of that sentence is slightly complex to envision with great clarity, this production of Penelope Skinner’s Eigengrau is anything but grey. Though (potent pause) Productions is a somewhat obscure company – 13 productions in 11 years, with a slight emphasis on the works of Pinter and a bit of Mamet and Ionesco thrown in for good measure – it seems this company has a knack for not only stellar casts who make the most of poignant pieces, but also taking their time and developing a commendable and solid body of work.
Skinner has been called “our leading young feminist writer” by The Independent’s Nione Meakin, yet I would argue the word feminist spoils, and could quite easily be omitted from, that statement. While Cassie’s feminist dialogue is heavily loaded in comparison to Mark’s in regards to real estate, or Tim’s in regards to loss, or Rose’s in regards to numerology, it still feels more of a character trait than an underlying tone or message that the writer is trying to press upon her work, and Chelsea McEwan-Millar’s performance as Cassie certainly loads her journey with a much more connectable pathos for the audience than feminism alone would.
Calum Gittins’ Mark is cocky, smarmy, and utterly charming – and the audience loves to hate him. Not only does he imbue his character with these traits sincerely (in great contrast to the actual character) and in a way that parallels the playwright’s intentions, Gittins finds multiple layers on which to play and allows the audience to see exactly what is going on inside with a subtlety that eludes the characters around him. It is the perfect example of both the dichotomy and amalgamation between actor and character.
Michelle Blundell is a tornado of talent and steers well clear of stereotypical crazy acting. It is a testament to her talent that even as the most detached character from our reality, she is still incredibly affable.
Simon Ward, in his best performance to date, identifies his role and serves the play well with what is more or less a functional character. However, Ward also avoids downplaying his importance in the play and makes great use of what few moments he has in what feels to be an underwritten and unexplored character, which is cunningly both reversed and recognised in an absolute coup de grâce of writing in the final moment – one of the best I’ve witnessed in theatre.
Director Paul Gittins orchestrates the young, vibrant cast as if having constantly nudged them closer together throughout the rehearsal process to find not only a full intellectual and emotional understanding of the text, but the most efficient and proactive way of delivering each scene. The minimalist set is cleverly used, and there’s something pleasant about watching these actors set up for each scene in the half-light. Music during the scene changes aptly accentuates (sometimes ironically) the scene previous, and the rest of the lighting design, by Ruby Reihana-Wilson is respectfully discreet, though emphasised when necessary.
Aside from finding every inch of comedy within the script and an ocean of idiosyncrasies that fill their characters to the brim, the entire cast successfully avoids showing us emotions, instead allowing things to boil over organically, with McEwan-Millar and Ward in particular holding things back nicely, making us as an audience do some of the work. Though nothing in the play strikes a major chord overall, it is thanks to these moments that there really are no grey areas in this production. Do not close your eyes to this show.
Eigengrau is presented by (potent pause) productions and plays at The Basement Theatre until 24 November. More details see The Basement.