Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Thursday 13th March, 2014
Bryony Lavery’s new play, created in collaboration with Frantic Assembly is the stuff of horror films. When their house falls victim to flooding, Joff and Marianne, along with their daughter, are invited to spend the night in the home of neighbours Ollie and Maud, who also have a daughter. The two girls play together, off-stage and unseen, while the adults get to know each other over a bottle of white rioja and Ollie’s special peanut sauce. A comedy of manners ensues as Joff and Marianne react to their hosts’ religious convictions in a beautifully played and very funny scene around the dinner table.
The evening takes a turn for the weird long before a terrible life-changing event that stems from Ollie and Maud’s well-meaning plan to ‘cleanse’ their guests’ wayward daughter.
For the most part naturalistically performed, the piece is given a peculiar feel by its pared-down set. Empty frames form doorways and corners, suggesting different rooms and locations. Odd angles add an expressionistic element – the actors move the set around in a graceful, choreographed manner and it’s surprising how evocative these sparse lines are, pushing the emotions of the characters to the fore, leaving the audience to imagine things like décor, furniture and objects.
Andy Purves’s lighting design gives a Caravaggio-like appearance to some of the scenes. With the addition of Carolyn Downing’s design for sound, the lighting gives us a few ghost-train scares. It’s extremely effective.
Director Scott Graham keeps the action accessible and the people relatable although inhabiting a highly stylised space. Their gravity-defying suspension on ropes changes our perspective and keeps a sense of ‘otherness’ running through the performance. Events have thrown these lives off-kilter; the characters are adrift in familiar settings that have become unworldly to them.
Eileen Walsh (Marianne) and Christopher Colquhoun (Joff) are excellent as the ordinary couple overwhelmed by a nightmare, while Richard Mylan (Ollie) and Penny Layden (Maud) keep the weirdo neighbours credible. Bryony Lavery’s writing is as sharp as ever – there is a kind of poetry to her naturalistic dialogue that is mirrored by the eerie beauty of the production style.
Stark, gripping, funny, inventive and scary, The Believers holds belief up to question in a way that reminded me a little of Dennis Potter’s Brimstone & Treacle, and provides a thought-provoking, entertaining trip to the theatre.