THE RED CHAIR
The Door, The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 17th September, 2015
Clod Ensemble’s The Red Chair is a one-woman show, written and performed by Sarah Cameron, a contemporary fairy tale somewhat akin to Irvine Welsh doing Roald Dahl. Cameron narrates the story of newlyweds who receive a red chair (its origins are mysterious) and as soon as the husband sits in it, he never gets up again. He stays there for years, eating and eating, while the wife becomes a kitchen slave. While he balloons, she emaciates. Somehow they have a child, a daughter who isolates herself in the attic with books. Eventually, the man grows into the chair, or is it the other way around? And man and furniture become one.
It’s an unrelenting cascade of language, English tinted with Scottish dialect and peppered with French vocabulary. Lyrical and poetic, images come thick and fast – there is a dazzling moment when Cameron reels off a seemingly endless list of food going into the fattening man’s gob. Strangely, this highlight is symptomatic of the piece’s problem for me: I am more impressed by the skills of the charismatic performer, by the torrent of words rather than their meaning and the story they are trying to convey. I find myself unengaged – after the first brief interlude, in which the audience is served madeleines – I can’t get back into the story at all and I am swept along by the music of the speech. I become a little bit bored but I force myself to concentrate and try to keep up. There are other interludes in which we get a date (the edible kind on a cocktail stick), a tot of whisky (hurrah!) and a piece of dark chocolate. I pick up the narrative thread again – there’s been an inheritance windfall and there’s a lighthouse in it now…
I want to like it more than I do. Cameron is so charismatic and expressive, you can’t take your eyes off her. But somehow I’m just not getting it. I suppose it’s the story of how a man’s selfishness ruins a marriage, which in turn blights a young girl’s life, before his redemption through spending time with his daughter. The wife is so much of a victim she cannot extricate herself from her drudgery; it takes a deus ex machina in the form of a windfall to get her out.
Visual and aural interest are maintained by Hansjorg Schmidt’s lighting and Paul Clark’s music, and director Suzy Willson has Cameron making a world of a simple chalk circle and its lone wooden chair, enabling us to cast and set the story in our imaginations. The characters are grotesques, the situation symbolic, but the relentless storm of words is too slippery for me to grasp.