Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 30th June, 2018
The Crescent’s Ron Barber Studio is home again to yet another outstanding production. Director Stewart Snape’s take on the Peter Shaffer classic is instantly engaging, thoroughly engrossing and blisteringly devastating.
The mighty Colin Simmonds completely inhabits the role of disillusioned psychiatrist, Martin Dysart, charged with his most disturbing case ever: the case of an (un)stable boy who, for some reason or other, took it upon himself to blind six horses in one night. Simmonds’s Dysart feels as well-worn as his jacket, jaded in his erudition, and also very funny. Shaffer’s play has a rich seam of humour running through the soul-searching and philosophising and Snape gets the tone spot on. Dysart’s professional relationship with kindly magistrate Hesther comes across, thanks to the chemistry between Simmonds and Jo Hill, but of course, it is the scenes between Dysart and his patient that grip and thrill the most.
Sam Wilson is an excellent Alan Strang: pent-up and brooding at times, aggressively blaring out his thoughts at others. Wilson switches from teenage Alan to young boy Alan with ease in his re-enactments of key moments from his troubling life. An understanding develops between doctor and patient, and the mystery unfolds…
Sturdy support comes from Andrew Lowrie as Alan’s repressive father – nowadays we might call him ‘gammon’ – and Zena Forrest as Alan’s mother, credibly desperate (beneath a somewhat ill-advised wig!) as she seeks to understand but mainly exonerate herself from the shocking act of violence perpetrated by her child. Jess Shannon is matter-of-fact as Alan’s attempted love interest, Jill – a pleasing contrast to all the wordy soul-searching of the others; Angela Daniels makes a formidably efficient Nurse; while Josh Scott has his moment as the bewildered stable owner.
Phil Leonard makes a strong impression as the Young Horseman, and also as Nugget, one of the ill-fated horses. As is customary in this show, the horses are represented by actors in stylised masks, using movement (head tossing, foot stamping) to evoke horsiness. John Bailey’s creations for this production are elegant constructions of wire that the actors don like ritualistic masks. The tramping of their hooves, and assorted other noises, add to the tension.
The story is played out on a set of wooden floorboards and railings, suggestive of the stable, and also of a performance space: it is where Alan’s memories are staged, and also his place of worship. The face of a horse is stained into the wood, reaching up the back wall and along the floor, almost like a presence itself. Colin Judges’s design is beautifully efficient, superbly suited to Shaffer’s theatrically sophisticated script, where narration and reconstruction are entwined with more naturalistic scenes. John Gray’s splendid lighting, warm straw and cold blue, adds to the atmosphere.
This play about passion builds to a searing climax: the stylised re-enactment of the crime itself, a Bacchic moment, horrific in a symbolic way, leading Dysart to understanding at last, and brings to a close another superlative offering from the Crescent.
In a word: blinding.