A New Occasional Series of Plays, Music and Exhibitions from the Region
The visiting Hour by Elle Pemberton
Nottingham Actors Studio: The Basement
Time shapes plays. The way time moves. In many plays the movement is from A to B in a straight line. Circular plays are also popular. They begin with the concluding passage, then take us back and explain how we got there. My favourite dramas take the concept that time isn’t just curved (Einstein), but is actually a spiral. J B Priestley takes his fascination with this into several of his best plays, including An Inspector Calls. Time here isn’t linear, nor is it necessarily sequential. A spiral explains how patterns recur while evolving. (It also provides a possible explanation for re-experiencing moments; what we refer to as deja vu). Common sense and convention tells us that we exist in the present with an unchangeable past behind us and an unwritten future ahead. Playwrights and quantum scientists exist in a world where the boundaries between these elements are porous.
We are surrounded by spirals. The galaxies of the universe are spirals, hurricanes (think of the remarkable photographs of huge storms taken from space) are spirals, our DNA is spiral, shells, fossils; we are everywhere surrounded by this fascinating shape. Our very thoughts can spiral. As a noun it symbolises complexity. As a verb it suggests a lack of control. If something is spiralling then we feel danger. Noel Coward’s best play The Vortex picks up this theme. Life is a river, or an ocean. We must avoid the whirlpools (nature’s favourite spiralling symbol of danger).The Visiting Hour by Elle Pemberton is a spiral. It uses time cleverly. The play takes place over many visiting hours in a hospital yet the title reduces them to one. The definite article and the singularity are significant. We progress forward only to find ourselves back where we began, but each time something is different. We seem to be travelling through something like a spiral shell with no promise that the thread will emerge. Daedalus in Greek mythology is able to thread a spiral seashell (He does it by tying the thread to a tiny ant and letting the ant crawl through the spiral; that should keep the kids occupied on a wet afternoon at Cromer!) There is hope that there will be light but also a fear that the further we journey the more likely we are to meet a dead end. It’s claustrophobic, imprisoning even. But not without humour. The play made the audience laugh regularly, but never comfortably.
Time for a quick précis. Hannah has been hospitalised by an eating disorder that has made her behaviour unpredictable and uncontrollable. She hates being confined but knows that any alternative (being sectioned) would be worse. Her behaviour continues to be erratic, difficult. We don’t know how much this is the illness, the treatment or even wilful awkwardness. And we’re not meant to know. The authenticity of Hannah’s state of mind is clear in the writing and the acting. Often in linear narratives the audience is in a dominant position of knowing more than any character on the stage. Here the audience don’t know and this makes for an uncomfortable, but satisfying journey. The journey lasts an hour; is this the hour referred to in the title? Are we the visitors?
The play opens with the arrival of Hannah’s cousin Olivia for a visit. Her arrival is unexpected. Hannah is expecting her mother but we soon discover that the strain of looking after Hannah has reduced her mother to a state of nervous collapse. Olivia is a reluctant replacement. She cares enough to visit but she doesn’t want to commit herself. She is fearful of getting involved with Hannah and what this will entail. She knows her cousin well and is familiar with her antics and she is right to be apprehensive. She feels in her mind that she ought to do her duty but then get out as quickly as she can. Her main difficulty is that she cares. She stays, she commits. She gets drawn into the spiral.
The performances are strong. Elle Pemberton takes the role of Hannah as someone who is determined to both dominate and to shut out unwanted intrusions into her life. The cleverness in the acting being that what we see on the surface is rarely what we believe is going on inside her. It is a difficult and complex act and is carried off with great accomplishment.There is no raving; she plays the irrationality of her character with considerable rationality. She has a keen awareness of what is happening, what the various treatments involve and has developed a world weary cynicism to counselling, talking cures, therapists and self-help. At one stage she opens up and reveals that she shuts out half of the attentions because she doesn’t trust those making them and shuts out the other half because she doesn’t feel as though she deserves them. It is a truly touching moment.
Hannah Hall brings great resourcefulness to Olivia. She is often at the point of exasperation, at one stage actually walking out in frustration and anger. She is drawn into helping, encouraged that it seems to be doing some good; but every time the wheel turns back and she is left with rags for broadcloth. She fears that she is being played with. That Hannah is simply manipulating her. She runs through every strategy she can think of. Where she succeeds is through caring. She is a cousin but has a sister’s love. If there is an answer here, and the play is ultimately optimistic, it is that the cure will be found through love and honesty.
Both actors are skilful in the use of pauses. There is a great deal of meaning , and a mass of tension, in the silences.
This is a fast moving powerful hour. You’ll feel half-beaten up by the end of it. At all times there is a feeling of walking on egg shells. We journey through the darkness and each time we feel the light, the spiral continues and we’re back in the dark again. But the spiral isn’t a circle. We never end up in the same place twice. Patterns recur and develop.
Thought provoking writing, careful direction and skilful performances make this a play to watch out for. It’s only in preview at the moment. I know the Nottingham Actors Studio. This will appear again and it will be even better. That is just the way they do things there. The play is already very good. They don’t settle for very good in this part of Nottingham.
The previews run until Saturday but word has got out: it’s already a sell-out. If you’re lucky enough to live in range of Nottingham you’ll have to wait to see if it gets a full commission. My money is on the play.
The studio puts on some of the best new writing in the Midlands and the North, runs a brilliant little theatre space and provides free training for many many young people from in and around the Nottingham area. Training that leads on to professional work on the television, film screen and the stage. These people are worth supporting. You may wish to help them reach their summer fund-raising target. All donations are gratefully received and will be very well spent.
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