The Music Box

Tue 14th – Mon 27th August 2012

reviews

Anwen Jones

at 09:13 on 15th Aug 2012

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Described in the synopsis as ‘beautiful, sinister and wonderfully unnerving’ it’s fair to say I held rather high hopes for the production of 'The Music Box'. In addition to this, the notion of creating a play surrounding the imagination of a child appeared intriguing and challenging. Consequently I entered the theatre with little apprehension that this would be a treat.

It is at this point when my preconceptions began to slide slowly. The show started late which I am not criticising – I’m aware that this happens regularly, normally because of set problems or lighting. However, seeing the actors casually sitting in their costumes about 4 feet away from the paying audience in the box office area, seemingly having a good old chat, demonstrated an apparent lack of professionalism on behalf of the cast.

Yet I was determined to put this incident to one side and to concentrate on the show at hand. The set itself was minimalistic but created an eerie, disconcerting atmosphere as audience members craned their neck to the see the ‘mobile’ consisting of dangling white figures. The opening scenes also emphasize this unnatural, uncertain focus as action begins with a narrator and two unknown characters speaking sentences which appear to make no sense. However, this missing link between language and meaning, despite being rather intriguing at first, is never found throughout the whole play causing the audience, perhaps purposefully, to fight to understand what action is taking place. I felt however that this was asking too much.

As much as I know that there will be an underlying message and story to the script, I personally never grasped what on earth was going on between the anguished cries for companionship and the multiple intakes of small pills. My theories ranged from an angst-ridden pill-popping teenager and her drug sessions to incestuous families who bare no resemblance to one another. The script is daring and certainly original - praise must be given to Emma Stirling for trying to create such a bizarre concept - but unfortunately I fear the production resembled a slightly pretentious attempt to portray kooky ideas leaving the audience more interested in the art work precariously taped to the walls, as they were the only things that offered some sort of understanding and beauty.

What is most frustrating about this performance is that the cast are obviously talented. The depth of expression that Sarah Malcom (Laura) and Oliver Marsh (Blake) in particular portray allows the audience to focus in on the characters beneath the words and, at their best, manages to make some of the dubious language appear authentic. I also cannot fault the complete dedication of the whole cast to the play and script; even if I had no clue what was going on, they appeared to share a common energy for the meaning of the production. I have no doubt that this company are strong actors and directors – I simply feel that this particular play did not necessarily demonstrate the extent of their ability and that the concept needs detailed attention if it has any chance of engaging with a varied audience.

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Ettie Bailey-King

at 09:44 on 15th Aug 2012

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'The Music Box' is a truly baffling play. The setting - a sort of nightmarish nursery adorned with a broken mobile and a couple of creepy voodoo dolls – is initially rather compelling. Yet these first few seconds are as good as it gets. After a whole hour of halting dialogue, exhausting emotional tension and cyclical, repetitious movement we never once see any character or plot development. It feels like Beckett without the good bits.

'The Music Box' offers us a bleak world in which time is suspended and language itself laid bare, but the dialogue is imprecise and tends to unravel or to lose its momentum. At times I felt I was watching a rather uncertain attempt at conveying uncertainty itself.

Like a clumsy surgeon who opens up a wound only to leave it unexamined, 'The Music Box' pokes a hole in reality but doesn’t know quite what to do with it. There are no grand insights, only grand attempts at sounding insightful. It appears to be critiquing our dramatic expectations (of conventional character, or some hint of something resembling narrative) but the kinds of statements which it offers - "here on this godless coil" or "in an allegorical abode" are so overblown that they jar against any claims at stripped-back realism.

If the tone and structures were varied then the occasional instance of hyperbole might dazzle, but instead tends to drop like a stone into an ocean of equally pretentious dialogue. Even the sparest prose - “I’m so tired of people not saying what they mean…I can’t even bring myself to say what I mean” sounds trite. We lose faith as each of the (repeated) hysterical climaxes dissolves into an identical mood of lethargy as the one that preceded it. It is certainly not clear whether anyone is saying what they mean, or indeed really saying anything in this play.

It is a shame to encounter this cast – who, as a collective, appear devastatingly talented – trapped inside such an underwhelming piece. It felt exactly as though we were sitting in on a group of promising young drama students performing a series of learning exercises. Each scene was a virtuoso enactment of ‘terror’, ‘vulnerability’ or ‘menace’ but they stood like set-pieces in the abstract and never came together into a meaningful whole. It seems absurd to conclude that the acting was credible and the play itself unbelievable, yet this is exactly the impression produced when performers are placed in identical scenes, required to act at full blast with no prospect of development. Where one scene would be intense or two memorable, the monotonous repetition leaves them all – when placed alongside one another- distressingly uniform.

Emma Stirling’s play is a genuinely imaginative offering, but it felt too much like an exercise in the construction and delivery of disturbing aphorisms. The intersection between childhood/adulthood, dreaming/waking and reality/fantasy is a fascinating place to explore. Paradoxically, the only way to let the audience in and to unravel the meaning of such abstract an idea, is to begin with something rather more concrete.

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