The Zoo Story / Little Dolls

Thursday 01 May 2014
reading time: min, words
A pair of crime related short plays

Zoo Story by Lace Market Theatre. Photo by Mark James

The Lace Market Theatre 2013-14 season continues its diverse programming with a double bill of one-act plays loosely linked by the theme of crime - Edward Albee's The Zoo Story and Nancy Harris' Little Dolls - staged in the intimate surroundings of their studio theatre, an excellent Sam Smith's Ale-stocked bar.

First up is Albee's 1958 tale of a chance meeting on a Central Park bench. Peter, a well off publishing executive with a wife, two daughters, two cats and two parakeets, is interrupted by deadbeat Jerry, who swings wildly from anti- to hyper-social. In his desperation to connect with someone, Jerry forces Peter to answer his invasive questions and listen to his stories. When Peter attempts to leave, Jerry turns violent and the whole exchange climaxes in a moment of savagery from both men who become territorial and cruel. 

The performances here were excellent - the reserved Peter, played by Richard Holmes, was a highlight of the evening for his constant work even in the long speeches of Jerry. He was fully engaged and his complimentary acknowledgments and reactions never overshadowed the storytelling. There was great skill in this telling too, both on the part of the writer and the performers. Guy Evans, as Jerry, delivers his spiralling monologues with such menace that two members of the audience left when he retold his attempt to kill his landlady's dog (proving Martin McDonagh's adage "you can't kill dogs").

The performance was let down by over-long videos which bookended the performance, but added little, and a patchy soundscape of park sounds, which again wasn't totally necessary. In both cases these ought to have followed the minimalist rules of the set - just a bench - allowing the text to be the main point of focus. The crispness of the acting, anchored by the stillness of Holmes' Peter allowing Evans' Jerry to be a more feral presence, was the real strength of this staging and made this a captivating watch.

Little Dolls by Lace Market Theatre. Photo by Mark JamesThe second performance, Little Dolls, was a more modern (written in 2008) and even darker affair. A young woman, Vicky, tells her story to John, a psychiatrist. Vicky is afraid of the dark after a school trip where her best friend was murdered in the hostel bed next to her as she slept. As the telling of Vicky's story continues, John becomes controlling and sinister until we come to question whether he is trying to make her better or make her worse.

As a play Little Dolls is poorly written. It is full of tropes and stereotypes straight from the Operation Yewtree handbook making nothing that happened especially surprising, interesting or shocking; as an audience we knew exactly where we were going. The characters weren't compelling despite some good actors from the actors and with John's ominous twist toward the end it seemed to do little but show a continuing cycle of abuse enacted upon Vicky. For me, I'd rather see a man talk about trying to kill a dog.

The staging of Little Dolls for me ducked a few brave decisions. The lighting of the piece was neither black-out nor fully lit - I would have loved to have seen it performed in pitch black where Vicky's 'safety blanket', a lighter which she could use to break the darkness in which she was in, could have been used to even greater effect. The lighting effect we did get was one reminiscent of Dario Argento's 1977 horror classic Suspiria. The production employed both the Italian director's use of colour in the constant green backlighting of the action and the creepy main theme by prog favourites Goblin.

Emma Hayes as Vicky give a creditable performance but she lacked a level of stillness to make the menace of the piece really tell. As John Matt Huntbach, Richard Holmes as Peter in The Zoo Story, had long periods of listening to the telling of the story but his engagement never felt as total as the man in the play that preceded Little Dolls. His presence later in the play, when able to become more threatening, did work well however his over-actorly delivery of his lines made his performance feel like just that: a performance. This all said, these promising actors weren't helped by a poor script.

This was a bold piece of programming by the Lace Market and, with their double-bill of Samuel Beckett coming up, they should be applauded for doing something a little different, even if not everything is a solid gold hit.

Zoo Story and Little Dolls run at the Lace Market Theatre until Saturday 3 May 2014


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