High praise for young trio of actors presenting a striking play
RJ Flynn has many deftly written, well researched works to his name, tackling a range of important topics and emotions across genres, from musicals set against war or revolution to historical-political drama and examinations of a family dealing with early onset dementia.
But in this intimately staged, one-act, three-header horror he’s produced perhaps his finest work yet.
Staged in the meeting rooms of the YHA in Berwick, with chairs lined two deep on three sides, stage left in darkness behind a half-open double doorway (even the doors are used to great effect), the audience faces a two-seat sofa scattered with ordinary items from any living room.
The oddness comes both in the stage being at your feet with a single ceiling light, and the huge stain – a mixture of colours in the centre of the floor, the silent protagonist of a story that the remaining three characters give voice to through their gradual unburdening of personal fears.
As Norah (Emily Brocklehurst) works to clean the stain on day three of her new job as a crime-scene cleaner, her boss Lucy (Shian Devonan) discusses elements of the case while attempting to teach Norah how the job is done, how to disassociate herself from what she is doing, and why. Ever pushing this line, and learning where Norah’s desire to gaze into this abyss comes from, sets much of the backdrop for the first half of the show.
The unravelling of the personal stems simply from the question of why either of these people have chosen this job. Lucy is blunt and wilfully anti-social, yet finds enough in the revelations she allows Norah to become intrigued, if not fascinated, and begins to chip away at her own walls.
The show is deeply unsettling from the outset. The pair are clad in disposable boiler suits and face masks, with thick black rubber gloves protecting them from the astringent chemicals and potential for deadly disease.
Of particular note is the killing of the main light as Norah describes to Lucy her experience of recurrent sleep paralysis in chilling prose, with the ghoulishly disjointed figure of the night hag crushing her helplessly in the fugue state between slumber and consciousness. As this scene ends, we are snapped back into the room, setting the tone for what might come.
The second half brings Daniel (Patrick Davenport), upright yet foetal, sleepless and shaken, awaiting Norah as she gets to work the next day. He’s been travelling, out of reach, and is devastated by the death of the man who lived here. Norah is rightly alarmed, but warms to Daniel quickly and deals well with his grief. She begins to cross some lines, as Lucy had the night before, and things start to spiral out of control.
The exposition is subtle and skillful, often appearing on first take as simply a character’s background or a neat observation, later connecting to illuminate a fuller picture. Through just three actors, a surprising number of stories are gradually unwoven in the small space.
Not enough praise can be heaped upon this trio of young actors who brought all of this to life in 70 minutes or so in a single room.
Shian Devanon has a wicked, sharply timed comic acerbity, yet is immediately likeable. Her facial expressions in response to the things that astonish or stop Lucy in her tracks are fantastic, and the frustrations of family struggles, job stress and the sometimes bizarre things Norah tells her are beautifully natural and honest in performance.
Emily Brocklehurst brings a very striking combination of independence, strength and crushing vulnerability to life in Norah. Where Lucy is suffering loss throughout, Norah’s loss is old and clinging, striking her cold and hard, bringing her to a standstill at moments, only broken by Lucy’s impatience for others. Again, she brings a naturalness to the stage that is impossible to overlook, lending so much honesty and believability to Norah’s whole story.
I have seen Patrick Davenport portray a few characters now and know that he always gives every ounce of himself to a performance, yet it was a revelation to see how much he could surprise me in this role. From the broken, raw, torn-apart soul we first meet, floored by the distance of the man who has died, to the swirling unpredictable rage that comes out of him, you are left with a sense that things could go absolutely anywhere and there’s nothing you can do about it.
It’s difficult to talk about a show that relies so much on knowing as little as possible in advance. What is clear is that a work of this quality really must be staged again, not least so I can get another chance to revel in the subtlety of words and delivery, and be left shaken by everything that was Hidden In This Room.