It can be instructive to see how perceptions (not least one's own) of a production change between Edinburgh and London. Sometimes, bereft of the frenzy of high Fringe season, a show can seem beached; more occasionally, it is finally able to breathe outside the hothouse of the August festival season. Yes, intervening months can change one's view. In the case of Theatre O's The Argument: A Family Portrait, however, scarcely ten days elapsed between my seeing it in Edinburgh's Assembly Rooms (after some 80 other shows in the preceding three weeks) and in The Pit in London.
There are palpable differences nevertheless. The change of venue has done the show some good. It seems more naturally suited to a largish studio space than to the near-cavernous ballroom in which it had played last month. The four performers, and Isla Shaw's portrait-crammed set, inhabit the space more naturally; although performances haven't altered their orientation, it is obvious from the opening whispered exchange that more nuance can be conveyed here.
The various scenes of the 80-minute piece also seem much richer. I felt a depth and resonance to which Fringe fatigue may previously rendered me oblivious. A collage of scenes portray the Strong family: optometrist Edward's seduction by and marriage to Anglo-Spanish Ernestina, the news of her death in a car crash in 1965, the tribulations faced thereafter by Edward and his two children, and the three family members' present-day lives intersecting at a fractious lunch when surprising news is broken. Theatre O's strong visual style and predilection for working with sound (be it effects or music ranging from Borodin to bebop, The Ink Spots to The Divine Comedy) are well to the fore. There are moments of great poignancy, as for instance when radio continuity announcer son Eric speaks of his family's fictitious Mother's Day rituals.
What persists, though, is a sense that the whole is inescapably less than the sum of its parts. One wonders whether putting some of the scenes in a different order would materially effect the overall impact, and if not, why not. Theatre O's breakthrough in 2000-01 came with a portmanteau show, 3 Dark Tales; on this occasion, the single narrative feels too slight to accommodate the company's wealth of invention.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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