THEATRE Theatre Reviews The Woman Before Royal Court London UK REVIEWS

The Woman Before

Jerwood Theatre Downstairs
Royal Court Theatre

Toil and muddle

The most striking thing about Roland Schimmelpfennig's play is the way it is told. Mark Thompson's naturalistic design depicts the roomy hallway of a spacious, old-fashioned flat, with a large front door in the back-wall and three doors in the sidewalls leading off to the character's bedrooms. A family lives here: a couple in their forties, Frank and Claudia, and their teenage son, Andi. The centre of the hall is covered in cardboard boxes as the family are due to move out the next day. Their family life is upset by the visit of a strange woman, Romy (Helen Baxendale). She claims to be Frank's adolescent sweetheart. She says Frank promised to love her forever and she has come to hold him to that promise, even though they haven't seen each other in twenty years.

This play's non-linear narrative is an understatement. The scenes jump back and forth over the course of 24 hours. One scene will be set three minutes prior to the previous scene, the next scene will be from ten hours later, the scene after that will be three hours earlier, and so on. Johanna Town's lighting design has the time that each scene occurred projected in green light at a panel above the front door, helping to prevent confusion.

The plotting style added humour to the production which would not have been there had the action occurred in a linear fashion, as the audience may have already seen a scene's outcome, so know what will happen. Possibly this narrative style was meant to function as a Brechtian distancing effect, forcing the audience to focus not on what happens, but how it happens, leading them to also wonder why.

That would have been more interesting had the characters and their social situation been more finely drawn. However, the play never went into any great detail into the characters' past or their personalities. Therefore, to look deeply at how and why the events of the play happen holds less fascination. It is all so lightly drawn that it is hard to see what areas of human life are really being targeted by the playwright. Is the play meant to show the conflict between bourgeois middle-aged values and the ideals of youth? Is it meant to be an attack on the fickleness of men? Who knows?

The non-linear structure necessitated many scene changes, which made the play drag. The green projections and snatches of music, designed by Ian Dickinson, are deployed in the scene changes to give the audience something to occupy them so they don't lose their attention. The music and lights are diverting enough at first, but eventually the novelty wears off. The later scene changes were accompanied by the audience shuffling, coughing and fidgeting, evidence of their waning attention.

The performances were all of a good standard, but nobody really shone. There was plenty of energy between the actors, they all had good chemistry together. The director, Richard Wilson could have pushed the actors to make more of their lines however. The delivery of lines tended to be a bit samey, but the dialogue was interesting enough to have been delivered with more variety and nuance. This would have given their characters and their characters' conflicts more depth and meaning, making the how and why of their situation an awful lot more gripping to watch. © RW

“The Woman Before” is at Royal Court Theatre from the 12th May until the 18th June, 2005.

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