Goethe in Blackwell’s basement last term, Beckett on a boat this term, I expect to stumble upon some Ionesco in the Clarendon Centre any day now. Performing The Man with a Flower in his Mouth in Gloucester Green coffee shop Combibos seemed to be one in a long line of theatrical stunts playing themselves out in Oxford this year – just about anywhere except on stage. Yet rather than sullying this well-reckoned piece of modern theatre by distracting us from the true meaning of the text with cheap thrills and self-knowing quips, the gimmick really paid off and actually served to enhance the realism and intensity of the text.
The Playhouse Plays Out scheme aims to reach new audiences with affordable performances in unconventional venues: whilst most of the audience in Combibos seemed like they wouldn’t be too at sea in a real theatre and had probably stumped up a full-price Playhouse ticket fee countless times before, the nature of the performance did give it more of a low-key and accessible atmosphere, with the comforting hum of the coffee machines throughout. Seeing a play for £6 over a latte during a 45-minute essay break is a great way of fitting culture into a hectic student schedule.
At first, there was a palpable tension as the doors to the shop shut and the lead actor walked in: was he going to pull off this intimate play or was it going to be intensely embarrassing? Were the slightly nervous-looking people standing behind the counter the same baristas as earlier or had they swapped uniforms with trained actors? And was there going to be the eternally dreaded audience participation dimension, feared by all, enjoyed by none? Soon, however, the punters were able to relax as the lead actors quickly showed we were in capable hands, it became clear that the baristas were still baristas with coffee close at hand and audience participation was mercifully avoided.
The lead (and only) two actors were Samuel Collings, ‘The Man’, and Liana Weafer, ‘The Traveller’. Samuel Collings did a brilliant job of realistically playing the sort of man you wouldn’t be surprised to be approached by and hear all manner of ‘profound’ and ‘quirky’ things from in a station café. Whilst he did at first strike the tone of a fairly affected and self-satisfied ‘eccentric’, more and more sides to him began to emerge until he became tragically sympathetic and the audience was left visibly moved. Liana Weafer might have appeared to have less of a challenge on her hands: her main function appeared to be to operate as a comparatively normal eye-level and to react convincingly and engagingly. However, in such an intimate setting and such an intensely unusual play, this really was quite a feat and one which she executed with great flair. The director and adaptor, Poppy Burton-Morgan, also deserves a mention as her adaptation and staging helped to make the piece, which could have been quite static, exciting and hard-hitting.