“Never say never” is a bold title for a play, and boldness I certainly something abounds in Julia Hartley’s brand new translation and production of the classic French play Il ne faut jurer de rien by Alfred de Musset. Opening with a playful, breezy original score by graduate Alex Baxter (perhaps the finest I’ve heard in a student production) and a whimsical silent dressing sequence performed by lead Orowa Sidker, the play quickly slides into a gentle pace and light-hearted manner. This boldness and energy is something that manifests itself in numerous aspects of the play. The second scene, for example, is one of an animated aristocratic tea party, proxemically juxtaposed with a frenetic, exclamatory dance lesson in a scene that giddily introduces the audience to the wonderland world of the upper classes. The performances of the supporting cast are similarly similarly spirited and energetic in their use of uncompromising cariacature. Katie Ebner-Landy’s Baroness is a brash, bawling, bounding matriarch with a broad streak of jolly-hockey-sticks masculinity. Sam Young turns in a simmeringly understated and committed performance as the simpering priest, and Sophie Ablett is perfectly pouty and breathy as the wistful Cécile. Even Chris Young’s momentary comic turn as a waiter leaves an impression on the audience with its broad brushstrokes.
However, the problem with such a supercharged production is that the energy in this play is often misdirected, or else left to dissipate uncontrolledly, meaning many characters lack any sense of progression or development over the course of the narrative. The spirited outbursts of protagonist Valentin’s uncle, Van Buck, as he protests against his nephew’s libertine lifestyle, are perpetually played as peremptory. Van Buck’s relationship with his nephew is never allowed to develop due to constant regression into slanging matches. Similarly, Valentin never pauses to enjoy his plotting and scheming over the hand of the Duchess’ daughter, Cécile, and instead of demonstrating any sense of internal search or exploration, flatly recites his intentions in a somewhat expository manner. The production’s reliance upon cariacature, and its constant pursuit of broad humour seems to lead to a lack of development or nuance in performance – even the Duchess’ booming, though largely brilliant, could be made better with more modulation and variation of volume and pitch. â€¨Perhaps the most crucial flaw in the control of energy lies in the staging of Never Say Never, which is often contrived and heavily repetitive. Conversations between Valentin and his uncle are ceaselessly pushed directly to the front of the stage, with Valentin facing the audience and repeatedly monologising in an uninteresting way. Indeed, the direction seems to suggest a determination to deny the possibility of conversation between the two characters. At other points, actors seem to lack any sense of objective, an end up expelling their physical energy by making repeated, uncontrolled and motiveless circles of the stage’s set. Perhaps the most ill-judged staging comes towards the end of the third act, when a fiery confrontation between the Duchess, Cécile and Van Buck concerning a letter sent to Cécile by her suitor Valentin is played out with the actors awkwardly positioned both standing and sitting within 1m proximity of each other – what should be a rapid and charged confrontation is reduced to an awkward exercise in head turning, in which drama and physicality are not able to fully or convincingly unfold – the climactic instance feels cramped and smothered – a shame considering the considerable fire of Ebner-Landy and piercing despair of Ablett.
Never say never is a fun piece, which understands its tongue-in-cheek nature. However, this production seems to have been too playful in the development of its own subject matter. What may prove enjoyable and fun for the cast to perform may require a little more technical refinement before the audience are ready to share in it. But hey, Never say never.