In the modern world we inhabit, we are forced navigate multiple spaces at once – from your living room, to the urban landscape of London, and even your Tinder profile. Each one comes with its unique demands. But, so often when we navigate these spaces, we are expected to be totally present and attentive. We are expected to perform the best version of ourselves at all times. Such a feat is exhausting.
Nitrous Cow Productions’ new play, Brink, explores how six characters function in the modern city. Crucially, it is concerned with the stories of the many types of individuals that make up wider society. Almost paradoxically, the revealing of character nuances and eccentricities allow audience members to feel a greater assimilation and sense of unity with individual characters.
The play’s writer, Alastair Curtis, is an ex-Oxford student, and was the writing mind behind successful recent productions such as Dining Al Desko and Eat Your Heart Out. As such, I looked forward to seeing what he had produced. In Brink, Curtis has constructed a series of six monologues for six actors, which are interwoven with elements of ensemble work.
When I preview Brink in the weekend before show week, I am most struck by the dichotomy of individual vs. society that this play explores. One character, Stephanie (Emma Howlett), begins her monologue in an imagined airplane cabin, describing the various characters around her. She eventually reveals to the audience her anxieties about this imagined plane crashing, and her obsession with the constructed images in which she descending thousands of feet through the sky. In such moments the audience are absorbed by, and in the hands of, the character’s innermost voice. Stephanie is isolated by this internal world she creates, but is simultaneously surrounded by the ensemble on stage, embodying her fellow plane passengers. Particularly eye-catching in this scene was Julia Pilkington’s depiction of a little girl on board. This merging of the internal, imagined landscape with the external world and its array of gormless passing faces forces you to consider how we all fit in.
Ensemble work occurred intermittently between, and sometimes during, monologues. It ranged from lifts to canonized movement, and provided enjoyable visuals onstage. The ensemble worked especially well together in a scene which enacted a party. Actors laughed, or more fittingly they roared, in unison, providing a hilariously heightened depiction of how overwhelming social encounters can be. What I would say about this ensemble work is that some actors demanded more attention or proved more enticing to watch than others. I think attaining a sense of balance is inherently difficult in such scenes.
Director Luke Wintour tells me afterward that initial discussions for this production were focussed on depicting the modern experience, specifically on how individuals interact with the digital world. Quickly Wintour and Curtis became interested in the concept of “urban solitude” and how individuals experience “disconnection in a world of possible connections.” Wintour mentions the results of the BBC’s recent Loneliness Survey, which revealed tremendous levels of loneliness in the UK. Particularly interesting, he emphasizes, was the fact that young people were the most affected group where loneliness was concerned – 40% of 16-24 year olds reported feeling lonely often or very often.
I ask more about the processes of casting and rehearsing, and Wintour explains that the script “emerged through the rehearsal process,” after casting. This meant that the company were able to “develop characters for the individuals” and could “play to their strengths.” This is apparent when watching the monologues – Lee Simonds is responsible for providing a lot of the laughs as Damian, an awkward and overtly self-conscious young man in his thirties. Simonds’ stage presence, with his detailed facial expressions, consistent tics, and hilariously executed northern accent, is a real treat. Julia Pilkington’s monologue as Debs similarly plays to her strengths.
Debs describes to the audience one of her dreams in which the “councilman” continuously knocks at her flat door, her panic spiralling as the landscape of her environment starts to shift – her wardrobe spits out clothes and ceramic ornaments take flight. Pilkington brings to the character a kookiness which works to colour the surreal nature of her words. Hannah Taylor also proved particularly eye-catching as Kelly-Anne, a young woman who develops an infatuation with a girl she meets in a nightclub.
I suggest to Wintour that Brink also could be seen as a kind of love letter to the city, and he agrees that the script enables a “romanticism” for the urban landscape. But, he says, ultimately this romanticism is “torn apart and tugged at,” and the city proves “a very harsh place” with the characters developing “quite an antagonistic relationship with it.”
To present to the audience a chain of varying characters with individual monologues works to explore how we each make up a greater whole. But what else does Wintour want the audience to come away with? He views the play as a kind of “barrage of narrative” which people won’t necessarily be able to “keep up with.”
I suggest that this feels indicative of how we experience and process content in our modern, digital world. He agrees, and says that “each time you watch it you have a different take on it, a different understanding – partly on character.” Through the combination of ensemble work and the development of individual characters, along with their manifold eccentricities, Nitrous Cow Productions are offering a variety of elements for an audience to pick up on and, thereafter, mull over.
Brink is showing at the Michael Pilch Studio from 21st-24th Nov.