Cherwell’s Verdict: A Creative Bolt from the Blue


The inspirational framework behind the performance’s title, the 17th-century French folk tale by Charles Perrault, provides both fantastical and sinister undertones to this thoroughly modern one-act play from writers Douglas Grant and Howard Coase.

The audience becomes the lost wife of Perrault’s classic, wandering through the many-doored castle of dementia patient Claire (newly recasted Becky Banatvala)’s mind, with new light hed on her past and present through the script’s stitching together of present and past, memories and dreams, reality and illusion. Equally pertinent is the strong dynamic between Claire’s children, David (Michael Roderick) and Emily (Carla Kingham), who simultaneously embody two polar attitudes to the treatment of dementia patients whilst
dissolving into roles around Claire as she revisits her past and the recesses of her own broken imagination. A linear, chronological plot is done away with through fragmented visions of a hedonistic, continental, sexually liberated past picked from between the wastes of an enslaved present as Claire is gradually shackled by marriage, age and degenerative mental illness.

An intricately layered piece, the players’ intimate use of space creates a strong spatial contrast between the “bloody suffocating” domestic chaos of the nursing home that surrounds Claire and the dream-like Paris of her youth. Simple props and even single words are unwittingly triggered by Claire’s bickering children like chronological landmines, turbulently casting both her and the audience into an unworldly set of intermingled mental experiences, though in places the dialogue seems too fast-paced for some of the more lilting, esoteric moments. Yet whilst it is pitiable to watch Claire’s slowly-slipping grip on reality, the scenes also display a rebellious escapism optimistically shining through in lines like “You’re the only one keeping yourself anywhere!”

Though energetic, the lightning-quick, sporadic changes between reality and Claire’s memories and delusions sometimes wear thin in emotional depth, with emphasis on comically jocular accents and snappy bitchery threatening to eclipse the overarching pathos of the piece, and the staging is at times a little clunky. Nonetheless, nuances of character displayed by the cast and the blocking used reflect an ultimately loving family portrait strained by practical, financial and emotional pressures, and if the lighting of the Burton-Taylor can be fully mastered, the play’s surreal, explorative nature will stir any audience.

Bluebeard displays significant potential. This well-scripted modern family tragicomedy raises questions about the practicality and ultimate securing of mental wellbeing of individuals with dementia. It asks whether happiness if based in ignorance is happiness at all, and dissects the suffering caused to the relatives of those enduring the brutally bleak quotidian existence of their loved ones when the mind turns against itself. Together the three-strong cast present a production which by third week promises to amuse and engage.