Here’s a fun game you can play anywhere in Oxford: infiltrate a crowd of arts & humanities types and say the words “devised theatre”. Watch their faces contort as they tamp down oceans of bile, desperate to remain open-minded. Drink every time one of them explodes from the effort of suppressing his or her instinct to mistrust non-traditional art forms.
Wisecracks aside, it’s easy to hate Devised Play One: Fear when you assume that terms like “devised” are just shorthand for “sophomorically daft and contrived to alienate”. Watch me: tripe! Self-indulgence! Not enough vised plays done well in this reviewer’s opinion! Easy like Sunday morning — but give yourself some credit, if only so you have some to give Fear. Yes, the title makes you think atonal soundscapes and actors writhing in dance bags, but unclench. The reality is more like a Python sketch-cum-episode of Black Mirror, loosely arranged around one family’s ordinary and extraordinary unhappinesses.
Fear’s six-headed mother is a cast blessed with mutant strength, their only weakness a tendency to tilt the filters of their mime-cigarettes downwards and mime-light their trousers on mime-fire (and even that’s really more of a charming foible). Phoebe Hames and Sam Ward are skilled shaders, balancing the dark and the darkly comic beautifully, and Cameron Abery’s tetris-loving teen who falls down a rabbit hole of online child pornography that should pull the heartstrings of anyone who lost their innocence to 4chan. Lamorna Ash does a commendable job as his mother, her vindictive glee by turns funny and unsettlingly relatable — ditto Nick Finerty’s sadistic gameshow host, who captures the voice of social anxiety so well that, every night, fifty people’s sphincters retract simultaneously into their bodies. Special mention, though, must go to Emma D’Arcy, for an aching and mesmeric final monologue.
In developing Fear, Rough-Hewn Theatre have taken only the finest 100% organic vulnerability from human actors, distilled via improvisation and writer Emma Levinkind’s quill nib into something performable. Their product is unpolished: it lacks structure, there are no proper characters, it’s not set anywhere, lighting and sound are minimal, the stage doesn’t transform into a car. Instead, for 45 minutes, some strangers with giant balls will let you wander around their inner lives like open houses, in the hope that you might see something there that makes you feel less alone. Even if it fell down onstage, Fear would deserve props for exploring theatre’s potential to create these kinds of actor/audience relationships. Personally, I’m psyched for Devised Play II: The Fearing.