The lights are somewhat dim, the setting bleak and paltry – a dump-yard, literally. Add the trio of actresses mumbling and fidgeting on-stage to eerie sound effects, and you begin to wonder just what lunacy Adam Leonard’s Conjure has in store.
Its premise seems straightforward – four young adults caught in a messy situation when one of them, after convincing the rest to take LSD, manages to crack his head open. The remaining three have to decide what to do with him, given what they risk back at the shadily un- named ‘home’ if they break curfew, reveal drug use, or simply bring back an injured friend (Aaron, played by James Mace).
Very rapidly though, the stakes steepen, as Leonard’s sensitive writing explores how we construct (and destroy) identities more often than not forged under pain or in defence. The chemistry between the actresses – Katie, played by Rachael Coll; Jess, played by Katty Cowles; and Shona, played by Chloe Wall – combined with Leonard’s snappy dialogues palliate the inevitable opening night stumbles. Admittedly, as the girls wonder what to do with their uncon- scious friend, their movements and exchange stagnate.
The emotional pitch will suddenly skyrocket, or drop to casualness. On the other hand, there’s evidently been careful thought in the blocking, maybe even a statement about psychology made: Aaron’s problematic body is out of sight, but still polarises the on-stage characters’ at- tention. Aaron himself is sat on a dishwasher (no spoilers but it’s an incongruous, effective symbol), occasionally narrating or reacting. Yes, there’s some weird, slightly clicheÌd discourse about how world news is boring and unrelatable. But overall, the sparks of wry, dry wit make Aaron’s comments welcome comical pockets in the steadily darkening play. Leonard develops this clever speech arrangement, giving his three female characters singular, separate mono- logues. These ‘anecdotes’ are pretty chilling, and give insight as to the play’s descent into drama. Jess’s story glimpses at how communities are breached by individual desires and resentments (much like the dynamic unfolding on-stage); Shona’s glances at communication warped by virtual messaging, at distrust and violence. Katie’s is definitely the freakiest, and Coll gives it her most wide-eyed, quivering stage presence – presumably about a trapped fox Katie tries to ‘free’, it’s about pain, mercy, isolation, and what we can’t say.
This isn’t to say the actresses don’t begin with off moments in tone or body placement as the issue of their half-brained friend seems to lead to a dramatic moot point. The stage space remains largely unused – until Katie, having made her enmity and torturous intentions to- wards Aaron clear, lunges at his wounded head and presses down. Katie’s character is perhaps Leonard’s finest: the plot’s dark turn pivots on the moment her vendetta reveals itself. Her reasonable, pragmatic front morphs into real jealousy and domineering, while her invective against Aaron questions the notion of domestic terrorism. Borderline psychopathic, she’s a key piece in an equally well-constructed dynamic between personalities, where the seeming underdog (self-professed ‘loser’ Shona) takes the upper hand with fiercely repressed resentment.
All in all, Conjure is a promising piece of writ- ing by Leonard, and the cast does honourably by it, if not always justly. Mace, though he started off strong as the detached, quipping observer, falls a little flat by the play’s end, paling once he interacts directly with the rest of cast. Cowles, in her soliloquy, confirms herself as a great deliverer of punchlines, and her class parrot- ing isn’t too bad either. Wall, after seeming so vulnerable, performed a nuanced turnaround where it would’ve been easy to go over the top in the abrupt change. Fine, the setting’s not great, and the play gets intense a little fast – but it’s also genuinely funny at times, and the cast is earnest. There’s a dramatic pen to watch here, and a voice to follow