“We call this the walkthrough…” begins Peter Madden as Sam, in the first scene I’m shown on Tuesday. I’m only watching a rehearsal in the Balliol music room, but this doesn’t feel like a walkthrough; the acting is tight, controlled and impressive.
And ‘The Flick’ really is a play about the acting. Annie Baker’s 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama features only four characters, employees of a cinema that is going digital. The interactions between each of the characters demonstrate the difficulty of balancing humour and friendliness while retaining the formality and hierarchy of the workplace, with all of this masking true emotion. Isabel Ion’s production covers this well: the play is funny, but tense. The words left unspoken are as important as those that are.
Sam’s ‘walkthrough’ is a scene in which he’s showing new recruit Avery (played by Lee Simmonds) how to sweep the rubbish in the auditorium after a film. Simmonds draws out the humour of following Madden round with a mop, but not to the point of fully realising this scene’s slapstick potential. This isn’t a bad thing; if perhaps it sacrifices a few laughs, it creates a more powerful atmosphere. We are left with the irony of watching a scene filled with anticipation, set after the audience has finished watching a film and left.
There is a strong homosocial tension between Sam and Avery. Madden tells me that Sam is always “trying not to let his guard down”, and that the authority he has over “inexperienced” colleagues makes him “feel like he’s worth something”. As this power dynamic equalises, Sam loses authority and insecurities bubble towards the surface.
I mention to the cast that silence seemed an integral part of this production, and my comment’s greeted with laughter. It turns out that this has been a real point of focus in rehearsal, and one that Ion had been reminding them of earlier that day. The hard work paid off: it’s the stand-out strength of the performances. Ion has a number of productions under her belt at this point, but states that this aspect of ‘The Flick’ gives it more unique challenges. It is “muted” and “low energy (but not in a bad way!)”. She says she wanted the dialogue to sound “natural”: “when we talk in reality we don’t express ourselves within the planned narratorial arc of a scene”, and “we sit in silence when we don’t know what to say”. This is demanding on the actors; silence puts more focus on their physical acting, but this doesn’t present the cast with any problems.
As momentum builds, we have a focus on the theme of speech. Lines on this topic come in quick succession: “just say it”, “I remember saying that”, “What did he say”, “I’ve been saying that shit for years”, anticipating the climactic scenes where the characters let release all the stored-up emotion.
When these moments finally arrive, they are worth the wait. An explosive scene between Sam and Antonia Clarke’s ‘Rose’ throws moral shade onto both characters. Avery’s big moment comes in a recital of Samuel Jackson’s classic ‘Ezekiel 25:17’ speech. Performing such an iconic monologue is a daunting task, but Simmonds pulls it off. Baker’s inclusion of this speech is clever; just as Jules in Pulp Fiction reinterprets the biblical passage for the situations he finds himself in, Avery reinterprets the Pulp Fiction scene for his own.
The inclusion of such film references is one of many ways that the mediums of film and theatre overlap or clash in this show. Ion even links this to the theme of a need for intimacy that recurs in the play; while “all the longing and desire seems to come from the escapism film offers” the “physical intimacy” of theatre (“especially in The Pilch!”) creates a sense of immediacy and involvement that contradicts the detached experience of watching a film.
The set design by Lewis Hunt promises to make this involvement even more exaggerated. The Pilch is going to be ‘reversed’, with the audience facing the usual seating and doors. A haze machine is going to recreate the projector beam, and the team have been to Malvern to acquire some authentic old seats from a cinema “which was shut down in the new digital age, much like the upgrading cinema in the play”. As a final touch if you’re not already persuaded – there’s even going to be popcorn.