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“Surprising, and slightly macabre”: Sampi at the Burton Taylor

A play about friendship, breakdowns, a chicken sandwich, existential questioning and a nosebleed, Sampi at the Burton Taylor Studio is a piece of new writing by Oliver Roberts taking the Oxford drama scene by storm. Selling out the venue on Friday night, I was lucky enough to get a front seat to the madness.

The plot of the play is simple in concept: two men and one woman, all in their early twenties, prepare for a birthday party. Tensions within the group are quickly established and along the road to reconciliation we see Nat, Hayley and Sara struggle with new jobs, drug issues, irrational fears, relationships and ultimately their understanding of self. All common topics that will ultimately hit well with an audience of university students. 

The play explores the fine line between what everyday acts are terrible and what is simply a part of the system. Staged in the BT’s black box setting in the round, you are thrust into the centre of the chaos. With a minimal, but clever, set of a table and three chairs, but an otherwise empty space, the actors were given space to move, allowing exploration with proximity in their acting choices. The only thing disturbing the minimalism was the tabletop, cluttered with miscellaneous party supplies; beer, hats, streamers and a radio.

The play is carefully crafted with recurring motifs that I felt myself recognising as we returned back to them. The radio, brought in by Nat at the start acting as the centre for the transitional audio between scenes; adverts for Spotify skips, static, and snippets of pop songs jarringly played over loudspeaker as the scene shifts. We also see titular references embedded in the play. Nat, our charmingly naïve deep thinker, introduced us to sampi in one of his existential musings; leading me to learn that it is an archaic letter added onto the end of the Greek alphabet (a fact I had never before encountered!).

Moreover, the motif of the nosebleed intertwined with the concept of bloodletting struck my attention. A concept that was openly discussed in a contemplative, philosophical manner in the former half of the play and being constantly reminded to us with the presence of this unrelenting nosebleed from Hayley. The emotion is physical and we see Haley’s pain expressed through his own purging of blood. When he hits Sara near the end of the play he wants her to share in the pain he is experiencing leaving both characters wearing their emotional scars smeared on their faces. The motif finishes at the end of the play when Halyey and Sara reach the final peak of their already crumbling relationship; blood is spilt into cups which are swapped and drank from, symbolising them finally agreeing to disagree. The ending is surprising, slightly macabre, and disturbing yet reinforces a sense of finality at the end of the play in the face of all this unresolved conflict. Ultimately, however, I came away still debating over whether closure between the characters was ever really reached.

Despite the depth of thought gone into the writing of the play, the comedy that it’s described as does not go amiss. With expertly timed quips built naturally into the fast flowing conversations of the young adults, the audience were continually laughing aloud at the dialogue on stage. Whether from a sense of camaraderie with these figures of young adulthood that are so vibrant, overpowering yet familiar, or genuine confusion at the absurd topics addressed, it worked either way. Only a group of twenty year olds can muse over the possibility of a reincarnated chicken sandwich with a soul being a form of cannibalism with utter sincerity! 

The production done on Sampi was particularly interesting. Along with the aforementioned transitional soundscape, we were given a large projection of a digital timer upstage right. The timer begins as the action of the play starts and ticks up to the hour mark as the play progresses, adding to the intensity of the action as the omnipotent pressure of time overshadows the action unfolding. Moreover, the soft yellow lighting enhanced the plays realist nature, before expertly shifting to a soft focussed red on Hayley and Sara in their final heated argument. 

The play felt comforting and funny yet tense and overdramatic. Roberts takes the mundane and common experiences of young people and exaggerates them to a comic extent, whilst also getting us to question the authenticity of human connection.

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