Sunday, 10 June 2007

Trance - The Bush Theatre

Trance by Shoji Kokami
The Bush Theatre: 6th-30th June
Directed by: Shoji Kokami
Reviewed by Mark Valencia - Teacher

A tragi-comic three-hander about mental illness… minimal white décor… we’ve been here before, surely? Certainly somewhere very like it; but, new as it is to British audiences, Shoji Kokami’s play actually predates Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange by several years. Sadly, though, Trance is not in the same league as that subtle and mercurial play.

Kokami himself directs this English language début of a serpentine tale that has proved enduringly popular in his native Japan since its 1993 premiere. He is a director who knows his craft: the pace and vigour of his productions are exemplary, and he is well served by a trio of actors all of whom brings idiosyncratic qualities to their roles. This is canny casting for a play that deals above all with three isolated and fractured personalities, each of whom is trying in vain to reach out to the other two.

The sense of disconnection is intensified by differences in acting styles. As Masa, apparently the most damaged of the characters, Stephen Darcy gives an appropriately edgy but downbeat performance around which the other two whirl in fevered counterpoint. Meredith MacNeill imbues the role of Reiko, Masa’s long-term friend and short-term doctor, with a gallery of entertaining vocal tics and facial twitches that come perilously close to scenery-chewing. She gets away with it, despite the intimate scale of the Bush space, because her technical skill is so great and her stage presence consistently sympathetic.

Overacting of an altogether more flamboyant kind is required of Rhashan Stone’s Sanzo, alias “Sylvia Stallone”, drag artist. For most of the play Stone flounces fruitily and spouts every camp cliché in the book. This showy gay caricature is Trance’s Achilles’ heel, though, because when it comes to screaming queens with a heart of gold British audiences have been there, done that, bought the strappy top. Alas, we are called upon to warm to and care about a derivative stereotype whom Kokami patronises lazily. Maybe cultural differences are a factor (comedy can be a notoriously poor traveller), or maybe Trance arrives on these shores already too dated for contemporary sensibilities; but, for all Stone’s enthusiastic advocacy of the role, Sanzo’s posturings are a bore.

Shoji Kokami stages his play with a lithe assurance and confidence in his material. His expert use of mime allows a prop-free stage to appear cluttered with all manner of crockery, bed linen and cigarette butts, and the intangible nature of these imaginary objects makes a satisfying complement to the central idea of the piece.
If I have been coy about describing the plot, it is to safeguard the play’s surprises. Kokami’s story twists and turns as he debates the nature of sanity and the desperate plight of lonely individuals in a crowded city. His dramatic tricks catch us off guard several times (even though his primary deceit is semaphored rather too obviously during the early scenes), yet the play ends with a disappointing whimper as inspiration falters. Whatever it was about Trance that captured the spirit of the age in nineties Tokyo, a great deal of it has been lost in translation.

Trance runs at The Bush Theatre London until the 30th June for more information visit
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