Thursday, 23 July 2009

Out of Dead Air - Theatre Matolido, 24/7 Festival Manchester

Out of Dead Air
Writer: Mark Murphy
Director: Mike Heath
Reviewer: Clare Howdon

Mark Murphy’s ‘Out Of Dead Air’ promises in its programme to tell the tale of three prisoners Al, Lenny, and Mike who are locked in an endless routine of monotonous tasks and schedules and live in constant fear and paranoia, locked away from the intangible and remote outside world. On first entry into the imposing and industrial environment of The Printwork’s ‘Round’ space, one is hit by a rousing and highly effective sound score and some very arresting (and slightly uncomfortable) surveillance search lights. I am all for ‘endurance theatre’ (especially one which seemed to have been influenced by Orwell’s dystopian classic ‘1984’) so was quite excited for what I hoped would be an evening of challenging and thought provoking theatre.

Unfortunately, within five minutes of this production beginning, any optimism and anticipation was quickly dashed. I admire performances that take risks and branch out from the naturalistic ‘kitchen sink’ framework but this piece just doesn’t work. Firstly the writing never really has anything to say and the lack of substance is apparent from the outset. Concepts and ideas are shoehorned in and the characters, despite some fairly lengthy monologues, evoke no audience empathy. By focusing on the absurd monotony of the characters’ day to day lives within their prison environment, Murphy has also fallen short of the mark. The stilted and repetitive dialogue painfully flattens the pace and energy of the performance. It also distances the audience, which coupled with the industrial strength air-con blasting through the space (which the poor actors have to battle against throughout the piece), destroys any audience connection with the characters or their situation.

The flawed writing is also heightened by Mike Heath’s lack lustre direction. What should feel like an explosion at the end of the play lacks any real directorial concept or input and verges on the comical rather than the powerful. The final 15 minutes, which should be filled with tense anticipation as to whether the three prisoners will stay or go, instead descends into mindless and empty shouting. This becomes so excruciating, one is willing Mike to take the leap out of the window just to end the play rather than for any vested interest in the characters’ welfares.

The three actors face a massive feat to try and bring any credibility to this extremely confusing piece. Banji Ojo has stage presence but his aggressive and testosterone fuelled portrayal of Mike seems strained and one dimensional. Lewis Marsh is more successful as Lenny delivering a focused and energetic performance and is the only thing of any real conviction and believability throughout this production.

The 24 7 festival is quite rightly a festival for new and emerging writers and practitioners so risks should be taken and of course mistakes made along the way, but perhaps this was merely too ambitious a concept and project for the writer, director and performers involved, and sadly the result is a frustrating, muddled and slightly ridiculous hour of theatre.
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