The brilliant Saturday matinee performance at The Yard Theatre of The Host, a new play by Nessa Muthy, epitomised everything that theatre is about. The National Youth Theatre gives opportunities to young people to engage with the very best in professional theatre practice. In a forum after the show we got insight into this purpose as we listened to the proud cast exude their enthusiasm for and understanding of the play, the issues it portrayed and the impact it had on them as both actors and people.
Re(Becca) Murrell as Yasmin, the central character, gives a stunning, high-energy performance and was on stage for all but one of the seventeen scenes. Despite this the group of actors under the experienced direction of Zoe Lafferty surely achieves the NYT’s objective of creating an ensemble piece. All the performers arrive onstage with real impact; they know exactly what is in the characters’ minds at that moment. There is a real dramatic tension created initially by the relationship between Yasmin and her sisters, then between Yasmin and Rabea, the Syrian refugee and, finally, between these two relationships themselves.
We see the, perhaps inevitable, breakdown of all Yasmin’s relationships as after an hour and twenty minutes of beautifully crafted drama she is left alone on the island platform of her flat having driven away, one by one, each of the other characters. Each of these breakdowns is believable. Zak Douglas manages to keep a twinkle in his eye as Rabea through much of the play which gives truth to Yasmin’s desire to have him as a friend. Isabella Verrico is spot on from the first moment with her fists thrust into the pockets of her leather jacket and her “are you looking at me?” attitude.
Jesse Bateson as Natalie is full-on hysterical and stressed for much of the play. This might have been a bit over-the-top but an interesting technical point for me was that this was successfully leavened by the fact that when 'off stage' we can see her and the other sisters sitting or standing at the back (in their rented house), not emoting, just being. Taylor Keegan provides a clear, blue eyed, blonde contrast as Hayley to Yasmin’s mixed-race heritage (same mother, different fathers) and she captures very nicely her 'piggy-in-the-middle' status between Yasmin and her other sisters.
For me the scenography works beautifully. I think if you could watch the piece with no words, just the movement, props, lighting and sound you could have told the story. Yasmin won’t leave her island to join the others in their doomed existence in their mother’s house. She allows Rabea onto her island, feeds and waters him from the fridge and watches him sleeping perched like a raptor on the sofa above him. Many times, actors run on or off and most of the scene changes, in reduced lighting, have an urgency accentuated by the sounds.
The actors describe the play, during the forum, as being about racism but that it became clear in rehearsal that it was far more complex than that. Nessah Muthy talks about identity in the programme notes and she certainly provides a troubling image in the play of Yasmin trying, as a small child, to cut away the black skin inherited from her father and Pearl her older sister wanting her to do it to become white.
The actors also nail the fundamental truth that every human being is an individual with their own story and their own needs for love and friendship. They have done lots of exercises in rehearsal to build the back stories for them to inhabit as they entered the scene or as they confronted the other characters.
For me director, Zoe Lafferty, has delivered what the author intended and pulled together actors, writer, creatives and collaborators (worthy of special mention is designer Cécile Trémolieres) to deliver a thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking show. My only minor challenge would be: Do all modern productions have to start at a million miles an hour with rapid often overlapping dialogue which leaves some audience members struggling to comprehend what is happening?
My other issue with the Director’s Notes is: Are the serial mistaken decisions and lack of responsibility for their own actions by many people across the world (be it Syria or Croydon) all down to a culture of ‘survival of the richest’? As Brecht would say, people have choices and as the play demonstrates, pay-day loans solve nothing and nor does violent revolution.