Review of Welcome to Paradise Road – Quaker Meeting House 8pm on 8th April 2016 – by James Kay
This was the fourth performance of a play within the Page-to Stage-Festival that we have reviewed – look out for the others on the Sardines website. The first two we saw were at the Zanzibar club on Seel Street in Liverpool with a narrow, dim, walk-in-off-the-street, womb-like interior but this venue was a first floor conference room in a smart modern building on School Lane. When I walked in my first thought was of the challenge for the actors - to create a sufficiently focused interior world for the audience, in this magnolia-walled professional training room environment.
I needn’t have worried. The raised platform/stage area was wrapped all the way round with a heavy plush curtain. The fabric helped create a cloying, controlled environment which suited the subject of the play written by Brian Coyle. Together with the temporary stage lights, a surprisingly effective black out and very convincing portrayals by our three actors, I was quickly drawn into the story and quickly forgot all about the undramatic environment in which we were viewing the play.
In a sitting room, in a modern home a dining table and chairs drew our focus downstage centre and a small coffee table off stage right held the tea tray, biscuits etc. This was to be the arena for the verbal duels to come but the action opened with the sound of a helicopter and Jane (Sarah Maher) looking anxiously into the sky as it hovered overhead. We were in Paradise Road, a suburb in which Jane convincingly portrayed for us the undercurrent of menace in this dystopian future. Neighbours spy on neighbours and the state is ever present but rarely seen. Jane has come next door worried about her partner Ben who has ‘disappeared’ – an all too frequent experience in Paradise Road.
In sweeps Caroline (Emily Heyworth), the local Neighbourhood Watch organizer, armed with her weapon of choice – a tray of tea and biscuits. Caroline at first charming, neatly turned out with a happy and smiling presence, revealed as time went on a more sinister core. Much of the play is taken up with a verbal struggle between them as Jane, sometimes tough and sometimes scared to the edge of being overwhelmed, tries to find out what has happened to Ben and Caroline reveals more and more of her true nature.
Both actors handled their roles with conviction and fluency. I quickly found myself on Jane’s side but wanting her to reveal less of herself to this appalling woman under whose influence she has fallen. I was completely sold on Caroline’s character as a sort of hyped up Margo (from the Good Life) but with all trace of niceness under the surface removed. This was a very dangerous woman.
I can’t reveal much more without spoiling the plot for those who have yet to see it, but before this is over we meet up with Caroline’s Area Controller Edward (Alun Parry). Rimless glasses, a clipboard and an even more sinister capacity than Caroline for charm and dissembling all serving to reveal a true bureaucrat’s ruthlessness. I should also remind readers that the song “Paradise Road” which opened and closed the show, was written and recorded by Alun who - when not doubling as an apparatchik of the surveillance state - is a respected local folk singer.
The success of all three actors in developing and sustaining their characters immersed us deeply into the plot. Their deft handling by the director (Emma Bird) in this limited and difficult performance space kept us fully engaged. It is a testimony to all their skills that afterwards the main thing I wanted to talk about was not their portrayals or any technical aspect of performance but rather their subject matter - of surveillance in our modern state.
A couple of minor quibbles: the handling of the sound queues was mostly successful but occasionally clunky. It’s not fair on the sound team really but the unfortunate truth is that a single abrupt drop (rather than a gentle fade) on the sound of a helicopter hovering overhead, turns a really helpful source of background menace into a very obvious sound effect which someone has just turned off.
On the plot itself I will leave other audience members to debate how close we are right now to the surveillance state shown in the play but one element of the character development left me wondering. From very early on in the exchanges between Jane and Caroline I became anxious about Jane’s risk taking in directly confronting Caroline who, it became apparent, was definitely not a woman to trifle with. I don’t think this was an issue for the actor or director but rather was in the writing. I would have wanted Jane to be more tentative at first and take less risks. Maybe this is the problem of one-act plays, not enough time to gradually develop conflict. Nonetheless, these are minor quibbles. I really enjoyed the show and would happily recommend it.