Can low-budget amateur theatre produce a new twist on the classic rom-com formula?
- Stars (out of 5)= 4
- One-sentence review= “A solid and atmospheric rom-com with a unique twist”
- Good for people who= like Love Actually
- Not good for people who= dislike stories that use the phrase “nerd chic”.
- If it was a pop song, which song would it be?= “Kayleigh” by Marillion.
The worst words an actor can hear upon exiting the stage and “accidentally” walking past the audience in the hopes of receiving positive feedback (read: adulation and the offer of a sexual liaison) are: “How did you remember all of those lines?” For these are often spoken when there is literally nothing positive to say about the show and / or your performance.
They were some of the first words that sprang to mind when the lights came up on Thursday’s performance of “Subject To Time”…
…but not because they testified to a bad show. Far from it.
They stand testament to the endurance and skill of the two actors who carry the evening – James Bruzas as Archie (kudos to writer/director Jack Fairey for resurrecting that name), and Laura Hannawin as Isla, who meet by chance and…well, you’ll have to watch it to find out. Together with Fairey’s script, they had me captivated for the entire evening – no mean feat, given how easily I’m distracted by the M&Ms concealed in my pocket during theatre trips, and how little I enjoy romance stories.
The past few decades have seen the birth, maturation and (depending on your tastes) stagnation of the “rom com” formula. Boy meets girl, they fall in love, complications / misunderstandings ensue, they part, then they reunite.
Writer Fairey’s story provides a unique twist on this formula. Not only are the central characters seemingly unable to sustain or understand a healthy relationship at the outset, premonitions of how short their time together might be are also sprinkled across the play – not least in the form of the ever-ticking clock hanging ominously over the stage. For the premise of the play is very much “can love be enough when time isn’t on your side?”
I won’t spoil the play by revealing its answer, but I will say that things don’t necessarily play out the way you might expect. Life isn’t always fair; we might meet someone for whom we fall head over heels, but circumstances – other people, work, our dreams, hopes and behaviors – might be a barrier to realizing that love. The play is all the more fresh and compelling for exploring romance in light of these real-world concerns – you genuinely don’t know what will happen.
Lest this give the impression that the play is gloomy throughout, I should add that it’s also immensely funny (albeit for the younger generation) – courtesy of Fairey’s gift for realistic, humorous dialogue, and Hannawin and Bruzas’s ability to deliver it with impeccable verve and timing.
Bruzas in particular is a treat to watch, his Archie the weirdly addictive lovechild of Lord Byron and James Dreyfus’s bumbling ‘Constable Goody’ character from cult sitcom “The Thin Blue Line”. No stranger to South Hill Park’s stages, he is never less than a delight in comedic roles, but this part also gives him a chance to showcase his dramatic skills – symbolized here in his ability to deliver heartfelt and desperate ruminations on love while wearing a pink dressing gown.
Hannawin’s Isla is the more restrained and seemingly prickly of the two, but her put-downs are hilarious, her reservation the product of a murky past, and it’s easy to understand the draw she has over Archie. Hannawin has demonstrated her ability to play commanding and winsome characters in previous productions, but it’s nice to see her given the opportunity to combine them into a fresh female role that doesn’t adhere to the classic “damsel in distress” stereotype who needs to be rescued by a fantasy man.
The set design really transports us through their journey as well, preventing anyone from switching-off during Archie’s ruminations. One of the many delights of theatre lays in how set designers make the audience feel that the action is taking place in real-world locations. While big-budget theatres can afford elaborate, realistic scenery, amateur theatre is left with fewer options. But a variety of tricks – Michael Mann-esque mood lighting, minimalist white furniture, and the genius move of covering scene transitions with the sight of Archie getting dressed for upcoming social engagements – overcomes this hurdle, and we honestly believe that we are outside of flats, in dingy smoking areas, and watching fireworks in the woods at night.
Overall, it’s an evening out that will reignite (or justify) your interest in rom-coms, a commendation to Luke Burton’s Studio Theatre Company’s dedication to showcasing new writing, and proof that Hannawin, Bruzas and Fairey are undeniably rising stars in the theatre scene. If you don’t get a chance to see this play (and you deserve to see it), all three will soon be appearing in South Hill Park’s production of MacBeth, details of which can be found at https://www.southhillpark.org.uk/events/macbeth/.
The play runs from the 8th – 10th November, and you can book tickets here – https://www.southhillpark.org.uk/events/subject-to-time/