Writer: David Rudkin
Director: David Thacker
Reviewer: Rebecca Cohen
The Octagon Theatre’s latest offering of Ashes is an eclectic piece of poetic theatre, which is at one both powerful and testing. Following a couple’s journey, as they struggle to conceive despite all the best medical attention, this is an intimate and raw piece of storytelling that tugs at the heartstrings and encourages a real sense of reflection.
Anne (Coronation Street’s Katy Cavanagh) and Colin (Colin Connor), are unable to have a baby and regardless of the help they receive from doctors, nurses, seminologists, and gynaecological surgeons (multi-rolled by John Branwell and Kate Coogan), their dreams of being the conventionally perfect family unit are not meant to be.
Ashes was a highly controversial play in its time. Commissioned in 1972, there were efforts to rewrite it in some countries in Europe, sometimes to reflect Catholic teaching on contraception and sometimes to give it more of an air of optimism and hope. And to this day, despite far more openness on discussions of conception, or in this case lack of, this production remains an uneasy watch, covering an array of topics including miscarriage, bisexuality and the IRA bombings, also known as Bloody Friday, of July 1972, with graphic content and brutal language thrown in for good measure.
Even with the introduction of IVF treatment, the concerns and hopes raised in this play remain as relevant today as ever, and offers, in its own unique way, a platform for the audience to understand more sincerely what it is like to try, and fail, at having a baby, and for couples to talk more candidly about problems they are facing together. The ability to get audiences inside the mindset of characters, with all their heartache and joy, is where the production truly thrives.
The minimalistic pure white set with just one bed in the middle and four chairs and waste bins surrounding it is a bleak reminder of the clinical nature of life for a couple who are constantly being judged and examined based on sperm count and ovulation cycles. Director David Thacker does well at reviving a complex script, integrating humour with a real sense of melancholy and longing, while all four actors show a real understanding of the involved, yet sometimes repetitive, nature of the production.
David Rudkin’s work is by no means easy, and his writing in Ashes breaks boundaries in more ways than one – making it both its highlight and its downfall. Not only does it break stage boundaries, in the sense that characters will often break the fourth wall, and go against the theatrical conventions of its era, it also breaks stylistic boundaries. In Act One, this works extremely well, the interspersed nature of dialogue and soliloquy amplifying the fears, the dreams and the despairs of its characters – albeit sometimes actors, especially Connor, could do to annunciate more. In Act Two it begins to lose its accessibility. While the focus on deeply personal, political and existential perspectives adds to the harshness of the content, and while it is clear that the stillness instilled on the stage is done to amplify impact, it needs something, be it more fluctuation in delivery of lines or some symbolic movement, to maintain the powerful effect left after Act One.
This is a poignant and hard-hitting production, which is most certainly not for the prude or the faint-hearted, but is for those wanting an insightful, frank and educational night at the theatre. While the material does become more disjointed towards the end, as characters come face to face with their unfortunate fate, it ultimately needs more fire injected into it, to make it truly unforgettable.
Runs until 11 March 2017 | Image: Jonathan Keenan