Writer and Director: Bea Roberts
Reviewer: Lucy Corley
Imagine a play where the single performer never speaks.
Throughout Bea Roberts’ one-woman production she scarcely opens her mouth; instead, the story is told through two projector screens, an old-fashioned TV set, a soundtrack of pop songs and occasional mime. Yet Roberts quickly gets the Bike Shed Theatre audience chuckling, and ten minutes in to the hour-long performance she has us in the palm of her hand.
Not that we are often watching Roberts herself: it is the projector screens that are the stars of this creative tragicomedy, and it frequently feels like Roberts is merely the puppet master as she clicks laptop buttons and moves slides onto the overhead projector.
These screens and devices combine layers of text and images to tell the story of Plymouth office worker Emma Barnicott, as an online affair with a romantic stranger offers a chance to escape from her humdrum daily routine. ‘Dialogue’ is played out through text appearing on the screens, with each character represented by a different font colour and style. Emma’s patronising and painfully cheerful boss speaks in juvenile lime-green Comic Sans; her one-dimensional husband Paul in large, thick blue letters.
The production is billed as “A re-telling of Madame Bovary,” the 1857 novel by Gustave Flaubert, and there are plenty of links to the novel to be found if you know what you’re looking for. Yet this play works equally well as a stand-alone reflection on the loneliness of modern life.
Emma’s fantasies of romance and fame, and her mundane reality, are brought wittily to life in the opening sequence as she struggles to return to a dream of a passionate, Fifty Shades-inspired liaison with a pop star, only to be repeatedly interrupted by the alarm clock. She is dragged back to a dull reel of slides showing her commute to work and the lift doors that anyone who has worked in an office will associate with monotony.
Roberts frequently stands in front of the screen so moving images of lovers, oceans and designer dresses are projected directly on to her body, in a visual representation of the desires beneath the surface of the wife, mother and helpdesk administrator other characters see.
For the audience, mentally processing images and words is faster than it would be to hear the dialogue spoken aloud, meaning this production gives a uniquely intimate access to Emma’s thoughts as they appear on screen. It is easy to identify with Emma’s sense of suffocation in an infinitely routine existence, yet the ultimate tone of the play is one of quiet optimism, as seeing through her eyes and laughing at her jokes takes us out of the humdrum – into the theatre.
Runs until Saturday 7th March 2015 as part of a UK tour.