Writer: Rachael Savage
Music: Janie Armour
Director: Rachael Savage
Reviewer: Gemma Corden
This bittersweet production from Vamos, the UK’s leading full mask theatre company, brings to life an uncomfortable chapter of British social history with surprising depth and tenderness.
It is 1968 and teenager Susan has her whole life ahead of her. But when Susan becomes pregnant, father Bill forces her to have the child adopted. The play opens with an immediate emotional punch, revealing the young Susan dancing in her bedroom before promptly plunging the scene into darkness, revealing her epitaph. The now grown-up daughter, Lily, becomes a cautious explorer in the life of a mother she never knew, guided by her grieving grandfather, Bill.
Writer/director Rachael Savage and composer Janie Armour undertook two years of research into the phenomenon of forced teenage adoption and The Best Thing is an amalgamation of several true stories they discovered. The four actors remain silent and anonymous throughout, serving to heighten this true tale feel.
Mask-maker Russell Dean rises to the challenge of conveying emotion from a static object – on stage, the masks are alive. An exceptionally nuanced and dexterous delivery by the cast, employing body language, gesture and even subtle changes to the angling of their masks, ensures the fixed expressions aren’t at all inhibitive to the narrative or its emotional power. In fact, they speak volumes, signifying the character of the wearer in one deft swoop. Words would almost seem a distraction.
Susan is the wide-eyed girl, and Angela Laverick plays her with a defiance that is at once disarming. Her father as a younger man is resigned and later, regretful. Richard J Fletcher, playing both, is exceptional – his bow-headed, foot shuffling older Bill deeply affecting. Lily’s mask is perhaps the most moving – its pained expression one of confusion and yearning and Sarah Hawkins portrays the broken woman with remarkable sensitivity.
The graphic set, jauntily angled, pops out at the audience as though the stage itself is alive, providing the perfect backdrop for scenes of exuberant dancing – a fond nod to the lighter nostalgia of the time. These scenes, although naturally comic and a welcome tonic to the heavy subject matter, do jar somewhat with the wider narrative. But music is used to great effect throughout as a storytelling device that helps to anchor the narrative pace, tidily indicating a change in era. It also serves to demonstrate the generational tension between father and daughter.
Skillfully expressive and never once over-acted, The Best Thing is like watching an intensely personal scene play out behind a window and economic storytelling leaves spaces for the audience to fill itself. Each scene is cleverly juxtaposed to maximise its impact and the mixed chronology is a powerful dramatic tool – in one heartbreaking scene, the audience watches on as a young Susan dances riotously on stage while behind her, rooting around in her bedroom in the present day, her distressed daughter attempts to piece together fragments of her mother’s life. Such attention to detail is frankly astounding and cinematic in impact. Only towards the end of the production does the narrative lose some of its clarity, the audience working to understand what is happening.
The Best Thing draws poignant parallels between the masks worn by its characters and those one imagines many members of society wore of their own making in this period of history, and Bill’s voicelessness nimbly conveys the sense of frustration that will have been felt by many. The pathos of his unchanged domestic routine striking in its humanity and the audience itself is rendered speechless in the end – an absolute must-see.
Runs until 18 March 2016 and touring until June | Image: Contributed