DramaPerformance ArtReviewSouth West

The Best Thing – Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

Writer and Director: Rachel Savage
Reviewer : Joan Phillips

The Best Thing is a reminder that you can only be so nostalgic about ‘the 60s’. The exciting and explosive changes in fashion and pop music are well documented, but changes in society’s behaviours, codes and taboos drag behind. Writer and director Rachel Savage reminds us of what happened, on so many occasions, to unmarried mothers in this ‘swinging’ decade.

For anyone born in the 1960s, or earlier, this short play will re-awaken memories of the hushed conversations around the consequences of accidental pregnancy in this pre-pill era. Social pressure from society, parents, family, church and media overwhelmingly disapproved and the women, often still girls, could find themselves with little alternative than to give up their new baby for adoption. The common wisdom was that this would be ‘the best thing’ for the child, the mother and the family. The disgrace and shame of children born outside marriage was crushing and with a very different welfare system, there must have seemed very little choice. At the same time, for married couples with problems conceiving, adoption was a sought-after option. This was also before so much progress had been made to overcome some of the problems of infertility. Win, win all round then? Not so much.

Touching and tender but funny throughout, Savage’s short story takes a compassionate look at the personal and human cost of such pressures and their consequences. Years later we see a middle-aged woman seeking love from a family that gave her away. A man, whose mistake was only to follow the code of the day, growing old alone. A young teenage mother is left bereft after the loss of her baby. Astoundingly the baby’s father is not even part of the decision. This very much homogenous, white, Christian society holds the roots of our society today. A decision taken with society’s approval in one generationseems so brutal to the next. Only 50 years later we look back at codes of behaviour that can seem so alien to us now. Surely a message that society or human behaviour can never be judged out of its historical or cultural context.

But it is Vamos Theatre Company that turns this simple story into a unique and mesmerising theatrical production. Described as a full-mask theatre company, all four performers wear extra-large face masks with fixed expressions throughout. This talented group of mime artists can rely only on the support from sound to convey their roles. Marissa Gunther nails the bandy-legged swagger of the young boyfriend. Sarah Hawkins beautifully captures the nervous twitches as she looks for anyone familiar at a funeral. The anguished shivering at her loneliness is heartbreaking. Richard J Fletcher, with trembling hands and stooped shoulders, is faultlessly compelling as the aged father. Angela Laverick, as the young woman, grasps each minute change needed to portray her central character from firstly an awkward, shy young girl turning into a fashionable teenager growing in confidence, and then a desperate new mother turning into a young woman carrying an enormous burden.

Mask maker Russell Dean created the face masks for the characters all with grotesquely enlarged noses and enormous eyes. Almost childishly charming and despite the fixed expressions you could believe they blink and look at you. Choreography from Rachael Alexander and sound from Janie Armour are essential components to support the performers and they make the most of the fun to be had with the moves and music from the 60s, as does Carl Davies with his contribution to set and clothes. There is a hilarious scene from the hairdressers and again at typing school. The scene from the delivery room is one of the funniest in theatre this year. Hospitals in those days were most surely run for the ward matrons, not the patients – the midwife in The Best Thing wouldn’t have looked at a birth plan even if she knew what one was. Some scenes, such as the hairdresser and the delivery ward, lingered a little too long and might have benefitted from some editing. The Tobacco Factory is a great venue but it really needs to check some of the sightlines at the edges of the venue, the action behind the backdrop would have been obscured by the wings of the set for anyone in the outermost three or four seats on the left of the auditorium.

A reminder, then, that it wasn’t just the plastic shoes, nylon clothes and limited career opportunities for women that were negatives about the 60s. The Best Thing manages the difficult balance in portraying the mistakes of society without being judgemental. But quite clearly the consequences of the invisible, but no less real, social pressures are still unresolved for many of those women today.

If we can barely comprehend our own society just a generation ago, it is a reminder to take care making judgements of people from another culture entirely.

Runs until 25 May 2016 | Image:Graeme Braidwood

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The Southwest team is under the editorship of Holly Spanner. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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