Writer: Harriet Madeley
Director: Max Barton
Reviewer: Jo Beggs
Shocking, brutal violent crimes. They happen in a moment, but for those they leave behind – perpetrators or victims – there’s a lifetime of anger, hurt and wondering how life could have been different. But when Writer Harriet Madeley stepped into the world of a group of people whose lives had been changed by serious acts of violence, what she also found was a surprising amount of forgiveness and second chances. Although a harrowing piece of theatre, The Listening Room has an ultimately, and powerfully positive message about the possibilities of rehabilitation.
Five actors, dressed identically, sitting on matching chairs in a darkened room. Their headphones contain the testimonies of real people, honest, in-depth interviews with Madeley. The characters they perform are chosen randomly at the beginning of the show by drawing photos from envelopes.
Headphone verbatim theatre, if you haven’t come across it before, is a method where actors repeat the recording they’re hearing on stage through their headphones, edited from longer personal interviews. It makes for theatre that is about as naturalistic as it gets, capturing half sentences, audible breaths, hesitations and unexpected pauses.
There are three stories here, all of which start with a young person making bad decisions. In this performance, Archie Backhouse plays a young man who throws an unwarranted punch that turns out to be much harder than he expected, and that puts him inside for murder. Harriet Madeley and Cathy Tyson play a middle-aged couple whose son is turned on as he’s walking home. He never makes it. Mark Knightley plays a violent young man and his victim (Bruce Kitchener), who he leaves for dead after beating him with a baseball bat. They’re brought together by the probation service and find an unlikely compatibility. Madeley has chopped up the interviews so we hear them fragmented, each narrative intertwining with the others. It creates mini cliff-hangers as acts and feelings are revealed, and highlights similarities and differences in human actions and reactions.
The performances are all compelling and powerful. The swapping of roles through the random selection at the start is perhaps unnecessary but it maybe keeps performances fresh, with actors needing to listen that bit harder if they haven’t repeatedly played the same role. Madeley, a young woman voicing a middle-aged man, is the most unlikely random casting, yet the naturalistic verbatim makes her completely convincing.
The look of the show (designed by Georgia de Grey) is simple and impactful. Between scenes, the actors create haunting images in black and white paint on screens at the back of the stage. This simple, effective emerging backdrop creates both fitting visuals but also changes the pace, creating a pause for breath, for both the actors and the audience. Direction and design in perfect harmony.
The Listening Room is in equal parts harrowing and uplifting. An hour and a quarter of important and unforgettable theatre.
Runs until 15 June 2019 | Image: Hannah Anketell