The last play in the Lyric's Edward Bond trilogy is the best, says Penny Flood
Chair at the Lyric is the last play in the Edward Bond trilogy, The Chair Plays, (the first two, Have I None and The Under Room were also performed at the Lyric last month) and it’s the best.
Like the others, it’s set in 2077 in an authoritarian state where everything you do and think is controlled, do something spontaneous and you’re in big trouble. In this case, it’s an act of kindness that brings on the trouble.
Alice (Tanya Moodie ) looks out of the window at a soldier and a prisoner waiting for a bus. They’ve been there for hours. The prisoner is old and tired so Alice takes a chair out to her. In doing this she’s broken the rules, there’s no going back and there’s no way out.
It’s a play that’s meant to make you think by dealing with the big issues: how does the individual survive in a place where individualism and personality have been banned, where memories and the past have been scrubbed from the subconscious and where obedience to the state authority is all and where making up your own mind is a crime? The state is incompetent, the rules are cruel and ridiculous but even thinking that can get you killed.
The soldier (Nicholas Gleaves) is a young man with a job to do. He works for the state but he’s a victim of it as much as Alice. He’s not intrinsically horrible, he just doesn’t know how to behave with an old woman who wets herself. He knows she should sit down but she’s not allowed to.
Sandra Voe gives a fabulous performance as the prisoner. Although she isn’t on the stage for long and she doesn’t have any lines, the sight of her grappling with the soldier for possession of the chair is mesmerising and haunts the rest of the play. She’s the catalyst for everything that happens next.
Alice shares her apartment with Billy (Tim O’Hara ) who she found in a box on a rubbish tip 26 years ago. It was another act of kindness that has caused nothing but trouble. Billy has grown into a gentle retarded man-child who relies on Alice for everything. He can’t cope if she leaves him.
Throughout Bond teases us with unanswered questions; why does Billy think the prisoner looks like Alice? Why is Alice so worried about her? What is the prisoner trying to say? Did the prisoner try to kiss or bite her? How is Alice going to get out the mess she’s landed herself in?
It’s not without humour. Naomi Frederick is hilarious as the welfare officer who comes to asses Alice. With her smart suit, sensible hair and clicky heels, she bristles with self important authority. She’s young, she’s got a job to do and she’s determined to do it well. Like the soldier, she lets glimpses of common sense and humanity show through, but they’re weak and the notion of pity is beyond her. She tries to help Alice, but she can’t because she doesn’t understand the problem.
The play starts tense and the tension is racked up as the action progresses. This is shocking but very watchable. At the end, with some clever lighting the stage becomes peaceful and beautiful.
After an hour and half of tension you want to stay that way for just a little bit longer but Bond doesn’t give you that luxury. For me, Bond’s ending was a cop out, I would have preferred it have remained in beautiful suspense, with one more unanswered question. Uncomfortable maybe, but it’s a not meant to be a comfortable play.
Chair is on at the Lyric Hammersmith until May 25 at 8pm nightly, with a free post show Q & A on May 22 and matinees on May 16 and 23.
There will also be a special triple bill of all three Chair plays on May 19 and 26.
You can buy tickets online or call the box office on 0871 22 117 29.
May 16, 2012