Bitter Root – review

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Bitter Root
Dir. Joanna Alpern
****

This may be a late review, but in my eyes an important one. Student writing deserves as much coverage as it can get, especially when it is at as high a calibre as Joanna Alpern’s Bitter Root. The opening to this year’s On The Rocks festival, Bitter Root set the bar for what would prove to be an outstanding week of theatre.

An exploration into the effects and development of grief, the show follows John (Graham Richardson) and Laura (Cara Mahoney) attempting to deal with the suicide of their son. We enter the action after what may be called the ‘appropriate’ grieving period and are presented with two distinct attitudes. John is itching to get out, while Laura appears to intend to be stuck in her grief for the indefinite future. Strained as it is, their relationship is pushed to breaking point by visits from their morbid neighbour and obnoxiously cheerful family.

Graham Richardson delivers a truly excellent performance, brimming with nervous energy. He is utterly sympathetic and definitely steals the show. Cara Mahoney is completely believable as the shaken Laura: however I have a problem not with her performance but with the character herself. John does need someone to bounce off of, but Laura felt too much like a brick wall, resulting in partially unrealised character development. This, too, caused her final acceptance to appear sudden.

Overall the supporting cast is strong. Katherine Weight possesses great comic timing and I thoroughly enjoyed both her performances as old Mrs. Wallow and toddler Lily. Coco Claxton, in the best possible way, was offensively bright and chirpy, reflected in the amusing choice to have Laura’s family dressed in flamboyant, garish colours. Charles Bell’s performance as Laura’s brother-in-law was of a good energy, but lacked a degree of confidence that reigned in its impact.

The writing is witty and sharp, but occasionally had a tendency to stray into heightened diction that would be more appropriate in Greek tragedy. The climactic scenes were so powerful, but this strange diction sounded incongruous with these characters. I loved the placement of dying lilies around the set, but was disappointed when they were pointed out: it could, in my mind, have remained a subtle touch that most people would have noticed. This is not the only thing that was a little heavy-handed: Mrs. Wallow was quite clearly a representation of what Laura could become, yet in a later scene this fact is all but forced in our faces – a lighter touch is needed.

This does not stop Bitter Root from succeeding in what it is trying to achieve. It is funny and moving in equal measures, and I was genuinely touched at the end. I look forward to seeing more from Joanna Alpern in the future.

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