Joanna Bowman is a genius. It is, perhaps, strange to start a review with direct praise for the director, but it must be said: the girl knows theatre. Her direction of Hot Mess was slick, moving and suitably understated and gave a beautiful helping hand to bringing Ella Hickson’s quirky play to life. It is set in a club in 2009, and tells the story of twins Twitch, (Susanna Swanson-Johnston) a woman desperate to be indelible to her sexual partners, and Polo, (Seb Allum) the narrator of the piece, and their friends, the slatternly Jacks (Helena Jacques-Morton) and Billy, (Jared Liebmiller) the man that “puts his dick where he wouldn’t put his fingers.”
Bowman’s production concept was innovative, despite last minute venue changes. (Praise here must be given to her entire production team, in particular her phenomenal producer, Laura Antone.) Her production became the first theatrical endeavour to use Club 601, and use it she did! She created an intimate thrust space, which forced the audience to not only watch the action on stage, but to look at their fellow viewers, too, showing that, perhaps, a piece of each of us lies in the four characters on the stage – we all need love and we all need sex. Within the intimate thrust stage, a rostra acted as the main performance space and ‘dance floor’, raising the action to aid sight lines. On the rostra, a checker pattern was created with strips of neon tape, which added to the noughties vibe and also symbolised how nightclub-culture literally boxes us in, intensifying the claustrophobic feel that the darkness of 601 gave the production.
During the pre-show, the four actors sat on bar stools facing in to the stage setting, which was effective as it set-up the audience as being intrinsic to the narrative and made the production feel evermore immersive. The goodwill and excitement from the audience was palpable, as Sam Oshins played classic tunes, from Hot n Cold to Single Ladies and the audience were treated to the production team dancing in the corner! My only two criticisms of the concept and preshow were the stamps forced onto the audience’s hands; these were a clever piece of advertising for Sonder Theatre but felt a little superfluous and incongruous, (this could have, perhaps been avoided, if the Front of House team had assumed the role of club bouncers with more vigour) and that the cast had water in assorted plastic water bottles, which spoilt the brilliant visual. These should have either been matching or, in true club style, in different alcohol bottles. Overly picky, yes, but one must be with a production of such caliber.
The actors were spot on in their roles, despite their terribly behaved audience. Sadly, I must use a few words to say that talking, clinking bottles, photographing (with a flash!) and moving around during live theatre is unacceptable and incredibly distracting, and the cast did well to hold our attention over this hullaballoo. This is merely testament both to their strength as individual performers and their cohesive ensemble work, both in true choral movement and in sharing the stage as a perfect team. Again, were I to find criticism for the cast, (I am a critic, after all!) it would only be that their diction and enunciation could have been clearer to combat the boisterous audience and the echoing vault that is 601!
Liebmiller played the love interest with aplomb and his performance was perfectly pitched, with excellent pacing and a gentle consternation in his demeanor. Swanson-Johnston has truly found her métier in the creation of such a winsome, romantic and believable Twitch, with a bristling sexuality akin to a young Charlotte Rampling. Allum has consistently created a film-noir presence onstage throughout the semester and this performance was no different. He delivered as the engaging, dully threatening raconteur. Even Jamie Jones, in his surprise cameo as ‘shocked member of the audience’ was delightful!
However, it must be said that Helena Jacques-Morton was supreme as Jacks. I would say she stole the show, but to say that would insinuate it was not hers to begin with. From the moment she stepped platform-clad, wotsit-coloured foot on that stage, her stunning stage presence shone through. She was confident, enigmatic and energetic – a common Joanna Lumley-esque humour bubbling through her performance. She was incredibly tenacious and her performance was extremely brave. She needs now only to hone her comic timing and allow space for laughter and reflection and she has cracked it. The audience this evening has witnessed the beginnings of an actor that will work and work.
Sonder Theatre’s Hot Mess was a roaring success and I look forward to seeing what they achieve next.