This was, quite simply, the best student production I’ve seen.
On the 2nd of this month, having heard of the immense preparation and artistic vision behind Mermaids’ And Then There Were None, I walked into the Byre with a mixture of nerves, anticipation and excitement. Agatha Christie’s most successful play is notoriously complex, shocking and full of suspense, which also makes it very technically and creatively challenging. Would the team’s hard work pay off?
The short answer: absolutely. The cast and crew were utterly fearless in taking on And Then There Were None, and the show’s combination of incredible acting, staging, sound and direction made for a truly fantastic night.
It’s rare to see a production so immaculately put together: the striking, deliberately artistic look gave the show a distinct identity, and subtle symbolic choices with regard to set, costume and direction worked well to reflect the characters’ changing relationships and emotional states onstage. An especially effective moment was during the shocking, horror-style reveal of the death that ended the first act: the stark colour contrast of red, white and black as Judge Wargrave’s crimson-covered body was illuminated from darkness in a sudden flash of light, made audience members literally jump in their seats. Red was then metaphorically incorporated into costume for the rest of the show, foreshadowing the deaths to come while retaining in our collective memory the startling and awful image of the plot’s latest victim. For this production, stunning visuals were critical to the narrative and received great reactions from the audience.
Such attention to detail was likewise visible in the set itself. Expansive, coolly minimalist and outside of a specific time period, the set relied on framework and key pieces in an especially structural sense. A pair of double doors stood upstage, through which characters passed and behind which the play’s penultimate suicide took place, and the stage was divided into two levels. This opened up the one-room set for greater character mobility and demonstrated a style that was at once more abstract, mechanical and multifaceted than conventional adaptations of Christie’s play. The design worked well to shift our gaze around the room and notice characters’ relative occupations of space. Moreover, the suspension of disbelief that was required with regard to the doors and the glassless windows invited us to regard the set beyond that which was materially visible, and ensured that our concentration remained primarily on the characters themselves.
It is, after all, these controversial, fascinating characters that make And Then There Were None so compelling to watch, and credit has to be given to the cast’s superb acting for bringing these contrasting criminals to life. Each character stood out in turn: when they were singled out via haunting voiceover, there was no question as to who was who; their idiosyncratic behaviours and reactions, though executed in silence, immediately betrayed all. In a play with such formulated dialogue, the direction clearly focused on the actors’ physical identities, using the external to best express the more repressed and secret internal workings of the characters. Special mentions have to go to Benjamin Davies and Clemmie Beresford for their brilliant portrayals of whimsical General MacKenzie and ruthless Emily Brent: their elderly characters were comic but also believable – the actors embodied old age in a way that prevented caricature. Emily Brent’s brazen, no-nonsense attitude was widely appreciated by the dark-humoured audience, but there was no smile left amid the spectators when that sharpness eventually transformed into brutality. Similarly standout performances were Morgan Corby’s dynamic, charismatic portrayal of bold Philip Lombard and Eleanor Burke’s perceptively intelligent Vera Claythorne, with the actors even managing to incite our sympathies for Philip and Vera towards the end. The interactions of the play’s diverse characters, brought together and torn apart in the face of distress, suspicion and paranoia, were all equally delightful to watch.
As well as impressing for its characterisation and aesthetics, the show sustained excellent momentum, propelling the plot through its quieter moments by using cohesive, tension-building music that, although initially challenging to the un-miced actors, soon worked to successfully direct our emotions and heighten suspense. The blackout transitions between scenes were also timed and executed perfectly, with the infamous clay soldiers disappearing one by one outside of the audience’s notice. Indeed, it seemed that every element of this production had been carefully architected with a specific dramatic intention in mind; the casual audience member could enjoy the puzzle and the starkly differing interacting characters, but the play also had an unexpectedly artistic value, with a discernible, deliberate creative process that really enriched the show.
Above all, what made this production special was its overall effect on the audience: we were completely hooked from beginning to end. There were many laughs and intakes of breath throughout, and during the interval the audience buzzed not just with conversation but with discussion, trying in vain to deduce who the murderer might be. Exclamations of ‘I don’t even know who I think it is’ and ‘Don’t say anything, don’t tell me!’ to those who knew the play, is credit to the success with which this production engaged and thoroughly entertained its audience. I quickly understood what director Rowan Wishart had meant when she told me that the audience would become active participants, functioning as the play’s detectives: the nature of the script compels us to suspect each character in turn, to share their urgency and the need to figure out this mystery, knowing that no character is safe. Mermaids certainly did Christie’s script justice and made And Then There Were None a production to remember.