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A review by Vanessa Bunn for EXTRA! EXTRA!
Above the Stag presents
by James Lantz
Directed by Robert Mc Whir
Produced by Peter Bull for Above The Stag Theatre
Lighting Design by Elliot Griggs
Set and Costume Design by David Sheilds
Above the Stag Theatre
22 October to 22 November 2014
Entirely consuming the wide stage at Above the Stag theatre, David Sheilds’ set immediately transports his audience to a run-down gas station in the heart of the American Bible Belt. Dated and weathered signs hang askew over a run-down garage and the outline of the old blue bus of the title sits ominously on one side of the stage. The cast consists of five main characters and Alexandra Vincent, who is confident in a variety of roles spanning funny, mocking and earnest depending on what is required of her. From embittered pastor to vigilant police-officer she gives her all and her input helps the story progress while her narration as a little girl also fills in the back-story. A party scene in which a request for a pink Birthday cake is blown out of all reasonable proportion is particularly enlightening and also sheds light on the dissolution of a marriage.
Jordan (Kane John Scott) and Ian (William Ross-Fawcett) meet at school and are almost immediately drawn to one another. As their relationship tentatively develops they find themselves meeting in a disused old bus parked at Ian’s Dad’s gas-station in order to be alone and explore their attraction to each other. When Ian’s Dad Harry (Matt Ian Kelly) pits himself against the Golden Rule Church, demanding they move the bus from his property, a legal suit, family fall-outs and ultimately tragedy ensue. The Golden Rule fellowship is a bastion of straight-laced righteousness, attended devotedly by Harry’s ex-wife Sarah (Katherine Jee). Her poker-straight demeanour and prim appearance stand in direct opposition to the run-down garage and the swearing and occasionally seedy chatter between Harry and his bumbling mechanic and friend, Sloat (Ian Dring).
Excellent sound-work renders the space extremely effective. The weather, a busy road and the church are all evoked perfectly. In a particular episode in which Sloat steps outside in a downpour and places an oil cloth on his head to keep the rain off, the whole atmosphere is saturated through a combination of his acting and the sound effects.
Proprietor of the gas-station and Ian’s father, Harry Deforge is a hard, remote and angry man. His journey to said position is exposed as the play progresses.
The parochial essence of the town and the deep influence of the church are palpable even though we see no one but Sarah and various interjections from Vincent, which is quite a feat. The costumes and appearances (hello Jordan and Sarah’s haircuts) ooze eighties, as do the school scenes. The level of repression that Ian’s mother is capable of is alarming. Her fixation on appearance and reputation seems symptomatic of her entrenchment in the church. Her very literal covering up of Ian’s love-bite before attending church is only the tip of the iceberg.
Lantz’s script is searing at points and plays on words like trespass and transgression are deeply thought-provoking in the context. Ian, who tries hard to seem unaffected by a religious upbringing, is obviously traumatised by it – a fear of omnipresence has had clear effects and he is constantly on edge, shouting into the empty darkness to check if anyone is there before he’ll let his guard down with Jordan. The relationship between Jordan and Ian is slowly played out into a tender and passionate romance, not without its share of complications or disagreements. Jordan is blasé, beautiful and boisterous while Ian is far meeker and more cautious and although the casting in general is excellent I’m not sure that the pairing of these two is entirely convincing.
The Bus is a thoughtful exploration of forbidden, cautious love, or as is so beautifully put in the script - “what is felt but ill-defined”. In this seamless production none of the nuances of the central story or the subplots are overlooked and all the intricacies of the script are handled with care under the astute direction of Robert McWhir.
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