In the brochure for this year’s Sprint Festival at CPT, Malaise Trio is described as a play without a script, an improvised piece that varies from day to day depending on what’s on TV. The actual work is somewhat different; in fact it seems to follow a fairly rigid narrative. A young woman finds out her brother has committed suicide but she hides from the reality of the situation, coming home to watch TV. Her boyfriend starts tries to find out why she’s behaving so oddly – and the truth is inevitably uncovered. The narrative is occasionally interrupted by unscripted dialogue about whatever celebrity happens to be on The One Show, however these asides don’t particularly add much dramatically and feel more like interludes than something integral to the piece.
This awkward marriage of scripted and improvised material creates a sense of conceptual confusion. Even if the piece was improvised from start to finish, it’s unclear how that decision would contribute to the telling of this particular story. The ending would always have to be a variation on the theme of facing up to reality; this scripted finale hinders the unrestrained feel of true improvisation. The two performers, Anna Bolton and Tom McHugh, are burdened by the imposed framework of the piece. Though their small patches of improvised dialogue give the scenes an air of naturalism, a wall is set up between what the cast engages in technically- improvisation- and the narrative’s dramaturgy: the need to reach the story’s logical conclusion.
The piece circles around the idea of the estrangement created by the mass media in general, and TV in particular. But in a world of social and interactive media, it feels as if there’s not much left to say about the hypnotic powers of television, especially if it’s not all that clear from this piece why exactly it is deserving of condemnation. The main character, faced with a personal tragedy, is clinging to every last straw to convince herself everything is just fine. Though this process involves wallowing in some light-entertainment on the TV, not much of an argument is allowed to form beyond that. And the question of why the TV is so central to the piece remains unclear.
Beneath all this clunky conceptualisation is a fairly dated kitchen-sink drama. What lifts it is the skills of the cast, who manage to convey the familiarity of a long-term couple. The play’s most dangerous moments – in which Bolton’s character is forced to blurt out her ‘secret’ in the most forced of ways – are sensitively handled. But for all their skill and devotion to the piece, they can’t quite rescue it from the weight of its own convoluted layers.
Malaise Trio is part of Sprint Festival at Camden People’s Theatre. Visit their website for more information.