Contaminated is more about loss than drugs. So where I was expecting a “very special episode,” where a child learns an important lesson about the dangers of recreational drug use, I instead watched a Tragedy, capital T. Director/writer Emma Hallewell’s new play had the right elements, but it didn’t come together in a way that evoked real emotional response.
There’s a lot to be admired in Hallewell’s writing. She’s constructed several characters with complex backstories and relationships. But her sense of the development of the plot and tension are flawed. I didn’t feel that the action was building to anything in particular: the number of characters we were asked to invest in diffused the story’s progress, making the play long and slow going, and the climax felt less like the result of the previous choices than one element of the backstory. The play was more focused on the aftermath of the tragedy than that event itself, so choosing that moment to conclude the play on undermines its own progress. Instead of the unforgettable, soul-deep pain evoked by the great tragedies, Contaminated offers only a dull heartache.
The dialogue was occasionally strained, and often predictable, but it was apparent to me that the success of the writing in the moment was highly dependent on the actor or actress delivering it. While Clare O’Sullivan’s diction was imperfect, she was highly believable as the posh, partying bitch with a heart, and her character’s arc had intriguing peaks and valleys. Rahul Srivastava, Rosie Beech and Oli Savage also managed to inject life into characters with strong choices. The latter in particular impressed with his distinct physicality, though he may have needed to work harder, at times, to make his character likeable. On the other end, Sebastian Allum and Iona Robson seemed exceedingly reserved on stage. In moments of intense emotion, they were separated from the character and from the moment, a problem that can be resolved by experience, and the vague-by-definition “character work.”
Technical issues throughout the production annoyed. Sound was poorly handled: often the quality was low, loops were obviously strung together, leaving an awkward pause interrupting the effect, and every cue snapped off, instead of fading with the lights. The lighting, too, had issues. Certain cues snapped, instead of fading, which was distracting, and there was a light that flashed at the audience between certain scenes, that was done often enough to appear intentional, but failed to convey any meaning. For the last scenes, a tea cup, which was dropped during an earlier transition, remained on the stage, emblematic of a certain sloppiness in regards to stage management.
I understand that Contaminated went through substantial difficulties in production and, given that, I’m impressed that the team has put together such an ambitious production. But I question the wisdom of making it such a big play. Contaminated could have successfully been either the story of one man’s descent into self-destructive drug use, or the tale of how his friends learn to move on without him. By doing both, the show became slow-moving, difficult to tech and unable to result in a single climactic moment. Which is a tragedy in itself, as what I saw shows a huge amount of potential for Hallewell and her team.