Theatre in this town is rarely dull, but seldom is it so thoroughly original or refreshing. Based on T.S. Eliot’s unfinished and eccentric play, this week’s production of Sweeney Agonistes delivered a healthy dose of fun, despite a few noticeable issues.
The production was performed in Bibi’s cafe, which hummed with life even before the play itself began–a live jazz trio jamming and a host of actors interacting with the arriving guests. The music was relaxed and enjoyable–doing much to set the tone for the whole evening, and though some of these improvised performances felt off-putting or out of place with the rest of the production, the overall effect was quite immersive. The venue itself brought energy and life to the play, as audience members were treated to cupcakes and tea before and during the action–only adding to the charismatic atmosphere.
The play itself, interspersed with jazz music and scat-singing, was an interesting experience, though ultimately an enjoyable one. Eliot’s script–an avant-garde narrative, primarily composed of two fragments, about two down-on-their-luck flatmates throwing a dinner party–is only half the story. Director Tristram Fane Saunders should be commended not only for his inspired use of the source material, but also for his inclusion of outside elements–particularly letters from Eliot himself regarding the play and an added final scene, drawn from one of Eliot’s letters, which completes the narrative. These elements were, mostly, added tastefully and with respect for the original content and writer, while still managing to create what should be considered a largely original work. This originality was occasionally overdone however, by additions or directorial choices that seemed superfluous–the inexplicable inclusion of a dancing couple midway through the show, for instance–which sometimes gave the production a sense of being weird for weird’s sake, rather than an intellectual, literary romp as it was clearly intended.
While the adaptation was one of the production’s stronger features, performances were also solid. Catriona Scott and Hannah Raymond-Cox showed chemistry and characterisation as the previously mentioned duo of Dusty and Doris, while Magda Michalska demonstrated command of physicality and utter commitment to her role as the Clown. This commitment, however, was sometimes lacking in other members of the ensemble, which seemed particularly noticeable in the musical, choreographed opening and closing segments, during which energy dropped and actors often seemed to lose the rhythm. Singing, in general, could have been stronger, with the exception of Madeleine Belton (Mrs Porter) and Will Costello as Sweeney, whose scat-battle was the most enjoyable moment of the evening. Costello shone in particular, and could not have been more suited to the role. His performance may have been my favorite of the cast.
While the venue suited the play itself, it perhaps does not suit plays in general. While most of the action was audible, and Saunders clearly did his best to allow his actors be seen, sightlines were not fantastic, and I likely had one of the better seats in the house. The fact that much of the play is done with actors sitting around a large table made seeing much of anyone not standing on a chair to speak nearly impossible in parts. Additionally, some machine or another in the café made quite a loud humming at one point, which momentarily drew the focus of the audience and broke the immersion Saunders worked so hard to achieve. Finally, one should note that the play is not long, clocking in at under an hour. While this in itself is not a problem, some theatre-goers might balk at the £7 ticket price (£6 + £1 booking fee) for such a brief show.
Ultimately, Sweeney Agonistes proved a charismatic, engaging, and original production. Despite a few lackluster performances and the odd restraint caused by an unfinished script or the less than ideal venue, this show proved that a little jazz, a unique concept, and a cup of tea is all you need for a lovely evening out.