First off, I hate fairy lights in plays. I have to lay my cards on the table. Deploy them as well as you like, I’m going to sneer at their use anywhere except on the pin-board of your first-year bedroom. Sorry. While we’re on confessions, I want to note that I don’t really know how to review new writing – should I talk about the production or the text? Both?
Lobes, the new play by Henry Roberts, showed his enormous potential as a playwright: the characters speak with an authentic voice which is absolutely refreshing to hear in student writing, its situations were compelling and relatable, and Roberts transitioned beautifully through different kinds of storytelling (voiceover, reading out Facebook messages, live action…). Bailey Fear’s ‘writer’/‘generic boyfriend’ character was despicable, and Kohli’s ‘loving girlfriend with mental health issues’ was sympathetic, broken, and absolutely charming. With that being said, Pina Bausch once said that when a writer is happy with their final draft when they think a piece is absolutely brilliant, they should cut half. Lobes felt very much like a first full-length play, and I’m afraid it could have used the Bausch treatment.
We got an awful lot of set-up, and for much of the play, nothing much changed in terms of stakes. Characters did an awful lot of telling the audience (or other characters) how they were feeling, which rather let the audience off the hook – working to keep up with the action is what makes theatre gripping. I also found the character of the writer to be fairly one-dimensional and wasn’t very moved when his relationship was on the rocks because he came across as a bit of a prick anyway.
Lobes, the new production by BoxedIn Theatre, was sensitively acted, atmospheric, and professional. Though the makeshift ‘general wash’ was a bit patchy and dark, tech design was generally very effective and made for an intimate and lovely theatre space. Bike light phone screens were a particularly nice touch, and voiceovers were seamlessly integrated, but this was really all about the performances. Fear’s obnoxious writer was frustrating and stiff in all the right ways, but his second character moved and spoke very similarly, making much of the end very confusing for audience members that I spoke to afterward.
Anoushka Kohli, as is her way, stole the show. Every time I see Kohli perform she seems to find new depths, and I quivered along with her character as she struggled to communicate her needs and feelings in this piece. She was confident, and her chemistry with Fear was undeniably charming. It can’t be understated how impressive these performers are – at 70+ minutes long, this is a lot of work for a pair who don’t leave the stage or take a sip of water, and their work really was admirable.
BoxedIn and its artistic director Oli Savage (director of Lobes) love site-specific work and have a strong history of accessing new audiences through it and immersing them in a piece of theatre, but I just can’t figure out why this play was in the school of medicine. Though packaged as a play about mental health, what really happens in the play is adultery – this a play about relationships, and really has very little to do with brains, and nothing to do with medicine. I would have liked to see a version of Lobes where the team didn’t have to fight with the venue to make the play work.
With all that being said, this play smacks of the National Student Drama Festival, and if a reprise ever happens (and I hope it does), NSDF scouts should be foaming at the mouth. I really can’t wait to see what Roberts brings to the table next.