Review: The Gulf at Tristan Bates Theatre

We could be forgiven, as Audrey Cefaly’s The Gulf begins, for thinking we’d stumbled on an idyllic scene. Two women sit by the water in what appears to be companionable silence: one fishing, the other sunbathing. It’s only when the silence is broken that we begin to realise the vast distance that separates Kendra and Betty, even when they’re sitting right next to each other. Stranded on a broken down fishing boat, as the light fades around them, the couple are forced for the first time to really face up to their problems and make some tough decisions about their future.

Photo credit: Rachael Cummings

The Gulf is an intimate and realistic portrayal of a relationship in crisis; like any couple, Betty and Kendra’s conversations keep circling back to the same few subjects, and when there’s nothing left to say they lapse into long, awkward silences. Unfortunately, in achieving this verisimilitude, the play sacrifices any sense of drama, and the lack of pace in Matthew Gould’s production means that much like the broken down boat the two women are stuck on, it ultimately doesn’t really go anywhere.

All of which is a pity, because the performances from Louisa Lytton and Anna Acton are very good. Both nail the distinctive Alabama accent, and we get a clear sense of both the journey their characters go on throughout the play, and the striking difference in their personalities. Betty (Acton) is an optimist, who always says what’s on her mind, and is on a mission to improve her own life but blind to the fact that her attempts to do the same for Kendra might be misconstrued as criticism. Kendra (Lytton), on the other hand, is quite content to stay where she’s comfortable; unlike Betty, she mostly keeps her thoughts to herself, but when pushed reveals a deep vulnerability that’s masked by her tough and at times deliberately provocative manner.

It’s also refreshing to see a play that depicts a same-sex relationship but doesn’t make it the main focus of the story. In fact Betty and Kendra’s sexuality is completely incidental to the plot: they could be two women, two men, a man and a woman, or any combination, and the issues they’re facing would still be exactly the same, because they go far deeper than gender or sexuality.

Photo credit: Rachael Cummings

Visually, the production is impressive in its detail – boat engine, picnic lunches, fish guts and all – although at times this contributes further to the slowing of the action; Betty’s careful preparation of a snack, for instance, pauses proceedings for a good couple of minutes, and is particularly frustrating because the audience can’t see what she’s doing. Mitchell Reeve’s lighting works very well, however, fading imperceptibly over the course of the 90 minutes, until the two characters end up sitting in near darkness.

There’s a lot to like about The Gulf, as it delves insightfully into what makes relationships work, and what makes them fail. Unfortunately, though, despite strong performances the play is let down by a lack of drama and pace, making it difficult to really engage with Betty and Kendra’s predicament – as much as we might want to.

The Gulf is at Tristan Bates Theatre until 5th May.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Review: Grease at the Orchard Theatre

Grease is a show that needs little introduction. Originally written by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey for the stage, it’s best known for the 1978 movie adaptation starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, and has quite the cult following – at least if the number of audience members dressed as Pink Ladies and T-Birds at the Orchard last night is anything to go by. This is a show that’s known for its classic song and dance numbers, and on that score the latest touring production doesn’t disappoint; the band, choreography and costumes are fantastic and really bring Rydell High to life in all its energetic glory as Danny, Sandy and friends negotiate the perils of teenage romance.

Photo credit: Paul Coltas

Unfortunately, the production is let down by some underwhelming casting. The Wanted’s Tom Parker, in his musical theatre debut, looks the part and has the dance moves down, but his acting is at times rather stiff and his vocals are inconsistent. Danielle Hope and Louisa Lytton fare better as Sandy and Rizzo, but sadly none of the three really makes much impact, and they don’t even come close to the sky-high bar set by John Travolta and co in the movie. This means it falls to the other cast members, among them Tom Senior as Kenickie and George Olney as the Teen Angel and DJ Vince Fontaine, to bring the energy and steal the show – and it’s the big group numbers that really get the audience going, far more than any of the solos – though admittedly Danielle Hope does a flawless version of Hopelessly Devoted To You.

All that said, this is still Grease, one of the best and most popular musicals of all time (albeit with a slightly iffy message for the teenage girls in the audience, but we all know about that so I won’t go into it here), and you’d have to be made of stone not to be wowed by the high energy spectacle. The production looks great, recreating the quiffs and costumes we all remember – the programme informs us there are over 140 costume changes and 59 wigs in the show – to make sure we feel at home from the start. There’s plenty of cheeky humour too, though as you might expect in a 40-year-old show, some of the dialogue has not aged all that well…

Photo credit: Paul Coltas

With flashing lights and pyrotechnics, there’s a real party atmosphere in the theatre, with the evening frequently feeling more like a singalong than a performance. This means some of the dialogue becomes impossible to hear, but I’m guessing not many people are there for those bits anyway. Ultimately the show is all about the songs, which are as iconic as ever and ensure that if you’re a fan of Grease, you’ll almost certainly have an amazing time regardless of who’s singing them.

Grease is at the Orchard Theatre until 25th November.