Saturday, 29 October 2011

Review: Skåne, Hampstead Downstairs

“It all got too much and we did something we shouldn’t have”

Continuing the season of new writing downstairs at the Hampstead Theatre is Pamela Carter’s play Skåne. I was particularly interested in this when it was first announced as having previously lived in Sweden, I was able to recognise the title ‘Skåne’ as the southernmost region in Sweden – basically the equivalent of calling a play Dorset – and advise all and sundry on the correct pronunciation: it sounds something like Skor-ner with the emphasis on the first syllable. But sadly there wasn’t the shedload of Swedish references that I could have nodded sagely at nor the attention to detail with props that I longed to recognise. Instead, there’s a tale of the repercussions of a heady affair as both parties belatedly decide return to their respective partners and families.

We open in the midst of a joint family conference, called by the wronged partners, Siri and Kurt, to allow the adulterous Christian and Malin to explain to their children and spouses exactly why they disappeared off together, and more significantly, why they have opted to return. It is a fascinating beginning, full of tension and intrigue, contrasting family dynamics and whole worlds of emotions as everyone reacts differently to the news that things will be returning to just as they were. What then follows is [spoiler alert] a journey back in time as scenes play out showing how the characters had been affected by the impact of the affair and how they all interacted – in some cases, providing surprising revelations – ending up at the beginning of the liaison in all its bare sexuality. 

Thinking about the show now, it has all settled into some kind of sense and I can see what Carter was trying to achieve, but whilst watching it I have to say that it did feel rather disjointed and I wasn’t altogether convinced we were travelling linearly back in time so I often felt a little perplexed as to just how the pieces fitted together. But it is clear in how it demonstrates that a veneer of middle-class liberal respectability is often clung to as a societal norm even as it hides pain and unhappiness; the desire to do ‘the right thing’ not always the best choice though mistakes need to be atoned for and their full impact appreciated. 

There’s strong acting in here, a necessity in such an intimate space, and Helen Schlesinger emerges with top honours as the frustrated Malin, a fiercely impassioned performance tinged with the crushing knowledge of the impossibility of her dream, despite having found such great release with Jethro Skinner’s studied Kurt. John Paul Connolly and Federay Holmes both work well as the dejected spouses, subtly suggesting why their partners might have been looking elsewhere. As the teenage children flung together by circumstance, Michael Karim and Shannon Tarbet have an unnervingly electric chemistry as their burgeoning teenage sexuality is unshackled by their perception that the rulebook no longer exists due to the actions of their parents, and as Olle, a role shared by Shanu Hazzan and Theo Stevenson, there’s the much needed voice of innocence. 

Tim Carroll’s production has reconfigured the stage into a long thin traverse with sliding doors at either end, which allowed for an atmospheric set of transitions between scenes with furniture and props being pushed on from one end and off at the other: it sounds simple but it really did work. And though initially at times, it felt like the cast were too intensely clustered around the central table, later scenes allowed the staging to breathe a little and open up into the length of the stage: the wide open farmland of Southern Sweden being neatly evoked on occasion. After the highly enjoyable Di and Viv and Rose, whatever came next had a lot to live up to and by comparison, Skåne does feel a little bit flat but then it is a completely different kettle of fish: overall though for me, I would rate it as a curiosity elevated by Schlesinger's amazing performance rather than a must-see. 

Running time: 70 minutes (without interval)
Programme cost: free cast-sheet available
Booking until 26th November
Note: contains both male and female nudity 

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