Review: small hours, Hampstead Downstairs

“I got two hours last night…”

small hours is a one woman show about post-natal depression conceived as an installation piece in the Michael Frayn Space in the basement of the Hampstead Theatre as part of their Hampstead Downstairs season. Truth be told, this would not normally appeal to me but as it is directed by Katie Mitchell, doyenne of the avant-garde, it felt like a risk worth taking to see what this most innovative of directors had come up with next. It reunites her with Beauty and the Beast counterpart Lucy Kirkwood who wrote this play with Ed Hime, a writer of Skins amongst other things. 

Asked to take our shoes off and told to take seats on the furniture around the edges of the room, there’s chairs, sofas, benches, armchairs to take your pick from, we enter a large living/dining room which has been most effectively realised by designer Alex Eales. We become aware of a woman sat at one end of the room, just in from a visit to a corner shop, and we’re soon drawn into her insomniatic world. It is 3am in the morning, her husband is away with work leaving her with the baby and so we watch her trying to while the hours away, phoning her partner, wrestling with voice recognition systems trying to book a cinema ticket, watching late night shopping channels on the tv. 

But as the baby won’t stop crying, we come to see the struggles that she is having as a new mother. Suffering from some sort of OCD, she constantly tries to mask smells she perceives in the air with an oppressively perfumed air freshener; she gets out the vacuum cleaner to clean the sofa. Eventually to block out the noise of her child, she leaves the vacuum running, turns up the tv and then puts on a Chemical Brothers cd at full volume: her wearied anguish even leads us to maybe wonder whether she actually took her child with her to the shops or snuck a few moments of solitude and quiet out in the night air. 

Mitchell, along with Kirkwood and Hime, has created a minimalist, claustrophobic environment of little comfort and in which noise plays a huge part. Our protagonist is afraid of the yawning chasm silence in her sleepless life and seeks to fill up the void but when that sound is of her own wailing child, she retreats into a deafening cacophony of sound. There’s a beautiful moment as she plays 'Hey Boy Hey Girl' at full volume and as she starts to dance, she seems to find a moment of pure calm and stillness in the chaos, the eye of the storm as it were. The moment is then lost as she keeps restarting the song, dancing tentatively, perhaps suggesting a longing for her carefree clubbing days. Sandy McDade provides an admirably powerful performance, unconcerned with likeability and focused on a convincing portrayal of a depressed woman. This uncompromising approach is difficult at times but really works in pulling the audience into this immersive world, to the point where I really did lose track of time with her. 

As with Belt Up’s The Boy James, the evocation of atmosphere is superbly achieved and easily sustained over the course of an hour(ish). But where I thought that Belt Up could have developed their play into a more dramatically satisfying exercise, I think small hours was all the more effective for sticking to its guns of showing the crushing desolation of depression and the relentless mundanity of new parenthood rather than making more of a ‘story’. I think my companions for the evening disagreed with me on this on this and whilst I agree it does align the show closer to installation art than a conventional piece of theatre, I found it to be fascinating, engaging and well worth the punt.

Running time: 56 minutes (without interval)
Programme cost: free cast sheet available
Booking until 5th February (it is currently sold out as shows are limited to 25 people per performance, but returns are always a possibility)
Note: wear nice socks and shoes that are easy to take off! Also a tiny point which will change nothing but ought to be said anyway: being told that there are ‘no bad seats’ as we entered is fine, but it is simply not true for a lip-reader, and though fortunately there wasn’t too much talking in this show, it has been a frustrating experience (Beauty and the Beast aside) to even just be able to hear a Katie Mitchell show, her tendency for the naturalistic is most challenging for those hard of hearing. 
Second Note: Part of the rationale behind Hampstead Downstairs has been to create an experimental space, a laboratory for theatrical tryings-out without the pressure of press nights and formal newspaper reviews, instead encouraging a more direct audience response through various forms of social media. It is an interesting idea and I have to admit to being slightly amused at some of the noses being put out of joint on Twitter by this approach once the show had sold out, especially since no-one seemed to make similar comments about the first show in this season, .45, being run under the same system last year (assumedly because it was perceived as less of a hot ticket).

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