Sunday, 20 January 2019

REVIEW: The Bench - The Casa Theatre, Liverpool

Five actors. Three plays. And a whole lot of reasons to cry. With only a sentence to describe each performance, this David Armstrong production truly left us in the dark. However with that darkness came a sense of wonder, brought to life through the use of a simple bench and a host of amazing performances.

The initial performance centred around an old married couple reminiscing over a life together through war time, and a marriage full of adoration and love. Both actors were completely unrecognisable in full makeup and costume, and it was hard to believe that we hadn’t been watching two pensioners tell us the story of their lives together. Philip and Mary have known each other since the tender age of six, and they are quick to share their tale of love and friendship. With nothing but a bench for set dressing, the actors brought stories alive with voice alone, and like snakes charmed in a basket, the audience were left hanging on every note. Though, the tale ended with a twist that broke the hearts of even the strongest of men and women, not a single person could be turned away from what would come next.

The next story followed suit with yet another heartbreaking but beautiful take on some of the hardest parts of life. With the title ‘Heaven Sent’, the mind was only left guessing as this time a lone stranger was sat on the park bench. This is where the cast and director really came into their own. Despite the lone figure on the bench in the same state of distress that she had left the last tale in, through the strong performance the bench was a wholly different scene. Throughout the three plays, ‘The Bench’ was not afraid to leave long stretches of time with no dialogue at all. Music playing throughout the intimate space has a transformative power and there is no moment where you are not invested in each story without a second to catch a breath. ‘Heaven Sent’ is no different, and the first five minutes threw the audience into the deep end of the story already. A girl sits and writes a letter that we soon understand to be her final goodbye to the world, and though the lone bench and woman are the only things on the whole stage, the moment a middle age man came along to join her, his presence seemed to fill the stage and we too were lifted. Neither the first story ‘Love’ and the tale that follows, ‘Heaven Sent’, are afraid to tackle hard subject matter and mental health, which is something I must respect. The same can be said for the third and final act to this three show play.

Entitled ‘Friendship Forever’, the third half hour play was far more light-hearted. With it, this two-hander saw the return of the actors from ‘Love’ but this time they are Philip and Mary no longer. Now in front of us we are given Barbara and Stewart: childhood friends split up by a move to Scotland. This final instalment did not disappoint and once again the audience were delivered a third and final twist to bring it all together.

Though the three plays are shown to be entirely independent, it’s clear there is a running theme of challenging ideas and judgments in this modern world. Five actors have become a dozen different characters and ‘The Bench’ brings everything together with slick and professional storytelling. It’s a wonder that three such different stories could all find a home on a park bench, but this David Armstrong production truly left all with a sense of wonder, and even a sense of loss. There wasn’t a moment where the pace dropped, and every actor brought a different character to life, even if it was simply for a few minutes. It’s a play I would urge anyone to rush out and see, but bring the tissues because there’s a few big secrets to uncover and a lot of tears to be shed!

Reviewer - Aidan Bungey
on - 19/1/19

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