Review: Chair, Lyric Hammersmith

Originally written for The Public Reviews.

In the concluding offering of Edward Bond’s trio of Chair Plays, the future looks anything but bright. We are in 2077 and the chair of the title, a surprisingly sinister piece of furniture, is offered by Alice to a soldier waiting to escort a strangely familiar looking prisoner to her death. Around Alice’s simple but prohibited act hinges the entire plot, a steady march forward to inevitable destruction for Alice and for Billy, the perpetually childlike boy she has taken in, hidden and raised exclusively within the two rooms of her assigned accommodation, where his wistful crayon drawings of the outside world paper the walls.

As Billy, Timothy O’Hara manages to mingle childish emotion with mature perceptiveness, writhing claustrophobia with an intense fear of the outside world. To escape the dull prison of the two rooms he has known his whole life and the frightening reality of the never quite specified oppressive state that rules outside, he runs away into stories, with fiction and imagination becoming the most hopeful elements of a play that is for the most part uncompromisingly bleak.

Bond’s script also produces some cutting comments on authority, punctuated by laughter that sours in the mouth. Irony is taken to new levels, as “welfare” officers become responsible for handing out death sentences. Naomi Frederick stands out as a visiting official who is as funny as she is chilling, all grey suit and clipped robotic tones, speaking soullessly about the clinical niceties of state-organised death. You may be condemned to execution, but you can pick out the poem to be read at your memorial. In such a poisonous atmosphere, this play forcefully recognises that the last power an individual can defiantly hold onto is that over their own mortality.

While they may not always hang together neatly, Bond holds up some striking and often distressing images. Billy’s scrawled crayon drawings speak of an innocence, optimism and imagination that seem to have been drained from the world around him, marking a stark contrast with the clinically white walls of Alice’s home. As a dramatic device, the drawings are beautifully simple in the mingled hope and sadness they convey, representing a world far better and more colourful that Billy can ever hope for, yet always remaining a poor substitute for the real. When they must be ripped down, the image of Billy curled foetal-like and sobbing around the ripped shreds seems far more evocative of what those in power have taken away than any of the play’s other arguments.

This dark dystopian tale, however, requires a firmer directorial hand than it here receives from Bond. Without the sharpness needed to tighten up the writing, initially potent moments threaten to drift faintly off as they are left to linger for too long. Bond clearly believes in the use of silence on the stage, which is chillingly appropriate in a world where speech often equates to power and prisoners are rendered helplessly mute, but stretched out too long it allows the tautly drawn tension to sag. Contemplative stillness is one thing; when it begins to feel dangerously as though nothing is happening, as it often does in this production, the painful process of drawing out has gone too far.

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