David Watson's new play Pieces of Vincent
is one of those that you have to, at least to start with, give close attention to as well as having a little faith in, in the hope that it will pay off down the line. In other words, it's one of those stories consisting of seemingly unrelated scenes, with a variety of characters who don't appear connected, and in this case there's also the fact that the story, taking place over six months, is told out of order. For the most part Watson does pay this off by bringing everything together, although the time element did complicate things - the location and month are projected onto a screen before each scene, but I find you never quite remember to pay attention to this sort of thing to begin with: About halfway through I had a look through the playtext programme to work out where the scenes so far fitted in, and from then on I was OK.
As the title suggests, what links everyone from County Down to Birmingham to London is the rather aimless twenty-something artist Vincent (Adam Best,) still in love with his ex-girlfriend from university, Rachel (Sian Clifford) who's long since married someone else. Elsewhere in London ageing German music teacher Dennis (Robin Soans) has a slightly inappropriate interest in one of his students, Christopher (Joseph Rowe,) a mentally-disabled but talented man in his twenties. In Birmingham, Amar and Khalid (Shane Zaza and Charles Mnene) are dangerously bored while in a beautifully acted scene in Ireland, we finally find out what the connection is when Vincent's grandmother (a wonderfully prickly Dearbhla Molloy) is visited by a policeman, John (Kevin McMonagle.) I am somewhat restricted in what I can say about the play's effectiveness without giving the story away, but I will say that, with hindsight, Watson manages to combine some understatedly emotional work in some parts of the story with some interesting, non-judgemental detachement when it comes to other characters. I can say, as the publicity does, that the connection involves something violent; we don't see this, but the scenes all take place either soon before or soon after this. In both subject matter and, to an extent, the storytelling technique, the play reminded me of a well-known one from last year - again, mentioning which one would give away Pieces of Vincent
's twist, so if you don't mind spoilers you can probably figure out what the violent act is from my review of that other play
. One other thing I'd say about the writing is that I liked Watson's ability to give each character very distinctive voices and speech patterns (admittedly helped by a variety of regional accents and a couple of characters with English as a second language.) There's also a couple of interesting recurring themes, like trying to find ways to fill your days when they don't have a regular structure, (having experienced it myself I can easily imagine this comes from the playwright's own experience in trying to write) and a theme of people unable to grow up - Vincent himself is unable to settle down in the way Rachel appears to have, while Christopher much more literally has a mental age younger than his physical age.
This has been a good year for interesting staging techniques; so it is here, as director Clare Lizzimore and designer Es Devlin have come up with an interesting storytelling method to show the different locations. The staging is essentially the opposite of in-the-round. The audience sits on the floor, on cushions, surrounded by four "walls" of gauze. The action takes place behind these, and they're also used as projection screens for Daniel Lang's film segments (some scenes are played out, in a dreamlike way, on film, while elsewhere the video projections make for atmospheric scene changes.) So behind each wall is a different set, the audience turning with every scene. I say cushions but they're tiny, there more as place-markers than for comfort - I would recommend doing what I did and going for a cushion at the edge, it meant I could frequently adjust how I was sitting. When the action was right in front of me I could pretty much lie down, when it moved and I was at the back of the audience I could kneel on the cushion without worrying about blocking anyone's view. Overall I thought the creative staging was well suited to the play and added to it; the only exception being the aforementioned problem with working out the sequence of events. The location and month being projected onto one of the "walls" is the audience's first indication of where the next scene will take place, so what with everyone rearranging themselves it's easy to miss that piece of information.
There's a lot of great things about both the play itself and the staging, but neither is perfect; it's the fact that the story and the way it's told are so well-matched, along, of course, with good acting, that makes this a particularly interesting evening at the theatre. (Incidentally, it's ironic that, given the chaotic Tube strikes today, this was my easiest trip to and from the Arcola yet; I had to make a tiny change to my usual route there, but I may in fact stick with it in future as it worked so well.)Pieces of Vincent
by David Watson is booking until the 25th of September at the Arcola Theatre.