If you are one of those people who doesn’t get to the theatre very often and you don’t really enjoy experimental works (or you are dragging along a reluctant partner to the theatre who feels this way), this show is not for you. ‘Conversation Piece’ will reinforce all the reasons you don’t want to go to the theatre.
Yet I do understand that some of you will love this show. You see, it’s polarising. It’s either a show you’ll enjoy because of the movement and twists on inane conversation and the skill of some of the performers, especially Alison Bell. You’ll appreciate the concept and the half scripted/rehearsed elements combined with moments of improvisation. Or you’ll think that listening to over 10 minutes of idle chatter at the start is like sitting on public transport, cramped in the middle of the seat, being forced to listen to a group of commuters talk about what they watched on TV last night and that party they went to on the weekend until you want to turn around and scream at them to get a life.
If a show’s premise is to bore me for the first 10 or 15 minutes in order to try to be clever with it later, it’s flawed. Good theatre doesn’t need to bore its audience to prove a point.
This show, devised by Lucy Guerin in conjunction with her cast, has three of her company (Alisdair Macindoe, Rennie McDougall and Harriet Ritchie) literally come out on stage, stand around and have a conversation on what seems to be anything of roughly 10 minutes, which is also recorded. Enter the actors (Alison Bell, Megan Holloway and Matthew Whittet), who presumably have heard none of this and are given the recordings and re-deliver the entire conversation endowing the dialogue with attitude or character traits whilst standing on stage. Then throw in some movement, more reinterpretations of the conversation, some interplay between cast, a few bullying sessions, karaoke, interpretative dance, rhythmic ensemble work using the iPhones and then call it a day.
Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom because once things started moving in this 80 minute show, there were lovely images and some interesting mimicry of the original dialogue. If this was an experimental show in one of the smaller fringe venues, maybe I would give it more kudos than I do now. Is that fair? I don’t know but I do know that there was not enough here for me to get excited by it.
The parts of the show that at least gave it some engagement from my point of view tended to revolve around the choreographed ‘dance’ sequences or when cast started interacting, combining movement and using the dialogue in a way that suggested relationships or conflicts of status or power. For instance, Macindoe’s violence in his treatment of Whittet as he carried or moved him around the stage suddenly implied an emotional connection to action and words, even if the correlation between them was tenuous. I also particularly enjoyed the scenes between Bell and Ritchie, especially as Bell judged Ritchie on her own words in the conversation in some fairly realistic scenes of playground bullying. That was actually the scene of the night, with audience laughing on and showing how complicit we are in actions of this kind, laughing at the victim with no thought to the impact this event might have on her. Everything else was a bit blah. In the end the show worked for maybe half the time.
But mostly, it is Alison Bell who makes this show worth watching. Bell has enormous stage presence. You can’t help but focus on her and even in the whole cast movement sequences, she is the one you are drawn to watch, in spite of having three trained dancers on stage. Bell's energy and focus create an intensity in confidence and commitment as a performer and she is by far the highlight of the show.
This show was not for me but it might be for you. If you enjoy alternative and experimental pieces that have chunks of things that don’t work with chunks of things that do and you appreciate its concept over whether it came to full fruition, then head along. Otherwise I’d suggest you save the cash and go and see something on at the Fringe Festival or check out what’s on at The Factory and pay much less for probably the same amount of entertainment or more.