A new drama abut violence and entertainment from Nina Segal
Nina Segal is one of our most promising young playwrights. Dan Hutton is one of our most promising young directors. Hackney Wick's The Yard is easily the most exciting fringe theatre in London. 'Big Guns' is less than the sum of these parts, but it's still a pretty solid showcase for all three.
An eerie string figure rings out, over and over, as the two performers - Debra Baker and Jessye Romeo - sit in an alcove littered with empty cartons of popcorn. They are picked out in dim, blood-red lights that flicker, roar and occasionally fade to pitch black. All manner of audio trickery is deployed - vocal distortion, sudden swerves into pre-recorded dialogue. It’s as forceful an audio-visual experience as I’ve ever come across in a fringe theatre – the entire creative team of designer Rosie Elnile, Katharine Williams (lighting) andKieran Lucas (sound) deserves credit for coming up with this on a shoestring budget.
So yeah, it’s intensely atmospheric and it chimes pretty well with Segal's play on a lot of levels, but the grinding slasher flick sturm und drang also clogs a text that might have a rather different sort of power if allowed to breathe.
Delivered by Baker and Romeo with wry detachment, the text to 'Big Guns' consists of a series of stories told from a voyeur’s standpoint: a diarist called M is read about in her lost journal; there’s a couple with a shared public blog; there’s a Vlog star who goes off the rails. Blurring and bleeding into each other, Segal’s stories offer an unnerving vision of a world in which the thrill of being watched and the fear of being watched are almost impossible to seperate, in which paranoia is a form of entertainment in itself.
But I sometimes found it hard to really zero in on words that felt like a sideshow or a cool embellishment to Hutton and team’s trickery. I have no problem with a forceful production, but its impressive, blood red churn feels one-note, and doesn’t really engage with the nuance in Segal’s text.
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Within seconds of walking into see Big Guns at The Yard Theatre there is an overpowering sense that something very different is about to happen. The set takes up the entire width of the stage and is essentially a black ramp that starts by the feet of the audience, and gradually inclines at about 30 degrees towards the back of the stage.
Actors Debra Baker and Jessye Romeo sit inside a cut out space in the centre of the inclining ramp, almost resembling an open laptop. They are wearing 3D glasses, eating popcorn and drinking fizz. It appears as if they are in a cinema, but there’s popcorn all over the floor which they are also sitting on, so perhaps they are at home. Perhaps they are watching us – the audience, getting comfortable and taking our seats. It feels unnerving being watched. Baker, Romeo and the cut out space within centre stage, are illuminated in red, the rest of the stage is pitch black. Occasionally a torchlight or two provide the only form of lighting.
The dialogue is rich, dense, pacy and spoken into microphones – distorting and echoing their voices. Dialogue is crisp – sentences are not always finished by the person starting them – it’s like a tennis game of words bouncing from one person to the next. The rally is quick, lengthy and engaging, though sometimes difficult to keep up with. An overwhelming torrent of words are exchanged and images conjured that the brain struggles to process – moving too fast with moments of silence are all too infrequent.
The musical score adds to this tension and builds nervousness. It is eerie, intimidating, threatening and deeply intense. It confirms the underlying edginess of the dialogue, and offers a form of respite from it, in a peculiar way.
Respite for Baker and Romeo, however, is not an option. Throughout the 70 minute play, they deliver a skilful, energetic and brilliantly powerful performance of non-stop, fast-paced and unrelenting line after line.
Big Guns is a reflection of the contemporary information age in which we live. An age that affords us the power to do and see virtually anything with the aid of an internet connection, yet at the same time assaults and confuses as we try to keep up with the tremendous pace of it all.
The showpresents its racing dialogue as an allegory of the information age. It does this by impressively generating similar feelings of not fully knowing what to do, or how to deal with the deluge of information, while also posing such questions as: Why is trolling and threatening the girl who does YouTube make-up tutorials acceptable and funny? What does professing your undying love for your partner on a public blog really say about you? How do we negotiate the distinction between public and private life? Are we, or are we not, being watched? And what happens now that death, public executions and beheadings are all so accessible online?
The masterful script and direction, along with the evocative music, haunting lighting and the superbly executed performances of Baker and Romeo make this a play I most definitely must come back to.
Big Guns can be seen at Hackney Wick’s The Yard Theatre from 21st March – 8th April. Running time is about 70 minutes. Tickets start from £7.50 and can be booked at http://www.theyardtheatre.co.uk/event/big-guns/#booknow.
CAST and CREW:
Written by: Nina Segal.
Directed by: Dan Hutton.
Cast: Debra Baker, Jessye Romeo.
Stage design: Rosie Elnile.
Lighting: Katharine Williams.
Music: Kieran Lucas.
Production management: Ben Karakashian.
Produced by: Martha Rose Wilson.