Recommend at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe by theatre critic Lyn Gardner Action at a Distance, a new play by Rory Horne, arrived at the New Diorama Theatre in November 2017 following their successful year. With a small cast of three and a minimal team behind the production of the show it is a demonstration of the incredible power of storytelling at its most pure. The play is a brutally honest exposure to the world of truths and lies, both personal and political.
The plot focuses on the budding online romance of ‘out-of work plumber Chris’ (Rosa Caines) and data analyst/computer scientist Josh (Dom Luck). We see their relationship grow through subtly marked shifts of communication; a dating app, text, phone calls. As they grow close the information given about them flows to reveal that Josh works as a self proclaimed ‘activist’ via a charity called ‘Conflict Clarity’. Chris has a suffocating but loving relationship with her mother, Dolores (Nina Cavaliero). Josh’s charity works on exposing data of recent U.S drone strikes in Syria and Iraq. Chris’s independent plumbing business is suffering via a larger company. Chris loves Britney Spears.
This interweaving of information and emotion leads to a collaboration (of sorts) involving the dark web and Josh’s leaked data. The play very carefully never condemns any of the parties for their actions, always underpinning a decision with a reason, which leaves you as the judge and jury. The play seems instead not about the individuals on stage, but the individuals in the audience and the real world of our own lives. It explores the moral connotations of ignorance, the personal vs the global, and the morality of not looking. All of which leaves the viewer shaken to the core.
The casting was strong; making these three characters real and endearing within a short amount of time and with incredible ease, their performances did not feel forced or contrived. Horne resisted methods to find quick empathy or to simply narrate their lives, rather, it happened naturally through the script as Caines and Luck quickly built an attractive rapport and an easy chemistry. As the play continues stakes raise, emotions sway and pulse and their performances kick up an octave. Caines keeps pace and energy sustained through powerful monologues full of intensity and force as Chris hides more and more. In a dramatic scene near the end of the play Josh goes to confront Chris. Luck brings a beautiful vulnerability to this moment, which remains whilst he hits intense notes of anger, betrayal, and concern making for a powerful performance and a powerful scene. The power shifts and twists between them result in a heart breaking bitter-sweet denouement which feels incorrect yet inevitable.
The production elements were modest but effective; with some ingenious use of carefully selected props such as a live printer and wide assortments of post-it notes. The technical elements mirrored this. The use of lights was fairly similar in terms of the overall simplistic effect but maintained clear intentions whichworked to the benefit of the story. There were general states for different locations with the ‘online’ word having its own state to help make the difference clear to an audience without the need to use dialogue allowing Luck and Caines to remain natural. However these states contained many nuanced shades, which gave depth to the overall aesthetic of the production. Additionally there was the physical movementsfrom of the actors within the thrust stage of the theatre, they were continually lit by different shades as they moved around the space which elevated the production without distracting from the story with over complicated tech elements.
On that, the staging of the piece itself was delicate, with subtle shifts of pace and position worked in naturally via Caines, Luck and Cavaliero. Having seen the piece in Edinburgh in a much smaller Fringe venue with a different layout the transition worked well. This new space brought slightly more stillness but maintained the pace needed to sustain the plot and the actors brought the same energy to reach all in the room. There were some seats located on the stage itself, forming the thrust mentioned. These brought the ability to see other audience members ahead of you, a quality I adore (although many hate) if used well, which I feel this was. The whole piece was enhanced when mirrored on a neighbour and linked well to the themes of selective passivity or ignorance. There was no choice but to acknowledge others and the play itself, deepening I ts power as a shared experience.
All of the above worked together to allow the words and the concept to settle. This thought experiment around morality, does the end justify the means and a look into modern politics in terms of what is clear, what is not and what we ignore. It is a powerful, original, brutal concept which the audience had no choice but to be swept up in, moving from passive spectators to implicit participants via careful dialogue and explicitly relatable performances. One moment that I feel was key to this shift was a heart-breaking voiceover (by assistant director Molly-Rose Curran). This stunning emotional note set in the devastation of a drone forced the reality to set in, that this play although original is not based on pure imagination. The characters and narrative may be a fiction but the acts highlights are not. They are out there and people choose to be ignorant, to turn off the news or scroll past the article because it is hard to hear and hard to see. But if we stop watching we stop caring. And this is only the information readily available via the news and media coverage, not all that is restricted, hidden and covered up, a problem highlighted via the play. This play used its stage time as a painful but important gift. We can be passive audience members in the theatre if we choose, but we should not be when we leave. We cannot remain at a distance.