Saturday, 2 November 2019

REVIEW: Chemistry at the Finborough Theatre

The European Premier production of Jacob Marx Rice’s award-winning Chemistry is an intimate and honest look into the world of mental health and its preconceptions and misconceptions. The haze-filled auditorium is in traverse layout with the stage space being dominated by a floating rectangle of scaffolding which houses the two characters throughout. Following the shape of the scaffolding is a maze of wires and lights across the floor. The story follows Steph (Caoimhe Farren) and Jamie (James Mear) as their lives combine after a chance meeting in a waiting room. 

Farren’s depression-stricken Steph is sharp-witted and Farren seems to revel in her characters playfulness. She also masterfully tackles the intricacies of Steph’s depressive episodes with truth and an individuality appropriate for such a complex and diverse illness. 

Mear is brilliant as unipolar manic Jamie. His performance was gut-wrenchingly real and had beautiful moments of guttural pain and frustration which was painful to observe in all the right ways.

Pair the two performers together and the chemistry was electrifying. Their love for each other was palpable and tender moments hung in the air as if suspended in time. However, some of the more furious moments became stagnated and felt rehearsed, with somewhat stereotypical acting choices.

Directing a ‘two-hander’ in an intimate venue is intricate; there is nowhere for actors, characters or your choices to hide. Alex Howarth has honed Mear and Farren and ensured that their every movement, word and interaction was purposeful. Howarth also doubles up as the shows designer and has used the shows design to allow the actors and the text to shine. One huge drawback of this production, however, is the lack of make-up. We hear graphic descriptions of how Jamie and Steph self-harmed yet, when the poignant moment comes for them to show each other their scars, the audience see nothing. Whether this is an attempt at a metaphor for unseen psychological scars or just an expectation of the audience to suspend our disbelief that little bit more isn’t clear to me. What is clear is that it pulled me out of the honest world they had created for a while.

The legendary reviewer Lyn Gardiner wasn’t wrong when she called this theatre “the mighty little Finborough” and this production serves as a good reminder that a show doesn’t need a west-end budget and sky-high production values. A good script, immensely strong actors and direction that allows an audience into the character’s psyche is what makes great theatre. Chemistry has all three.

Review by Max Topliss

Rating: ★★★★

Seat: Unreserved | Price of Ticket: £18
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