Review: “The Stage Door”
New Experimental Drama Takes West End by Storm
by Guylty Pleasure
Experimental drama has the habit of being, well, experimental. It is hard to tell nowadays where reality starts and fiction begins. A new experimental drama that is mid-way through its eleven week-run in London’s West End is braving new ways in bringing the reality of modern life to the audience. Never-seen-before stage management, audience involvement and improvisation methods are making this innovative new work the must-see performance of the season. And best of all – it’s unticketed and free in.
Devised and staged by impressive director/writer/lead actor Richard Armitage, the play opens to a street scene on a balmy summer evening in central London. The seemingly calm and peaceful scene is cosily illuminated by street lights, accentuated with the warm glow of the orange “stage door” orb. Sparsely furnished with the occasional car and a few lonely signposts, the set however displays a staggering level of detail, allowing the audience to feel immediately at ease with the familiar setting. It is on this set that the audience assembles in a single-file, carefully co-directed by That-polite-Security-Guard under detailed instruction from director Armitage.
With the audience in place, Armitage allows the atmosphere to settle before the action starts rolling. And this is where the experimental spectacle starts. Unbeknownst to the audience, the assembled spectators become part of the play, jostling for a place in the line, conducting hushed conversations, swapping the occasional giggle, adjusting bra straps and waistbands, and holding pens and posters at the ready. Armitage allows the tension to rise until almost palpably at breaking point, and finally enters the stage himself.
In a remarkably choreographed movement of grace and speed the lead actor works his way along the lined-up audience. His journey is the reward, both for him, but mainly for the audience, as he twists and turns in a stunning improvisation from one spectator to the next. Outmaneuvering any requests for conversation, Armitage launches into a mantra-like, Beckett-esque monologue. “Thank you. Thank you. Aw, thank you for coming. Thank you. Yes, of course. That’s so kind of you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for coming.” The result is a mind-blowing, awe-inspiring blur of pale skin and dark beard, overlayed with the soothing baritone hum of his calming voice that leaves the audience speechless and incapable of anything but compliance.
Involving the audience in the drama of the action is a stroke of genius by the 42-year-old actor. Known for the meticulous preparation of his roles, the Hobbit star has researched his subject in-depth and portrays his character as a public figure conscious of the cult of celebrity. Bowed down in humility, the modest character accepts the ovations of the audience with grace and a modicum of embarrassment, acknowledging the power of female mass adoration but politely refusing to reap the rewards of his celebrity. The towering presence of a burly security guard on the stage is the obvious reminder that the fourth wall is only breached on the celebrity’s terms, and can be re-sealed at any moment.
All too soon the spectacle is over. The twenty-minute-play relies heavily on the cooperation of the audience, and kudos to Armitage for braving and sharing the unpredictability of improvisation as well as reacting with wit and aplomb to the occasionally rowdy crowd. On the night the reviewer attended the performance, a fellow attendee veered off the unwritten script and demanded the signing of a plastic puppet instead of the customary books, photos or posters. Armitage elegantly interrupted his monologue with an unrehearsed but smoothly inserted “You want that signed?” and continued the performance unfazed. It speaks for Armitage’s impeccable professionalism that he signed his customary “RA” without the slightest quiver and launched back into his monologue with hardly a twitch of his impeccably coiffed eyebrows.
No doubt the close-contact performance takes guts, sweat and tears, and the audience rewarded the inspiring writer/actor/director appropriately with spontaneous standing ovations on the pavement. (Only cynics would claim that the audience was already standing, anyway.) If you are a socially aware theatre-lover, this is the must-see event of the season for the scenes of spontaneous fangirl heart-break, the searing commentary on 21st century cult of celebrity and an up-to-date look at current menswear fashion.
“The Stage Door” opened outside the Old Vic Theatre, London, on the 21st of June 2014 and runs until September 13th, 2014. This is an unticketed, free event. The play is rated PG 13 (Parents strongly cautioned – some material may be inappropriate for children under 13). Observers welcome, participants are advised to bring writing material and/or camera as only autograph and photo requests will elicit reactive involvement in the performance of Mr Armitage.