A welcome return for this reviewer to the UEA Drama Studio, where I have enjoyed many superb productions. I feel some sympathy for the students there now and over the last two years as there have been such difficulties in presenting live drama indoors. The last show I saw just before the first lockdown was their excellent production of Sondheim’s ‘Into The Woods’, a poignant memory this week. That show was cut short before most of the scheduled productions, a blunt putdown to a cast and crew who had worked so hard.

This week the UEA students are putting on a trio of Caryl Churchill plays under the collective title of ‘Love Triangles’ and while the show are still proceeding I know they have had some difficulty filling the auditorium as we get very mixed messages from a chaotic government about just what we can and cannot do this week.

If you can catch these show, please do. The three shows are all utterly delightful, and superbly performed and presented. Caryl Churchill uses stage drama in wildly innovative and experimental ways to make us think about our lives, attitudes, stereotypes, and conventions but has also created shows which are funny, heartwarming and hugely entertaining. In each of the plays there are moments of shock, pathos and passion presented in a breathless sequence of mini-scenes that pile onto each other.

In this review, perhaps unusually, I am not going to credit individual members of the cast and crew, not just because there are lots of them (there really are) but because the strength of these performances is a reflection of a superb level of cooperation and coordination from everyone involved. With so many on stage each of us might find ourselves captivated by one performer or another but it is the collective effort that gives Churchill’s work its impact and power.

Love and Information is the longest of the three works with a cast of nineteen often all on stage together. The staging for this (and the other two works) is minimal, with a few slightly raised platforms and a few chairs on them. This is not a play with a linear plot and a steady development of characters, in fact the random nature of the many mini scenes is encouraged to be haphazard by the author. There is a lot of humour, often enhanced by the scattergun approach to any form of narrative. It has the joyful intrigue that you might feel listening to snatches of conversation on a busy street, or in a bus or train. Some parts of the performance contain dialogue entirely composed of unfinished sentences, so the cast (with great timing) are almost playing a game of anticipation with us as we constantly subconsciously extrapolate the fuller dialogue suggested. This is quite surprisingly enjoyable. Small scenes for two often handover one of the two actors to a new scene apparently unrelated. The young actors get chances to show a myriad of theatrical skills, with music and song and dance included with everything from yoga classes to military drill. The cast are very adept at giving us developed and rounded characters in just a phrase or two, only to confound our assumptions by switching to a new persona within minutes.

This is a challenging work that gets you thinking, and raises many issues. I would happily go and see it five times over and still be finding something new every time. The costume design for this play is startlingly good, with bright outfits in bold styles and colours that are coherent yet completely unfamiliar which helps to create a context similar to the dialogue in being both recognisable but oddly challenging.

Blue Heart is the collective name for the two shorter separate works ‘Heart’s Desire’ and ‘Blue Kettle’. Both use innovative staging techniques including the use of multiple actors on stage playing the same role simultaneously. Heart’s Desire show us parents Brian and Alice waiting for the return of their daughter, their heart’s desire, with the girl’s aunt Maisie. There are three separate platforms with three separate versions of this family on stage together, with snatches of out of sequence dialogue flying around between the three platforms. Fashions and attitudes seem to differ wildly between the three versions as a succession of interruptions raise false hope of the return of the daughter. The intrusions seem completely random, from a violent gun attack to a strutting bird. With almost endless repeats of the basic scene we are drawn into wondering whether there can ever be a resolution to this family’s dilemma, after all the false starts. You will have to see the play to find out!

Blue Kettle again uses the technique in this production of multiple actors playing the same roles on stage together. Derek is a conman who tells five different women who had to give a baby away in the past that he is the long lost son. His girlfriend Enid wants no part in this deception, but appears not to challenge Derek in his pursuit of mothers, at first. Slowly but inexorably the situation breaks down, and this is marked by the spoken text breaking down too. At first, random words are replaced by ‘blue’ or ‘kettle’, gradually increasing until whole sentences are made of just these words, and we struggle to interpolate meaning from what we have already learned. Eventually, the dialogue collapses completely into monosyllabic nonsense as the deceptions become obvious to all concerned.

Director James Robert Carson has marshalled his very capable young casts into three landmark productions of these Caryl Churchill classics, which build on her defiance of theatrical convention to give us works that are funny, full of pathos and humanity, triumph and tragedy, presented in a way that we have never seen before. They are a delightful set of entertainments which I recommend to you without hesitation as the UEA Drama Studio shows just how good these stars of the future can be.

© Julian Swainson, Norwich Eye, 9 Dec 2021

Listings information:
LOVE TRIANGLES 7 – 12 December 2021
A celebration of the plays of Caryl Churchill
UEA Drama Studio, University Of East Anglia, Norwich, NR4 7TJ
7, 8, 10 December 7.30pm
11 December 2pm
8, 12 December 2pm
9, 11 December 7.30pm
TICKETS £7 / £5 Concessions from www.lovetriangles.co.uk