‘A bright future in this new normal’: THE TELL-TALE HEART / WITHIN – Threedumb Theatre (Online review)

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Threedumb Theatre is a small scale operation with big ambitions. Formed by three graduates from Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts (LIPA) they have ingeniously mounted a couple of productions despite lockdown, broadcasting them first live via Facebook and then putting them up for further viewing on both their You Tube channel and on the Screensaver platform. I just love the fact that under the venue category on the latter, the listing is given as “My Living Room”.

The first piece is a monologue with text by Edgar Allan Poe. His short story The Tell-Tale Heart is a classic chiller as only Poe can construct one, full of gothic horror and terrible deeds in which a murderer confesses his crime and how he tries to hide the evidence. However, he is haunted by the rhythmic sound of a beating heart which, despite his protestations to the contrary, sends him mad. Indeed, it is likely that the killer is insane from the start as his victim has done nothing to warrant his untimely death other than to possess “a vulture eye” as it is described. Stephen Smith is the monologist and very good he is at it too.

The sometimes shaky camera (which only adds to the occasion) stays in very close and we can see every nuance of Smith’s detailed performance. There’s a creeping sense of dread in his eyes and a sheen of sweat on his brow as he narrates the foul deed and its consequences. With a light source often positioned below his face Smith reminded me of a teller of ghost tales around the campfire and washes of red and blue light add to the atmosphere. There is some very eerie underscoring going on which further sets the pulse racing. Considering the piece was put together and shot on no budget at all, it is very accomplished. It was awarded an OnComm by OffWestEnd.com which, for a first time out, is quite an achievement.

The follow up piece is entitled Within by Joseph Furey and also has elements of the horror story though of a rather more modern kind. Joe is a disaffected 20 something with little or no connection to much of the outside world; he basically ignores his mother’s messages, has all but forgotten his father’s birthday, is developing a porn habit and is on multiple dating websites.

We know all this, not because Joe confesses directly but because he has casually downloaded an app which is questioning him and building a profile in order that they may interact. The app goes by the name of S.U.E. (think Alexa or Siri). In her anodyne electronic voice S.U.E. claims that she/it can show Joe the meaning of life but first he has to undergo various exercises to reach that particular level. I won’t reveal too much more – suffice to say the app becomes politely dictatorial and things start to go badly as Joe finds himself in a very dark place indeed. If you think S.U.E. sounds similar to HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, then you’d be right. There is also more than a hint of Black Mirror in the way technology is seen to be taking over.

Stephen Smith again takes on the central character and, again, is very convincing. He has more to do here and can demonstrate a greater range than in the first piece; there is more of a sense of the character developing and evolving. Joe’s increasing desperation towards the end is well particularly well played. Smith’s interaction with the disembodied voice of  S.U.E. (Millie Webber) is virtually spot on and as the play is effectively a duologue (even if one of the characters cannot be seen) it is able to hold interest for that much longer. Technically the piece is more ambitious too. It begins outside and we follow Smith’s roamings around various areas of the flat – this does make consistent lighting a challenge. There’s one particular special effect (no spoilers) which had me wondering, how did they do that?

On the evidence so far, Threedumb Theatre have a bright future in this “new normal”. Of the two shows, I preferred the second piece if only because it was rather more of an unknown quantity and there was time for fuller development. However, both pieces are to be applauded for their innovation and their ability to show us that there’s life left in the old (drama) dog yet.

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John Chapman
John Chapman works as a freelance education consultant, writer and copy editor. Prior to this, he was an Assistant Headteacher specialising in English and Drama. John first took to the stage as a schoolboy pretending to be a Latin frog. Decades later, he has been involved with 150+ productions, usually as an actor or director. He is currently a member of Tower Theatre in Stoke Newington, London. In 2016, he was in their “mechanicals” team that worked as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s A Midsummer Night's Dream: A Play For The Nation, appearing both at the Barbican and in Stratford-upon-Avon. In 2004, he served as a panellist on the Olivier Awards; he is currently an Offies assessor. He reviews for a variety of websites, writes his own independent blog 2ndFromBottom about his theatrical life.
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John Chapman on RssJohn Chapman on Twitter
John Chapman
John Chapman works as a freelance education consultant, writer and copy editor. Prior to this, he was an Assistant Headteacher specialising in English and Drama. John first took to the stage as a schoolboy pretending to be a Latin frog. Decades later, he has been involved with 150+ productions, usually as an actor or director. He is currently a member of Tower Theatre in Stoke Newington, London. In 2016, he was in their “mechanicals” team that worked as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s A Midsummer Night's Dream: A Play For The Nation, appearing both at the Barbican and in Stratford-upon-Avon. In 2004, he served as a panellist on the Olivier Awards; he is currently an Offies assessor. He reviews for a variety of websites, writes his own independent blog 2ndFromBottom about his theatrical life.

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