Bristol Old Vic
Things I Know To Be True is a strange hybrid – a work that offers both the high art of Frantic Assembly’s now syllabus physical style and a text from Australian Andrew Bovell that wouldn’t look out of place on the Christmas Day episode of EastEnders.
It makes for a partially enriching evening; plenty of style to make one crow and enough incident to keep one entertained, in the same way an Albert Square barney is always worth tuning in for.
It starts with a phone call, a call that will change life forever. Like the prologue in Romeo and Juliet, its climax is spelt out to its audience at the beginning. For this seemingly tight-knit family, shown at the start supported and united in lifts, it seems a moment designed to tear the heart out of it. By the time it returns to this moment in its climactic final moments that conception has shifted. Everything has already changed.
Rolling back to the start Kirsty Oswald’s Rosie has her heart broken by an exotic European while she tours through Berlin and immediately decides to book her flight home in Australia, to her cosy family nest where ‘the one guarantee is nothing changes’.
Yet behind any family there are secrets, no family exists without drama. No family can ever be truly perfect. And so Bovell chucks the kitchen sink of issues at the work: in brief order we are confronted with infidelity, gender identity, fraud and the need to fly the coop and become truly independent.
Each of these are worth a play on their own and this is the work’s major flaw, it becomes increasingly obvious how each scene will go. One by one each family member exposes their secret, has a tense and angst confrontation with one or other of the parents (each has their favourite, each has a black sheep that appears to be a younger version of themselves) and then breaks away from the family cycle. Step by step each member flies the nest, the nucleus breaking down.
Six family members, 5 family members, 4, 3, 2….1. Like a soap we are in a constant cycle, the narrative spinning over and over again. Each scenes construction mirrors the next and we’re never more than 20 minutes from an all-encompassing, tears and screams family row.
Yet the soapy construct is elevated with physicality of breathtaking beauty. Ewan Stewart’s calm, composed patriarch at a moment of high anguish leans his whole body forward and demonstrates a man staring over the edge of an abyss. As Rosie falls in love/lust with a Spanish man in Berlin she is lifted high up, the sensation of feeling like you’re flying up, up and away perfectly captured. Transitions between scenes are exquisitely realised, chairs being pushed across the stage until they skid to a stop inches from the family dining table and where an actor plops themselves down. It makes you long for all work to focus so heavily on these moments, the dead moments that kill the momentum of so much work.
Stewart is the stand out performer here, not only in his aforementioned physicality but also in the way that his quiet dignity, his quiet contemplation, sets him out as the clear power behind Cate Hamer’s more explosive, heart on sleeve, head of the table, Fran. Oswald, Matthew Barker, Seline Hizli and Arthur Wilson all have their moment to shine as the four children even if it is only Oswald who gets a chance to build a character away from the issue that each of the other three are saddled with.
It’s rare for a new production to be demonstrably better than its source text but this one by Geordie Brookman and Scott Graham shows it can happen. Alongside the strong performances contained within and the occasionally breath-taking movement work there is a knock out lighting design by Geoff Cobham that makes art of the changing of the seasons. As the family flies and the reaper eventually comes knocking the colour fades away. Yet at that moment as the light darkens the family entwine together, united against the bumps in the road. The cord that binds them may be frayed but family is a tie that can never be fully snapped.