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The Shadow Box is a Pulitzer Prize, and Tony Award winning play written in the 1970’s by Michael Cristofer (Falling In Love, Gia). The script follows the story of three terminally ill patients, living out their final days in cottages cared for by their loved ones. As such, it is an emotionally heavy piece, with provides a very honest snapshot of these people’s lives. At its heart it’s a story about the very human way in which people come to terms with death, and their regrets and frustrations upon finding out their diagnosis.
This is a story that in the hands of any theatre group would have the potential to come across as insincere, contrived, and ultimately crass. However, no one could level these charges against this production – in fact under the Direction of Louise Cross The Shadow Box becomes a play infused with moments of sincere emotion, and challenging themes, both of which remain with the audience days later.
As the audience were ushered into the Nuffield Theatre, they were greeted by a blacked out room which four spaces marked out and illuminated. LUTG had decided to perform The Shadow Box as a promenade piece, in which the audience were free to move about the stage as they wish. In the centre was placed a chair in which interviews with the patients took place, and surrounding that were the three cottages. The sets were fantastically and intricately designed, matching the tone of the play beautifully. The walls were replaced by lines of tape, with the windows hanged delicately from the ceiling, adding to the sense of both openness and voyeurism the audience experienced as they stare through into the heart of these people’s lives.
The most intriguing aspect of the play is The Interviewer, played by Jamie Lonsdale. The interviews with the characters take place in a chair in the centre of the room, which The Interviewer out of sight of the interviewee. These interviews act as a tool to explore the inner thoughts of the characters, providing explanation for the audience in the guise of a caring therapist. This is ultimately the most frustrating aspect of the play, and at times its existence seemed simply to advance and clarify the plot. Its existence remains intentionally a mystery to the audience throughout the play – I admit I was waiting for a revelation about the interviewer as the play concluded. While Lonsdale’s performance is perfectly refined to the character he is playing, the device and the character itself would have benefited from further exploration.
In the first cottage we find Joe, played by Chad Bunney, the down to earth Northerner who, out of any of the characters in the play, is handling his diagnosis in the most measured way. While not quite welcoming the disease, he seems quite at peace with it – in fact his biggest issue stems from the arrival of his wife Maggie, played by Chiara Wakely, and his daughter Steve, portrayed by Charlie Larner. Maggie is in denial about the diagnosis of her husband, and as such has not broken the news to their daughter. The interplay between the three characters is handled wonderfully, and is perhaps the aspect of the play that might feel the most relevant to audience members.
The moments of intimacy between the members of the small family, are incredibly touching – managing to both warm and crush the hearts of the audience. These moments persist throughout the play, whether it be Stevie and her Dad bonding over the guitar, Joe and Maggie embracing on the bench outside, or Maggie’s insistence on bringing a ham over a thousand miles so that Joe had something to eat. It is in the smaller moments that this cottage finds its heart – when Maggie first arrives she rips the jumper off of Joe’s shoulders, immediately concerned by the hole. It’s a moment reflective of a cottage that demonstrates beautifully the love and devotion that family members pay to each other.
It is in the interviewer’s chair in which we first encounter the patient assigned to the cottage on the other side of the stage. Brian, portrayed by Jamie Steele, is an intelligent, articulate and at times helplessly naïve professor determined to make the best of his final months on Earth. He offers the most erudite reflections on mortality in the play – handling his imminent death with wit, and a helpless lack of self awareness. Accompanying him in the cottage is his lover Mark, played by James Grant, who is struggling to come to terms with not simply the imminent death of his partner, but also the challenges of caring day in, day out for the man he loves.
Their quiet cottage is interrupted by the arrival of Brian’s alcoholic, witty, and reckless ex-wife Beverly brought to life by Jennifer Meadows. Her arrival ushers in the only significant moments of levity in the play, a welcome relief from the somewhat emotionally draining piece. Mark caught between the two flamboyant ex-lovers, acts as both a balance between them, but also a harsh reminder of reality for both Brian, and Beverly.
The power of this cottage, once again, comes not necessarily from the characters and performers themselves, but the way in which they interact. From the tender moments of love and devotion between Brian and Mark, the jealousy charged back-and forth between Beverly and Mark, to the wistful nostalgia between Brian and Beverly, this is a cottage which is charged relentlessly with emotion. The highlights come as these interactions reach their climax, with each character deliver a fervent monologue conveying their frustrations and regrets over Brian’s diagnosis. The interactions are performed in a wonderfully dynamic way by Steele, Meadows, and Grant.
In the final cottage we find Felicity, an elderly and infirmed patient whose lucidity decreases as the play goes on, and Agnes the devoted carer/daughter of Felicity. In a production full of exceptional performances, special praise has to go to Jess Turton for her performance as Felicity. Turton was wonderful, and at times so believable that it felt as though she had inadvertently aged 60 years during the rehearsals. Her flashes of anger, pain, and confusion evoked genuine feelings of anguish within the audience – and her moments of discomfort was shared by all those watched it. Further credit must go to the prop and make up team working on Felicity – her transformation from student to pensioner was dependant on her appearance, which was handled perfectly by the team.
Agnes, portrayed by Ellie Evans, acts as the perfect foil for the uneven emotions of Felicity – attempting defiantly to care for her elderly mother despite her repudiations. Evans is by no means, outshone by her co-star, but delivers a measured performance that, similar to that of Mark in the other cottage, offers an emotional insight into the emotional toll brought on those watching their loved ones die. In part thanks to these performances, and in part due to the lack of resolution in the story, this is the cottage which leaves the audience contemplating its events the most.
As mentioned earlier, the most significant break from the original incarnation of the script comes, aside from a few moments of modernisation and the thankful exclusion of any cheesy American accents, but also the introduction of the promenade aspect which allows the audience to move around the stage, coming within touching distance of the performers. This aspect serves to emphasise the intimacy already prevalent in the story and in the set design, in turn underscoring each moment of emotional intensity by allowing the audience to further suspend their disbelief. It offers a whole other dimension to the story, which was handled intelligently.
It does, however, come at a price. Firstly, at times the story became difficult to follow as the audience undecidedly drifted from one area of the stage to the other. Secondly, it meant many of the tenderest moments of the play were easy to miss as the attention was diverted to other parts of the stage. It was only through pure coincidence that I managed to witness Stevie’s reaction to the revelation that her father was terminally ill, which was beautifully performed but ultimately ignored by the majority of the audience.
The conclusion to the play is a somewhat emotionally muted climax of expressions from each cottage, merging together in a crescendo which pulls together, for the first time, all three cottages. In a play so grounded in reality through its performances, set design, and promenade aspect, this conclusion is all together much too abstract. It feels fundamentally out of place with the rest of the performance. Furthermore, due to the promenade aspect, and the pace at which this scene conclude it is difficult to follow, further undermining the potential for any major emotional impact.
These criticisms are however, ultimately minor. To say that I enjoyed LUTG’s The Shadow Box would be wrong – I can’t imagine anyone taking any pleasure in watching these heart breaking stories play out before them. I have, in fact, never felt quite so emotionally and physically drained upon leaving a piece of theatre. It is a heart-wrenching play, handled delicately and beautifully by both cast and crew. It offers both an exploration of the very human ways in which people come to terms with death, and also a timely reminder to make the most of life while you can.
Congratulations to all those involved on a wonderful production.