The show is worth seeing for Ellie and Joanna, and to see how well a piece of realist drama can be made to fit in an unconventional space.
Butterflies Are Free follows Don Baker (Liam Dyer), a blind man with a penchant for playing the guitar, as he prepares for a visit by his overbearing mother, Mrs Baker (Ellie Fowler). Lo and behold it doesn’t quite go to plan and a quick fling with ex-hippy next door, Jill “my vagina can fix all your problems” Tanner (Joanna Mills) sets up some necessary confrontation which is resolved in a predictable but poignant manner.
The show was an example of realism done right, oddly juxtaposed to the fact the space had an ‘attic theatre’ feel that would have perhaps lent itself to a more minimal, styled set. That said, the production team successfully gave the cast a fully decked-out bedsit complete with a tape recorder that played music, sandwiches that were edible, and cigarettes (well – e-cigs but unfortunately nothing can be done about the University’s strict no-smoking policy). The result gave the audience that magical, butterflies in your stomach (ey?) feeling, of stepping into a place where theatre is going to happen, and after two minutes we were fully immersed in a 60s New York bedsit.
Director Anna Williams clearly has an eye for detail and I was most impressed with the characterisation and blocking. All the movement was purposeful – the cast were never moving from one place to the other without reason, and the audience were allowed to watch arguments unfold without atypical pacing and erratic arm gestures. This was a mature and more refined theatre than I have previously seen from SUSU Theatre Group, and it freed the group to hone a different dramatic skill set.
The show was stolen by Fowler (only once before have I seen a student play age so aptly) and her precision and emotional connection to her character was so absolute it became hard to recognise her as Jan from SUSU Showstoppers’ Grease. Fowler is evidently a performer of skill and promise and the tension and terseness she brought to the show complemented the dry comedy perfectly.
Mills was equally as impressive: her American accent was delicate and honest and her ability to improvise to what I presume were unexpected happenstances demonstrates that the Meisner technique (as mentioned by Anna Williams in the preview) had been used to great effect. My only criticism is that I felt Mills could have used Jill Tanner’s sexuality more. The inevitable attraction towards Don Baker was only expressed vocally and a more physical primal portrayal might have reflected the ex-hippy’s past more accurately.
Dyer had obviously escaped his own head and what we saw was a realistic characterisation of Don Baker – he played blindness well, and in particular the relationship with his mother came across as damaging, sarky, and full of angst. Unfortunately there were many line slips and stutters, and his accent too often slipped to Irish which became starkly obvious in scenes with Fowler.
The play for me was irrevocably damaged by Jonny Clark’s portrayal of Ralph Austin; the character was an unrealistic grotesque which was made more apparent by the performances by the rest of the cast. Someone dropped the ball here and I can’t work out if it was the directors trying to jazz up the piece with a larger-than-life character or an actor who didn’t connect with the text. The accent was a gross parody of a southern American accent and the odd decision to put him in make-up made him look like a pale, crack-addled maniac with no business in this dry comedic drama other than to steal a coffee mug.
The entrance of Ralph marked a turning point from which the play could not recover: the jokes lost their dryness and at times it felt farcical, which is not what an expositional piece on how you shouldn’t treat the blind any differently needed (you can’t sleep with him because he is blind, you can’t break up with him because he is blind, you can’t mother him into the grave because he is blind).
All in all the show is worth seeing for Fowler and Mills, and to see how well a piece of realist drama can be made to fit in an unconventional space. Some weak actors, however, with mistakes that quickly added up and were never redeemed make the piece too clunky to be something I would tell my friends not to miss.