Often with poetic theatre, it’s a balancing act between effective, realistic dialogue and sophisticated forms of expression. As Pentabus Theatre arrives with Tim Price’s For Once, recently appointed Artistic Director of the Traverse Orla O’Loughlin tackles an intriguing drama on family bonds with mixed results.
Set in the routine comfort of middle-class country life, For Once examines the fractured family relationships between Sid (Jonathon Smith) and his parents, April and Gordon (Geraldine Alexander and Patrick Driver). After Sid is left partially blind from a car accident which killed three of his friends, O’Loughlin explores how tragedy can unhinge a seemingly convivial home life.
The most intriguing aspect of Price’s text is its exploration of knock-on consequence. The car accident has prompted Sid into adulthood as he adapts to a harsh new world affected by disaster; his maturity sparks a faint mid-life crisis in Gordon who tries to engage with yet simultaneously distance himself from his son while causing April to consider her role as a mother more seriously. As each character addresses the audience, self-narrating their experiences, there’s a lyrical timidity in which Price pays close attention to the way these characters express their emotions, sometimes raw and passionately, other times aloof and evasively. This delicate examination makes for warm and gentle theatre – watching Price’s play is a lot like sitting by a crackling fire with loved ones, cuddled up and enjoying the intimacy of the moment. Aided by a calm, restful soundtrack which jars touchingly against the severity of Sid’s accident, it is a fragile text which could shatter at any moment – a lot like the characters at its heart – yet is held together by solid and refined performances.
There is a Price to pay, so to speak, for this however. The unravelling of emotions and tension produces a slow and evolving narrative which often hints at profundity yet perhaps lacks true complexity. Layered though Price’s text may be, it comes across as safe, slightly afraid to explore the truly unattractive side of family, and perhaps lacks a bolder statement which would indicate O’Loughlin’s arrival as the Traverse’s new Artistic Director. It’s easy to see why Price is so commissionable though; the dialogue, artistic observation and subtly of this text all show intelligence and awareness, but it follows a formula which modern tragedies use fairly frequently, borrowing heavily from older conflict and resolution structures. Though it has the capacity to wound its audience on quite a deep emotional level, it’s just hard to swallow as progressive and superior theatre.
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