Faces in the Crowd @ Royal Court, London

cast list
Amanda Drew
Con O’Neill

directed by
Clare Lizzimore
It’s a small but telling sound. The collective release of tension: the relaxing of shoulders, the uncurling of fingers, a communal sigh as people begin to breathe again. It was this sound one could hear in the seconds of darkness and quiet that followed the end of Leo Butler’s Faces in the Crowd; it had been a long, intense ride for audience and performers both, but now it was over.

Butler’s play concerns Dave and Joanne. They were married are still married but he skipped town years ago, leaving both her and large pile of debt behind him. and headed to London. Now he lives in tiny but fashionably decked-out flat in Shoreditch. It’s little more than a shoebox but you can see the Gherkin from the window.

Joanne isn’t looking for explanations or apologies though. She’s nearing forty and fears she hasn’t got much time left in which to have a baby, so she’s come to collect what she feels Dave owes her. It’s a situation littered with emotional debris. As this one time couple hit the wine and prepare to hit the sack old feelings of animosity and betrayal rise to the surface, leading them to take aim at each other verbally and physically.

The Royal Court’s upstairs theatre has been totally transformed for this production by designers Rae Smith and William Fricker. Dave’s entire flat has been constructed in a pit around which the audience sit, watching from above. This makes the characters feel like animals in an enclosure. It also leaves the actors nowhere to hide, and Claire Lizzimore’s production seems intent on ripping the lid of this couple’s lives and letting the audience peer in.

The play demands a lot from its performers, depicting both Dave and Joanne’s sexual fumbling and the violent fallout of their reunion. It’s draining to watch and is blessed with two utterly compelling and open performances from Con O’Neill, as Dave, and Amanda Drew, as Joanne. O’Neill superbly conveys Dave’s barely contained fury, his ability to flip, his volatility, and the way his Sheffield accent intensifies when he loses his cool. Drew is also startlingly good: her anger is better contained but she has the capacity to wound when necessary. A deep sense of sorrow and loss underlines even the most explosive of scenes.

But, though a powerful experience, the play feels hollow. Its attempts at topicality the emotional fallout of inescapable debt and a lack of social mobility feel just like attempts at topicality. This is particularly true of Joanne’s speech about the failure of feminism; it doesn’t come across like something this character would believe or feel, it appears forced and inorganic.

Butler’s writing is more potent when he shifts the focus away from the discussion of Big Issues; he has a particularly strong understanding of silence and detail. Early on in the play Joanne goes through Dave’s medicine cabinet and inspecting the contents. It’s wordless but says a lot. The set allows things to go on in different areas of the flat and, at one point, Joanne smokes impatiently in the bedroom while Dave readies himself in the bathroom. This goes on for quite a while, with Lizzimore grasping that these periods of calm before the storm are just as dramatically significant as the storm itself.

This is a raw, powerful piece of theatre but it’s desire to make itself relevant doesn’t do it any favours. The couple’s background, their journey to the place where we see them, doesn’t always ring true. But the sheer strength of the performances, the utter exposure, is something not easily forgotten.

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