In May 2005, Sheffield Theatres put on the Pyramid Festival – a four-day event featuring works-in-progress, lectures, discussion sessions etc. put together by local theatre companies.
The very first item of the festival was a short solo piece called Best Laid Plans, playfully described by Third Angel’s Alex Kelly as “an experiment to see whether an audience would tolerate thirty minutes of Rachael (Walton) dragging furniture on stage.” Given that fairly accurate description, the piece painted a surprisingly painful portrait of our emotional attachment to domestic ritual and environment – yet it was hard not to wonder how this could now develop into a finished production three times that length.
The consistently excellent Third Angel have, however, done exactly that – and the result is outstanding. Presumption is all about the slow realisation that life-changing decisions may have already been made, even before the time has come to make them. Beth (Rachael Walton) and Tom (Chris Thorpe) have both been feeling the classic seven-year itch – asking themselves whether a life with each other is what they really want, yet instead of making that decision they simply become aware of the fact that they had already made it a long time ago.
Their story is told through a mixture of soliloquy, analepsis and ritualised domestic discussion, as the couple talk us through the aftermath of a dinner party, worrying about the questions they find themselves asking about their relationship.
With these meditations all centred on just a moment in emotional time, the narrative arc is provided by the set, assembled around them throughout the production by the actors themselves. So the stage begins bare, apart from lots of bold outlines in white masking tape that mark the spaces where that aforementioned furniture is to go. As the scene – or is it a reconstruction? – plays out, further parts of the set are required. The bare stage is transformed into a room in front of us, and Beth and Tom’s collective personalities shine through as we watch them silently reconstruct their home together.
As in the original show, the furniture is never brought on in the easiest way possible, and the construction of the stage can resemble something out of the Buster Keaton school of slapstick silent cinema. In the middle of an argument the players will discover that a crucial piece of the set is missing, and all of a sudden snap into action in order to get the required (and often very heavy looking) item onto the stage and into its allotted location.
From the first, (Beth coming on stage wearing a cocoon of what turns out to be six chairs), to the last (a virtuoso stacking of a bookshelf, as it’s contents fly on stage at alarming speed) this is exhilarating and entertaining theatre.
It’s also a very different effect to that in Best Laid Plans, being, as it is, a very different story. Where previously Beth struggled alone, here the couple struggle together, and that togetherness reminds them how close they really are to each other. Whilst the spoken action shows Beth and Tom full of doubt, irritable and seemingly distant, the moments as they bring the furniture on stage are playful, loving and very funny.
To top it all, both Walton and Thorpe are absolutely superb, the script is often painfully accurate and no dramatic conceit is allowed to outstay its welcome into tedium. Presumption is devised theatre at its best – experimental but unpretentious, intense yet accessible, thought-provoking, sometimes painful but always entertaining – and I loved every minute of it.