Ten years is a recurring trope in Upstanding Productions’ Faces in the Crowd. It’s been ten years since Leo Butler’s two-hander first debuted at the Royal Court, and ten years – we learn – since our estranged protagonists last saw each other. I hate to say it but this 95-minute fringe offering at the White Bear also seemed to last a decade, due to baffling writing decisions and a downright exhausting amount of shouting. It really was all a bit much for a Friday evening. But I’ll rewind for a minute.
We’re in Dave’s studio flat: a suitably claustrophobic (and unprecedently detailed) set by Michael Leopold. There’s proper windows, blinds, office area, double bed, a separate bathroom, even a kitchen sink. It’s genuinely impressive for a fringe production – functional but also illuminating: despite the clutter, something about it feels suitably empty or pallid. Top work, Michael. I’ve got high hopes.
We meet Dave – a Sheffielder who’s abandoned his wife, family and hometown a decade earlier for reasons that are kind of explained but kind of not. Maybe it’s the pressure of settling down, or that the lights in London just seemed brighter – or maybe (as Butler rushingly attempts to explain in the last 5 minutes) it had something to do with dissatisfaction of the rise of crowd culture (!?). I kind of follow, but clearly kind of don’t. But anyway, humans are irrational and Adam Bone has a compelling and confident stage presence – so I can let this ambiguity go.
Joanne’s arrived on her estranged husband’s doorstep with a fairly singular intention (verging on monomania): she needs help having the child Dave didn’t give her ten years ago. Desperation very much seems to be driving her visit – and we soon realise we need to strap ourselves in to witness more fireworks than Dubai’s NYE display.
There’s a huge amount of shouting. Like, really, a lot. One character suddenly whips out a knife. There’s about a minute of silence (relief). Then the shouting starts again. Up until the last 10 minutes or so, it’s all just quite Jeremy Kyle. Then the play suddenly seems to realise it needs to have a point and the writer abruptly goes into overdrive. We’re served up a couple of overwrought monologues, bursting at the seams with quasi-intellectual social history, and are expected to understand exactly how fairly macro issues have influenced everything that we’ve just watched. And then we’re meant to consider a very odd ending to be cathartic.
As I’m sure you can tell, my first niggle with Faces in the Crowd is not something that Upstanding Productions have much control over – other than in their decision to revive it. I found the writing to be very odd, fairly baffling…and just not very sophisticated. Odd in that it’s littered with casual racism that never gets resolved (!?), and doesn’t seem to add anything – other than you liking the characters even less. And baffling in the sense that you’re meant to sit there, feeling somewhat sympathetic, for a character after he’s made assertions such as ‘I struggled with not battering my wife’.
Unfortunately, directorial decisions in this production don’t help much either. If Law Ballard was in attendance at press night, one assumes she must have heard the near-unanimous audience sniggers (particularly audible from two women sitting either side of me, I must say), when our male protagonist refers to his estranged wife’s naked body (in front of her face) as a disgusting piece of gammon. If that was the intended effect, maybe I need enlightening in the 2018 #MeToo #TimesUp era. More likely, though, it highlights the fact the audience just found it very difficult to connect with the characters.
To be honest, I just didn’t really care if Joanne and Dave got together/stabbed each other/had a baby/all of the above. I know I keep going on about the shouting fest – but it fast becomes an almost impenetrable barrier to connection when you don’t give the audience enough relief. You just want the characters to stop screaming – the White Bear is too intimate a space for your ears to demand anything other than a break.
With definite Natalie Casey vibes to her performance, Bonnie Adair (like Bone) does the best she can with the ropey material. I wanted more shades of grey though – we watch her cycle through three states (‘passive-aggressive Joanne’, ‘shouty Joanne’, and ‘upset Joanne’) and arguably little else. Vittorio Verta’s sound design could also benefit from a bit more nuance. Considering the attention to detail of the scenography, I do slightly struggle to understand why a specific speaker couldn’t have been placed within the ‘bathroom’ to emit the specific toilet/flushing/shower SFX. The intended naturalism of the set is undermined the moment the toilet sounds like it’s flushing from an incongruous part of the stage.
With less shouting and, I would suggest, cuts or updates to the text (reflective of ways that London’s changed since the play debuted), there could be potential here. In its current manifestation though, I’m just unclear as to what Butler – or Ballard – want the audience to feel when we leave Faces in the Crowd. My ears were bleeding, but my heart just wasn’t.