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Published on Tuesday, 31 May 2011

4 stars

The Nightingale (venue website)
28 May, 7:00pm-8:00pm; 27 May, 7:00pm-8:00pm, 9:30pm-10:30pm; 26 May, 7:30pm-8:30pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Suitable for age 15+ only.
 World Premiere.

It’s the night shift for writer-performer Emma Kilbey, a job she’s clearly done many times before.  But this is no supermarket or factory.  Drawing on her real experience with the Samaritans, Kilbey’s play captures the loneliness and isolation which flows nightly down the telephone wires, to be collected and managed in the offices of her helpline.  Her confident performance is often touching, often thought-provoking – and surprisingly, often quite amusing.

Making light, however delicately, of such genuine distress is clearly a risky move.  But the humour’s well-judged, I think; there’s always a sense of tolerant affection, even when she’s talking to a regular caller whom we sense should find a source of support elsewhere.  And there’s a neat acknowledgement of the lowest common denominator, that we’re all human and that our problems are often the same.  It’s embodied by the repetition of phrases: “how can I help?”, “let’s focus” – and most tellingly of all, “I’m here all night”.

The theme of getting through the night is a powerful one, reinforced both by words and actions.  Set designer Graeme Gilmour and lighting expert Geoff Hense deserve name-checks for their simple, striking visual tricks: the twisted cords of old-fashioned phone handsets hang from the ceiling all around the stage, each one representing a single troubled caller.  As she whirls about the set on an office chair, reaching for phone after phone, the physical entanglement of the telephone cords creates a web of anxiety around Kilbey herself.  And, as we later discover, it’s the phones themselves which consume her dreams.

It is, of course, a metaphor, but I have to admit it’s left me slightly uneasy.  The flyer left on every seat says “Shift is by no means a direct reflection of my two years as a Samaritan” – but it’s clearly the Samaritans our fictional character works for, since that’s the name she uses when she answers every call.  The script’s presentation of the helpline is really not a positive one, with hints of an overworked and abandoned volunteer left to face the demons alone.  I wonder whether someone, on some dark future night, will remember Kilbey’s ambiguous character and decide not to pick up the phone – and I’m sure that’s not the effect she’s aiming for.

For when she’s speaking to the callers who really do need her help, Kilbey’s alter ego truly does care.  By the end, we learn that she’s far from contented herself – and the lesson, perhaps, is that to do the best by others, we first must cherish ourselves.  Overall, Shift is a challenging play, which gains from its humour and provokes real thought; and on her debut, Kilbey achieves a range of controlled emotion which puts many experienced actors to shame.  But I left with a sense of something unresolved; I’d hoped for a clearer message, for everyone hanging on the line.

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