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Art House
Published on Monday, 17 August 2009

A twisted remix of Tainted Love welcomes us into Art House, a two-handed psychological drama exploring the relationship between two sisters locked into the most unusual of worlds. It's no coincidental choice: the love between the two of them is indeed tainted, by a sick and monumental deception - one which warps their reality and defines the remainder of their lives.

Charlie, a talented but tormented artist, has struggled with depression all her life. She wants it all to stop; she yearns, she says, for "the end of passion, the end of tired". If you think you know where that's leading, you're wrong. She doesn't kill herself; she just fakes it. And, with the initially-reluctant connivance of her subservient sister Viva, she barricades herself into her studio - forever.

Charlie starts off enthusiastically, engrossed in her art and enjoying, paradoxically, a newfound sense of freedom. But as the days pass by - chalked up on the door of her self-imposed prison - her isolation becomes oppressive, and she learns to regret her complete dependence on her sister.

The shift in balance of the relationship is cleverly symbolised by Charlie's loss of control of her own work, as Viva begins to make a name for herself dealing in her "dead" sister's paintings. The intervals between visits become longer and lonelier until finally, one day, Charlie finds she's literally locked in. Yet Viva, too, is struggling with the pressure of a lie she has almost come to believe. Will the pendulum swing back? It's a finely-balanced, ambiguous, nerve-tingling script.

But in the confines of an improvised Fringe venue, psychological drama is desperately hard to pull off. Art House is played very straight: not much is done with lighting, the music fits the plot but doesn't add to the drama, and the staging is competent but basic. It meant the play never built up the sense of claustrophobia or Psycho menace it really needed, and the acting - though always good, and sometimes superb - was never going to be able to overcome that weakness.

There are glimpses of a great play which is yet to emerge: there's some fine dark humour, a few moments which are genuinely hard to watch, and one of the best articulations of the emptiness of depression I've ever heard on a stage. The notion of suicide-by-isolation is an intriguing one, which is fully and sensitively explored. But none of this, I'm afraid, was quite enough.

I should add as a footnote that the company's made some changes to the play since I saw it - and from what I've heard, they'll be changes for the better. But of course, I have to review what was in front of me on the day. Art House had an intriguing concept, some fine acting and a few moments which will stay with me for a while; but in the final analysis, it just couldn't quite deliver.

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