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Bug by Tracy Letts
Published on Monday, 07 May 2012

2 stars

The Warren (venue website)
4-7 May, 5:45pm-7:05pm; 26-27 May, 7:30pm-8:50pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Suitable for age 15+ only.
 Warning: Contains flashing lights.
 Warning: Contains strong language and nudity.
 2-for-1 tickets for Friends of the Fringe members.

With its sinister arachnid motif, its cast of desperate drop-outs, and its frightening vision of just how infectious a mad idea can be, Bug ought to be a tense psychological thriller – one which speaks with eloquence for those on the margins of society, and warns of the horrors which could befall those we choose to leave behind.  Ought to be.

Sadly, this particular production falls a long way short of that demanding ideal.  The expansive set does little to capture the claustrophobia of a lonely Southern motel room, and the acting ranges from underplayed to over-wrought – with the honourable exception of the note-perfect Melody Roche, whose sudden collapse from feisty independence to broken victim was one of the few genuinely shocking moments in the play.  Charlie Allen also sold his introspective monologues well, but I found that both script and cast left me far behind as they segued into a hysterical, blood-spattered finale.

To be fair to the cast, I should point out that their set suffered an unfortunate mishap early in the piece, which can’t have failed to put them off their stride.  These things happen.  But it’s harder to understand why the crux scene was played out in half-darkness, effectively denying the actors the use of their faces – or why the sound designer picked such intrusively wordy tracks to play on the radio, in direct competition with the characters’ most important lines.

I guess it’s the same quest for literal realism which pushed the company to attempt authentic Oklahoma accents, with painfully variable degrees of success.  If an accent’s not in an actor’s repertoire, I’d suggest it’s better to let the audience’s imaginations fill the local colour in.  And there were other tiny mistakes – the phone which rings long after it’s lifted off its hook, the dropped prop, the constant crashing over each other’s lines – each of which was trivial on its own, but which together destroyed any sense of immersion, and with it the looming menace underpinning the plot.

It’s a source of real regret to have to write in these terms, and I fully recognise both the ambition and the difficulty inherent in taking on such a challenging work.  The set, accident aside, is a masterpiece in Fringe terms, and the foundations for a darkly affecting production are surely there.  So here’s hoping that – with a couple of weeks’ extra development – Bug will return to the Fringe at the end of May, this time with something that truly crawls under your skin.

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These are archived reviews of shows from Brighton 2012.  We keep our archives online as a courtesy to performers, and for readers who'd like to research previous years' reviews.