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Forwards and Backwards
Published on Saturday, 07 July 2012

3 starsUnderground Venues, Theatre
5, 16 Jul, 9:00pm-10:00pm; 6, 18 Jul, 4:30pm-5:30pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

Just hours before I saw this play, I'd endured the privations of the crowded Virgin express from Edinburgh - so its striking opening scenes held a particular resonance for me. With world-weary accuracy, they recreate fragments from the passengers' stories on that very train, from the harassed businessman in First Class to the fare-dodging activist hiding in the toilet. But as it turns out, that's not quite what we're seeing; in fact these are all scenes from just one couple's past, replayed out of order - forwards and backwards - and leaving us to unpick the tapestry of their lives.

True enough, that concept's been tried many times before, but the cleverly-constructed plot makes the most of the creative opportunities presented by a twisted timeline. Later scenes call back subtly to earlier ones, as we see how the characters have grown towards each other, picking up both good habits and bad. To the playwright's enormous credit, it's easy to follow the interwoven threads - and little questions you hadn't even noticed yourself asking are satisfyingly answered later on.

At its best, when the energy was high, it was a fast-moving piece of physical theatre. The first flush of young love, for example, was sweet and exciting, filled with the potential of strangers meeting on a train. But life doesn't stay a bed of roses, and it was during the emotionally spiky moments that I felt the central gimmick began to creak; more than once, we were whipped away from a developing scene just as I was starting to feel engaged. With so many changes of mood and pace, genuine empathy often eluded me.

And for me, the early scenes were just too realistic, the conflicts a touch too predictable.  Pressures of work, disputes with the in-laws, a clash of opinions over the family car; amidst these minutiae I found myself drifting, impatient for the crisis which had been foreshadowed and would surely come. Even the ultimate tragedy, when it happened, was essentially a misfortune - devastatingly believable, but lacking the dramatic tension which could have emerged if someone was truly to blame.

But none of this can detract from the undoubted quality of the acting, which is powerfully credible throughout. Katie Robinson runs through the whole range of personae - coquettish, adventurous, angry, cold - without ever slipping into over-acting, an impressive feat in such an emotionally demanding role. Michael White also impressed as the more repressed Gary, though I felt he was sadly under-used in the final scenes. We hear too little of his own voice in contrast to his wife's - and her grief-stricken accusations are dangerously easy to dismiss, blinding us to Gary's very real, and potentially very interesting, character flaws.

In the end, Forwards and Backwards offers much to admire: intriguing mystery, telling physicality, and a few really good one-liners as well. It could become exceptional, with a bit more focus on what it's really trying to say. As it stands, it's well worth seeing, but I found myself - like a passenger on that high-speed express train - searching for something substantial enough to grip onto.

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