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Shadow On Their Wall
Published on Saturday, 07 July 2012

4 starsUnited Reform Church Blue Room, Theatre
6-7, 14-15 Jul, 9:00pm-9:45pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

I’ve never before considered placing a spoiler alert on something which happens before the play has even begun.  But the sudden, startling blackout which precedes Shadow On Their Wall is just the first of the surprises in a heart-stopping prelude – which sets the scene perfectly, opening a tensely thoughtful exploration of one man’s encounter with inner demons.  It’s just 45 minutes long, but it’s taut and powerful, a remarkable partnership between actor and script.

Gareth Watkins is the solitary actor, playing Michael – a former headteacher who’s now reached his lowest ebb, and who rinses out after cleaning his teeth with a shot of Bell’s whisky.  There’s a quiet dignity to Watkins’ performance, and I’m sure he’s been advised by someone who knows what it’s like to navigate such waters; debating with an unseen psychologist, he analyses his own disturbed thoughts even as he re-lives them.  His desperately candid portrayal encourages compassion rather than pity, and the sparse set, which places him alone in the spotlight, gives his story the focus it deserves.

Playwright JJ Fletcher has penned a genuinely compelling narrative, which packs in a lot of back-story without ever feeling forced.  The revelations keep on coming, and over the course of the play we gain a real understanding of what’s brought Michael to this point… or worse, start to feel a flickering insight into how it could happen to us.  Perhaps it could do with a little more humour to release the building tension, since there’s a growing menace from that self-destructive impulse we all occasionally feel: the fleeting and terrifying realisation that, if we chose to do so, we could just throw everything we’ve worked for away.

The eponymous theme of the shadow on the wall feels a little too literally employed, with the silhouettes cast by the unforgiving lighting occasionally distracting from the monologue itself.  But there’s an inspired visual flourish around the black-painted doll’s house, which broods in the corner for the length of the piece – and towards the end, cleverly evokes the distance between Michael’s broken life and the loved ones he’s been forced to leave behind.

Much as I regret to say it, though, I feel the story’s undermined by its shocking conclusion, the final revelation of the dreadful memory which Michael is trying to avoid.  Reaching for a final burst of visceral drama, it goes that one step too far, resorting to a trick of capricious fate which pushes the boundaries of belief.  I’m keenly disappointed, because up till then we’d seen a very real and very lifelike tragedy – one that’s played out thousands of times every year, and one we’ve a desperate need to explore and understand.

So let’s focus on that.  Shadow On Their Wall is a triumph of small-scale theatre, which touches on a few of life’s big truths: the pain of loss, the awful knowledge of the things we bring on ourselves, and the fact that the simplest memories can be the most beautiful ones.  Most important, it speaks for an often-forgotten group of people, whose voices and experiences need to be heard.  After one heartfelt insight, Michael turns to his unseen therapist and asks, “Do you know what I mean?”  And I found myself saying, yes.  Yes, I think I do.

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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.