Showing as part of Mimetic Festival 2014 (17 – 29 November 2014)
At the centre of First Draft, a fast-paced and fluid meditation on contemporary issues by the new London-based theatre company, Open Heart Surgery, is a loose adaptation of E.M Forster’s The Machine Stops. It is an interesting choice of subject and one that provides a neat shell in which to house the ideas that freely flow out of writer Coleen MacPherson’s pen.
It is often unclear where or when we are but slowly fragmentary images coalesce into more defined scenes, and eventually the action settles on a future world where a character (Vashti in Forster’s original) collects memories; seemingly fascinated by the experiences of others but with no real interest in experiencing those of her own.
It is in these future world scenes that the performers seem most at home. MacPherson’s dialogue is well worked to create a landscape we want to know more about, while Charlotte Baseley and Louise Callaghan have a tender dynamic as they build a fragile relationship amongst the wreckage.
Basely and Callaghan are required to showcase their impressively versatile range over the course of this hour long production. They play all twelve of the characters and do a fine job moving slickly between different roles and gamely try to give each one their own personality
There is a rapid-fire transition between roles, and the actors are required to jump in and out of recurring characters as arguments and ideas flit back and forth. The effect may have been to create the sensation of a world speeding out of control and heading for an inevitable implosion but unfortunately a lack of control in the direction and writing meant that the purpose behind some of the characters was never entirely clear.
At times, particularly in the contemporary scenes, the characters could have benefited from being more clearly delineated. Whilst it was clear we were being shown different characters, it was less clear what function they served other than showcasing the actors’ malleability. There was also a disjointed tonal quality as the play failed to commit to either physical or verbal theatre; the result led to a rather opaque structure, with neither element fully convincing.
The lack of refinement in the writing was most striking in the philosophical debates over coffee; these conversations were a critical part of establishing the big issues for humanity but it wasn’t clear whether they should be viewed as a satire on the vacuity of student debates or an attempt to portray the earnestness of a passionate believer.
The most frustrating thing is that it has a good play at its core. The central storyline about a future world that has this tension between those who want to experience life and those who to experience memory is extremely interesting, and one that I want to hear more about it. If only Open Heart Surgery had the confidence not to feel it needed a contemporary hook then this would be a significantly stronger production.