There was a feeling of excitement in the air at Nottingham’s Antayla Turkish restaurant as the diners chatted over drinks. It was the first performance of Serenade, a production by the newly-formed 2Magpies Theatre company.
I had previously interviewed Tom Barnes and Matt Wilks – the company’s artistic directors – about their short play which encourages us to eavesdrop on the conversation of a young couple called James Pardon and Ginny Lee who are meeting up following his trip to the Far East. Over the course (excuse the pun) of the meal, we are given a glimpse into their relationship; there’s the awkwardness that comes after not seeing each other for such a long time, the humour of a shared life and also the cracks that have started to appear.
After speaking to Matt and Tom, I couldn’t help but wonder how they would create this piece of theatre in a restaurant. How would the actors be able to project their voices in a setting that was not designed for performance? Would the audience be engaged by the narrative? After all, when we eavesdrop, we only listen to snippets of conversation rather than a lengthy dialogue.
When we had finished our appetisers, James and Ginny entered the room. The chatter of the diners slowly died down when everyone realised that the actors had arrived. It was slightly strange at first – and you did feel a bit embarrassed gawping at these two people – but you soon relaxed and began to immerse yourself in the story.
That’s not to say you are encouraged to be passive. One of the best parts of the play is when Ginny turns our gaze back on ourselves by trying to guess what the relationship is between two members of the audience is.
It must have been nerve-wracking for James and Ginny. This was an improvised play and sitting right in the middle of the restaurant meant they were utterly exposed to the gaze of the audience. There’s no lighting, no microphones, no script and no curtains. But they both rose to the occasion and brought the subtle nuances of their fictional relationship to life.
Matt and Tom took a risk in putting together a production like this and while it was a fascinating and thought-provoking production, I did think it was a little raw in places. The fact that the dialogue was improvised meant that it wasn’t always tight enough and there was a tendency for it to wander somewhat. Of course, real-life conversation does deviate – but if it is going to sustain our interest for a longer period of time it needs to flow a bit more neatly.
That said there is huge potential for theatre such as this and it is refreshing to see something different rather than a safe rendition of a classic play. I can see similar pieces working in coffee shops or perhaps as a fringe show to a production at an established theatre.