On Thursday, 29th June, PGS put on its latest production, a heavily adapted retelling of The Chimes by Charles Dickens.
It is an interesting trend kicked off by Find Me that no-one can seem to keep the DRT in its traditional theatre setup; the chairs were retracted and a walkway divided the audience in two, with a stage at each end. One of the high points of the show was the rather convincing transformation from a regular school theatre to a ‘place of worship’; there was a hugely atmospheric ambience throughout the entire piece.
The director’s notes explain that the play is about Trotty Veck (Harry Norton) ‘a porter who waits for jobs at the door of a church’ after meeting a strange man called Will (Fergus Kaye) and entrusting Will’s baby’s care to his sister Meg (Jessamie Waldon-Day), who is to marry Richard (Rory Bishop). I should say that all these actors played their roles believably and with a sense of dry humour that kept the play just a little lighter than continually dark and depressing.
After seeing the play, that is still about as much as I understand about the plotline of the play, but, in a way, that doesn’t matter. There are some deeply moving ‘physical theatre’ scenes, particularly the dance/prostitution scene set to music, involving Will's grown-up daughter (Emily Tandy).
If you looked at that last sentence and just said ‘What?’, then we’re in the same boat; in general, it alarms me when over half the notes I take while watching a play end in a question mark. The main bulk of the play involves Trotty at the top of a church tower, being shown a possible future by ‘The Chimes’ (see what they did there?). This is where I begin to have problems; the future shown to Trotty is fragmented, generations jump and people grow up, sometimes making it difficult to keep track of which character is which and characters age decades without any visible change, leading to more confusion.
The play also contains a bewildering array of symbols; the stage at the back of the DRT was covered in sand, and yet this was only used for one scene, a scene that seemed to differ from any other relatively little. At the other end of the DRT, behind a screen, sat a paddling pool full of bright red jelly; at about the halfway point, characters would start being dragged behind the screen and covered in jelly, which, I am reliably informed, represented death. No, I am not sure why.
Once the characters started to be killed, they were bumped off at an alarming rate; characters that I didn’t yet feel I knew were killed before they seemed to make any difference to a plotline or a theme. Ahhhh, themes. One of the other things the show did terrifically well was set up themes; unfortunately, one of the things that the play didn’t do so well was have pay-offs for themes, so much so that at the end of the play I didn’t quite believe it was ending. Themes of family ties and oppressive regimes were represented through some of those ‘physical theatre’ scenes and then never had any effect on characters or plotlines, while, overall, seeming to detract from the piece as a whole.
In conclusion, the acting in the play was very good, particularly The Ghostly Narrator portayed by Fillipa Furness and the characters of Trotty, Meg and Lillian. Where it fell down was that it seemed to put style before substance, for example dance scenes that, while good to watch, seemed to serve no purpose in the story. None of the themes that were set up so laboriously in the first act played out at all toward the climax and a closing narration (that I assume must have been retroactively added following confused test audiences) somehow managed to sell out all the subtlety while still not explaining what was going on; however, the dances and the costumes were genuinely lovely to look at.
Style over substance is usually a negative phrase but when the style is as good as it is in ‘The Chimes’, I don’t really mind a bit of a lack in the substance department, which is unfortunately where ‘The Chimes’ falls down.