Review of A Bench at the Edge at The Hen and Chickens Theatre

A Bench at the EdgeAs part of the Camden Fringe Festival, Theatre of Heaven and Hell bring you A Bench at the Edge. Originally by contemporary American playwright Luigi Jannuzzi, this dramatic dark comedy originally ‘treaded the boards’ in 1981 but quite aside from having lost relevance over the years, if anything its message is more important now than ever before.

Described on Theatre of Heaven and Hell’s website as a “one-act dark comedy about the struggles of modern life”, A Bench at the Edge examines the topics of Depression, Mental Health and Suicide in an emotive manner that blends dark humour with philosophy, surrealism and drama.

This single setting production uses only a standard wooden bench for staging and a cast of two lead performers and one supporting cast member to give us a stripped back theatre experience that relies entirely on vocal delivery, expression and content. And it works very, very well.

Playing the part of ‘Number 1’, Marius Clements sets the scene, marking out ‘the edge’ with the reliable favourite – masking tape – before settling down on the bench to wait. He doesn’t have long to wait before being joined by ‘Number 2’ played by Louie Threlfall who is a distraught businessman suffering the heartache of a broken marriage and wasted years of his life. ‘Number 1’ calls out to ‘Number 2’ and the exchange continues through the understanding on the place itself, the reasons why they are both there and the others that come there, amongst other things. It is quickly clarified that the abyss represents the action of taking your life and the stronger the need to end it all, the faster the edge is approached.

The concept of a world outside yourself where you deliberate and agonise is an excellent one and Clements and Threlfall represent their two characters masterfully. Clements’s character having lived at the edge for a number of years is much calmer and more measured in his speech while also being equally unnerving in some of the things he says whereas Threlfall’s animated and agitated performance is a very effective counterfoil and a believable representation of someone dealing with a life-changing shock to the system.

The top-quality delivery of the dialogue is backed up with good use of the minimalist staging with the separation between the characters often used as a physical demonstration of how the discussion is going and how well they are connecting.

On two occasions a ‘bullet’, someone determined to go over the edge and approaching it at speed, runs past them and it was to their credit that rather than use effects, sound only or even their performance to indicate the third person’s presence onstage, Theatre of Heaven and Hell committed to having a third actor, Callum James, take the stage to make this part come literally (if briefly) to life. I love that level of commitment to the production and that attention to detail is part of what makes this piece so good.

In the closing minutes, the play offers a strong positive message that could be considered a little twee but I found it pleasing and definitely think it’s the best ending for the piece. When a play encourages you to take a good hard look at your life and the way you approach it, a message of positivity at the end is arguably a kindness.

Theatre of Heaven and Hell continue to provide well-crafted productions plucked from outside the mainstream and this tragicomedy more than holds its own against their acclaimed back catalogue.

4 Stars

Review by Damien Russell

A bench at the edge of an abyss. Two men observe others jumping in whilst contemplating their own fate. An absurd dark-comedy exploring life, death and the struggles of modern existence. Stagedoor Award 2017 winners, Theatre of Heaven and Hell return to this year’s Camden Fringe Festival with Luigi Jannuzzi’s award-winning play.

Twitter: @theatrehell

23rd, 24th, 25th, 26th Aug 2018
Hen & Chickens Theatre
109 St Paul’s Road
Islington N1 2NA