Peter Brook once said, “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage.” He claimed that for theatre to exists, one just needs a space and an actor. Pointing out the existence of radio theatre, he insists that light is not even necessary for theatre.
I’ve never seen Brook’s ideas demonstrated as elegantly as in King’s Cross Theatre and Futura’s production of A Girl In School Uniform (Walks Into A Bar), a show at its best when it is just a room, an audience, and two voices in darkness. Set in a dangerous world in an unspecified future, the story is shaped around the city’s scourge of blackouts where women and girls are disappearing with concerning frequency. One such girl is Charlie, the best friend of 16-year old Steph (Cait Burley), whose disappearance incites Steph to begin a search, starting with the bar where she was last seen, run by the surly Bell (Michelle Ny).
The play’s most intriguing elements come from its design. Ella Butler’s set, a bar on wheels, is spun and constantly moved around the traverse stage with the actors, giving the play a dynamic energy. Sound Designer Jessica Dunn plays a critical role in creating the uneasy atmosphere during the blackouts, as the audience hyper-fixates on their one remaining sense. Phoebe Pilcher’s lighting design places us in the dark for much of the play, as a blackout hits the city, stranding the women at the bar. Pilcher works around this with flashlights that are deployed by the cast, but only sparingly. As the audience get used to the dark, every decision to bring back the light feels more meaningful.
There’s a great power to a black room, with only voices guiding the narrative. Unfortunately, the voices aren’t living up to the potential of the premise. Just as director Hannah Goodwin establishes a promising set-up, the story diverts into hypothetical territory, as the women make up stories to satisfy the questions that no one will answer for them. Initially Bell poses these stories as strictly hypothetical. However, playwright Lulu Raczka hints that they might hold more truth beneath the surface, prompting audience intrigue as the tension racks up. But these plot threads are later revealed as unimportant and left behind, leading behind a sour taste in the audience’s mouth: what was the point? Later twists fail to land, partly because there’s the sense that with a second’s notice, they too could be discarded as another ruse. The play is set up as a thriller, but it never lives up to its exciting and eerie opening, asking questions and leaving dull, unsatisfactory answers.
As the frightened but driven schoolgirl, Cait Burley, is doing wonderfully vulnerable work. However, she is unevenly matched by Michelle Ny, whose performance is imbued with an in-your-face bitter bravado that, although lessens as the characters open up to each other, makes Bell particularly grating for the first half.
Overall, everything —cast, design, direction—is in place except the writing. If A Girl In School Uniform (Walks Into A Bar) was a car, Hannah Goodwin runs it like a well-oiled machine. It’s just a shame that it doesn’t drive anywhere interesting.
A Girl In School Uniform (Walks Into A Bar) is on at the Kings Cross Theatre until October 5th.