Review: Glasshouse

Glasshouse is a fitting choice of title for this piece from forum theatre pioneers, Cardboard Citizens. Presented by a charity that focuses on homelessness and its causes, the image of a fragile home, liable to shatter into a thousand pieces, is certainly sharp. Glass also enables the curious to peer in and, in this case, grants visibility in the form of a full 360 degree window into a very well-researched and sensitively presented world.

The night begins as our Joker – Cardboard Citizens’ Artistic Director, Adrian Jackson – introduces us to the characters Paul (Andre Skeete), Rhea (Johanna Allitt) and Jess (Michelle Cobb). Paul, we learn, is in a relationship with Rhea, and they share a home with Rhea’s 18 year old daughter. When the scene-setting Joker provocatively asks whether or not Paul is Jess’s father, the reaction is certainly telling; this is a modern family with a far from happy story, with relationships wrought with subjectivity and complication.

As our three characters take us on rapid tours of their lives both in, and outside of the household, Stephanie Johns’ and Hannah Jerrom’s mobile walls work well. In the production’s most emotionally pivotal scenes, this metal framework is assembled, shed-like, to mark the home. A few adjustments though, and these same walls map out the journeys travelled by each of our characters: they fashion the office where Paul is made redundant, and the bar where he drinks away his troubles; they become the supermarket where Rhea works, and the spare room where she overstays her welcome; for Jess, the walls sketch out the intimidating streets she sleeplessly paces, and the industrial squat where she seeks refuge. Clearly, in Johns’ and Jerrom’s eyes, the influence of the home is inescapable.Across three chapters, Glasshouse delivers three different angles on the same sequence of events, with each central character having their turn at being the focus of a sympathetic telling. So brilliantly do the accounts joust, contradict and overlap, it would be reductive to try to attain an objective summary of the events. The real power lurks where the narratives differ: in the familiar homely props and minimalistic magnetic backdrops that are absent in Paul’s version of events; in the way in which Paul’s account deviates sharply from the other characters’ once he’s enjoyed a beer and a spliff; in the inappropriate, game-changing interaction with her step-father that Jess can’t possibly bear to replay.

Burdened by the overtly educational nature of their errors, Paul, Rhea and Jess are left with multifaceted, yet somehow flat, identities, and perhaps it should come as no surprise that interactions designed to be picked apart seem stilted and formulaic. That said, while Kate Tempest’s script often seems like a dot to dot of bad decisions, crudely poised for audience dissection after the interval, there’s something wonderfully Shakespearean about how the fierce, collaborative rhythm of Tempest’s poetry kicks in when it all kicks off. Through carefully applied literary hotspots, Tempest charges up some of the most crucial moments in the family’s story.

Not one part of this central trinity can be considered holy, and by the end of this triptych of family life it’s clear that each character could have acted a little differently. After a quick audience vote to ascertain who is most in need of a spot of revaluation, members of this forum are invited to get their interventions staged under Jackson’s clinical encouragement.

When it comes to domestic troubles, raising awareness is crucial, and here Cardboard Citizens have created a clever format for doing just that. It’s easy to see why the team has received such a positive reception in hostels, prisons and other outreach settings – but sometimes, when the misdemeanours of our characters are clear to see, forum theatre seems like the intellectual equivalent of taking the bus to visit your next door neighbour. Such a rare opportunity to redirect a chosen character’s wrong turns is wonderful in principle, but assuming (and hoping) that most audiences know that snogging your step-daughter is not the most moral thing one can do, there’s no persuasive or engaging campaign put forward to this particular forum. And while there’s great value in a show that addresses society’s fault-lines, there’s something patronising about delivering an interactive dolls’ house for issues that leave little room for contention.

To some extent, Cardboard Citizens is wise to its own limitations. While Glasshouse‘s tone is occasionally condescending, it’s honest about the dangers in judging others – a heartening, generous focus from a company that champions forum theatre. To go back to the name of this piece, the proverb People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones – itself a firm and constant warning against hypocrisy and unfair judgement – can be seen as the play’s unspoken full title. Here, Glasshouse is at its most playful, simultaneously inviting us to engage, and cautioning us against throwing too much unwarranted ammo.

Glasshouse is playing at the Roundhouse until the 18th May.

First published by Exeunt: http://exeuntmagazine.com/reviews/glasshouse-2/

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