Confidence at Southwark Playhouse takes a risk, and I salute that
Earlier this year - in what turned out to be a wild moment in my writing career - I defended Boundless Theatre’s decision to cast Tanya Burr in their revival of Judy Upton’s ‘Confidence’, a play which sees a bored and bossy young woman who’s ready (or thinks she’s ready) to conquer her circumstances and be someone new. What I noticed about this debate the first time around was that there was absolutely no middle ground - I only found myself viciously trolled or supportively praised. Now the play has opened and the reviews are out, the strength of the vitriol is back in force and again. I’ve found myself on a different side of the fence and it’s got me thinking about theatre criticism as a whole.
Predictably Burr has been targeted - in particular, the performativity of her character Ella. This criticism misses the point of a play which is about what happens when one tries to fake it 'til they make it. It’s not about who Ella is, it’s about who she’s trying to be. Baring in mind the central focus of the set is the word ‘CONFIDENCE’ flickering menacingly over every scene, it’s pretty hard to forget this is a play about facades. It’s hard to believe this slamming of Burr's performance is anything other than willful dislike of Burr herself, which leads me to ask my fellow critics: what was your agenda when you attended, and could you really have been won over? This obsession with only one aspect of the production isn’t just unbalanced journalism but a middle finger to all the other elements at play.
For example, Anna Crichlow as Ruby serves several slices of socially awkward, oddly charming, realness from behind her tea counter. Ruby’s intensity of emotion parallels Ella's coolness neatly and it’s through her that we’re offered the biggest surprises. When it comes to the men, it’s Will Pattle — also making his stage debut — who really shines. His misguided innocence as Dean genuinely had the audience sighing ‘awwww blesss’ throughout, reminding me of the goofy 90’s wannabe boyfriend character I didn’t know I missed. Together they endearingly encapsulate many of youths conundrums, including a relentless obsession with getting fingered.
Amelia Jane Hankin and Zoe Spurr’s design and lighting sees the aesthetics work in harmony with the narrative; at the start, we bound into the neon dreamscape of our childhoods feeling playful, like opportunity is everywhere, and by the end it feel oppressive and we yearn to escape.
This is how Ella feels about the pier and, to be honest, it’s how I feel about theatre criticism. I don’t have a problem with well-articulated negative reviews but I do take issue with rush job personal attacks. Especially in a climate where mental health among artists is reaching new lows, this isn’t just bad journalism, it’s unethical.
The fact the response to this play continues to be fertile ground for these discussions about our industry though is something the team at Boundless should be really very proud of because theatre, at it’s best, should open a dialogue - they’ve opened several. And they’ve done so from the deep end of a choice they made about casting, which is brilliant.
If you’re an artist who isn’t taking radical, sink or swim leaps, if you’re not mixing up your casting choices, if you’re not experimenting with parameters then I’m sorry hun but you’re not an artist: you are a prop to the status quo. If you’re a theatre critic who can’t at least respect and analyse these choices, then you’re not a critic, you’re just someone with an opinion who is lucky enough to have a platform.
What we’re seeing in action with Boundless is a strategy committed to experimenting and we should never stifle that impulse to play. In several ways, Drummer points to a new kind of theatre-making which dares to question the norm and that should be applauded. What Drummer has done is take a risk in an industry which is guttingly risk averse. Sometimes risk-taking works and sometimes it doesn’t (ask Ella), but that’s the joy of it right? Seeing Boundless take these leaps is exciting. ‘Confidence’ is imperfect and I appreciate it all the more so because of this. I will be at the next Boundless show, cheering them on as they re-write the structures we’ve needlessly upheld for far too long.