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South East
posted/updated: 03 Oct 2011 -
Peter Shaffer
society/company: The KentainerS
performance date: 26 Aug 2011
venue: The Trinity Theatre, Tunbridge Wells
reviewer/s: Caroline and Tony Jenner (Sardines review)

Written by Peter Schaffer and first performed at the National Theatre in 1973, 'Equus' (the latin word for horse) is a kind of psychological detective story. Alan Strang (played by Louis J Parker), an apparently typical 17 year old boy, is brought in front of shocked magistrates on a charge of blinding 6 horses. One of the magistrates is so disturbed that she seeks the help of child psychiatrist Martin Dysart (played by stand-in John Martin) to unravel the mystery of what made the boy commit such an horrific crime. Through interviews with the boy's parents and Strang himself, Dysart starts to slot the pieces together, and the climax of the play is a re-enactment of the crime in the stables where the boy worked. Although it is over 37 years since its first performance, Peter Shaffer's study of the violent power of sublimated sexual desire still has the power to rivet an audience.

Unlike Shaffer’s stage directions where he has all the characters on stage all the time with no scene changes, director John Martin, mixed and matched this idea with some scenes retaining the cast on stage whilst others kept the focus on the main action, something that worked well. The setting by Andy Newell was very simple with a few multi-purpose boxes and a rear wall of planks which represented Dysart’s office, the stables, the cinema and a beach among other things. The opening image with the horse heads suspended in the darkness worked extremely well. Simon Diaper’s lighting was effective with tightly lit areas and a good use of side and top light especially in the scenes involving the horses and the attack upon them. The test of a good sound design is that you don’t notice that it is there and apart from one point at the start of Act Two when an echo effect hadn’t been switched off this was true of the sound in this production.

The KentainerS Theatre company spend an intensive ten-day period rehearsing their show and for this production had a mixture of amateur and professional actors playing the parts. It was disappointing that more information about the cast members was not given in the programme as audiences expectations of amateurs and professionals differ.

We were amazed at the way John Martin as Dysart had endeavoured to learn his lines in such an even shorter rehearsal period, seeing as he stepped in with four days notice. Shaffer has Dysart eschew the theories of R D Laing with his anti-psychiatry theories where we are encouraged to believe that the mentally ill are given an insight, and a passion, denied to those of sound mind. Martin spent much of his time theorising to the audience through monologue; this was reasonably successful in the first half and we responded well to his very personal and engaging performance. This waned somewhat in the second half (having realised that learning all the script was understandably just too bigger task in the time available and so the words were relayed on a screen at the back of the theatre) when we became aware of the flickering of the light across the stage and occasionally the delivery being focused in slightly the wrong direction.*

Louis J Parker acted with intensity as Alan Strang, the troubled 17-year-old old at the heart of Shaffer’s play. His energies were completely focussed within the character, He appeared confident in the demanding role, and presented us with a vulnerable, scary, yet naive young man who had been subject to a number of differing philosophies and attitudes from his parents that had somehow become jumbled in his brain and emerged as horse-worship. He successfully switched from morose anger to vulnerability, highlighting the sudden mood swings so representative of adolescence.

The relationship between Strang and Dysart dominates the action, putting other performances into the shade. Elinor Lawless, the magistrate, who is little more than a plot device, performed her part competently, showing a genuine desire to understand the motives for Strang’s behaviour. Strang’s parents, Frank, a disciplinarian and Dora, a smothering bible basher were played by a suitably taciturn John Taylor and a highly strung Adrienne Fitzwilliam respectively, seemed torn between their revulsion at what their son had done and their self-recrimination at not realising sooner that their son was going off the rails. Despite the fact that Adrienne Fitzwilliam lost her lines completely a number of times and had to resort to using a script they were extremely believable, a shame her lines could not have been added to the screen at the back thereby saving her some embarrassment. All credit to John Martin who tried valiantly to provide her with appropriate clues as to her next line.

David Young, Ben Lees and Laura Wells turned in creditable performances, whilst Rebecca Fraser as Jill Mason, the young girl who helped Strang to get the job at the stables was sensitive and in the nude sex scene that could so easily have been brash and sensationalised the gauche affection of young love was skilfully captured.

Finally mention must go to Elizabeth Witt‘s movement work which gave us really effective horses (played by Ben Lees, Jonny Young, Charlie Gilpin, Toby Longhurst, Will Townsend and David Young). Their highly stylised and choreographed movements added something slightly sinister to the plot and helped us understand how Strang had come to worship these creatures.

Despite some criticisms this was an interesting evening and the production had a coherence about it that showed through the lighting, staging, sound and performance and I look forward to seeing their next production ‘The 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee’ next year.

* PLEASE NOTE: �Due to the filming commitments of Peter Basham at tonight�s performance the part of Martin Dysart will be played by John Martin�.

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