Reviewed by Ruthie Luff
The King’s Head Theatre in Islington opens it’s doors to the premiere of David K. O’Hara’s one-act play, The Upstairs Room.
The audience huddle in a tiny intimate space, where an array of buzzing lightbulbs hang over head from open wires, exposing a dingy, mold infested attic. Outside, London is sinking, the Thames is on fire, and strings of people “like lines of bunting” are “hurling themselves over ledges”. Thankfully, we’re inside.
Bursting through the only door in the upstairs room enters the hotel manager and his newest guest: Gordon – an American author with a bad case of writer’s block (expertly played by Anthony Cozens). The hospitable yet mysterious Manager (Bret Jones) quickly leaves the attic, tending to forged documents that can provide Gordon a way home. Locked in and left alone with a paperless type-writer, Gordon bides his time. When the manager returns with Gordon’s documents for escape, he also brings Stella (Liza Callinicos), a dishevelled, unconscious woman who has been rescued from the chaos outside. Gordon tosses his ticket to freedom, staying behind to care for Stella. Why? We’re not sure. The next person to join the room is a bouncy, quirky girl named Iris (Lucy Wray) who alongside the mascara smeared Stella, aid in Gordon’s self-discovery. He is forced to confront his past, an act that is too painful to endure, but entirely essential. For what exactly? Again, we’re not really sure.
The writer weaves the spiritual and literal world together to portray a sinking mind in need of redemption. The upstairs room becomes a type of Purgatory, a place to isolate and examine your soul. In this realm, however, hope is found through people rather than a bright white light. While this is an interesting concept, O’Hara’s work unfortunately has one crippling fault: clarity. The magnitude of his vision, though compelling, is impossible to absorb and flesh out in the allotted time frame. The result is losing your audience in an sea of confusion.
That being said, there are some incredible ideas communicated by James Savin, his creative team and the 4 strong cast.
The design of this show, for instance, deserves a round of applause! Max Pappenheim’s soundscape and Holly Seager’s set create an enticing and unsettling experience.
Cozens delivers a stand out performance. He brings a captivating range of human emotion to the stage, most notably in the final scene. He fits comfortably into the shoes and well worn corduroy suit of Gordon.
The highlight for me was actress Lucy Wray in the role of Iris. She is seen briefly at the beginning, but doesn’t really enter until the last few scenes. When she does appear, she brings a vital breath of fresh air. She delivers her lines with a child-like kookiness that makes her instantly likeable.
While this play is a bit heavy on the intellectual side – with literary allusions to Dante’s Divine Comedy, Shakespeare’s Richard III, and Tennessee Williams’ A Street Car Named Desire— O’Hara’s characters aren’t that distant from ourselves. The play prompts all of us to confront the unfamiliar together.
Perhaps the downfall of a show with such ambiguity is also what makes it so enticing to watch; it doesn’t give you all the answers. It pokes and probes at your mind well after you’ve left the theatre. This show is definitely worth seeing. Much like a jumbled attic, there’s a lot to be found in The Upstairs Room.
The Kings Head is, without a doubt, a fantastic venue – bare boned and visceral, the perfect setting for this intimate mind game. Unfortunately, the bench seating doesn’t provide you with much leg room, or any room for that matter. I was uncomfortably crammed from every angle. Not to mention, my 6’1′ friend had to be re-directed to the end of the bench as he couldn’t tuck his knees in the small space provided. Uncomfortable though it was, it quickly dispelled as the fizzing light bulbs burned out into the mysterious room.
Director James Savin
Set Designer Holly Seager
Lighting Designer Dan Saggers
Sound Designer Max Pappenheim
Costume Designer Ann Tutt