Review - Blink by Phil Porter
With the return of theatres imminent I can't think of a better way to make that transition than this captivating and visually elegant piece. This two hander explores themes of loneliness, voyeurism and boundaries, telling the story of Sophie and Jonah and the exceptional circumstances of their paths crossing. Being filmed on an actual stage was a refreshing sight and with them not being afraid to show the lights and staging it felt more like being there with the actors. Given that these spaces have not been seen for over a year, it constructed a feeling that many audience members have not experienced for a long time.
From the first moments the show pulls you into the story told from both sides. At a run time of 90 minutes it never lagged and both Pip Lang as Sophie and Gabe Winsor as Jonah were hypnotisingly engaging. Various side characters were also played by the two, each one filling in the other side of the story seamlessly. The use of black and white created a story-like atmosphere where memories had lost their colour but not their content. This striking visual choice heightened the emotion of the piece and focused attention on details of choices made.
The characters spoke directly to the the audience, recounting the events as they unfolded, slowly building that emotional connection until the audience is adsorbed within their struggles. As we weave through their backstory that lead them closer and closer, we see the characters need for connection, each imperfect in their own way, carrying the weight of what they have left behind. Without spoiling too much, the rest of the first act then takes us through the probably creepy but arguably cute development of the romance between the two even though they have never met. A montage-like progression through moments, as he watches her and eats at the same time or when she purposefully takes him to places as he follows her, creates a delicate balance between the romance and the disturbing nature of it all. They both seem to enjoy watching or being watched but neither one will reach out across the divide until the climax of the first act. Through act two they finally meet and the relationship progresses. However, as both are flawed individuals, they struggle; their personalities that made them such a good voyeuristic match, causing tension. We find that they were happiest with the previous arrangement they had; concluding with a return to the situation of the watched and the watcher. This quiet resolution seemed almost inevitable thanks to the well crafted characters on stage. An emotionally powerful ending, not meant to be satisfying, leaves the audience to reflect upon their own relationships.
Visually, Michael-Akolade Ayodeji used movement and framing to separate time periods and emotions. When talking directly to the audience the camera remains steady and unmoving. This makes the audience feel grounded and draws attention the story being recounted. Slow pull outs help create separation such as when they first explain the pains of the outside world. For scenes within the moment a more handheld style is used which feels more in the moment than the reflective nature of the static shots. In these moments there were times where focus points drifted which did distract slightly from the action and could have been used to better control audience gaze. However both framing and focus were used to great success in the café scene, importantly drawing the audience to watch a powerfully acted reaction from Pip more than Gabe who is talking. By overlaying shots they created an experience that you wouldn't get in theatre, allowing moments where two pieces of action can be seen at once, creating montage like scenes and overlapping faces. The show used the possibilities of the filmed format to reinforce the theatrical telling of the story, maintaining the black box feeling.
The lighting was simple but nuanced, providing striking moments of power and using shadows which took advantage of the black and white format. The side light used to convey separation which slowly developed into a softer and more encompassing front light was a touch that was subtle but effective in providing a perception of progress. The return of this side light as Sophie and Jonah's paths diverge again later on brought a further level of weight to the moment. Backlight was used to nicely separate the cast from the dark background, allowing the audience's imagination to fill in the surroundings. Despite moments where shadows over actors faces obscured a little, the overall shaping of light, especially in the single monologues, was well executed. In the climax before the interval the use of blinders behind the gauze to mimic headlights drove home the impact of the moment. This being followed by Jonah with face light fading to be left with a backlit silhouette gave even more power to a brilliantly constructed moment.
Niky Pasolini's musical composition complimented the emotions of moments and was used to amplify the audience's feelings of empathy. There were times where I only noticed the music once it had had its effect on me, so well placed and crafted to move with the flow of attention. The audio throughout the show was clear and well mixed. With a combination of lapel mics and boom mics, the balance between voice, music and surrounding sound was well covered. Being picky, in one shot I did notice what appeared to be the head of a boom mic, but this in no way affected the scene itself.
Two frames of gauze, some chairs and a table were the simple basis for the set. These were effectively crafted into everything from the bubble of the London eye, to a hospital ward to a café. The major set pieces of the gauze frames were brilliantly used. The opening of the show has a wide shot of each character walking on stage, crossing, pausing, and then sitting separated by these frames. Not only did this shot give you a sense of the layout of the stage but immediate informed the audience of a relationship between them. The gauze provided a physical barrier between the characters, moving as their lives became more and more intertwined. Their active use to reflect the emotional state of the relationship was captivating. Particularly in moments such as the climax of the first act where the frames close upon Jonah preventing him from reaching out to help, or when Jonah first gets the screen and we are able to see what he sees through the gauze which fully provided the extra weight that scene demanded.
This production of Blink was the perfect choice of show for the time, with themes of isolation and relationships through barriers. From start to finish it was always visually stunning through a carefully thought out set, dramatic use of lighting, as well as the choice for black and white. All of these elements supported the nuanced direction and acting which brought the story to life. This is absolutely one of the best virtual shows I have seen in the past year, providing an recognisable black box experience strengthened by its virtual constraints.
Written by - H. Dovell