You could sit in Starbucks and secretly record the conversation at the table next to you. The dialogue would by definition be realistic, but would the result necessarily make a great play? No, because a play needs a structure.
The above, which I heard a well-respected teacher of dramatic writing say a few years ago, was not surprisingly on my mind as I headed to Barons Court Theatre to watch Eavesdropping. For it was created by doing exactly that – not just in Starbucks, of course, but then one of the rules is that neither the audience nor even the actors in each piece know the original circumstances. That is, although the actors did the covert recordings, they then transcribed them – referring to the characters just as A, B, C etc – and passed them to other members of the company without any background information. And if the result is “not really a play”, that would be just as true of any piece that consists of a number of vignettes – Caryl Churchill’s “Love and Information” recently at the Royal Court, for example.
Of course, there is an editing process – the actors chose what to transcribe from hours of recordings, and director John Patterson has whittled down what we see from a larger pool of material presented to him. So how does the result stack up? Well, it’s interesting to note how your perception is changed by knowing how the work was produced – rather than a playwright wanting to pass information to the audience, this is just real people talking and perhaps artistic judgment simply isn’t appropriate, any more than you’d look at a beautiful landscape and wish a particular hill were a bit further to the left.
It’s actually quite a freeing experience. For example, one piece ends with someone calling someone else “You silly, silly fool”. Would you write that line? Probably only in a piece set in the 1950s amongst people who’d led rather sheltered lives. Yet there is it, said by somebody in the last few months. It reminds me of a compliment paid to the young Tarantino by Barry Norman in a review of “Reservoir Dogs”, that he just lets his characters talk – people may be hardened criminals, but they can still have a conversation about what the lyrics to “Like a Virgin” mean, or whether you should always tip.
There are some quite extended pieces where you get to know the characters quite well, and others like the one ending in “silly fool” which are so short and bizarre you can hardly imagine what the original situation could have been. They vary in tone from humorous to cringe-making, baffling to extremely dark. And of course, you’re never told the original speaker’s gender – there was one occasion when I was fairly certain I was seeing a gender transposition, but there must have been many more when I didn’t realise it.
Anyway, whether artistic judgment is relevant or not, what you want to know is whether it’s worth your time and money to go, and the answer is definitively yes. Angel Theatre company exists to give recent graduates the opportunity to perform professionally, and this young cast grab the opportunity to demonstrate their versatility with both hands, each playing several characters in the course of the evening. For my money, the pick of the bunch were Sarah Kerr and Lottie Davies, the latter remarkable in her ability suddenly to seem much older than she is without any help from costume or makeup.