Saturday 4th November 2017 at York Theatre Royal.
Frantic Assembly’s Things I Know to be True explores the many complexities of family life; it’s warm, it’s gut-punching and it’s utterly captivating. Written by Andrew Bovell, the piece tackles a range of frictions and social issues with razor sharp observation and a beautifully turbulent script. His characters are altogether likeable and sometimes risible but every step of the way they evolve and shape shift into darker and lighter versions of themselves. The lives are both recognisable and alien with Bovell toying with notions of first impressions and never quite letting us love or loathe any characters thoroughly, despite the array of emotions we attach to them over the course of the performance. With such complexities at hand, there’s not a moment of lapse in the way this production grips an audience.
Directors Geordie Brookman and Scott Graham provide refreshing approaches to what is at root a domestic drama; their direction is surreal and dynamic, making the piece both visually and conceptually beautiful. While the ground is metaphorically almost always littered with sharp egg shells amongst the roses, the space above is ethereal, where characters are lifted up to live their experiences fully, to have experiences take hold or to escape what lies below in the form of ever changing challenges. The physicality used almost presents us with an extension of facial communication – the characters express joint experience through unified movement and it elevates the piece beyond the realms of naturalistic gritty depictions of domesticity. Geoff Cobham’s set and lighting design for this production is another source of beauty; the stage is adorned with lights hanging above, resembling stars and other-worldly space while the stage below is completely bare, leaving an abundance of space for the cast to create environments with a few select props and set pieces. There are moments of sheer theatrical bliss evoked through simple and precise devices – you’ve never seen a kitchen table set used to such mesmerising impact I’m certain. The whole piece captures a sense of transience and epitomises the skewed compass of family dynamics.
Centring around the Prices, Things I Know to be True begins by presenting us with a surreal scene of unease and a sense of foreboding as a father contemplates a phone call… We shift backwards to meet the first of his children until we work our way back to that resounding ring. It’s an atmospheric opening which sets the tone well; the family we see seem functional and playful enough at first by gradually, the tensions are uncovered and revelations are made which gives way to some very impressive, explosive scenes of drama and angst. Every character is hiding something and this is a very well crafted piece of theatre as it slowly reveals those secrets. The subject matter is often sensitive and is treated as such, but Bovell also writes with crisp and brutal realism; just because a character has worked their way into our favour does not make any one of them out of the reach of trauma and the emotional brutality of some of the scenes speaks to the quality of the perceptiveness of Bovell’s narrative.
While every aspect of the design, concept and writing for Things I Know to be True are extraordinary in their combined impact, they would fail to connect without a strong cast such as this. As the loving but troubled matriarch, Fran, Cate Hamer offers gripping insight into the experience of motherhood and marriage; she’s a charismatic woman with a gentle heart but also a quick temper and a vicious tongue. It’s easy to like her but as with most of the characters, she has some near unforgivable moments of poor judgement. With John McArder taken ill on stage during my first attempt to see this production, I found Frantic Assembly’s Artistic Director, Scott Graham, playing the part of husband and father Bob Price. When a stage manager appeared on stage before the performance began, my heart sank at the sense of déjà vu creeping in – when she announced that Graham would have script in hand for the duration, my heart stayed there – it’s not something I’ve seen done before and I was unconvinced that it would be worth experiencing the play this way rather than not at all. The concern was ill-placed though, as Graham plays the pacifist father with the antidote to Fran’s tempers with great feeling. The character develops well and despite the glances to script, Graham delivered the goods in presenting Bob as the troubled, sympathetic man adored and tormented by those he loves.
Matthew Barker takes the role of Mark, the first born son of the Prices who has been harbouring a private pain since childhood. His revelatory scene provides a turning point in the play and we see the very peak of emotional destruction underlying any familial turmoil. It’s an incredibly emotional scene in which Bovell intricately places snatches of humour through language choices and the sheer loss of self-awareness of Fran in the midst of her heartache. Seline Hizli plays Pip, the eldest daughter. Pip is angry and disillusioned, with Hizli striking a fine balance between relate-ability and traits sure to alienate in a contemporary setting. Her character challenges ideas of social norms and the role of women, and along with Mark’s storyline, this makes Bovell’s play an important piece of theatre for our times. Arthur Wilson plays Ben and thrusts the plight of the consumeristic young front and centre – his story reflects the challenges facing the youngest members of our society and his parents’ divided responses highlight the discord of changing values across generations. Rosie, played with engaging naivety by Kirsty Oswald is the youngest member of the family and she is perhaps the most pure still; her troubles are very much millennial but the trajectory of her life suggests further hurdles when we look at her family tree. Her softness is emphasised to the superlative by Oswald and perhaps a lesser actress may have failed to create depth with such characterisation, but Oswald is perfectly cast and provides heartbreak and humour as she represents the comical minion and the sweetheart of the family in turns.
Things I Know to be True is an extraordinarily affecting play dealing with a wide range of important and timeless issues within the confines of family life; there’s a sincerity in the truths told which produce the lacerating nature of some of the exchanges. The script is nuanced, sensitive and insightful with some wonderful moments of humour, both and back slapping and gentle. Direction is visually mesmerising, with expressive physicality offering up an array of emotions for inspection and the cast are the cornerstone to the success of this production with performances which demonstrate great versatility and emotional insight. Things I Know to be True encapsulates modern living and modern struggles in a compelling, stylish way with great originality – it’s not to be missed.
Things I Know to be True continues to tour and you can get your tickets here.