Katherine Chandler’s Before It Rains, performed by Open Theatre in stage@leeds, was a divine concoction of brave and beautiful storytelling, and contemporary life’s raw happenings. Punctuated with humour and the tense extremities of humankind, this production is, quite simply, the best show that I have seen a society put on stage during my time at university.
Focusing primarily of the themes of social responsibility, protection, manipulation, and corruption, Before It Rains is set on a forgotten council estate. Gloria (Erin Dempsey), a single mum who enjoys sitting in her garden and drowning her sorrows in vodka and chips, attempts to watch over her son, Michael (Malcolm Webb), a man with high-functioning Asperger syndrome. He digs up soil, and plants flowers, making sure that their front garden is in order. Carl (Morgan Scriven), a newcomer to the area, is an articulate, if not slightly feral, boy who lives with a psychopathic older brother and a violent father. When he takes Michael under his twisted wing, Gloria seems to be able to sense the beginning of a great deal of trouble.
Despite understanding that any show is a collaborative project (and that the production team had clearly worked particularly hard in order to put a show of this calibre on stage), I have to congratulate the cast of Before It Rains for their outstanding performances. Collectively, they were an insanely strong ensemble, and they each managed to impress audiences just as much as individuals; so much so, I found it impossible to pick out a stand-out performer. Normally, as a reviewer, I make a point of ensuring to critique a show as much as I praise it, but my inability to do so in this article is completely down to Dempsey, Webb and Scriven.
Erin Dempsey made for a fantastic Gloria. Balancing the drunken mess of a confused mother with protection, sincerity and responsibility (or lack, thereof) seamlessly is certainly no mean feat. I thoroughly enjoyed having her on stage as the play’s light comic relief, however I was most impressed by the versatility within her acting towards the end of the show. In one of the last scenes, audiences watched her circle and torment Carl like a lioness protecting her young, which was absolutely heart-wrenching, and completely maternally empowering, all at the same time.
I was in awe of Malcolm Webb as Michael. The amount of research and thought that must have gone into his characterisation is astounding. Portraying someone with the complexity of Asperger syndrome is something that takes incredible sensitivity and practice, and Webb hit the nail on the head with everything from his physicality, all the way to his pronunciation and pace of his dialogue.
Morgan Scriven was perfectly cast. I cannot imagine a portrayal of Carl in any other way now, which is exactly how you want to leave your audiences after a performance. His familiar scouse twang not only immediately reminded me of home, but also enhanced everything about his smarmy, feral interpretation of the character. I would be really interested to see him act in other roles now, as he seemed to portray the rough-and-ready, violent nature of Carl with such ease!
The show’s direction (by Katie Thompson) was the perfect blend of clever, yet simple, which made for a very effective finish, echoing both Dennis Kelly’s DNA and Frantic Assembly’s A Curious Incident of The Dog in The Night Time. I loved how she chose to set the play in a generalised ‘north’, rather than specifically in Cardiff. Often, productions of Before It Rains fall flat in front of audiences that aren’t made up of people from Cardiff, and so this decision made the piece far more accessible for a Leeds audience. I imagine that this decision will work in the company’s favour when they tour with the play as well.
If I was being incredibly picky, my only critique of the show, as a whole, would be the stage lights. In some of the more serious scenes (namely, the physical section where Michael and Carl get in a fight), the set was begging for some darker, more sinister lighting to match the intense atmosphere. However, the use of a camo-net to create a canopy was utter genius, and the lighting worked really well with it.
Overall, I think it is such a shame that Before It Rains was running on the same week that Music Theatre’s Sweeney Todd did. Due to popularity of musical theatre as a genre, their shows naturally bring in larger audiences, and it would have been lovely to see such a fantastic Open Theatre show get the numbers and recognition that it so deserved, rather than losing out on a popularity contest.
I send the biggest of congratulations to the cast and crew; all of your hard work certainly paid off!
Words by Morgan Hartley.