May 1 2023 | By More

★★★☆☆    Engaging

Assembly Roxy: Sat 29 Apr 2023
Review by Hugh Simpson

Whiteboard, from Anonymous Badger Creative upstairs at the Assembly Roxy for one night only, is an intriguing and graceful exploration of teenage life.

Billed as a ‘queer coming-of-age story’, Clementine Gruer’s script features 17-year-old Augustus, who – whether due to natural inclinations or the effects of family tragedy – shies away from human contact. He prefers to write his feelings on a whiteboard where they can easily be erased. However, the arrival in his last year of school of the preternaturally confident, magnetic pansexual Ru causes Augustus to re-evaluate everything.

Matthew Jack and Adi Suri. Pic Lisa Emily Petersen

The most important thing to make clear is that the play deals with a variety of experiences that are still under-represented on stage – and it does so with honesty and considerable humour. Despite its achingly current set-up, it is defiantly old-fashioned in many ways, and really rather sweet.

It is also, in its current version, a somewhat unwieldy play. It is certainly too long, at nearly two hours without an interval. With its linear structure, it could be any length, but in its current form the comparative lack of psychological insight into characters other than Augustus is apparent.

Much of the writing is sharp, sympathetic and cleverly observed; occasionally it is stilted and tends to the overly educational. A shift towards discussions of mental health, while handled with commendable intelligence, does jar.

rigorous pruning

The production has considerable impact, but it could have much more with some tightening up. For example, a closing scene – after the play has given every sign of being finished – is largely redundant; not the only occasion where more rigorous pruning would be advised.

This is really the story of Augustus, the only character who is truly afforded an inner life. Matthew Jack rises wonderfully to the task, embodying all those teenage doubts and fears sympathetically and recognisably.

Matthew Jack and Adi Suri. Pic Lisa Emily Petersen 2

The problem of writing a character who is supposed to be fatally charming is that it is difficult to portray without appearing annoying. The decision to make Ru something of a blank slate, on to whom others project their feelings, is a wise one in this regard. However, the character is still in danger of coming across as a privately educated boy who regards other people’s feelings as his playthings. Adi Suri does very well to give the character a devilishly gleeful attractiveness. He is also pretty good at the ever-tricky business of drunk acting.

Katie McCulloch and Kit Laveri suffer from playing those comparatively underwritten other characters, but are both convincing nevertheless.

problems of length

Lisa Emily Petersen’s direction is sympathetic and well paced, but the staging of the play does not always help to alleviate the problems of length.

For example, a change of scene from one bedroom to another is elegantly signalled by simply turning the duvet over. There is no need to then transport the bed to another area of the stage – one of a series of unnecessarily distracting and lengthy re-sets.

Katie McCulloch and Kit Laveri. Pic Lisa Emily Petersen

The use of the titular whiteboard is similarly problematic. It is clever and instructive that it is not just a theatrical device, but an actual concrete presence in Augustus’s bedroom. However, it soon becomes another onstage obstacle. It doesn’t need to be used to show us the text of Augustus and Ru’s online conversations, when they are already speaking the words. Neither does it need to signal scene changes which are already abundantly clear.

Throughout, the production is too ready to tell the audience things that have already been shown; something else which makes it unnecessarily lengthy.

However, it remains a production of real integrity, and a considerable charm and delicacy, greatly enhanced by Alexei Veprentev’s diligent technical presentation and the efforts of the cast.

Running time: One hour and 50 minutes (no interval)
Assembly Roxy, 2 Roxburgh Place, EH8 9SU
Saturday 29 April 2023
Run ended

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