nytheatre.com review by Ben Trawick-Smith
November 4, 2010
Few stage thrillers are as chilling as Hywel John's Pieces. With unnerving performances and an atmosphere thick with gloom, this haunting play gets under your skin and stays there for days.
The protagonist, Sophie, has arrived at a remote house in the British countryside to take care of her two godchildren, Bea and Jack. The kids are fraternal twins who have recently suffered the death of their parents. There is something odd about this brother and sister team: they dress in formalwear, seem oblivious to their parents' demise, and their affection toward one another verges on icky. But Sophie chalks this up to the children's trauma, and does what she can to nurture them.
It becomes apparent, however, that something is less than innocent about their behavior. Jack acts menacingly toward his godmother, waking her up in the middle of the night with elusive questions and verbally attacking her when she tries to make him confront his parents' death. Bea, meanwhile, seems lost in her own world of childhood memories, alternately deluded and devastated. As the children's games get more disturbing, Sophie discovers that the kids have some very dark designs for their guardian.
Despite this description, Pieces in no mere potboiler. It works equally well as a serious examination of grief and childhood loss. What makes its harrowing finale so effective is that John has crafted children whom we cannot help but empathize with. There is nothing evil or mystical about these kids; we feel for them even at their creepiest.
I should mention, of course, that both children are portrayed by adults. While this might seem a satirical choice, the stunt casting makes for a richer experience. By featuring grownups in these roles, their twisted psyches are rendered all the more vivid.
The actors who play Bea and Jack, Louise Collins and Steven Meo, are simply phenomenal. Collins gives one of the most raw and unself-conscious performances I've ever seen on stage, her grief and confusion so real that I forgot she was an adult playing a child. Meo at first seems to play Jack as the more rational of the two, yet after delivering a stunning monologue about a childhood misunderstanding, we clearly see the bleeding heart of this shell-shocked boy.
The one flaw of the script is Sophie, who is often little more than a prompter for the children's bizarre behavior. Although Jennifer Kidd does an excellent job bringing out the layers of the part, the guardian never really emerges as a fleshed-out character. She comes off as a horrified observer rather than an active participant.
That being said, all three actors do a superb job creating an atmosphere of dread, supported by Kate Wasserberg's flawless direction. After seeing production stills from the original UK production, it was clear to me that the scenic design had been downsized to fit the confines of a theatre festival. Yet the cast conveys such a sense of place that we can easily see the misty forests and rainy skies surrounding us. It is a testament to the way great acting can transport an audience anywhere.
Pieces is in the best tradition of modern British theatre: daring, frightening, and deeply human. This is a chance to see the work of one of the UK's finest regional companies, Clwyd Theatr Cymru, in the intimate setting of 59E59's Brits Off-Broadway Festival. I strongly recommend seeing it before it leaves this side of the Atlantic.