Sarah Beaton’s design for this new
version of Jean Cocteau’s play sets the audience outside the action. We view
the exterior of a woman’s flat and glimpse her inside; brilliantly conveying
the piece’s novel construction and its theme of isolation. For The Human Voice is only half a
conversation, a telephone call between two lovers breaking up when we hear only
one. And although just half of the story is heard, that’s more than equal to
making this show a must see.
Just how we hear the one-sided story
is the production’s next smart move. Headphones are worn throughout by each
audience member. Masterminded by Mike Winship, there’s a creepy quality to the
technology. Simultaneously increasing intimacy, it also distances us: we can
hear every breath, including recollections of the couple’s closest moments. But
is this a crossed line we’re eavesdropping on? Or are we the person on the
other end of the line being spoken to?
So far, so clever. Underneath these
flashy touches is solid work on the text and direction – both from Daniel
Raggett. A whole play with Cocteau’s concept, even if only an hour long, must
pose peculiar problems, far more than a regular monologue, for its solo star.
Tension is the key, a note taken by the performer Leanne Best, who plunges us
into her character’s anxiety with frightening efficiency. When the call becomes
interrupted, her panic is contagious. As lies and truths fall over one another,
Best never loses her grip.
Raggett takes care not to overstress
any modern updating to this 1930 play – he doesn’t need to, we’re surely all
aware of our reliance on our phones – a temptation many theatre makers would
fall for. To see the complications of the “invisible line” that the technology
creates in such detail is salutary. To make a drama of such intensity, so full
of forensic insight and fundamental truths, is exciting. High quality work all
around – pick up your phone and book a ticket.
As the penultimate instalment of an excitingly diverse inaugural season this new venue, right next to the Menier Chocolate Factory, presents a musical. It’s a new, British, piece – always welcome – with strong song writing from Tim Prottey-Jones and Tori Allen-Martin that makes it easy to recommend the show to anyone interested in musical theatre.
Allen-Martin, brimming with talent, also performs as Lauren, caught in a love triangle with two old friends, former members of a promising rock band. Jake is Lauren’s current boyfriend, a role Jos Slovick expertly creates an interesting sinister edge for, while former partner Michael is suffering from depression following a traumatic event. Michael is played by David Leopold, with the character’s selective mutism leading to an admirably intense performance. He is joined in a series of flashbacks by his younger self, a role tackled impressively by Edd Campbell Bird.
Sarah Henley’s book reveals the back story too slowly, adding a sense of mystery that isn’t needed as the story contains plenty of drama. The roles of Michael’s uncle and mother (strong performances by Mark Hawkins and Helen Hobson) could easily bear elaboration. Director Jamie Jackson is keen to impress a mark on the show. Unfortunately, the super-stylish set from Sarah Beaton, a moated island for Michael that the cast paddle around in and an overused swing, along with some modish choreography, also repetitive, prove distracting.
A lot of the production is simply trying too hard – unnecessary when the basics are all present and correct. Muted has some important contemporary concerns and fresh dialogue that Jackson secures strong performances with. The neat idea of having a central character that doesn’t speak or sing until late in the show is nicely handled and twists in the story are engaging. Most importantly, the songs are good; a forceful collection of mature numbers that come together satisfactorily in an increasingly powerful second half. Muted is a musical whose praise should be loudly shouted.