Run The Beast Down, Marlowe Studio Canterbury & Finborough Theatre London
This is a slightly unusual post for me. Although I work in a theatre, I rarely write about any of the shows I deal with – but I’ve recently had the rare and unusual opportunity to see a new play develop, from page to first performance and then onwards, and I wanted to share it. For my Twitter followers, this is the play I’ve been going on about recently! Hopefully, this post will help explain why.
The script for Run The Beast Down – by first time playwright Titas Halder – was submitted to a new writing programme called Roar (don’t ask why it’s called that, it’s too complicated to explain), run by The Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury, where I work. So I first encountered it as a script, passed around the office and discussed.
It is, according to the script, ‘a play for one actor’. This one actor plays Charlie, a man in his late 20’s or early 30’s, Charlie loses his job in the City (as the result of a Lehman Brothers-style collapse) on the same day that his long-suffering girlfriend walks out on him. So far, so prosaic. But the script then heads off in some very unexpected directions, as Charlie stops sleeping, and finds himself being haunted by an urban fox… We hear all of this from Charlie himself, and he’s a highly unreliable narrator. How much of this is real, and how much is in his head?
Although everyone in my office agreed that we liked the script, we found it hard to imagine how it would work as a play. How the hell do you bring to the stage a script which involves a possibly imaginary conversation with a fox in cafe?
Well, after months of waiting, last week, we finally got the answer, with the opening of Run The Beast Down. The key to director Hannah Price’s vision is the music – the play comes with an electronic soundtrack, played by an onstage DJ (Chris Bartholomew). Tales about talking foxes might seem to more the realm of rural fairytales, but this is a very urban story, with a suitably urban soundtrack.
The urban theme is carried over into the back drop, with a set consisting of eight metal poles illuminated by ever changing neon lights. It’s scenery that gives no clue as what is really happening or how much of this is in Charlie’s insomniac imagination. The combination of the lighting and the music gives the whole production the feeling of a particularly vivid dream, the kind you get unexpected flashbacks to the next day.
But of course, however good the production, a one-man show stands or falls on the performance of one man. The man in this case is Ben Aldridge – he’s best known for his work on TV (in Our Girl, Fleabag and various other things), but, boy, can he cut it on stage too. He’s never off stage, there’s no scenery to hide behind, but he holds the audience’s attention for a solid ninety minutes. He captures the various characters – from his braying workmate to an overworked GP, to the talking fox itself – that Charlie encounters beautifully, striking the difficult balance between differentiating them, without stepping out of his main character. There’s a lovely detail in the way he uses his hands to mimic the ear movements of the fox during that conversation in the cafe.
It was fascinating to see Aldridge’s performance – and the production – develop between the first performance and the second one I saw, at the end of their week-long run in Canterbury. It’s not just that the production gets slicker, or that new elements have been added – although both of those things are true – but it’s got more confident in subtler ways too. For example, allowing more space for the audience to laugh.
This has given me a harder view of the recent controversy about reviewing previews. I might have been neutral before, but now I’m clear: It isn’t fair. I loved both the production and Aldridge’s performance on the first night, but it wasn’t a finished article (although whether live theatre can ever be that is debatable), it wasn’t something on which judgement should be passed.
However, putting that rant to one side – I’ll definitely be looking out for Hannah Price’s work in future, and I hope it’s not too long before Aldridge can be tempted away from TV and back to the stage. If you can squeeze into the Finborough Theatre in London in the next month, do go and check out Run The Beast Down – it’s a unique experience.