Theatre Review: Heather @ Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol
by Abi Hack
What would you do if a beloved author suddenly revealed that they weren’t in fact who they said they were, shattering the illusion that they had spent years creating in an attempt to mask their true identity? Would this change your opinion of the book they had written? Would you stop buying into the brand they had developed because they revealed themselves to be a murderer? How big a role does their identity and past play in how you, the reader, accept the author and the work they have created?
Thomas Eccleshare’s Heather is a play that asks more questions than it answers. It cleverly utilises the power of words to create a refreshingly simple production that examines the complicated ideas of identity, race, gender, relationships, justice and punishment. It is a stripped back play that encourages its viewers to question their own opinions of modern-day polemics and in turn contribute to a greater socio-political debate.
The play begins with the two actors standing at the front of the stage, each one talking into a microphone on a stand and reading a series of emails that together represent a back-and-forth conversation between two people: Harry the book editor/agent and Heather the creative talent behind the fictional Greta franchise. Both actors use a monotone voice to portray the emotionlessness of an email, but as the conversation unravels, the characters develop and we follow the story of Heather’s success as a published author and owner of an accomplished franchise. As the play continues, we see Heather’s reluctance to put a face to her brand, as she continuously refuses to make public appearances for fear of her deteriorating health and the safety of her child. Light-hearted relief is provided in humorous moments such as the actor’s descriptions of well-known emoticons – “smiley face with winky eye” and “smiley face with dark glasses” – which enables their monotone voices to contrast with the positive facial expression being described. This plays into the disconnection of human emotion that social media and technology encourages, and adds yet another layer of debate to the production.
After the climax of the play in which Heather reveals she is not who she says she is, the play seamlessly transitions into a scene in which Harry confronts the author and questions her decision to lie about her true identity. This scene relies heavily on the talent of the two actors, as the stillness and intensity of the scene demands the lines to be delivered with absolute precision. I spent the entire scene on the edge of my seat, as both actors captivated the attention of the audience and encouraged a sense of voyeurism and discomfort that ensured we felt like we were intruding on a private conversation. In addition, this scene brings into question an examination of gender, as each actor performs (physically and verbally) a stripped back and arguably genderless role. The play has done away with gendered clichés and lengthy physical descriptions to allow the audience’s imagination to fill in the gaps; a stylistic decision discussed by Eccleshare and the cast in an interesting post-show discussion. The fast-paced interaction was unforgiving in its attempts to portray the brutality of the situation; Heather is in fact a man in prison who is convicted of raping a woman before murdering her and her two children.
Just as you think the play is following a rhythm, the tension is broken by the actor’s transition into an over-dramatised depiction of a scene from one of the Greta films. The actors cleverly utilised the strobe lights, microphones, and furniture on stage, whilst simultaneously experimenting with physical movement and animated voices. The juxtaposition of this scene is an innovative and powerful addition to the play. Eccleshare uses a melodramatic style to subtly integrate previous themes from the narrative, and create a climatic ending that leaves us unsure as to whether the play has finished or not. Forgiveness and redemption appear to conclude the play, but this by no means feels like a satisfying ending. We are left pondering the multitude of questions posed to us throughout the production and curious as to the consequence of Heather’s revelation.
Eccleshare’s text is simple and somewhat ambiguous, but it is this stylistic decision that is essential to the raw nature of the play. The narrative is used as a foundation from which Thomas is able to propose a series of complicated questions and themes, and it is their equally complicated responses that are crucial to the play’s resonance in contemporary discussion.
When 13th – 16th September 2017
Where Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bristol
Tickets Full £14 / Concession £10
Age Recommendation 14+
22nd September The Edge, Manchester
26-27th October The Tron, Glasgow
5-7th October Salisbury Playhouse
30th October – 18th November Bush Theatre, London