A short disclaimer: When I say “A Theatrical Review” I mean its a review about a theatre production. The review may not be particularly theatrical, dramatic or flamboyant. There. Now that I’ve sold my awesome writing skills to you, do read on and enjoy. You’re welcome.
Last week, my good friend Gem and I excitedly visited the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield to see “The Hoarder”, devised and performed by Sticks Theatre. If anyone saw the documentary in 2011, Obsessive Compulsive Hoarder, the play is loosely based on Mr Wallace’s story from this programme.
If, like me, you have not seen this documentary yet, I will briefly summarise that which 4 OD have already summarised much better on their website. Mr Wallace lives in Surrey. Over the years, he has wedged so many possessions into his 4 bedroom bungalow and adjoining garage that people are concerned about his physical and mental safety. It takes him 40 minutes to traverse from his front door to the chair that he lives, eats and sleeps in. Worrying. Neighbours in the picturesque village are also quietly simmering about how Mr Wallace’s abode is ruining their chance of winning Britain in Bloom. Worrying.
Having missed the documentary in 2011, I purposely did not watch it before I saw the play. I wanted to see “The Hoarder” with fresh eyes and appreciate the play for what it was. Also, I didn’t want to be that guy, as I sometimes guiltily am, pointing out what I perceive to be flaws when really the flaws are in my expectations. I think we owe it to the live performance to just be there and share in the experience and listen to what they have to say.
When reviewing, it’s sometimes all too easy to just list the events that occur within a play, providing spoilers galore for those who haven’t seen it and a very boring recap for those who have. I could do that with “The Hoarder” I suppose but it would serve little purpose apart from to document this particular performance. You see, no two performances of “The Hoarder” are the same. Sticks Theatre keep it fresh and real every night. The actors work beautifully together to create a unique performance for their audience, relying largely on improvisation and the emotional guidance of the double bass every night.
Improvisation is a very large feature here. In the post show talk, it was made known that the only scripted dialogue was in the introduction. The dialogue is between Richard’s neighbours, and I believe was lifted from the documentary. Everything else was totally improvised! I really like this aspect of the show. For one, it means that each show is unique. The actors can really communicate with their audience and express themselves in a much more natural way, say than if they had to learn a script verbatim and repeat it every night. Of course, lots of shows work this way and it is the job of the actor to keep it fresh, but improvisation feels so much more interesting. Because the actors are improvising, it must be much more interesting for the them as well, which definitely translates to the audience. They’re on the edge of their seat just as much as we are.
The relationship between the actors has to be a trusting one. This is particularly apparent between Richard and Andy in a scene, which I’m not even sure appears in other performances elsewhere, but it did happen in Huddersfield on 14th May 2014. I am now going to tell you what happened, even though I just said that I wouldn’t do that. Soz. This is what happened:
The set is fairly bare, except for Richard’s chair, which being the centre of his world is placed neatly at the centre of the stage. The rest of the space is open for the actors to interpret as they go. In this scene, in which Andy is trying to help Richard sort through the many many many objects in his house, the two of them negotiate the space as an amalgamation of a mime artist and a (slightly tipsy?) dancer. The objects around them and the obstacles that they come across about every 0.5 centimetres in Richard’s house, are mimed. With each lifted object, there is a dance of power; Andy trying to remove the object from the house and Richard trying to remove the object from Andy to replace it within the house.
This is all set to the emotive sounds provided by Jenni Molloy and her double bass, stage right. I do enjoy the use of music to heighten drama. It works so perfectly here. With the piece being mostly improvised, it is difficult to decipher what comes first; the action or the music. Does Jenni watch the action and then accompany it, or are the actors moved in a certain direction at the behest of Jenni’s bow? I don’t think even the performers are sure. Whichever it is, if either, it works.
Post Show Talk
It was a shame that the real Andy wasn’t available, as he normally is for the post show talk. It would have been intriguing to hear his take on the show. The discussion was led by director, Adam Sunderland, actors David Glass (Richard), Leigh Symonds (Andy) and musician extraordinaire, Jenni Molloy. It was intriguing to hear about the process that led to the performance that we saw, which if I remember rightly, was thus:
David had contacted Adam to ask him if he had seen the documentary on channel 4 about the hoarder. Together they decided that the story was important and that they would devise a piece for theatre. Leigh and Jenni were soon on board and together they built up a trusting relationship and developed ideas taken from the documentary to create “The Hoarder”.
Adam talked about the importance of contact within the piece. The first section of the play shows Richard alone in his chair, covered in a blanket. There is a definite sense of isolation, pronounced further by the distance between Richard, Andy and Jenni, who are on polar ends of the stage. The emptiness around Richard is heavy with imagined objects and loneliness. Later on, as Andy successfully clears away a very small section of the house, Richard can only see an empty space. The implication being that he would prefer if it were filled. Filled with anything.
Adam referred to a turning point in the piece. A point of contact between Richard and Andy, in the form of a handshake becomes an affirmation of friendship and a lifeline for Richard. He now has a contact with the outside world. Whether he likes it or not.
The Importance of Theatre
One of the questions from the audience was whether the real Richard had seen the play and what the cast though that he would think of it. Richard hadn’t seen it yet (I think he was due to see it shortly). David was very sure to point out that though it is loosely based on Richard this play is not directly about his story. It is about the struggles that hoarders face in general. It is about highlighting the dangers of such extreme hoarding and the steps that we can take to look after these people. It was also pointed out that hoarding is now classed as a mental illness in its own right. The play certainly highlights this.
This is a serious subject matter of course, but it is portrayed with such humour and lightness. The whole audience were in stitches throughout. Despite the darkness, or perhaps because of it, the tiniest thing set us off in hysterics. For example, Richard holding out his finger and admiring the imagined article atop it, followed by Andy’s bemused reaction to the tenderness Richard feels towards the inanimate object. He’d had it for many years. He’d saved it, protected it and loved it. It was a contact lens. H. I. Larious.
(Warning. Slightly serious closing paragraph approaching. Advance at your own peril. If you can’t be bothered I won’t be offended. Go and have a nice cup of tea, watch QI or browse Instagram for cute cat pictures. The world is your lobster.)
For me, this play showed the importance of theatre in reaching out to people about an important issue. Not only this, but the importance of the live performance in itself. Contact is a major theme in “The Hoarder”, but it is also a major part of our every day life, largely put aside, thanks to TV, social media, phones, tablets etc. More people should go to the theatre to experience real people interacting with other real people in the same room. Yes, they are characters who are not actually real life peoples. But you never know, they might be yammering on about something pretty important, and that something pretty important might just make you stop and think, and it might just teach you something. Can Facebook do that? No. No it cannot. Actually, the fake characters you meet in the theatre are ten times more realistic than the posers that appear on your news feed. No one looks like that in real life. Also, no one has 639 friends. This is not a thing.
PS I still haven’t seen the documentary, but endeavour to do so. Its on my to do list.