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Bodies by James Saunders at Southwark Playhouse | Review

Bodies - Photographer Phil Gammon
Bodies – Photographer Phil Gammon

The thing about a play like Bodies, first produced in 1977, is that the first half would probably be considered a complete one-act play in itself had it been written today. There are enough details about the four characters, Anne (Annabel Mullion), Helen (Alix Dunmore), David (Peter Prentice) and Mervyn (Tim Welton) in Act One to determine what happened in the past between them and why a proposed reunion could be awkward to say the least. Characters sometimes speak at length directly to the audience (as opposed to talking to themselves), and so there are four different perspectives from which events of the past can be viewed.

The real wit, after a relatively calm first half, comes after the interval, when in the privacy of Anne and Mervyn’s house, Helen and David make repeated attempts to leave but are persuaded by Mervyn, wanting to carry on the conversation, to remain just that little bit longer. Mervyn, a headmaster, is quite brilliant at academic analysis, though don’t let that put you off – it’s not like one gets lost in a wave of intellectual jargon. Helen and David have undergone some form of psychotherapy, which they assert has helped them for the better, and Mervyn admits that they are not the same people they used to be.

A subplot involving one of Mervyn’s students, an off-stage character, Simpson, provides yet more emotional and psychological fodder for Mervyn to chew on. With the benefit (or indeed horror) of hindsight, he muses over what he could have said to his pupil that may have dissuaded him from an attempt to be taken by his own hand. There’s an increasingly dark sense of humour as the evening goes on, and the alcohol continues to flow, people’s true feelings, however callous, are revealed, resulting in several moments where audible gasps could be heard from the audience.

There was a point, early on, when I thought the blocking was quite diabolical – the performance space in the first half is split between Anne and Mervyn’s house and Helen and David’s house (according to the show’s programme, the former is in Ealing and the latter is in Esher), but characters cross over into the ‘wrong’ property. But these intrusions (for want of a better word) are a good metaphor for the way in which they enter into one another’s lives, quite obtrusively.

Nobody comes off unscathed given that all four have been morally dubious in the past – while the first half’s build up is subtle and steady, the play leaves the best until last. The audience’s patience is rewarded with a fairly mesmerising showdown. “If the body is all there is, there’s no room for art, no room for mystery, no room for the poetic experience,” Mervyn almost barks, refuting the ‘cure’ of the psychotherapy David went through. It’s the sort of production that demands close attention from its audiences, and in amongst all the putdowns and trading of snide remarks, there are some excellent lines of argument to enjoy in this riveting and reflective production.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Why do people fall in love? Or get married? Why do things fall apart? And what happens next? Bodies is a startling portrait of sexual and marital relations in the 1960s and ’70s and delves into these questions with bitter humour. One of a string of successes written by James Saunders with many premiering at Richmond’s Orange Tree, Bodies had a successful West End run in 1979.

Creative Team
Director – Tricia Thorns
Set Designer – Alex Marker
Costume Designer – Emily Stuart
Lighting Designer – Neill Brinkworth
Sound Designer – Dominic Bilkey

Cast
Alix Dunmore
Annabel Mullion
Peter Prentice
Tim Welton

Two’s Company and Karl Sydow
in association with Tilly Films present
Bodies
by James Saunders
13 FEB – 9 MAR 2019
https://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/

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