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Review of Not Talking at Arcola Theatre, London

Not Talking at the Arcola Theatre. David Horovitch (James) Laurence Walker (Mark) Photo by Lidia Crisafulli
Not Talking at the Arcola Theatre. David Horovitch (James) Laurence Walker (Mark) Photo by Lidia Crisafulli

Defibrillator’s never-seen-before-onstage adaptation of Mike Bartlett’s 2005 radio play Not Talking is a storming success. Simply designed, small cast, smart direction: Not Talking barely puts a foot wrong.

The story of Bartlett’s lesser known, early radio play examines the mysterious circumstances of the much-publicised deaths at Deepcut army barracks. The army and the jury declared the deaths to be the result of suicides, but the bigger picture seemed to be of bullying and manipulation within a structure of not speaking out. The play has echoes of Equus in its analysis of a shocking event, but manages to avoid romanticism. (perhaps unlike Shafer). When I met the cast and team behind the production (Mike Bartlett’s Not Talking at the Arcola Theatre), Hillier (director) was keen to point out that in 2018, this play had only become more relevant in its examination of the dangers of power and corruption.

The narrative focusses on an in-barracks party, at which an officer rapes a junior officer. The rape is witnessed by a number of the soldiers, but none report it, on fear of punishment. Mark (Lawrence Walker) is attracted to Amanda (Gemma Lawrence) – the victim of the rape – and witnessed her assault, but neither acknowledge it and by not talking, they grow apart. In a totally separate narrative, James (David Horovitch) has an affair, but never tells his wife, Lucy (Kika Markham), though she knows perfectly well. Both storylines address relationships in which both know something but can’t bring themselves to admit it. Not talking about what you both know will drive you apart, seems to be the message I have to single out Gemma Lawrence’s delivery of the monologue recounting the experience of being raped. A scene lasting no more than 2 or 3 minutes packed in emotional honesty, grit, misery, humour and pure rage. Not much more you can ask for in a performance. Incredible.

The presentation of the piece was really simple and direct. The script is ‘direct address’, which means that the actors tell the story directly to the audience, barely ever actually acknowledging each other. both in the narrative and the actual production is there a lack of communication. The stage is a simple square with an overhanging lip at the top, suggesting an open mouth. A brilliant, if slightly overactive lighting design isolates and unites the actors in a bare stage. The production is stark, cold and lonely.

One can’t help feel that Hillier’s production hasn’t quite escaped from the fact that Not Talking is a radio play. With the notable exception of Walker’s performance, the play is delivered pretty statically. There is very little chemistry between the actors. The overall feeling is one of coldness.

This is perhaps inevitable, even deliberate, in a show about a failure to communicate. A play doesn’t need to be happy and joyous, especially given the serious subject matter. But the play seemed to lack a sense of completeness.

Defibrillator’s production of Not Talking is really tightly staged, possibly overly succinct, but ultimately, a really exciting piece of political theatre.

4 stars

“If I don’t want to tell anyone, it’s up to me, right?”
A relationship where it has become impossible to talk. A system that protects abuse of power. How do you speak out?

Not Talking is the never-before-seen first play by Olivier award-winning writer Mike Bartlett (Doctor Foster, King Charles III, Albion).

Written in 2005, this gripping and lyrical drama blasts open cultures of silence with small acts of protest, Chopin and occasional dancing to Westlife.

25 April–2 June 2018
Arcola Theatre and Defibrillator
Not Talking
by Mike Bartlett
Directed by James Hillier


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