The Coolidge Effect, a fifty-minute audio play exploring loneliness, separation and pornography is as close as I’ve come to the thrill of the theatre for months.
Like many, I’ve felt starved of theatre over the lockdown period. Yes, NT At Home is great and all, and I love television as much as everyone, but it hasn’t felt the same to me. It’s still not clear when live indoor performances will return, so when I heard that Glasgow-based theatre company Wonder Fools were bringing a series of their plays into audiences’ homes – or more precisely their ears – I jumped at the chance.
With two voices, one female, one male, I must admit I was instantly charmed by the (albeit soft) accents. There’s a reason insurance companies use Scottish voices: we all find them trustworthy. It is the soundtrack specially composed by VanIves that steals the show frequently, however. At times cacophonous, at others an elegant through-line that drew my attention from one section to the next. It is this ‘soundscape’ element that made this audio play so close to live theatre for me – huge attention has gone into painting a scene with noise that at times I felt right there in the flat with a kid on the every-other-weekend-with-his-dad.
The company urge audience members to listen on good quality speakers or (and I’d recommend this for the at times breathtaking stereo) headphones. In fact, it’s a sign of how well they’d achieved evoking a sense of place that I found myself missing the facial expressions and little mannerisms that are so essential to studio-theatre plays like this. There can be an intimacy in a two-person show, no audience member more than a couple of rows back from the cast, that can elevate performances of this sort. The one-on-one experience I received directly into my ears felt similarly close.
A content warning: there is frank discussion of pornography, and even in the absence of visuals you’ll want to apply some caution before letting younger listeners tune in. That said, a strong message from the piece is the need for our discussion of watching porn to be out in the open: how otherwise will problem users get help as they might for alcohol, drug or sex addiction?
No need to go into any detail about the story – this isn’t a narrative-driven play, but more an exploration of the ubiquity, dangers and future of pornography, though it has enough ‘plot’ not to feel simply a didactic meditation on a theme.
Perhaps the big question should be: am I sold on this format? Content to stay at home forever with stories beamed straight to my head? Well… no. For one (obvious) thing, this isn’t a new format – radio plays exist, many delivered with as high production values and attention to creating a world as this one. But this also feels an unfair single criterion for assessing The Coolidge Effect – and I wouldn’t even be asking ‘Does this provide an escape from lockdown?’ if I’d been listening at any other time.
So I won’t be rushing out – or rather staying in – to enjoy all my theatre with my eyes closed, looking out for whatever other audio gems can replace it. Yet, that this particular theatre company is experimenting, with great results, at a time when we are all desperate to try something new is something I am ecstatic about, and I’ll be seeking out the other audio plays in their season.
Review by Ben Ross